From Third World to the first
Singapore, a city-state, has recently reached a level of development that to term it as the most futuristic city of the world won’t be an exaggeration. The Marina Bay Sands, The Hive at NTU, those super trees at Gardens by the Bay and many other marvels cast a spell on the visitors; such is the physical and infrastructural development of the country. But there is more than only ostentatious engineering models; their human development is as impressive as their physical one. It is the most competitive country in the world; one of the best ranking in Ease of Doing Business, an amazing GDP growth rate – it remains an entrepot, one of the centres of world finance and cosmopolitanism.
ut it wasn’t always the case. In 1965, at the time of Singapore’s independence, the annual per capita income there was less than $1,000 which now stands at more than $54,000. This shows a journey, from an abyss to a summit. And the country had its guides. Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore as we know it today, was the leader of those guides.
In his autobiography, “From Third World to the First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000,” Lee Kuan Yew has explained in an interesting flair that how he and his team steered the country from unemployment, poverty and poor planning towards this marvel what we see today.
From the issue of setting in their own army and defence forces once Britain decided to leave the country (they did so in 1968, gradually) to forming a Central Provident Fund (CPF, hereinafter) that has been the backbone of various government initiatives, Lee explains in vivid detail his diplomatic overtures, his continuous visits and incessant discussions with diplomats from US to China and from Middle East to India.
To lead a country of only 640 sq. km, with no natural resources surrounding, at that time, with communists and adversaries, wasn’t an easy task. Throughout the book, the reader will see Lee’s focus and attention on learning and trying new things – that is to say constant innovation to bring about positive change. He thought that it is only by making the common-man of his country a stakeholder in its progress that will incentivize him to work hard and be a truly responsible citizen. He did this by forming strong, independent and exceptionally efficient governmental institutions, e.g. BECD (Bases Economic Conversion Department), HBD (Housing Board Department) and EDB (Economic Development Board).
Young Singaporeans, local and foreign graduates used their skills by putting in countless hours to persuade MNCs (Multinational Corporations) to invest in Singapore – Lee says that his team had to point out to the investors where Singapore exactly was while talking to them!
One of the most significant lessons to be learned from Lee’s autobiography is to cherish and strive for young talent not only in private industries but in the government bodies as well. As he explains, and the similarity was striking, many veterans and “old guards” are against young people as they think that a dearth of experience, of all that road shows, that politicking, sloganeering and others tactics of such ilk, don’t make them a qualified candidate for such important governmental positions.
Lee’s opinion was totally opposite to the aforesaid approach. He was so fond of recruiting young talent for government positions that he started a proper recruitment drive, something that governments rarely do for senior positions. So much so that he contacted the corporate leaders of various MNCs to inquire about how they hire people. Their system (that of Shell, the giant oil company) is instructive to mention here – that Lee also considered the best and later on employed in government hiring. The company focused on what they called a person’s CEP, Currently Estimated Potential. To determine this potential, they assessed the candidate on three qualities: 1) Power of Analysis; 2) Power of Imagination; and 3) Sense of Reality. All these three made what the company called “Helicopter Quality” – building on a person’s ability to see the bigger picture all the while zooming in on various and important details.
These were but only a few insights that his cogent autobiography holds inside. Reading the book will introduce one to the secrets of backdoor diplomacy; how world leaders talk, behave and conduct at national and international level. How various bodies work for particular changes in the global order and how a person, prime minister of a small island, gave his life to endeavour for the country and make it a First World oasis in the midst of a Third World desert.
There is much to learn from it for everyone; a student, a politician, a diplomat or a visionary leader trying to steer one’s country towards success.