Why Intellectuals Need to Lead Professionally (3)


– 10 reasons for Singapore’s success

Habits of Highly Productive Transformation Leaders
Prof. Lere Baale
  1. Intellectuals in leadership

By an accident of fate, Singapore, like the United States, was blessed with good founding fathers, such as Lee Kuan Yew, S. Rajaratnam, and Goh Keng Swee. These were three amazing individuals. They were intellectually brilliant. They were totally dedicated to improving the lives of Singaporeans. They were also good learners. For example, Goh Keng Swee learnt from the Meiji reformers in Japan. Hence, they formulated policies which benefited Singaporeans. Nigeria is blessed far better than Singapore. It has also been blessed with good founding fathers, such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Anthony Enahoro etc.  With the right intellectuals and professional leadership in place, countries and indeed NIGERIA can succeed and achieve the goals of the NDP.


  1. Meritocracy

The founding leaders of Singapore selected other good professionals to lead the country and laid down meritocracy as the cornerstone of public service appointments. As Lee Kuan Yew himself said, “A strong political leadership needs a neutral, efficient, honest civil service. Officers must be recruited and promoted completely on merit. They have to share the same nation-building philosophy and development goals of the political leaders. They must be adequately paid so that temptations would not be difficult to resist. An impartial, capable Public Service Commission has to be shrewd at assessing character. Appointments, awards of scholarships must be made to the best candidates.” This is something that Nigeria can do as well. Meritocracy ensures that the best talent in the country is attracted to public service and also serves to create a fair society.


  1. Willingness to learn from other countries

As Dr Goh Keng Swee once said, “No matter what problem we encounter, somebody, somewhere has found the solution. Let us find that solution and adapt it intelligently to Singapore.” Singapore is the most pragmatic country in the world and it has copied solutions from all other countries. This is also why Dr Goh studied the Meiji Restoration very carefully. Japan succeeded in becoming the first Asian country to modernise because the young Meiji reformers of that time had no hesitation to study, copy and adapt best practices into Japan from all around the world. Dr Goh tried to inculcate the same spirit of pragmatic learning in Singapore. Few would doubt that he succeeded in this goal.

This is something Nigeria can do as well. In fact, the Lee Kuan Yew School’s Graduate Education and Executive Education programmes are dedicated to disseminating best practices from Singapore to developing cities across the world. We have professionals in Nigeria who have attended Singapore’s programmes and have learnt more about adapting best practices to suit Nigeria’s needs.

  1. Pragmatic foreign policy

Despite being a small country, Singapore was also pragmatic in its foreign policy. For example, during the Cold War, Singapore was friendly with the United States – but it did not shun the Soviet Union. In 1976, Mr S. Rajaratnam, the legendary foreign minister of Singapore, said that Soviet ships would also be welcome to Singaporean waters. Small states like Singapore cannot afford to make enemies. As S. Rajaratnam said in his 1965 speech at the United Nations on Singapore’s foreign policy, “We want to live in peace with all our neighbours simply because we have a great deal to lose by being at war with them. All we therefore ask is to be left alone to reshape and build our country the way our people want it. We have no wish to interfere in the affairs of other countries or tell them how they should order their life. In return we ask other countries to be friendly with us, even if they do not like the way we do things in our own country. This is why Singapore has chosen the path of non-alignment.” Pragmatism in foreign policy is something which Nigeria can do as well.

20 Ways Extraordinary Leaders Find Strength In Hard Times


  1. Focusing on small wins

An incremental approach to policy reforms is advised by many leading academics and scholars of public policy today. But even before these things became common knowledge, the leaders of Singapore recognised the need to make small improvements in order to achieve big changes. Lee Chiong Giam once said that in the early days, if they could just get a standing pipe in a village to provide water, the governing party would get the villagers’ votes. This would in turn lead to the provision of public housing and schools.

Development cannot be achieved through big sweeping reforms alone. Small steps that have a huge impact on the everyday lives of people are necessary to ensure that progress happens in a meaningful way. This is something NIGERIA can do as well.

  1. No reliance on foreign aids

If a large-scale objective study were done of Western foreign aid, it would demonstrate that the primary intention is to enhance the national interests of the donors and not to help the interest of the recipients. Furthermore, a large chunk (about 80 percent) of Western aid goes back to the donor country in the form of administration expenses, consultancy fees and contracts for donor country corporations. In short, there is very little actual transfer of aid to the developing countries.

Singapore has always distrusted foreign aid. Instead, Singapore believed in trade and investment: Singapore believed that trade, not aid, was the way forward. When others shunned investment, Singapore welcomed it. In this regard, the Economic Development Board of Singapore is particularly worth studying. The EDB was set up in 1961 to create economic opportunities and jobs for the people of Singapore, and to help shape Singapore’s economic future. The EDB has been instrumental in Singapore’s success by bringing in FDI, and has been a driving force behind Singapore’s transformation into a financial hub that is at the forefront of several service industries in Asia. This is something which Nigeria can do as well. By setting up a one-stop specialised agency that focuses on foreign direct investment, Nigeria will also signal to the rest of the world that it means business when it comes to attracting FDI.

Moving up to Extraordinary Leadership


  1. Inclusive policy on ethnic groups

Singapore’s main ethnic groups are Chinese, Malay, Indian, and others. So Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. This way, everyone feels included.

Singapore’s founding father, S. Rajaratnam, said: “In a multi-racial society, one soon learns that no one people have a monopoly of wisdom and that one’s own culture is not without flaws. This breeds not only tolerance for different viewpoints but also a readiness to learn and borrow from the accumulated wisdom of other people.”

It is remarkable that among the five small multi-racial states that the British decoloniSed all over the world (namely Guyana, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Fiji), Singapore was the only one to avoid ethnic strife. Appointments into critical roles at LGA, state and national levels must combine the need to choose the very best professionals (meritocracy) with an inclusive policy on ethnicity and religion.

  1. Thinking long term

Singapore’s leaders, like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee, believed in thinking long-term. For example, though Singapore had signed a 100-year water agreement with Malaysia in 1961, Singapore knew that Malaysia could threaten the country by cutting our water supply. Thus, Singapore invested in ways to get own sources of water. Singapore built reservoirs, desalination plants and water reclamation facilities. In March 2013, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, said: “We will certainly be water independent well before the expiry of the last agreement with Malaysia.”

Nigeria can also think long-term. For example, unlike Singapore, Nigeria has abundant oil and gas resources. But these oil and gas reserves will not last forever. So Nigeria can now think ahead about how to solve the problems which it could face when that day comes. Norway, for example, has invested its oil and gas money in a big sovereign wealth fund. Only 4 percent of the surplus from the fund is spent on public projects. We are glad that we have created The Sovereign Wealth Fund, but are we following the inspiring model of Norway in this area?

  1. Avoidance of populist measures

Singapore has always been opposed to the welfare state. Former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew said, “Watching the ever-increasing costs of the welfare system in Britain and Sweden, we decided to avoid this debilitating system. We noted by the 1970s that when governments undertook primary responsibility for the basic duties of the head of the family, the drive in people weakened. Welfare undermined self-reliance. People did not have to work for their families’ well-being. The handout became a way of life… They became dependent on the state for their basic needs.”

Habits of highly resilient leaders

The welfare state is too expensive for developing countries. It also undermines productivity. However, even though Singapore did not become a welfare state, it cared deeply about the welfare of its people. Singapore found other ways to make sure that its people would be well provided for. It invested in the welfare of its people through universal education, quality healthcare, affordable public housing and public transportation. In addition, it set up the Central Provident Fund, a compulsory savings fund. Singaporeans and their employers automatically contribute some money to this fund when they receive their salaries every month, and the money can be used to buy a house, for medical expenses, and, primarily, as a retirement fund.

Similarly, Nigeria can avoid the costs of welfare state spending by finding its own innovative methods of cooperating with employers and workers to make sure that employees can earn a fair wage to support themselves, and to make sure that every employee is able to save enough to provide for their own health care, housing, and retirement.


  1. Honesty

The first generation of Singaporean leaders were brutally honest. In 1975, a minister of state was invited by a businessman friend to go on holiday. He said no, because he didn’t have the money, but the businessman offered to pay. So he went, and he was arrested when he came back.

When there is honesty, the people and the investors will trust that government policies are meant to benefit the country, not to benefit the politicians. Only then will they feel confident in the leadership. This also creates a more stable political system, which gives investors peace of mind. Thus, a remarkable degree of honesty in a country’s leadership will lead to success.

Although some may be difficult to replicate, these ten reasons are all things that other countries can do. But it is important to “glocalise” – to adapt these global principles to the local context.

When many people visit Singapore today and see a modern city-state, they tend to assume that Singapore was always like that. Actually, Singapore was one of the poorest and most unlucky countries when it achieved independence. It had no natural resources. This is why it is useful to study Singapore’s experience. If Singapore can succeed against the odds, other countries can do so also.


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