Why Singapore is a class apart


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Forward thinking and attention to detail are keeping Singapore from being swallowed by the Asian giants.

By now, the Singaporean miracle is well documented. A tiny nation state with less than half the area of the current national capital territory of Delhi and less than a third of its population, has managed to transform itself from a shattered post-World War II colonial relic to a modern city with better than Western European standards of infrastructure and a per capita income more than 46 times India’s.

Despite the turbulence of the recent past in the world economy, and notwithstanding the rise of economic superpowers in the region such as China and India, Singapore has managed to hang on to its key position in Asia. It continues to be one of the significant trading centres in the region, is arguably the Asian financial hub and remains an influential voice in regional dialogues and trade groupings like Asean. How they did this is well known. How they continue to do this in a changed regional and global politico-economic dynamic is far more interesting.

Chinese mindset

One could argue that the key lies within Singapore itself. It may be a modern, multi-racial and multi-ethnic state, but at its heart, Singapore is essentially Chinese. It is not just that it is Chinese because three quarters of the population is Chinese. Singapore is Chinese in mindset.

And being Chinese in mindset means thinking ahead. Way ahead. As the head of one of the few successful Indian ventures in China told this writer once, “You enter China thinking you have planned for everything, that you have thought six moves ahead of every step. Then you find that everybody else has thought sixty moves ahead!”

Singapore has consistently managed to stay ahead of the curve by thinking, and planning, ahead of the curve. It built world-class manufacturing facilities so that it could feed the growing appetites of the ‘Asian tigers’ which followed. As rising wages pushed its manufacturing competitiveness down, it switched to services. Singapore is still one of Asia’s key logistics hub, a significant financial centre and, till recently, even the continent’s advertising hub!

Par for the course

Now, with even its services edge losing ground, Singapore’s next challenge is on how to create the kind of jobs for its increasingly better educated and better-skilled work force productively employed at pay levels compatible with the labour force’s new, developed country-level expectations.

It is doing so by investing in its human capital. One could of course, argue that all countries invest in their human capital. Providing education and employable skills to its people, after all, is one of the cornerstones of governance for any country. Even India is doing its bit, from the basic National Literacy Mission level to the specific and advanced, as evinced by the National Skills Mission.

This is par for the course for almost any country you would care to name. After all, when it comes to human capital, studies have shown that companies get the highest returns on their investments in talent and human capital.

It is no different for countries. Many long-term studies have shown that the greatest, and most long-lasting impact on growth has come in countries which have invested consistently in developing their human resources. So it is a no-brainer for governments to invest in developing the human resources of their countries. It is in the ‘how’ that Singapore has set itself apart.

At a recent conference in Singapore, organised by Singapore’s Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI), a senior official of the country’s Economic Development Board shared a fascinating story. Singapore was very keen to develop itself as an aeronautical hub.

With the growth of its flagship airline, Singapore Airlines, some of the services were growing — like its airport and related ground services, some maintenance and overhaul operations, and so on, but aviation manufacture was still an exclusive American-European preserve.

Jet engine maker Rolls Royce was wooed to set up manufacturing facilities for its turbines in Singapore. Rolls Royce was interested, but there were problems. A key issue was having the manpower with the technical competencies required for an advanced engineering sector like airplane engine manufacture.

Home for talent

How Rolls Royce redesigned its manufacturing process to tackle this is only part of the story. The really interesting bit is about how the Singapore government overhauled its education system, introduced specific modules in its engineering colleges and polytechnics, and even tailor-made the curriculum so that students received part of the training and certification required for a job in the engine plant in their school or polytechnic itself — thereby shaving a year-and-a-half off the four years of apprenticeship Rolls Royce had initially estimated would be required before raw Singaporean graduates could be considered fully qualified full-time employees in its plant!

It is this kind of forward thinking and attention to detail which is keeping Singapore from being swallowed by the Asian giants. The HCLI itself — a think-tank jointly promoted by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, the Singapore Management University and the Singapore Economic Development Board — is an example of how Singapore spends its public resources today for a better tomorrow.

HCLI’s stated mission is to accelerate human capital and leadership development in Asia. What is unstated is that Singapore will be a part of this ‘Asian’ initiative. And HCLI’s job is to ensure that there is an adequate supply pipeline of talent.

Why is it doing this? As Singapore’s Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin, said at HCLI’s summit, “The ability of companies to recruit, develop and retain talent is a key determinant of Singapore’s overall competitiveness as a hub and home for talent.”

Long-term goal

Tan also dwelt on the need to develop talent, as well as identify and groom leaders — two critical factors that were identified as drivers of business performance in a study commissioned by the manpower ministry, “Talent: Asia’s Critical Resource and Potential Export”. The study found that top companies focused first on creating a business case for investment in leadership, and worked to explicitly build a reputation for strong leadership.

There are other, less clearly articulated, but long-term goals. Singapore now sees its human capital as a critical long-term export prospect. Developing management and leadership skills in that resource will only increase the future yield of that export, is the logic. And for a small and crowded country, creating exit opportunities for a part of the population not only eases the pressure on resources at home, but provides Singapore a competitive edge internationally.

It is this kind of future panning which has helped this tiny nation balance giant neighbours and global pressures — and thrive. Clearly, when it comes to governance, Singapore is already playing at the grandmaster level. Where do you think India stands?

About Editorial Team

Editorial Team

The SupplyChains Magazine editorial team takes great pride in bringing you the best information to help you succeed in your supply chain, logistics or procurement functions. Together, our editors and contributors have more than 50 years of supply chain industry knowledge to share with you.

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