Happy 50th, Singapore!
Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday this week, just a few months after Founding Father Lee Kwan Yew’s death at the age of 91.
I arrived here this week on a business trip. As usual, I was grateful, after a nearly 24-hour, exhausting trip from the U.S., for the clean efficiency and gracefulness of Changi Airport Singapore. This is a country where everything seems to work: public transport systems, health care, the financial system, and the internet. What a contrast to when I first visited Singapore nearly 30 years ago. The city was at a similar level of development compared with other places in Southeast Asia. Not anymore: Singapore, in a single generation, has leapfrogged its neighbors and become one of the wealthiest countries on earth, with per capita GNI levels of nearly $60,000 (slightly higher than the U.S.), a 97% literacy rate, 2% unemployment, life expectancy of over 80 years, and very low rates of crime and corruption. The spirit of Lee Kwan Yew (or LKY to his compatriots) will no doubt be smiling proudly down on the fireworks next weekend.
Mr. Lee is controversial in the West for his heavy-handed brand of political leadership that unapologetically supported communal over individual rights. Western observers often point to strict rules on public behavior (no gum chewing!) and the lack of a pluralistic political party system as systemic faults in Singapore’s model. Looking at the impressive data and my personal experience of Singapore’s growth, it seems to me that LKY’s roadmap for economic development was optimized for the economic and cultural environment of Asia. To do in thirty years what the US and Europe took a century to accomplish, the country needed to take a distinctly different approach.
Looking at the Globesmart Profile, based on Aperian Global’s extensive database of national cultural preferences, one can clearly see why Singapore, where the population is 75% ethnically Chinese, took a different approach. It also becomes clear why this leadership style often makes Americans and Europeans uncomfortable. In a cultural context that strongly prefers interdependence (collective rights) over independence (individual rights) and certainty (stability, clarity) over risk, a strong, more directive central government makes sense to the citizenry.
The Western world, and particularly the United States, could learn a lesson from the Singaporean example and recognize that “one size does not fit all”. Operating within the local population’s cultural context is critical for success in nation-building, economic expansion, and global leadership.
Happy Birthday, Singapore! Party on!
David Everhart currently serves as President of Aperian Global. David conducts leadership development programs, intercultural management assessments, and executive coaching assignments for American, Asian, African, and European management teams at multi-national firms across multiple industry sectors. Connect with him on LinkedIn.