National People Management and Development (Part 2)

National People Management and Development

After grappling with the problem of unemployment for years since we first took office in 1959, all of us in cabinet knew that the only way to survive was to industrialize – Lee Kuan Yew, From Third to First World


“Dr Tan Wee Kiat, former head of NParks, recalled how even though funds were short in those years, Lee Kuan Yew prioritised nationwide efforts to green the city’s roads and vacant spaces. Lee’s successor, Goh Chok Tong, once remarked that Singapore was the only sovereign nation he knew of that read a gardening report in the Cabinet”-


 They devised a National Strategy

We continue with the summary of the book From Third to First Worldby Lee Kuan Yew, hoping to glean insights for our use as a nation. “I, [Lee Kuan Yew] gradually crystallized my thoughts and settled on a two-pronged strategy to overcome our disadvantages. The first was to leapfrog the region, as the Isrealis had done. This idea sprang from a discussion I had with a UNDP expert who visited Singapore in 1962. In 1964, while on a tour of Africa, I met him again in Malawi. He described to me how the Isrealis, faced with a more hostile environment than ours, had found a way around their difficulties by leaping over their Arab neighbors who boycotted them, to trade with Europe and America. Since our neighbors were out to reduce their ties with us, we had a link up with the developed world- America, Europe, and Japan- and attract their manufacturers to produce in Singapore and export their products to the developed countries. The accepted wisdom of development economists at the time was that MNCs [Multinational Corporations] were exploiters of cheap land, labor, and raw materials.

This “dependency school” of economists argued that MNCs continued the colonial pattern of exploitation that left the developing countries selling raw materials to and buying consumers goods from the advanced countries. MNCs controlled technology and consumer preferences and formed alliances with their host governments to exploit the people and keep them down. Third World leaders believed this theory of neo-colonialist exploitation, but KengSwee and I were not impressed. We had a real-life problem to solve and could not afford to be conscribed by any theory or dogma. Anyway, Singapore had no natural resources for MNCs to exploit. All it had were hardworking people, good basic infrastructure, and a government that was determined to be honest and competent. Our duty was to create a livelihood for 2 million Singaporeans. If MNCs could give our workers employment and teach them technical and engineering skills and management know-how, we should bring in the MNCs”.

They sought to provide First World Standards of Service

Lee Kuan Yew continues, “The second part of my strategy was to create a First World Oasis in a Third World region. This was something Isreal could not do because it was at war with its neighbors. If Singapore could establish First World standards in public and personal security, health, education, telecommunications, transportation, and services, it would become a base camp for entrepreneurs, engineers, managers, and other professionals who had business to do in the region. This meant we had to train our people and equip them to provide First World standards of service. I believed this was possible, that we could re-educate and re-orientate our people with the help of schools, trade unions, community centers, and social organizations.

If the communists in China could eradicate all flies and sparrows, surely we could get our people to change their Third World habits. We had one simple guiding principle for survival, that Singapore had to be more rugged, better organized, and more efficient than others in the region. If we were only as good as our neighbors, there was no reason for businesses to be based here. We had to make it possible for investors to operate successfully and profitably in Singapore despite our lack of a domestic market and natural resources”.

How they pursued economic development without Oil or any natural resource  

Now, in 1965, we too faced a future so bleak that I asked Kim San, then minister of finance, to send a trade delegation from our four chambers of commerce and the manufacturers’ association to Africa on “the off-chance of picking up some business.” The delegation went to East and West African Countries, but little trade followed. After grappling with the problem of unemployment for years since we first took office in 1959, all of us in cabinet knew that the only way to survive was to industrialize. We cast around for solutions and were willing to try any practical idea that could create jobs and enable us to pay our way. One of our soft drink manufacturers suggested to me that we promote tourism; it was labor intensive, needing cooks, maids, waiters, laundrymen, drycleaners, tour guides, drivers, and makers of souvenirs handicraft. Best of all, it required little capital.

We formed the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and appointed our film magnate, Runme Shaw of Shaw Brothers, as chairman. He was the right man for the job. . .  To my relief it did create many jobs and put coins into many empty pockets. It reduced but did not solve the unemployment problem. For that [unemployment], we concentrated on getting factories started. Despite our small domestic market of 2million, we protected locally assembled cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, radios, television sets, and tape-recorders, in the hope that they would later be partly manufactured locally. We encouraged our own businesspeople who set up small factories to manufacture vegetable oils, cosmetics, mosquito coils, hair cream, joss paper, and even mothballs! And we were able to attract Hong Kong and Taiwanese investors to build factories for toys, textiles, and garments.

Attaining Regional Leadership through Technology

While HP negotiated to acquire a site for its own factory, it decided to lease the top two floors of a six-story building. The elevator to lift the heavy machinery needed a big transformer for electricity, but there was none in place in time for the visit of Mr. Hewlett himself. Rather than have him walk up six flights of stairs, the EDB [Economic Development Board, a one-stop agency, so that an investor need not deal with large number of departments and ministries], got a gigantic cable extended from a neighboring building, and on the day of the visit the elevator worked. Hewlett-Packard invested. These stories went through the boardrooms of the American electronics industry, and other American electronics companies soon followed. We welcomed everyone, but when we found a big investor with potential for growth, we went out of our way to help it get started. By the 1970s, glowing reports on Singapore had appeared in American magazines, including US News & World Report, Harper’s, and Time. In 1970, General Electric (GE) set up six different facilities for electrical and electronics products, circuit breakers, and electric motors. By the late 1970s, GE was to become the largest single employer of labor in Singapore. American MNCs laid the foundations for Singapore’s large high-tech electronics industry. Although we did not know it then, the electronics industry was to mop up our unemployment and turn Singapore into a major electronics exporter in the 1980s. From Singapore they were later to expand into Malaysia and Thailand.

They passionately recruited and developed good people from all over

“My experience of developments in Asia has led me to conclude that we need good people to have good government. However good the system of government, bad leaders will bring harm to their people. On the other hand, I have seen several societies well-governed in spite of poor systems of government, because good, strong leaders were in charge . . .  the single decisive factor that made for Singapore’s development was the ability of its ministers and the high quality of the civil servants who supported them. Whenever I had a lesser minister in charge, I invariably had to push and prod him, and later to review problems and clear roadblocks for him . . . because of our relentless and unceasing search for talent both at home and abroad to make up for the small families of the well-educated, Singapore has been able to keep up its performance . . . After several years in government I realized that the more talented people I had as ministers, administrators, and professional, the more effective my policies were, and the better the results”.

“After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore.One arm of my strategy was to make Singapore into an oasis in Southeast Asia, for if we had First World standards then businessmen and tourists would make us a base for their business and tours of the region . . . Visiting CEOs used to call on me before they made their investment decisions. I thought the best way to convince them was to ensure that the roads from airport to their hotel and to my office were neat and spruce, lined with shrubs and trees. When they drove into the Istana domain, they would see right in the heart of the city a green oasis, 90 acres of immaculate rolling lawns and woodland, and nestling between them a nine hole-golf course. Without a word being said, they would know that Singaporeans were competent, disciplined, and reliable, a people who would learn the skills they required soon enough.

Dr Tan Wee Kiat, former head of NParks, recalled how even though funds were short in those years, Lee prioritised nationwide efforts to green the city’s roads and vacant spaces. Lee’s successor, Goh Chok Tong, once remarked that Singapore was the only sovereign nation he knew of that read a gardening report in the Cabinet” (ref:

They launched various social change programmes

Got this quote from Singapore’s Infopedia: “The Keep Singapore Clean campaign was one of Singapore’s first national campaigns as an independent nation. The campaign reached out to every stratum of society and sought to instill in Singaporeans the importance of keeping public places clean. It was part of a larger public cleansing plan that included changes in public health laws, relocation and licensing of itinerant hawkers, development of proper sewage systems, and disease control. The government believed that improved environmental conditions would not only enhance the quality of life for Singaporeans and cultivate national pride, but also attract foreign investors and tourists to Singapore. During the period of the campaign, posters and banners in Singapore’s four official languages were displayed in public places such as shops, restaurants, offices, factories, community centres, bus shelters and public notice boards. Mini posters, stick-up strips, leaflets, pamphlets and car-bumper stickers were also distributed, while postal items and cinema tickets bore stamps with the campaign slogan.In addition to the distribution of collaterals, various public education activities were organised. These included talks and lectures by health officials, inspections and spot checks by government officials, and house visits, rallies, exhibitions and estate cleaning exercises by grassroots organisations. Competitions for the cleanest offices, shops, restaurants, markets, factories, government buildings, schools and public vehicles were also conducted. The results of these competitions were announced publicly, highlighting both the cleanest and the dirtiest. Film clips and photographs of dirty premises or people caught in the act of littering were also shown in the mass media.