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The Daily ParadoxLeadership


Within one week of taking office, Singapore’s new Prime Minister, Lawrence Wong, made a profound speech of great importance, first to Singapore and second to the world. Pointing out the success Singapore achieved, economically and socially, as a result of the necessarily competitive spirit it adopted when it became independent sixty years ago, the Prime Minister explained the need, in today’s world, for collaboration. A planet of 10Bn people will inevitably compete anyway, but excessive competition – like excessive anything – is a road to disaster. The evidence of this is all around us daily. We collaborate or lose the fantastic lives we are privileged to have.

Singapore isn’t perfect. Phenomenal growth and success always carries with it the seeds of complacency and the risks of dogma. With much of the world, tactics have become the politicians self-defined measure of success, leaving strategy a mess to be cleared up by the next lot. Not so in Singapore. Lawrence Wong is only the fourth Prime Minister in sixty years – a striking measure of the stability of governance and the skill of blending strategy for the future with tactics for the moment.

There are still things to be done. Bringing the humanities to their proper perspective requires too much effort and child and adult education has some way to go to encourage moral self-determination at a level that matches the degrees and skills widely accepted as essential. Pace of progress in technology is too great for today’s parents to handle on their own and education methods everywhere have to fill the gap left by the receding relevance of systems that worked well in their time but that are now too slow to cope.

Geopolitically Singapore is in a curious place. Physically more or less halfway between China and ‘the West’ – something that itself is no longer a cohesive entity – it is too dangerously placed and too small to be effectively protected. Its independence has been maintained by two things, First, its refusal either to be neutral or to adopt an ideology similar to those of its big neighbours. Pragmatism is a hallmark of the clever over the clout of the big. Second, its clarity about the difference between strategy and tactics. All the pragmatism in the world wouldn’t save a poorly constructed Titanic.

The manifest of these two pillars of strength is the WOW. For at least fifty years the mention of Singapore anywhere in the world has elicited the response WOW. Its speed of development, its safety, its tough but practical management, its sheer beauty as a green city-state have led people to admire it. The progress is ongoing but capping success is always difficult and Singapore has been looking for the last few years for its next WOW. That could be structural (see “Time for the Dome?” Daily Paradox 29Apr24). It could be tourism – Singapore is certainly a wonderful attraction with all its new developments.

But leadership is not just ‘build’ and ‘entertain’. It is moral courage too. It is the bravery to set an example of a lifestyle pivot towards a collaborative world where care is made by action and humbleness is seen through restraint.

So often I have to end the Daily Paradox with the words “…but let us begin”. Perhaps more fitting on this occasion, thanks to PM Wong, I can say “…so we have begun”.

And perhaps the world will again say WOW.

I think it should.

Good morning
John Bittleston

22 May 2024