Malaysia’s newly minted Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng was reported to have handed out some morale boosting talk to a group of Malaysian entrepreneurs, the quote of which made headlines in Singapore.
“…why must we lose to Singapore every time? Beat them at their own game, you can do it.”
Lim attributes Singapore’s success to our “creativity” and “marketing” that gave us an edge. I highly doubt that is correct.
The former CEO of the Singapore Zoo Bernard Harrison had famously criticised us for lacking in creativity. We’re innovators, no doubt. We can take an ordinary bread shop, give fancy names to pastries and call it Bread Talk. Then we launch copycat versions such as Sweet Talk, Bread Story, Chicken History etc. etc.
Look at MediaCorp. They’re always copying – the Noose, for example is just an improvisation of Sacha Baron Cohen’s work.
So what is our secret sauce?
To my mind, our success is traced back to these two: Education and Workers.
We have taken a very serious approach to education. Investment and innovation goes on all the time . Look at how we have developed, how the curriculum changed. The Ministry will ruthlessly drop policies that didn’t work and cautiously preserve things that did.
Observe how the ITEs have evolved. From what was VITB, it had to renew itself aggressively to shed-off its stereotyped image. Universities are no longer merely academic. We now have tertiary institutions dedicated to sports, arts, science and even management, showcasing the importance of diverse skills.
Nothing stays stagnant when it comes to the Ministry of Education and it is this leadership that gives our citizens razor sharp thinking and mental flexibility. Even our most undereducated ah-bengs are capable of strategic and lateral thinking.
The next is an obsession with jobs and workers.
Whilst trade unions around the world have narrow casted themselves into overly biased forms of protection, Singapore’s labour movement had a different approach: help the employers, so that the employers can help the employees.
It is realistic: the source and fate of all employee’s wealth, is directly pegged to his employer. This understanding forms the foundation of Singapore’s labour affairs. Its trade union federation, the NTUC, directly influences policies and politics that lift the tide for both employers and employees.
That is why it actively pursues progressive programs, such as the Industry Transformation Maps, and these programs must almost always result in win-win situations for employer and employee.
When it comes to raising wages, there is an established tripartite mechanism that is seen in the National Wages Council. There is no need to take to the streets to protest wage increases.
I could name so many more examples of how national policies were nudged and influenced by the Congress but the point here, is that this obsession with workers had made a peaceful, stable and fertile economy where both companies and employees grow in tandem.
So Mr. Guan Eng, I do wish you and all of Malaysia well. But it is not marketing and creativity that made Singapore what it is.
It is a trust in the government and a trust in the labour movement, allowing them to develop good policies – that has gotten us where we are.