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Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong:

Attracting World Talent


Attracting World Talent


In this exclusive interview, Singapore's Prime Minister talks about staying competitive in a climate of constant change, being the beacon for liveable cities in Asia, and enticing a top-flight work force.



Attracting World Talent

By Diane Ying, Alice Yang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 403 )

When the security guards open the white iron gate, a majestic white British colonial mansion comes into view. This is the center of power in Singapore, the "Istana" – Malay for "palace."

It was here three-and-a-half years ago that Lee Hsien Loong, at the age of 52, took his oath to serve as the third prime minister of Singapore. But it was not the beginning of a life of luxury.

At the time, the region was shaky with the aftershocks of the Asian Financial Crisis, the rise of China and India, and the widespread exodus of manufacturing, all threats to the economic lifeline of the small nation.

In less than five years, Singapore was able to maneuver a successful economic turn-around. Last year, Singapore affected an economic growth rate of 7.7 percent, and unemployment dropped to a ten-year low at only 1.6 percent. Lee has proved himself to be an integral part of his nation's economic revival.

At the end of June 2008, CommonWealth Magazine interviewed Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to discuss his experience at the helm of a small but strong state, and to ask his suggestions for Taiwan.

Q: With the rise of globalization, money, personnel and technology have all become internationalized. Under these circumstances, what do you think are the opportunities and challenges facing Asia?

A: Saying that all of Asia is on the rise is far too simple. Yes, China has become a world power, and India is on the rise. This has mobilized all the countries in the whole Asian region to strengthen their economic ties with China and India.

The level of regional cooperation has greatly increased in Asia, and diversified beyond mere trade to include a variety of exchanges including the lifting of trade barriers, increased brain flow, and travel. These changes, along with interaction among the media, have invigorated the entire region. That Asia has been able to maintain fairly good economic growth this year is directly due to these factors.

If we are able to take advantage of the current situation, we will have the chance to elevate our economy and derive some benefit from the transformation of China and India.

Q: In the face of globalization, what new challenges does Singapore face?

A: Our challenge is to accept globalization, to welcome it, because we have no other choice.

We understand the pressure. We also know that we need to create an environment that can adapt to globalization. Therefore, our position is to become a useful member of the greater Asian economy. We must be a competitive economic body, a competitive labor force. In all things we must have high operational effectiveness, and a robust ability to react to change.

Q: Singapore has a new slogan, "Center for Liveable Cities." Is Singapore always transforming itself?

A: If we were unable to find new paths, our people would starve, because China is changing very quickly, and the world is changing very quickly.

Right now environmental protection has become a very important topic in China, so we've discussed this issue with them. We're working with Tianjin to implement an eco-city program. The talks have already been concluded, and we'll launch the program in September. I'm confident we can do it.

To join the ranks of one of the most liveable cities is partially contingent on economic factors. You have to have a vibrant economy, or there's no point in talking about it. Part of the equation is hardware – that is, urban planning, which includes basic infrastructure, public transportation, parks and shorefronts. All these elements must be planned rigorously and innovatively, and managed systematically and meticulously. They must be well administered.

Thirdly, there is the spirit of society, whether person-to-person relationships have an atmosphere of civility. This is harder to achieve. We can encourage it, but bringing it to fruition will take a long time.

Q: Singapore is constantly saying that its lack of natural resources means it must rely on talent. Where is the talent coming from?

A: First, we have to discover our own. Singapore is people-poor, so we need to do everything we can to cultivate and promote what human resources we do have. This pertains not only to academic and technological personnel, but also to other aspects including the arts, sports, and commerce. We need to first discover talent in all these fields, and then help them to develop their full potentials in a merit-based system.

Singapore has a population of 3.2 million, not including the million-plus foreign professionals and other workers, but that is certainly not enough. Shanghai, for example, has a population of 10 million, but its talent pool includes the entire Yangtze River Valley, even extending to the whole of China. That's why it's the regional leader. Taipei is also a magnet for talent, not only from within Taipei, but from all of Taiwan, including those who came from China over half a century ago. Talent needs to be drawn from a wide base.

In order to attract talent, we need to become a competitive and bold city, full of youthful vigor. Singapore needs to attract talent from India and Southeast Asia, indeed from all of Asia, from Korea, Japan, and even from other continents.

This isn't just a question of numbers, but also of backgrounds and experience.

Q: What comprehensive policies do you have for attracting talent?

A: First, we need a liberal and accepting society. We need people to feel at ease here, to be willing to settle down here and bring their families. To do that, we must provide a liberal, peaceful, law-abiding, and systematically organized nation.

Secondly, Singapore provides an English-based work environment that allows international talent to work together. A Japanese company can employ Chinese engineers, Indian clerks, and Southeast Asian or Malaysian administrators, all of whom are able to communicate in English. This wouldn't be such an easy task in any other Asian country. We have the language advantage, as well as a good social climate.

Thirdly, we need to create economic opportunities. With a good business environment but no business opportunities, Singapore might have potential as a popular vacation spot, but not as an economic hub. What we need is a self-perpetuating beneficial cycle in which Singapore attracts talent, and talent attracts more talent. The government promotion of new technologies such as biomedical R&D or nanotechnology cannot succeed without the aid of top-notch scientists.

Of course, we do need to cultivate local talent, local scientists, but we can't depend only on our own – we must lure the world here.

Q: What are the Singaporean government's measures for attracting talent?

A: Government departments offer 100 to 200 scholarships annually to promising high school students. Some go to the National University of Singapore, and others pursue special studies abroad. The scholarships come with the condition of several years of mandatory civil service upon graduation. This is a very important policy which not only attracts talented persons to the system, but also allows Singaporean youth to understand the inner workings of their government.

By accepting the scholarships, students are making up their minds to become civil servants. They are thus obligated to their studies beyond their desire for education. This is a unique policy that you don't see in many countries.

In the political arena, we're famous for our tea parties. They've helped us to attract many members of parliament, even a number of ministers. These tea parties are systemized, not random.

Certain ministers and parliament members are charged with the task of finding potential candidates and inviting them to tea. If that works out, the candidate is invited to tea with more ministers. An interview is the next and last step – it's harder than getting into college.

We do this for many reasons. One, we're a small state and we don't want to miss out on any local talent. And two, not everyone in the system is prone to recommend himself. If you don't invite him, he'd find a job on his own. But if you do, he is willing consider your offer. Sometimes we'll come across someone who is too eager to join us, and then we'll ask ourselves, "Why is this person so keen?"

Q: The Singaporean government is known for its efficiency and low rates of corruption. How do you do it?

A: We believe that a government's management mechanism is vital to a nation's success. A government cannot create wealth, but it can create the conditions for wealth-creation – that is where our responsibilities lie.

A government must, therefore, have the same level of efficiency as a private enterprise; a government's ability to think, analyze, and operate must be as strong as that of a private enterprise.

Hiring civil servants goes beyond finding top-notch talent. Each post in the system must be occupied by someone who is good at and devoted to his or her given tasks. If you do well you're rewarded, and if you don't, there will be consequences – a government post can't imply a life-long meal ticket. We can't have anyone thinking that it is, and only doing the bare minimum to get through the years before retirement.

The entire system, from top to bottom, needs to be peopled based on merit. You are given a position because you're the best person for it, not because you have the right connections or because you've been in the department longer than anyone else. That just can't happen; a human resources system needs to be transparent and objective.

We didn't always use this system. We used to use the traditional, colonial-era system. Twenty years ago, we became aware of the rigidity of the existing civil servant management system. Once someone becomes a civil servant they are civil servants for life. Without ever needing to pass an examination, their salary is adjusted annually until they reach retirement.

That's wrong. That's not how things should work.

We began making changes to the system when former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee was in office. He thought this was an extremely difficult task, and that with over 20,000 teachers in the system, it would be impossible to evaluate everyone annually. It just couldn't be done. Later on, we had no choice but to do it, and we had to change the entire system.

We opened up the system and allowed each ministry and department a certain level of authority. At present, every government agency has a permanent secretary who reports directly to their respective ministers. One is selected from among all the permanent secretaries to be head of the civil service, head of the entire administrative organization. It's his responsibility to establish cooperative relationships between other permanent secretaries, and to establish decorum among civil servants, including uprightness and discipline.

Q: What does Singapore see in its future?

A: There is no end in sight. We have a saying – "the endless marathon." In ten years, we hope to see a different Singapore. We hope it will be a Singapore possessed of greater culture, with a transformed economy and a new generation of political leaders that understands the wants, needs and habits of a new generation of voters.

Q: What has been the greatest challenge for you so far?

A: Finding a group of leaders to succeed the present government has been my greatest challenge.

(Compiled by Alice Ting)

Translated from the Chinese by Ellen Wieman

Chinese Version: 李顯龍:新加坡要吸引全世界的人才