HARVARD BUSINESS PUBLISHING 21 Aug 2009
Singapore: A Model of Judgment for the US?
By Tom Davenport
We often talk about judgment with regard to individuals, but organizations and countries can have good and bad judgment as well. I was recently in Singapore for a SAS customer event. Every time I visit, it has struck me as a country with good judgment. Singapore just celebrated its forth-fourth birthday as an independent country, and it deserves to congratulate itself (although it rarely engages in self-congratulation — another aspect of good judgment). In fact, I'd
argue that in many ways Singapore is a great example for the United States. Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. Singapore is a hardworking, disciplined country. It decides what it needs to do, and then does it. Every year for National Day, for example, the government publishes a list of challenges it needs to overcome. This year's list included such bracing issues as "How to maintain high economic growth and improve living standard?" and "How to stamp out new diseases and keep health-care costs down?" There is also the lighter, but sociologically problematic challenge of "How to get younger Singaporeans to marry and have children?" The list of challenges is enormously appealing in its clarity and directness.
2. Singapore is obsessed with education — not just for children, but throughout life. Another of its declared challenges is, "How to design job-training programmes and wage supplement schemes for low-income older workers?" The country tops the ranks of educational achievement regularly. While it was once justifiably criticized for emphasizing rote learning, it has introduced programs that encourage creativity.
3. Singapore is a highly capitalist society, but its government plays a strong guiding role. Some of the country's smartest citizens go into government. The government creates industrial policy and actively facilitates growth and capability-building in those areas. It did a masterful job emphasizing IT and building up that industry, and now it's actively pushing biotech and services. For example, in services the government wanted to build on organizations with great service like Singapore Airlines and Raffles Hotel. So it encouraged Singapore Management University (a private university that was established by the government) to start an Institute for Service Excellence, and stimulated the development of a Singapore Customer Satisfaction Index that would be applied to all service industries.
4. Like the US, Singapore is a highly diverse society, with lots of citizens with Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab backgrounds. Yet they all seem to get along pretty well, and the country's culture is greatly enriched by the diversity. Public housing is ethnically and religiously integrated. Other countries could probably use a version of its "Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act," which prohibits religious rabble-rousing.
5. Singapore invests heavily in infrastructure — housing, roads, IT, airport (only one, but Changi is a very impressive facility). 83% of its citizens live in public housing, but it's clean and well-maintained. The country is rolling out a new high-bandwidth fiber optic network. Buses and subways are clean and run on time.
6. Singapore's economy is doing pretty well. It does anticipate a decline in GDP of about 5% this year, but there are signs of a strong recovery. Its stock market is booming. Its banks didn't go crazy with subprime lending or bizarre derivatives. One economist told me that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 was worse than the current recession for Singapore.
Okay, it's not a Utopian society. The government is a bit authoritarian for my tastes, but not as much as in the Lee Kuan Yew (its first prime minister from 1959 to 1990) days. The prohibitions
against spitting and selling chewing gum are a little much — though I really like the clean streets. Yes, you may be caned if you misbehave, but it might be better than locking up the world's highest proportion of citizens in jails. I feel that Singapore destroyed much of its interesting architecture in the headlong rush to modernize. And it seems to me that too many of its citizens are obsessed with luxury brands and conspicuous consumption. These are relatively minor concerns, however, compared to the country's strengths. And many of the seemingly autocratic regulations might be justified by the ethnic diversity and high population density of the country.
Singapore is tiny compared to the United States (and most other countries, for that matter), but that doesn't mean it can't be a model. Barack Obama keeps saying that we need to buckle down and work hard to build an economy based on real production, not hollow financial chicanery. We need a little more social order, and a little less individualism. Singapore has already pulled off both objectives, and continues to provide a good example of good judgment for the United States and the rest of the world.
Tom Davenport holds the President's Chair in Information Technology and Management at Babson College, where he also leads the Process Management and Working Knowledge Research Centers. His books and articles on business process reengineering, knowledge management, attention management, knowledge worker productivity, and analytical competition helped to establish each of those business ideas.