Change, Vision, and Leadership

Posted by on April 11, 2013

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Singapore – From Third World to First.

I have borrowed the words above from the title of the book by Lee Kuan Yew.  Lee was the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore (1965-1990).

When I lived in Singapore during the mid-1970s, while some parts of the city were very modern, most of the local population lived in villages (kampongs) where the conditions were quite different.  For example, my Chinese housekeeper had the only flushing toilet in her street.

At that time (1976), Lee was talking (amongst other things) about Singapore becoming an “information centre”.  This was well before the arrival of the commercial personal computer (1980s), or the World Wide Web (1991), or the ‘information revolution’ (1990s).  From my research, I note this ‘vision’ was formalised into a government intention in the IT 2000 Plan, announced in 1992; Singapore was to become a “vast information gateway”, and a global hub for headquarters of multinational corporations.

When I returned to Singapore on a short visit in the mid-1990s, the first two skyscrapers in the Singapore Financial District were in place (each 280 metres in height), and the third was under construction (completed in 1995).  These were symbolic of the changing status of the Republic.  There had also been significant change in living conditions for many Singaporeans, as housing developments were replacing the kampong villages.  And, the new mass rapid transport (MRT) rail system was operating across the island on the North-South and East-West lines.  

Fast forward another ten (or so) years; in 2007 I was back for another visit.  There had been considerable development in the city area.  I especially loved the changes around the mouth of the Singapore River, including up to the Clarke Quay area.  As I travelled about the Island, I also noted the many new blocks of housing development flats.  Some of these looked very modern and quite attractive.  And, the MRT had been further extended, including the new automated North-East line.

Since 2007, I have visited Singapore each year.  Every visit there has been something new and spectacular to see.  I have also had the opportunity several times to visit various friends in their homes in different housing development blocks.  All of these are a long way forward from my housekeeper’s residence of the 1970s.  Most, especially the newer ones, are as good as any private flats found in a city like Melbourne.  And, the MRT continues to grow, with the City Circle line being progressively extended.

During my last trip to Singapore (from which I returned home one week ago), a friend kindly took me for a day-visit to Malaysia.  As she drove us through the countryside of Johor Bahru, I was amazed to see how many of the kampong dwellings were almost exactly the same as I remembered them from the 1970s.  The contrast between the neighbours was incredible.  When we stopped at a sea-side (or more correctly, ‘Straits-side’) restaurant for lunch, the local people were also as I remembered them – happy, friendly, hospitable.

Over thirty-something years, the changes that I have seen in Singapore are incredible.  When I left the Republic in the 1970s, if I had been told that the generation of Singaporeans who were being born then would have similar opportunities for education and careers as my own children, I would have been sceptical.  Even in the 1990s, I would probably have remained the same.  I suspect the prospects of today’s Singaporean children are equal, if not better, than those of children in many “Western” countries.

Change, Vision, Leadership – the hallmarks of Singapore - this graphic shows an outline of Singapore, overlaid with the words Change, Vision, Leadership

Change, Vision, Leadership – the hallmarks of Singapore

For me, as an outsider, there have been two keys to Singapore’s progress “From Third World to First”:  Vision and Leadership.  In the 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew had a vision for the future of Singapore; others obviously “bought in” to that vision.  Then, over the years, various people have ‘stepped up’ to lead at different levels of Singaporean society as the vision has been fulfilled.  Lee might have been the national leader, but such an expansive vision needed leadership at all levels of the entire community.

I am aware that Lee Kuan Yew has his detractors, even amongst Singaporeans.  And I do know that not everything has always worked out perfectly.  But, when Singapore’s economic growth over the period since 1965 is measured, it is impressive.  When the social progress of the Singaporean community over the same period is considered, it is awesome!  Through leadership at all levels of the community, visions have been fulfilled, and significant change has occurred.

Let’s take a moment to bring this all a little closer to home, right into our own lives.  Whether we live in Singapore, or somewhere else, we are constantly experiencing change.  Change often brings uncertainty, resistance, and even chaos.  One of the things that gets us through the chaos and confusion of Change is when we reach an awareness or understanding of new possibilities, i.e. a transforming idea – or ‘Vision’ (see my Post: Change – some important points to note).

The Vision is about where we want to go and what we want to do; it may be personal, or it may be for our family, or it may even be for a business venture.  Taking a lesson from the story of Singapore, to fulfil a Vision, we need Leadership.  Whether it is a personal quest, or it involves others, someone has to do something; someone has to take action.  But Leadership is also about maintaining the vision and staying the course over the long term.

We may not be Lee Kuan Yew, and we may not have his scale of vision for our lives.  But when we have hopes and aspirations, whether or not they are the result of change happening in our lives, nothing will come about unless we ourselves do something.  The first thing to do is to be clear about the goal – where we want to go, what we want to do.

Some visions, hopes, and aspirations may seem to be unrealistic for various reasons.  When we clarify the goal, that is the ‘end state’ that we want to achieve, we can more easily work out the ‘how to get there’ bit.  That is when we can decide whether something is realistic or not.  To me, the story of Singapore is a story of hope – I would even say that it is about ‘hope against the odds’.  Every time that I visit Singapore, I am inspired.  Now I need to apply some of that inspiration into my own life.

The free nuggets for this Post come in the form of a number of videos, showing different aspects of Singapore.

Free nuggets Group 1 looks at several commercial aspects of Singapore:

Singapore most ‘innovative city in Asia’ (1min:50sec) is a short BBC video from March 2013:

Singapore vies to be commodities hub (3min:54sec) is a Financial Times video from June 2012:

Singapore tests sustainable housing (2min:19sec) is a September 2012 CNN video about Singapore’s sustainable housing:

Free nuggets Group 2 take a look at Singapore from a tourist perspective:

Singapore: The Country that Works (2min:13sec) is a Trekking the Planet video from April 2012 about Singapore history and culture:

Singapore City Guide – Best travel tips & attractions in the cleanest city in the … (2min:53sec) is a June 2012 video from onvidtur giving a snapshot of tourism attractions:
The video makes reference to links on a web page at

The Singapore Food Courts (3min:36sec) is a Webster University (Vienna) video from April 2011 about Singapore cuisine:

Free nuggets Group 3 covers some “now” and “then” videos, including two that are around the six-minute duration (these are included for anyone who wants more of the “old” Singapore):

Singapore Port, 90 seconds (1min:31sec) is a time-lapsed view of shipping in Singapore from July 2011:

Old Singapore harbour 1960 (1min:25sec) provides a contrasting view of shipping from 50 years ago:

The Lion City – A Singapore Time Lapse by Keith Loutit (3min:22sec) is an October 2012 look at modern Singapore, using some very clever camera techniques: [HD version] or

Singapore‘2012.mp4 (4min:07sec) is another time-lapse video from April 2012, looking at modern Singapore:

A Glimpse of Singapore, February 1967 (4min:05sec) is a contrasting view of Singapore from 1967 – this one certainly brings back a lot of memories for me!

Singapore’s boat quay demolishment in 1983 (6min:00sec) – this is a bit long, but it shows scenes of “old” Singapore, just before the redevelopment work in the Boat Quay – Raffles Place area:

Old Singapore fifty years ago (5min:46sec) – this video from 1962 shows a completely different world – how things have changed!

Finally, for anyone who (like me) might be looking for some further historic information or photographs, this site offers a lot:

Remember Singapore

Coming next:  Questioning – it’s all about your technique  (in the meantime, enjoy the free nuggets!).


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