Leadership Singapore Style

A visit to Singapore prompted reflections on the culture of this dynamic state, and the stories to be found in and behind the media headlines

Singapore owes much to the efforts in the 1960s of Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, founder and first secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), who oversaw the separation of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia, and its transformation into a dynamic economic powerhouse. Fifty years later, there is talk of a Lee dynasty. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been Prime Minister since 2004.

Change but not too radical change

I had heard that in the ten years since my last visit, Singapore had changed enormously. It has, although in many ways the changes are incremenatal rather than radical shifts. The newer condos are higher and more space-age in design, but fit in with the older ones (i.e. those venerable skyscrapers built in the 1980s). Traffic still negotiates its regulated way through the crowded central-city area. Business, despite the global recession, seems pretty much as usual. (The Government put plans in place to buy-up unemployment in 2008-9).

Preoccupations remain familiar. Educational opportunities, regional political alliances, invasion of Western pop culture still find their way in to the news, as do shopping and lifestyle stories. This year’s Food and Hotel Asia exhibition will bigger and better including Cypriot mineral water and Argentinian popcorn. Has the 150 year-old Lau Pa Sat become nothing more than a glorified food court?

High-class media coverage

International affairs are still well-covered in TV and press. The Straits Times stands comparison with its better-known Murdoch-owned namesake. Business is well covered in The Business Times. During my visit, the unfolding events in Thailand was receiving extensive and impressive attention.

Local Interest Stories

Local stories capture local interests. Last week[April 10th 2010] a rugby match between St Andrews and Anglo-Chinese (Independent) School ended in an unsightly brawl after “ACS player Leonard Wee was injured in the mouth and taken to hospital”. The next day, his aggressor was suspended after making an apology in front of the entire School at St Andrews.

Like other readers, I was shocked at the growth of “up-skirt photography” carried out by individuals using strategically-positioned mobiles, who then share their work on U-tube.

A less disturbing trend is that of business executives using coffee-shops to finalize business deals. This is, of course, a reminder of the origins of business struck in London’s coffee parlours centuries earlier.

I can’t finish without mentioning those letters to the editor, which reveal the flash points of local interest. Those noisy young people shouting on Clarke’s Quay until long after midnight; the importance of retaining good bus services; comments on indiscrete remarks made by pubic figures. And a favourite of mine: Someone discussing the environmental aspects of golf courses had written “The old myth that golf-courses must be built close the reservoirs no longer holds water”.

A Unique Culture

Singapore remains a vibrant and unique culture, perhaps a little too hasty to aspire to norms of its economic rival Hong Kong. But does Singapore really want to develop an even more frantic life-style? I hope not. If that happens, I won’t recognize the place on my next visit.

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