Lee Kuan Yew and building Singapore’s brand equity

LKY's strong influence on government-linked organisations helped shape Singapore's DNA and brand equity to turn it into a successful economic hub. My first job was with the Economic Development Board (EDB) in the 80's. It is a testament to this organisation's significant role in building Singapore that DBS Bank, JTC (the government agency responsible for industrial land), SPRING (development of local enterprises, setting industrial standards) parts of ITE (vocational training) and a few Polytechnics all emerged out of EDB, a success credited to the forward-thinking, iconoclastic vision of LKY and Dr Goh Keng Swee.

One of the first things I learned on the job was how Singapore in the mid to late 1960's, out of necessity, became one of the very few countries in the world to actively woo foreign direct investment (FDI). The "four freedoms" touted in EDB's marketing slogans : freedom of ownership (allowing majority or even 100% foreign ownership), free movement of goods & services (low to zero import taxes & tariffs), people and capital, together formed a key differentiating factor and considerably enhanced Singapore's appeal to foreign investors. In the 1960's such liberal policies were radical and against prevailing economic orthodoxy. It is to the credit of LKY and his lieutenants that they had the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and to steer Singapore through uncharted waters. LKY's leadership style pushed the organisation to translate vision into action and concrete results. The four freedoms alone weren't enough to attract FDI. EDB was involved in significant efforts to build infrastructure, train technicians and develop and upgrade the capabilities of local parts & components manufacturers so as to create an effective local supply chain.

Singapore's success in attracting FDI and making FDI a strong locomotive of economic development inspired other countries to follow suit. I remember getting a phone call from EDB's counterpart government agency in a neighbouring country, requesting me to fax them a copy of some EDB tax incentive application form, because they were about to launch a similar scheme. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

My second stint with a government-linked entity was in the late 90s when I worked in GIC Special Investments, the private equity arm of GIC [Government of Singapore Investment Corporation]. GIC's very creation is another example of foresight and long term vision. Confident that prudent fiscal policies would continue and the resulting budget surpluses would boost government reserves, in 1981 LKY and Dr Goh decided to entrust these reserves to a newly-created wealth management company, GIC. GIC is thus one of the world's first sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) and ranks among the biggest worldwide in terms of assets under management. Countries such as Korea and China formally established their own SWFs only during the past 10 years or so, more than three decades after Singapore did so.

One unforgettable way in which LKY had a major impact on GIC (and undoubtedly most government ministries and departments) was his clarity of thought and incisive and concise way with words. LKY's strengths as an orator and writer are well known by now. He demanded similarly high standards of writing in papers submitted to him, whether in his capacity as head of government or Chairman of GIC. Such exacting standards were transmitted all down the hierarchy. GIC's strategy or policy papers or investment reports had to be written with rigour, precision, and conciseness, and the logic & flow of the arguments were much emphasised. There were very few GIC officers whose papers did not need to go through two or three re-writes before being finalised. It was as though you were a junior law clerk writing a brief for the very demanding Managing Partner of a top law firm. Remedial writing classes were organised for those whose writing skills were deemed inadequate.

These two organisations EDB and GIC had some attributes in common that can be traced directly to certain of LKY's character traits – a desire to be not just good, but world class; strong drive; never resting on one's laurels.

As Singaporeans, we feel we owe much to LKY – for creating a successful country, and as a corollary of the country's success, creating also a valuable Singapore brand equity that has attributes such as competence, integrity, thoroughness, delivering what is promised, etc. This Singapore brand equity certainly makes it a lot easier for businesses and professionals to gain ready acceptance from foreign counter-parties, clients and investors.

The above tribute is written by Chia Yew Boon, Managing Director of Catalyst Advisors, formerly at EDB and GIC

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