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For Third World Leaders: Hope or Despair?


In February this year Dean Joseph Nye invited me to be the first visiting fellow in the Collins Family International Fellowship founded in honour of the late Congressman James Collins from Texas. It is a program "to highlight the careers of some of the world’s most distinguished leaders, so that these leaders may serve as role models for future generations of emerging leaders, students of public policy, scholars, and practitioners". I accepted his invitation after some hesitation; my work was on a small frame of an island of some 224 square miles at low tide, not to be compared with the wide canvass of other world leaders.

Are there Lessons on Leadership?

It is easier to recognise a man who is already a leader than to identify a man before he becomes one. During my 40 years in office, I have met many foreign leaders in government, in the military and in business. The characteristics they had in common were self- confidence, breadth of mind, the ability to see the wood for the trees, and to communicate.

I am familiar with most of the first generation of anti-colonial leaders to which I belong. All had strong nationalist, anti-colonial convictions and wanted to prove that their peoples could measure up to their rulers. Unhappily, many Third World leaders who had successfully demolished the old order, failed to build a new one. Building a new order demanded different and more complex capabilities. Economic decision-making to achieve the highest returns on capital was not their forte. To enthuse their followers and keep up the fight against the old regime, they had over simplified what needed to be done after the colonisers handed over power. Many leaders actually believed their own rhetoric, that once they were rid of their exploiters there would be wealth aplenty to go around. The economic models they admired were "socialist".

Why did these leaders follow the wrong model? Were they ignorant? Many like Michael Manley, late prime minister of Jamaica, were highly intelligent and graduates of distinguished institutions like The London School of Economics. They admired the early independence heroes, Nehru, Sukarno, Mao Zedong, Tito. None of these early freedom fighters believed wealth had to be created by entrepreneurs, people who raised capital and organised workers to produce goods and services others wanted and were prepared to pay for. They wanted short cuts to prosperity and thought the best way was by state intervention.

This was a mistake that otherwise well-intentioned leaders like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania made. He was a good honest Christian, but held doctrinaire ideas on how to modernise Tanzania. His policies were ill-suited for his small-scale African agricultural economy. Both Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, and Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, failed to develop their economies. Jomo Kenyatta and his successor Daniel arap Moi made Kenya more prosperous in spite of considerable corruption. What was the difference? It lay in the interventionist state policies of the first two compared to the more free market practices of Kenya. Nyerere once said at a Commonwealth conference in the 1980s that he deplored a man eat man society, obliquely criticising Kenya’s unequal result economy. arap Moi tartly replied that he preferred that to a man eat dog society.

I have been asked how my colleagues and I avoided falling into this trap? Before I answer this question let me start by explaining how I was politicised. The first turning point of my life was World War II, the way the Japanese routed the British. Before war broke out, our British rulers feared that the Asians would panic if bombs and shells fell upon them. When war came, it was the British bosses who were shocked and packed their families off. Their Chinese, Indian and Malay subjects stoically bore their sufferings. The aura of overwhelming superiority with which the British held us in thrall was broken, never to be restored. It all happened in the 2˝ months between 8 December 1941 when the first bombs fell, and 15 February 1942 when the British forces surrendered in Singapore.

The next turning point was the experience of the brutality and cruelty of our Japanese conquerors. They had portrayed themselves as the liberators of fellow Asians from the white man but they left us in no doubt that they were the new masters of their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. And to punish the Chinese in Singapore for supporting the Nationalist government of China with donations to fight Japanese aggression, within the first 15 days of their conquest, they picked off at random 50,000 to 100,000 Chinese youths out of concentration centres to machine gun them on the beaches.

I had first hand experience of Japanese militarism when a Japanese platoon was billeted with me in my home. My family had fled to the country side. It was 4 days of hell. I was roughed up, slapped, made to kneel down by a sentry, kicked in the chest and sent sprawling because I did not bow to him. I felt that the dark ages had descended upon Singapore, and watched balefully as I sat on my veranda for hours watching 80,000 dejected British, Indian and Australian troops march into captivity.

My friends shared similar experiences. We asked ourselves why? What right had the Japanese to do this to us? Why did the British not fight more ferociously to defend us? When the British came back after 3˝ years, the communists who had organised the resistance in the jungles of Malaya, attempted to grab power as the rightful rulers. But I feared them nearly as much as I feared the Japanese. As a result many nationalists like me were born.

After the war my contemporaries, who had been students at Raffles College in Singapore, gathered in London. We were studying in various universities in England. There was ferment in the air - India had got its independence, so had Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon; why not Malaya which then included Singapore? The British had cut off Singapore from Malaya as they prepared to give independence to the Malays in Malaya. They wanted to keep Singapore as one link in a chain of naval bases from Portsmouth to Gibraltar to Malta, Suez, Aden, Singapore, Sydney. But after the British lost Suez in 1956, they agreed to let us rejoin Malaya in 1963. By then it was too late. The Malay majority in charge were not prepared to treat their Chinese, Indian and other ethnic groups as equal citizens.

What were my motivations? First, to get rid of colonialism and be independent. This got us involved in a fight against the communists who were well ahead of us in the struggle to oust the British. Later we rejoined Malaya and had to fight Malay Ultra’s (extremists) who wanted to dominate other ethnic groups in Malaysia. As a result, Singapore was asked to leave. We had to agree because the alternative was bloodshed as the Malaysian prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, warned us. Suddenly we had to create a nation out of a motley collection of Chinese, Indians, Malays and others who had come to Singapore when it was a commercial centre and a British military base. It was a near impossible task.

We made it by the skin of our teeth. Our struggles from 1959 to 1965 against the British, the Communists and the Malay Ultra’s, eliminated those among us who lacked conviction, courage and stamina. The leaders who survived had been tested, as the communists used to tell us - "in the crucible of struggle".

How did we escape choosing the wrong model? I have recently written my memoirs and can revisit the critical decisions I made. We were helped by the examples of failed policies in many new countries. India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, and Indonesia had gained independence in the 1940s, Ghana and Nigeria, in the 1950s. Yet by 1965 they were not thriving. India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had imbibed the socialist theories of his generation of British philosophers, economists and political scientists. A powerful factor was the example of the British under Prime Minister Clement Atlee whose Labour government had set out to equalise opportunities and results. Their policies led to state intervention through nationalisation of key industries, coal, iron and steel and the railways. Moreover in the 1950s and 60s, Third World leaders were impressed by the industrial prowess of the Soviet Union. So India was being politically correct when it nationalised the railways, and built iron and steel mills, and petrochemical and synthetic fibre plants as state enterprises. For more than four decades, India made the same car (a 1950 model Morris Oxford), in a state-run factory. No one checked the bottom-line for rates of return on capital. "Profit" was a dirty word associated with the capitalists.


Let me confess that from my student days at Cambridge in the 1940s after WW2 I was convinced that the welfare state was the highest form of civilised society, and in my teen years I was an admirer of Nehru. But he adopted the wrong model when he set India on the path of the planned economy with concentration on heavy industries. He was a man of ideas and an eloquent speaker in English. He convinced the elite in India that this was the fairest way to build the new Indian economy because this system would not exploit the people: the state, on behalf of the people, would be the owners of all the major factors of production. His successors carried on with these policies until Prime Minister Rao began to change course in the mid 1990s.

There was another compelling reason for pragmatic solutions. In 1965, Indonesia under President Sukarno was waging an undeclared low intensity war that he called "Confrontasi" against Singapore; and Malaysia under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman wanted to bypass Singapore as its commercial outlet. We could not afford to risk our future on theories. We had a formidable task, to create a new economy, one not wholly dependent on our entrepot trade with our neighbours. Independence brought worries for our future, not euphoria. We were no longer the commercial, administrative and military centre of the British empire in southeast Asia. The odds were against our survival. We had to ensure our existence which we had previously taken for granted.

Economic Survival

Our first preoccupation was survival, which meant first, economic viability, next, security. I cast around for solutions. We reached out first to Hong Kong and Taiwan investors in textiles, garments, plastics and low value-added products. Later a UNDP expert working in Singapore described to me how Israel had leapfrogged its neighbours who boycotted them, and exported to Europe and America. So we sought industrial investments from Europe, Japan and America. They came, but far and few between. Then fortuitously the Cultural Revolution went into a crescendo in 1967; US computer companies Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard and National Semiconductors passed over Taiwan and Hong Kong and we attracted them to Singapore. Political and industrial stability plus English as our working language were pull factors. Twenty years later we had become a major manufacturer of electronics, computers and disc drives. The leapfrog strategy succeeded.

My other strategy was to create a First-World oasis in a Third-World region to get entrepreneurs and their families from the First World to base themselves in Singapore while they explored opportunities in the region. We established up-to-date facilities in communications and transportation, airport, container port, state-of-the-art telecoms and security; and we tried to approximate First-World standards in health and living environment. Later, we improved our cultural facilities, museums, symphony orchestras and visiting artists. The hardware was the easy part; getting people to change their habits to match the First-World infrastructure was difficult, slow and painful. We made progress by a series of campaigns involving the whole population - greater courtesy, stop spitting, keep public lavatories clean, no chewing gum that disrupt the automatic doors of the underground train services, no litter.

One rewarding decision was to green up the island with trees, palms, shrubs, creepers and flowers to make Singapore a garden city. We involved the whole population in planting and caring for them. We have made progress; our people are now acting more like a First-World civic society but there still is some way to go.

We had to do a U-turn and carry our people with us or fail. In place of constant industrial strife and agitation, we had to convince our workers and their union leaders that unless we had industrial peace and worker co-operation with management, whether Singaporean or foreign, we would be overwhelmed by unemployment. In our fight against the British, we denounced capitalists as exploiters of the people. Now we had to extol their virtues as job creators. The history of Singapore, after independence under the most adverse of circumstances, has been one long struggle to make ourselves relevant and useful to the world, to add value to both the foreign investments that we sought, and those we ourselves made with our savings.

National Solidarity and Security

Our next major task was establish security which had to be based on the solidarity and social cohesion of our many races, religions, languages and cultures. All successor governments of colonial regimes have inherited this problem of multi-tribal, multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-cultural solidarity. Without a cohesive people at peace with each other, development is not possible.

Our solution to the problems of a young nation was a policy of deliberate gradualism in all matters which involved race, language, culture and religion. We have 77% Chinese, but from different parts of China speaking different dialects some of them incomprehensible to each other, 14% Malay-Muslims from different parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, and 8% Indians from different parts of India speaking completely different languages. The rest came from Europe and other parts of Asia. We needed a common language. We solved this by encouraging everyone to learn two languages, English and the mother tongue as a second language. English is not any group's mother tongue, so no one gained any advantage. We have not forced or pressure-cooked a national identity. We have refrained from suppressing ethnic cultures, languages, religions or sense of identity. We aimed for integration, not assimilation.

A fundamental decision I made within a year of independence was to build a national service armed force. If we did not have the ability to defend ourselves, nobody, not even our own people, would have faith in our future. Foreign and UN intervention would be too late. We studied the Swiss, Swedes and Israelis. The Israelis offered help to build the system for a totally national service armed force. We now have a credible defence capability. According to Jane's Defence Weekly's Asia Pacific editor (September 1998): although not battle-tested, "the SAF remains the strongest military force in the region".

Clean government, effective civil service

To produce results we had to shape the administration into an effective instrument of policy. This required strong, fair and just leaders, with the moral strength to command the respect of the people. Unity in the core group of leaders ensured clear signals to the people thus avoiding confusion that would have arisen if the team had bickered and split. Leaders must have that sense of trusteeship, that they are only temporarily in charge of the destinies of their people, and that their duty is not only to discharge this trust but also to pass it on to equally trustworthy and competent hands. Responsibility for the people under our care required that luxurious living while our people were left in poverty and backwardness was out. We ensured complete accountability and open separateness between personal assets and public funds. Corruption which was a cancer in many new countries had to be eradicated and kept down.

A government voted into office needs an efficient, honest administration staffed by officers recruited completely on merit by a politically neutral body. We had an impartial, capable Public Service Commission, with a chairman and members who were shrewd at assessing character. Promotions and awards of scholarships must be made to the best candidates. They have to share the nation-building philosophy and development goals of the political leaders. They must be adequately paid so that temptations would not be too difficult to resist.

We saw countries whose political leaders, public officials, police and judiciary had become corrupt. Once a political system has been corrupted right from the very top leaders to the lowest rungs of the bureaucracy, the problem is almost impossible to solve without a revolution. The cleansing and disinfecting has to start from the top and go downwards in a thorough and systematic way. It is a long and laborious process that can be carried out only by a very strong group of leaders with the courage and moral authority derived from unquestioned integrity.

Housing and Home Ownership

Soon after separation, I resolved to enable every household to own its own home. If we were going to get the people to take National Service seriously, I could not ask their sons to fight and die for the properties of the wealthy. We worked out a personal savings scheme that allowed them to own an apartment painlessly through instalments over 20 years. We sold the apartments to them at below cost to enhance their assets. Today, 95 per cent of Singaporean households are home-owners. It has immeasurably increased their wealth and our social stability. Without home ownership, we would have become like Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong where the voters in the cities are disaffected because they pay a large proportion of their salaries in rents.

Pragmatism, not dogma

Policies must be pragmatic not dogmatic. We accepted our colonial heritage. Continuity with the past is one of the secrets of our growth. We encouraged all British, European, American, Japanese and Asian businesses to stay, and attracted new ones to invest. A seductive trap we avoided was the easy and popular redistribution of wealth through nationalisation of enterprises and properties belonging to the departing masters.

I learned to ignore political correctness and to reject conventional wisdom when it did not accord with reality or my own experience. For example, in the 1960s and '70s, it was politically correct to be anti-American and anti-MNC. The theory expounded by Latin Americans like Raul Prebisch was that MNCs would reduce them to "dependancia". We did not accept this and we assiduously courted the MNCs. They had the capital, technology, know-how and the markets. We decided it was a fast way of learning on the job, working for them and with them. Indeed they have been a powerful factor in Singapore's growth.

It will be equally mistaken to follow mindlessly the current politically correct and stridently advocated view that democracy is the precondition for economic development. Without democracy, Western ideologues argued, Russia could not develop a free market. This was not borne out by the experiences of Taiwan, South Korea and post open-door China. What a country needs for growth and progress is stability and good government, one that is honest and effective and works for the benefit of the people. Good government should never be shackled by theories however attractive and logically elegant.

Education for All

From the outset we decided that education was the key to our future. In what language should we teach? This was a sensitive and emotional issue involving the mother tongues and culture of our various races. I resisted pressure to make Chinese the primary language although they were 77% of the people. Instead I made English the working language of government and allowed parents to choose between schools that taught in Chinese, in Malay, in Tamil (a south Indian language), or in English where they would also learn their mother tongue as a second language. It took several years for the parents to realise that their children’s future was best when they were competent in English. Modern agriculture and industry require the whole population, to be literate and able to learn on their own and add value. We expanded schools, built new technical institutes, polytechnics and universities. This proved decisive for our progress.

Preparing for succession

My final and most important decision was to plan and prepare for succession, and not leave it to chance. My colleagues and I found each other, drawn together by our common convictions forged during our formative years under British colonial rule, then Japanese war and occupation, and the return of the British, followed by a communist insurgency. Politics was not a career option for us. It was a compulsion.

After 3 successful elections in 10 years since we first won and took office in 1959, my old guard colleagues and I were troubled by the calibre of the younger men we had been able to induct. They were the best of our political supporters – professionals and academics with PhDs. But they were not equal to the original team. My original team had been thrown up by the upheavals of the Second World War and were among the best of that generation. Now we were not getting the best to volunteer to join us.

We had to identify potential leaders, but how? Some people are natural alphas, activists in their school days as school prefects or sports captains or presidents of college societies. Alphas are extroverts with high energy levels. But as these school and college leaders grew older, many did not measure up. The valedictorian in school does not always make it after college. Few of those voted in college as most likely to succeed, make it in the real world. As they grow older, they need other qualities to stay as leaders – higher levels of intellectual ability, a steady character, judgement, and decision making that can win the confidence of those around them.

During a sabbatical in 1968, I spent a term in Harvard at the Institute of Politics. At one lunch a faculty member involved in admissions, described the methodical pruning of some 200,000 applications for admission down to some 2000 who were individually interviewed to choose 1200.

My job was less massive. Seven times from 1959 to 1990, before each election I had to select 20 to 30 candidates who were likely to make good as members of parliament, and some as ministers. The easiest attribute to ascertain is intelligence. Their performance in examinations, in intelligence tests and SAT scores give an indication of IQ levels. Many we had fielded, including PhDs, failed as ministers. They lacked something. When I learned from American corporate leaders that they used psychometric tests, I recalled the epic flight of the three astronauts on Apollo 13. Their spaceship had malfunctioned 300,000 miles out in space. Any false move and they would never return to earth. They remained calm and collected throughout the ordeal, entrusting their fate to the men at ground control whose instructions they followed meticulously. NASA’s psychological tests on the ground had successfully eliminated those who were prone to panic in a crisis. I decided in 1980 to adopt their practice. Psychological and psychometric tests helped us assess the character of candidates, to weed out those who were unlikely to succeed. But they could not tell us who would.

The prospect of failure after us, forced us to talent spot. After a high attrition rate at the beginning, we improved our selection methods. We threw new candidates into the deep end of the pool to test their political skills. When we had enough to form the core of a new team, I faced opposition from some old guard ministers for promoting them so fast. They feared they would be displaced too soon. To keep up the momentum of the flow of new talent, I removed the main leader of the resistance from the cabinet.

Finally, I was concerned that the government machinery after 31 years had become customised to suit my work style. I made a conscious effort in the last two years of my term to make room for my successor to reconfigure the arrangements. When a new guard, men in their 40s and 50s, took over in 1990 there was no crashing of gears. Instead in the 1990s Singapore was repeatedly rated by Transparency International among the top seven least corrupt countries in the world, and the least corrupt in Asia. PERC (Political & Economic Risk Consultancy, Ltd, Hong Kong) also rates Singapore as the most transparent and corruption-free in Asia. We have not become decadent and corrupt after 41 years in office. The old guard set high standards; the new guard has to maintain this self discipline and integrity in the midst of growing affluence. Otherwise the Singapore story will not have a happy ending.

Our judiciary and the rule of law are rated by WEF, IMD and PERC as the best in Asia. It commands the respect of the people and investors. Both the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), which rank the competitiveness of nations, rate Singapore as the second most competitive after the United States. We study those items where we are rated poorly and try to do better. We practised life-long learning before it became a buzz-word. What were the basic strengths that made this possible? The idealism and integrity that drive the whole system.

But new forces are at work. The present generation of leaders grew up in a Singapore that was stable and growing year by year. The people have got accustomed to the comforts of a modern affluent society, and expect life to be better every year. Opinion polls are becoming a regular feature of public life. Leadership now means shaping a policy so that it can carry a majority, and, if not, then a plurality, in the hope of expanding it to a majority by the next election.

I view this with mixed feelings. It is totally different from the way I had to govern Singapore. In the 1960s, strikes, demonstrations, disorder and violence threatened our existence. People then faced dire choices. Leaders had to lead, make bold decisions and act swiftly. Only later, did we need to convince people to support our decisions. For example, I carried out a campaign to win a referendum to take Singapore into Malaysia. When bloodshed threatened and the Malaysian government wanted Singapore out, I did not, could not, hold a referendum to take them out. That would have meant disaster. I had to take the decision and then persuade my cabinet colleagues to sign the separation agreement with me.

To build a more stable Singapore, I did not discuss nor ask our different races whether they liked to live integrated together in the new high-rises we were building to replace their squatter huts. The British had allowed them to be segregated in Malay villages, Chinese quarters, and an Indian enclave because it was easier to rule such groups of peoples. We had to form a nation. My colleagues and I decided that people would ballot for their resettlement apartments. Their neighbours would be Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians or everybody else. I did not seek their consent. For the first few years they were not comfortable. After 10 years, it became the way of life in Singapore.

We did the same to the schools. Children used to be segregated by race, (even by dialect clans) into different Malay, Chinese, Indian and English language schools. Slowly and gradually, I persuaded parents to register their children for schools that used English as the main medium of instruction, and the mother tongue as a second language. They did so when they saw those graduating from such schools doing better in life. Our schools now have all races in mixed classrooms. Integration has become a fact of life.

The business of government can be executed effectively only by the people’s representatives exercising their judgements based on their mandate. The people had given me their mandate in a referendum to join Malaysia on fair terms. When the prime minister of Malaysia was fearful of a racial blood-bath if Singapore did not leave the federation I had to exercise my judgement to separate without consulting the people. So also the racial integration in housing and schooling was part of my mandate, given in elections every five years that I won with overwhelming majorities.

The differences between the old guard and the new guard leaders are stark, reflecting the differences between the old society and the new. The old society was in a revolutionary situation. People felt that everything, including their lives, was at stake. They trusted their leaders and gave us unstinting support. It was an inspired generation who fought against great odds to succeed as an independent country. The new society is secure, comfortable and confident. Many of the young believe prosperity and stability to be theirs as of right, that their leaders have the duty to make things better, and to consult them before any change is made which could affect them. This change is unavoidable but does it mean that leaders have to govern by the polls, as in many developed societies? However the recent upheavals in Indonesia have brutally reminded Singaporeans of the volatility of their surroundings and alerted them to the dangers that lurk around them. This may stop Singaporeans from becoming a complacent consumer driven society; instead they can continue to make that extra effort to achieve more than the ordinary.

Most failures in the Third World were the result of the leaders of immediate post independence period, the 1960s to 1980s, abiding by the theory then prevailing that socialism and state enterprises would hasten development. Their interventionist economic policies led to misallocation of resources and increased opportunities for corruption. That theory was demolished as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no reason why Third World leaders cannot succeed in achieving growth and development if they can maintain social order, educate their people, maintain peace with their neighbours and gain the confidence of investors by upholding the rule of law.

Perilous situations – Great leaders

Are great leaders born or are they the result of revolutionary situations? From my experience, I think it is both, but more because of circumstances. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were thrown out of a massive convulsion of four to five hundred million Chinese, after a hundred years of decay and decline into warlordism and Japanese occupation. Mao was the revolutionary who liberated China. Deng was the builder who saved China from imploding like the Soviet Union. Who was the better leader of China? Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping? As leader of the Chinese Communist Party in its fight to liberate China, Mao was unquestionably the unchallenged leader, a genius at guerrilla warfare who defeated the Nationalist government. But was he the moderniser of China? Had he lived on, or had Hua Guofeng, his immediate successor, stayed in charge, China would have gone like the Soviet Union.

The party heavy-weights brought back Deng, a veteran of the Long March. Deng was not an ideologue like Mao. Ever the realist, with a keen sense of the basics of the economy, he realised the communist system was not working. He opened up China in 1978 but kept a tight hold on political and social control of the country. He broke up the commune farm system and through the contract system established more or less private ownership of farmland. He created the special economic zones in several coastal cities. Although the opening up faltered after Tiananmen in 1989 , he pushed it again in 1992 while on a "Southern Tour" of Guangdong province. Had he followed Gorbachev in implementing both glasnost and perestroika at the same time, China would have collapsed in chaos.

Are there no great leaders of that calibre in China today? Surely there must be. But present day China requires a different kind of leaders, not creators of liberation armies, but competent and imaginative builders of the economy and flexible managers of the large social and political changes that will flow from opening up China to the world. The needs of a country vary with the times. China now has the prospect of becoming an advanced technological society in the next 50 years, provided its leaders can manage the changes to its economy and its society. More important they have to be courageous and skilful enough to adjust and change their political system to involve their better educated, more articulate and assertive people, 70 percent of whom will live in the cities and they have to do all this without losing precious political stability.

Similarly, the difference in mood between America and Europe, both under threat during WW2 and their comfortable consumer societies of the 1990s, explains the absence of towering leaders. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, were strong leaders their people needed in times of crisis. Neville Chamberlain gave way to Churchill who promised them "blood, sweat and tears". After Nazi Germany was defeated and the danger had passed they voted in Clement Atlee as prime minister – Churchill’s small, mild looking deputy during the war. Similarly de Gaulle became the symbol of French resistance to German occupied Vichy France under Marshal Petain. He returned in triumph to Paris in 1944, but went into retirement after he made two partially successful attempts to reorganise the government. He was re-called from retirement and elected president in 1958 by the national assembly during a severe crisis over the stalemate in the Algerian war. When France was restored to prosperity, the young wanted change and took to the streets, de Gaulle resigned after he lost a referendum in 1969.

Security, prosperity and the consumer society plus mass communications have made for a different kind of person getting elected as leader, one who can present himself and his programmes in a polished way. Satellite television has allowed me to follow the American presidential campaign. I am amazed at the way media professionals can give a candidate a new image and transform him, at least superficially, into a different personality. Winning an election becomes in large measure, a contest in packaging and advertising. These new techniques have been so successful that Europe has imported them. A spin-doctor is a high income professional, one in great demand. From such a process, I doubt if a Churchill, a Roosevelt or a de Gaulle can emerge.


The difference between Winston Churchill and Tony Blair is the difference between their two societies, the first caught in a titanic struggle; the other comfortable and secure, facing no external threats, is reluctant to join the Euro or have its accustomed way of life upset in a federal Europe. Revolutionary situations throw up great leaders who demand blood, sweat and tears; comfortable circumstances produce leaders who promise people an even easier life. But when the British felt Britain was slipping they voted for a conviction politician in Margaret Thatcher three times from 1979 to1990. Similarly, when Americans feared their country had become weak during the Carter years when American diplomats were held as hostages in Teheran and the Soviet Union menacingly invaded Afghanistan, they voted for Ronald Reagan for two terms. Germany, defeated and divided after the war, produced Konrad Adenaur. After Germany recovered and became the economic engine of Europe, Germans still felt threatened and vulnerable. They voted four times for another conviction politician, Helmut Kohl, who for 16 years co-operated closely with America and established strong bonds with France. When the opportunity came with the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 he seized the moment and by 1990, had reunified Germany. With Germany reunited and the danger from Russia diminished, the people’s mood changed; in 1998 they voted Kohl out in favour of Gerhard Shroeder. Germans wanted a change to the new media savvy generation of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

This brings me to the last question: can you teach a person to be a leader? Yes, if that person has the primary attributes to be a leader. Then lessons in leadership will help him develop his skills and become a more effective leader with fewer costly errors.

Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History argues that if the challenge is too great for a people, they will fail however great the leader. If there is no challenge, a people will not achieve much. Fortunately for Singapore the challenge was not beyond the ability of its leaders to draw out the best from their people. If Singapore has once again to face circumstances as daunting as those in the first decade of its existence, both people and leaders must be able to rise to the occasion for the country to survive.