Lessons from LKY
I wonder what LKY would have said about my point to promote manufacturing in Singapore, if our meeting had been today.
Six years ago today on 23 Mar 2015, Singapore lost her founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. A day of sadness for many Singaporeans.
More than 1.5 million people paid their respects to Mr Lee, mourning the passing of the man who brought a country with no natural resources from Third World to First.
I first met LKY was when I was still in school, when he was still Singapore’s Prime Minister. I received the Prime Minister’s Book Prize from him — literally a set of books, which I read over the next few years, and still sit on my bookshelves.
The second time was years later when I was working in the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) London Office, helping to manage our Foreign Reserves.
LKY was in town to meet then-Bank of England Governor Sir Mervyn King. As the MAS’ Reserve Manager (aka Financial Markets person) in London, I was asked to accompany LKY and Singapore’s then-High Commissioner to the UK to the dinner meeting.
To give some context, the meeting took place during the recovery from the Great Financial Crisis, so there was much policy thinking afoot on financial sector reform and improving Financial Stability. I can’t disclose much of what LKY said during the dinner, which were sensitive. Can’t quite remember what we ate too.
But there’s something I can talk about, when after the official dinner meeting agenda had concluded — I brought up the idea of promoting manufacturing and how it can be a ballast and diversification for financial centres like London and Singapore.
This may have seemed far-fetched for 21st-century advanced economies, where manufacturing had been outsourced and offshored to developing economies. The Governor saw merit in my point, as we operated in the financial world and had seen how ‘financialisation’ had resulted in much misallocation of economic resources, excesses and financial instability. LKY was not enthusiastic (to put it mildly), not that he did not agree, I think, but he looked at it from the human aspects — that workers would (quote) NEVER want that sort of menial life when office life is much more attractive and available.
To clarify, I wasn’t thinking about low-end manufacturing of sneakers and paper clips, but research-heavy, technologically-advanced manufacturing. Examples then were Rolls Royce aircraft engines and Singapore’s cleanroom wafer fab plants.
Today’s examples would be vastly different, and I continue to believe that not everyone is geared for a life in shirtsleeves and glass-panelled offices. In fact, much of our advanced manufacturing involves research and design which result in better products used to improve everyday life.
To do that well requires close collaboration between our education institutions and industry, such that we continue to produce industry-ready professionals for the manufacturing sector (I wrote of the good work being done by Singapore University of Technology and Design).
And as knowledge continues to advance, ongoing training is needed for manufacturing workers to upskill and perform their roles. That’s in fact the mission of ArcLab — to supports companies in the provision of training and performance support to Deskless Workers in industries like manufacturing.
The last decade+ since the Great Financial Crisis had seen undeniable shifts. STEM-based disciplines are now just as, if not more, popular than Economics and Finance as a majors of choice. The top-paying graduate hire role in 2020 is in fact for Computer Science graduates, with Engineers in close second. All these have contributed towards more companies being founded, many in software, but also hardware and advanced manufacturing.
I guess I was just ahead of my time, and wonder what LKY would have said to my point, if that dinner were today.
From what I’d read of him, LKY always kept current, never stopped learning, and changed his mind when the data changed. So I believe LKY would have been open to changing his mind. In fact, I think he would have done it many years earlier.
LKY was visionary in Singapore’s early Post-Independence days in the 1960s, and remained so in the 21st-century, where he talked about climate change and the need to “open Singapore up a little bit more in the modern world of fast moving technology and information and communications”.
All this was pre-iPhone, and pre-Greta Thunberg. That’s vision.
The work of LKY and his Pioneer Leaders laid the foundation for Singapore to carve our niche of relevance in the world, and improve the standard of living for generations of Singaporeans. LKY ensured that Singapore always brought something to the table, so we were always needed. They created an environment where Singaporeans could earn a living, and entrepreneurs had the space to dream and create products and services of value, and improve lives and livelihoods.
Today, on the 6th anniversary of LKY’s passing, I am grateful for the country he built — where my family is safe, has food on the table, and the opportunity to pursue what we believe in.
My only regret was not getting an autograph for him for my missus when I accompanied him for that dinner at the Bank of England. I was there as MAS ‘staff’, so I thought ‘it didn’t seem right.’ As a public servant, I followed the rules and coloured within the lines. Now as a startup founder, I’m a lot more pragmatic and flexible.
Unfortunately, I can’t turn back the clock. But more than that missed autograph, I am privileged to live in the legacy of LKY that is Singapore. This legacy is everywhere around me, in every direction I look.