I have been spending the last couple of days in Mauritius as one of the speakers in the “Mauritius Africa Partnership Conference”. The conference is a strategic move by Mauritius to position itself as the gateway for investment into the whole of Africa. It is organised by the Board of Investment of Mauritius, the equivalent of the Singapore Economic Development Board in Mauritius. Attending the conference are the C-suite representatives from the investment boards in 28 African countries and more than 100 other delegates. I also met the Mauritian Secretary to the Cabinet and the Financial Secretary, and spoke to more than 30 senior officials in their Ministry of Foreign Affairs on superior civil service performance. 

There was a whole variety of speakers including Senator Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, Minister in the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office in charge of government and economic transformation programmes in Malaysia, as well as Ms Penny Low, Singapore’s Member of Parliament Penny. I spoke on Leadership in Public Service based on the Singapore experience. 

Interest and admiration for Singapore was very high, but I must say the presentation by the Malaysian Minister was very impressive and inspiring, and detailed a way for African countries that would seem to them more achievable than if they tried to follow Singapore’s experience. The approach Malaysia is making to transform itself is to be admired, and Malaysia is certainly making a direct impact and building governmental influence with African countries. 

The fact that the conference has been able to bring together so many investment agencies from Africa is indicative of a rising self-confidence among African countries, as well as their focus on economic development with a huge interest on attracting foreign direct investments.  

I list here some interesting things I personally learnt from the speakers: 

  • First from Larry Farrell, Founder of The Farrell Company, who spoke about entrepreneurship.  He described the four stages in the life cycle of ALL companies as Startup, High Growth, Decline, and Survival. The spirit of entrepreneurship is particularly relevant in the first two stages, and the loss of this spirit is what results in decline and death. Larry listed the basics of entrepreneurship as fourfold: sense of mission, customer/product vision (i.e. that any product fulfil some customer need in order to be successful), high-speed innovation, and self-inspired behaviour (i.e. behaviour driven from deep inside us). He shared that the statement by Walt Disney, who founded the greatest entertainment company in the world, reflects all four elements: “The inclination of my life has been to do things and make things which will give pleasure to people in new and amazing ways. By doing that I please and satisfy myself.” The life cycle of countries has its parallel to companies: Rise, Growth, Decline and Fall. In order to continue growing, countries should create and honour the entrepreneurs. 
  • Second from Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, the Malaysian Minister, who described the 8 steps which discipline the Malaysian strategic planning and execution process with clear ministerial accountability. While transparency of performance is an important part of the process, he warned with much humour: “It is a fine line between transparency to nudity and then to pornography!”




A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. 

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. 

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door.  “Look it up.” 

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. 

“PANDA. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

This story came from the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss (Profile Books). 

If you understand punctuation, you will also understand this life-and-death story due to a comma that should not be there. The comma may be just a little wiggle, but can contain a lot of power.  

Most of the time we simply do not pay enough attention to punctuation or to choosing words that say exactly what we mean, an exercise that frequently involves a preference for short, simple words rather than long, complicated words – most of the time, our sentences are much too long, and our paragraphs even longer!  

Many years ago I worked under bosses who insist on well-written notes that say exactly what they intend, no more and no less.  

I particularly benefited from a couple of rules

  • No sentence should be longer than 3 lines, and no paragraph should contain more than 3 sentences. 
  • Watch your punctuation and use conjunctions sparingly.  


What is the Secret to Singapore’s Success?



I spoke at a lunch event of The Economist Corporate Network last Monday. There were about 40 CEOs and other business leaders, mostly expats but a few Singaporeans. The topic I spoke on was “The Secret to Singapore’s Success?”…complete with the question mark! I had agreed to speak as I thought the topic to be both intriguing and timely, given all the excitement building up on commemorating the 50th year of Singapore’s independence.

Often when visitors come to Singapore wondering what has been the secret sauce for Singapore’s success, they get briefed on the HDB, CPF Scheme, the education system the EDB, and so on – all true, and all relevant, but, in my mind, perhaps not a fundamental enough explanation. So I started off my talk by saying:

“If you look at an atlas of the world, Singapore, the country, fits quite nicely into the letter “o” in its name.  Unlike most countries in the world whose names fit well into their boundaries in the atlas, Singapore’s name is much longer than its size.  And if you look again at the atlas, Malaysia lies to the north and east of Singapore, while Indonesia lies to the west, south and east. When Singapore became, rather unexpectedly, independent in August 1965, it had to find its own way into the future:  the dream of a common market in Malaysia was broken, and Indonesia was still conducting konfrantasi (military confrontation) against Singapore.”

When President B J Habibie of Indonesia referred to Singapore as a “little red dot” in 1998, he had meant it as a disparaging remark. Little would he have expected that Singapore would take it up as a badge of honour, a symbol of success despite the odds.

President Habibie had sought later to make amends by saying he had not meant “little red dot” to be disparaging:  he was speaking to an Indonesian youth group, and was challenging them to seek the progress and success of Indonesia by noting that Singapore, even though just a little red dot, had been able to make a success of itself.

Singapore had reached out beyond its immediate surroundings to adopt the whole world as its hinterland, its source of capital, investment, research and technology, management capability, and, most of all, markets. Later came its growth as a global financial centre, potentially the global financial centre in Asia.

Markets are critically the reason for welcoming MNCs to Singapore, because the smallness of Singapore and its economy simply means that no company in Singapore can grow merely by serving the Singapore market: the key to growth and success lies in penetrating overseas markets, mostly in the region but also globally. Of course we would wish as many Singapore companies as possible to have such global reach, but MNCs are what multiply the reach many many times over, without shutting out the Singapore companies.

What explains Singapore’s success in drawing investments from all over the world, where companies sink their money into Singapore and are prepared to wait 10, 15 or 20 years to recover their money through successful production and business operations? What explains the many research centres to discover new knowledge and design new products, where the protection of intellectual property is the name of the game? And what explains a willingness on the part of so many foreigners to park their funds and their wealth in Singapore?

The explanation lies in an ability to trust Singapore as a place where promises are kept, the rule of law maintained, justice is assured, government policies are predictable. Singapore offers reliability, integrity, quality, hard work and trustworthiness. These are what make for long-term relationships.

Trust is the root of relationships, and honour is the foundation of trust, where the people, businesses and government deliver on their word of honour.

Singapore’s place in the community of nations obviously depends not just on trust, but on being able to mobilize talent, synergise the efforts of workers, employers and government, and superior leadership. But honour has to be the starting point and the abiding foundation.





I had a most remarkable conversation with a five-year old last week.  I was waiting in my car that was parked against a double yellow line, which means no parking for cars on that stretch of road.  The clever little girl told me the police would come along and post traffic fine. I asked her why they had to do so.  She said, ever so confidently, that the fine was to collect money to give to the Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister needed a lot of money.  I asked what the Prime Minister needed so much money for.  She said it was “to buy stuff for himself”. I asked where she had learnt all these things.  She replied her dad had told her so. 

A few minutes later her brother came along.  I asked him why the police would impose a traffic fine.  He said it was because I was parked in the wrong place.  I was quite hopeful this elder kid would get things right, so I asked why the police was collecting the fines.  He said it was to pass the money to the Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister was “very expensive”.  I asked where he learnt this from, and he said it was from his dad! 

The two kids were obviously bright, but with innocent minds.  It just affirmed to me how critical it is that parents bring up their children with right attitudes, right values, and right understandingEducation for life, at the end of the day, is the responsibility of parents, not of schools.  Schools are the supplement and the complement.  

Even so, when parents place their children in schools, they must give the schools the authority to do whatever is appropriate and necessary for the education of their children, including giving principals and teachers the authority to teach and to discipline. In addition, parents must honour their teachers in the way they speak and behave, and must require their children to honour their teachers. 

Teachers may not be perfect, but if they are not honoured by parents and children, it is the children that bear the consequence of teachers who are demotivated and demoralized from the lack of respect and affirmation. 

Are you the chicken or the pig?


When I was in São Paulo, the industrial and commercial capital of Brazil, last week, I attended a meeting with a healthcare entrepreneur. 

The most important words I heard from him were:

“It is a pleasure to be the best! Don’t chase money. If you are the best, the money will follow you!”

He said he works long hours and through the weekend never thinking about money, but about how to keep pushing his business to be the best. 

He illustrated this point by giving the story of the pig and the chicken, a story of total commitment:

“The pig and the hen were debating on who is doing the more good, and they got to talking about ham and eggs.

The hen said she making very good contribution – eggs for the health of others. 

The pig responded that his was a case of total commitment, a sacrifice of himself to provide ham to others.”

So, is your commitment like the hen or like the pig when it comes to your family, work, and anything else that you undertake in your life?