Wednesday 13 September 2017

Can Singapore Fall? The Accidental Nation by Lim Siong Guan

IPS-Nathan Lectures by Mr Lim Siong Guan:
Lecture I (“The Accidental Nation”)
Lecture II (“The Fourth Generation”)
Lecture III (“The Way of Hope”)

Intangibles underpin Singapore’s success, says pioneer public servant Lim Siong Guan
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2017

Singapore's success is built on intangibles such as honour and a drive to overcome its smallness, former head of the civil service Lim Siong Guan said in a lecture yesterday.

A continued emphasis on these same intangibles is the country's best hope in avoiding the decline as seen in many nations, he added.

On honour, he noted that Singapore's reputation for being trustworthy is crucial in its dealings with the world: "We are a country and a people who honour our word."

Internally, honour has also been critical, he said. "It is about Singaporeans honouring each other, appreciating our social differences, our diversity, and at the same time seeking strongly to maintain social harmony as a common good for all."

These two aspects of honour form a big part of the Singapore brand name, he added, noting that the London consultancy Brand Finance ranked Singapore as the top nation brand in 2016, ahead of Switzerland and Japan.

Mr Lim was giving the first of three lectures as the Institute of Policy Study's (IPS) fourth S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore. Former S R Nathan Fellows include Mr Peter Ho, also a former head of the civil service, ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan and Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping.

In his introduction of Mr Lim, IPS director Janadas Devan said he belonged to a "very select" group of pioneer public servants who are not as well-known as political leaders like Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Goh Keng Swee, but whose "contributions to Singapore are as great as those of the political leadership".

Mr Lim was permanent secretary in the defence, education and finance ministries. He had also been group president of sovereign wealth fund GIC.

Yesterday, he noted that when Mr Lee died in 2015, some associated the founding prime minister's legacy with the physical transformation of Singapore.

Mr Lim, a former principal private secretary to Mr Lee, felt the physical was not as important as the intangible, like a determination to overcome Singapore's smallness. This included refusing to be weak.

He recounted what Mr Lee taught him about dealing with foreigners: "Always look the foreigner in the eyes. Never look down... Conduct yourself as his equal."

Another way Singapore overcame its size was by leapfrogging the region and treating the whole world - and its bigger markets - as the Republic's economic hinterland.

Warning against complacency, Mr Lim also cited signposts of decline from an essay - The Fate Of Empires - by British historian John Glubb. Singapore would do well to avoid these markers, he said.

One marker is increasing self-centredness. "Many Singaporeans have possibly observed a decreased sense of public duty," he said, adding there is a growing "desire to grow and retain individual wealth".

Another is more talk, without corresponding action. He noted the "increase in discussions, debates and arguments, especially on social media, without a focus on action or leaving the action as something for others to do".

He warned against becoming a welfare state - also a Glubbian signpost of decline. This might begin as "collective responsibility" for the individual's welfare, but end up as "collective irresponsibility" owing to its spendthrift nature, he said.

Lessons for Singapore on the rise and fall of empires
TODAY, 13 Sep 2017

When Singapore became independent in August 1965, it was an accidental nation, unplanned in its creation and unexpected in its survival, said former top civil servant Lim Siong Guan. The question now is what kind of nation Singapore wants to be in the coming years and whether its people have what it takes to carve out a new age, added Mr Lim in an IPS-Nathan lecture on Tuesday (Sept 12).

In the first of a three-part lecture series, he discusses the social challenges Singapore’s economic prosperity has brought. This is an excerpt from the speech by Mr Lim, who was previously head of the civil service and Group President of GIC.

The Chinese have a saying: “Wealth does not last beyond three generations”. After celebrating its 50th year, Singapore is moving into its third generation. Will Singapore’s wealth and stability last?

Sir John Bagot Glubb (1897–1986) was a British soldier, scholar and author who led and trained Transjordan’s Arab Legion between 1939 and 1956. After his retirement from the British army, he wrote a profound essay, The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, which analyses the life-span of great nations, from their genesis to their decline.

Glubb notes that, over the past 3,000 years... most great nations do not last longer than 250 years (or 10 generations), and many last much shorter periods of time.

The stages of the rise and fall of great nations seem to be as follows and he says all the empires he analysed went through the same (seven) stages.


A small nation, treated as insignificant by its contemporaries, suddenly emerges and conquers the world. Pioneers are ready to improvise and experiment: “Untrammelled by traditions, they will turn anything available to their purpose. If one method fails, they try something else. Uninhibited by textbooks or book learning, action is their solution to every problem.”

The second stage of expansion consists of more organised, disciplined and professional campaigns. Methods employed tend to be practical and experimental.

Let us then consider the Age of Conquests. The nation acquires the “sophisticated weapons of old empires” and a great period of expansion ensues. The principal objects of ambition are glory and honour for the nation. The conquests result in the “acquisition of vast territories under one government”, thereby birthing commercial prosperity.

So we come to the Age of Commerce (the third stage).

The main purpose of this era is to create more wealth. Courageous initiative is displayed in the quest for profitable enterprises all around the world.

But the acquisition of wealth soon takes precedence over everything else. The previous objectives of “glory” and “honour” are but “empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance” for the people. This is the period of time when values start shifting from the self-sacrifice of the initial pioneers to self-interest.

Thus we come to the Age of Affluence.

Money causes the people to gradually decline in terms of courage and enterprise.

Wealth first hurts the nation morally: “Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men … the object of the young and ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash.”

The divide between the rich and the poor increases, and the wealth of the rich is flaunted for people to see. People enjoy high standards of living and consume in excess of what they need.

The transition from the Age of Conquests to the Age of Affluence is a period that Glubb calls “High Noon”.

While the immense wealth of the nation impresses other nations, this period reveals a change from service to selfishness and defensiveness.

Describing the change, Glubb says that during this period, “enough of the ancient virtues of courage, energy, and patriotism survive to enable the state successfully to defend its frontiers. But beneath the surface, greed for money is gradually replacing duty and public service”.

As for defensiveness, the rich nation is no longer interested in glory or duty, but is preoccupied with the conservation and maintenance of its wealth and luxury. Money replaces courage, and subsidies are used to “buy off” enemies.

Next comes the Age of Intellect. During this stage, wealth is no longer needed for necessities or luxuries, and there are also abundant funds for the pursuit of knowledge.

Business people that made their wealth in the Age of Commerce seek fame and praise of others by endowing works of art, patronising music and literature, and founding or endowing institutions of higher education.

It is ironic that while civilisations make advancements in science, philosophy, the arts and literature ... history shows us that every period of the decline is characterised by the expansion of intellectual activity.

Why is this so?

The answer is NATO — No Action, Talk Only. Intellectualism leads to discussion, debate and argument, which is often seen around the world today. But this “constant dedication to discussion seems to destroy the power of action”.

The most dangerous by-product of this Age of Intellect is the birth and growth of the notion that human intellect can solve all the problems of the world, when in fact the survival of the nation really depends on its citizens.

So finally we come to the Age of Decadence and Decline.

Decadence is a mental, moral and spiritual disease that disempowers its people to the extent that they do not make an effort to save themselves or their nations because they do not think that anything in life is worth saving.

The Age of Decadence comes about because of the following factors: An extended period of wealth and power; selfishness; love of money and loss of a sense of duty.

It is marked by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, the welfare state and a weakening of religion.

Let us consider each of these characteristics.

Defensiveness: People are so consumed with defending their wealth and possessions that they fail to fulfil their duty to their family, community and nation.

Glubb also notes that another remarkable and unexpected sign of national decline is civil dissension and intensification of internal political hatreds. Various political factions hate each other so much that instead of sacrificing rivalries to save the nation, internal differences are not reconciled, leading to a weaker nation.

Pessimism: As the nation declines in power and wealth, universal pessimism invades its people and accelerates its decline.

Materialism: People enjoy high standards of living and consume in excess of what they need.

Frivolity: As the pessimism invades its people, people start to think: “Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” The people forget that material success is the result of courage, endurance and hard work, and spend an increasing part of their time indulging in sex, leisure, amusement or sport. The heroes in declining nations are the athlete, the singer or the actor; not the statesman, the general or the literary genius.

Influx of foreigners: In his essay, Glubb also observes that one frequent phenomenon in the decline of cities is the influx of foreigners. Foreigners are attracted by affluence, and take on jobs which often the citizens do not want to do themselves.

But they can be weak links in the society for various reasons, such as: they will be less willing to sacrifice their lives and property for the nation and they form communities of their own that protect their own interests above that of the nation.

Glubb states that, just by being different, they tend to introduce cracks and divisions in the society.

The important point is that the citizens themselves would have to stand up for the nation, because they cannot leave the defence of the nation to foreigners.

The welfare state: As history shows, the decline of a nation is often preceded by a tendency towards philanthropy and sympathy.

The welfare state is just another milestone in the life story of an ageing empire in decline.

Weakening of religion: Glubb defines religion as “the human feeling that there is something, some invisible power, apart from material objects, which controls human life and the natural world”. Religion does not only mean institutionalised faith, but represents a set of moral values which in turn influence social norms. Without morality, men are more likely to snatch than serve, and the spirit of self-sacrifice is weak.

The nation is characterised by defensive-minded militaries, decaying morals, loss of religion, frivolous consumption of food, entertainment, sex and the complete focus on individual interests.


You may be wondering at this point: Glubb’s essay is about empires — could it apply to a small state like Singapore?

Glubb mentions in his essay that “if the small country has not shared in the wealth and power, it will not share in the decadence”. Has Singapore shared in the wealth and power?

If we accept that Glubb’s essay is possibly applicable to Singapore, which stage is Singapore in?

Based upon social observations of increased materialism and consumerism, could it be that Singapore has experienced its “High Noon” and is somewhere between the ages of Affluence and Decadence?

While the immense wealth and growth of our nation has “dazzled other nations”... there is a growing defensiveness and desire to grow and retain individual wealth.

As Glubb described in his essay, the Age of Affluence is one where “the object of the young and ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash”. Does that describe Singapore in some way?

Singapore also registers certain markers of the Age of Intellect, which is a stage where there are abundant funds for the pursuit of knowledge.

Another sign that Singapore could be thought of having reached the Age of Intellect is the increase in discussions, debates and arguments, especially on online social media, without a focus on action, or leaving the action as something for others to do.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not here to make judgments on what is good or bad about our individual choices; I am only making observations on where many Singaporeans seem to be, and what implications these portend if we think Glubb has a relevance for Singapore. It is interesting to note that in the rise of nations to the Age of Affluence, it is the striving for economic wealth that was the prompt motivator. And in the social decline and decay which followed in the empires, it is affluence that was the prime enabler.

Thus affluence is at the root of both the rise and the fall of the nations, as one empire gives way to another that is more energetic, more imaginative and more determined to establish the strength and influence of their nation.

Of the seven characteristics of the Age of Decadence, we could note that there are already signs of at least five of them in Singapore, namely:

1. Defensiveness

2. Pessimism

3. Materialism

4. Frivolity

5. Influx of foreigners

Of the remaining two characteristics, the “welfare state” and the “weakening of religion”, we could note that:

Welfare state: In Singapore’s early years of nation-building, the emphasis in its social policies was self-reliance. But in recent times, there has been a shift to collective responsibility.

While the Government has been quick to emphasise that this shift to collective responsibility does not mean self-responsibility is less important, this shift could be a slippery slope if the people and the Government were to let their guard down, and collective responsibility slowly takes on the face of collective irresponsibility.

Weakening of religion: While a Pew Research Centre study had found Singapore to be the world’s most religiously diverse nation in 2014, the Singapore Census, which is done every 10 years, shows that the number of citizens who do not profess to have a religion has been increasing.

Glubb’s observations are, of course, by no means predictive. But we can benefit at least by being reflective over it.


I began my lecture by explaining why Singapore was the Accidental Nation. We achieved independence, which was unplanned and unexpected. But we survived and we succeeded for 50 plus years. Can our future be our conscious decision to work towards a specific strategic end?

What I have presented to you is a way to think about the future.

Is the decline Glubb wrote about inevitable and unavoidable? Can we choose to make the future? Can we start again a new Age of Pioneers? I think it is a choice we have. But we can keep talking and never make a choice. That would be another accident — this time of our choosing, or at least of our incapacity to choose.

I well remember my first meeting with Mr Lee Kuan Yew when he was Prime Minister and I was his Principal Private Secretary.

He told me that in the course of my work, I would be dealing with foreigners, and advised: “Always look the foreigner in his eyes. Never look down. You are dealing with him as a representative of Singapore. Conduct yourself as his equal.”

As I look back, I plainly see that in this wise instruction lay the reason for what has made Singapore so much of what it is — well regarded by the world, respected, self-aware, pushing always against the boundaries of possibilities.

“Don’t be weak” was never absent from his mind.

So where do we go from here? The striving for affluence drove the rise of successful nations. But affluence also facilitated their fall. The rise was mostly economic; the fall was mostly social.

These are the critical questions for Singapore: What kind of Singapore do we want in the next 10, 20, 50 or 100 years?

Can there be a way to begin a new Age of Pioneers and thereby ameliorate the effects of the Age of Decadence and Decay (extrapolating from Glubb’s model in the rise and fall of nations)?

These are the questions I look forward to addressing in my next two lectures. We have reached the status of a First World Economy. What is the First World Society we would wish to see? What would be right for Singapore and Singaporeans, not just for the current generation, but for the generations to come?

In the end, it is the kind of society we want to be and the sustainability of such a society that are the crucial issues.

IPS-Nathan Lectures by Mr Lim Siong Guan: Lecture II (“The Fourth Generation”)

Singapore should now aim to be First World society: Lim Siong Guan
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 11 Oct 2017

Having developed a First World economy, Singapore should now seek to cultivate a First World society - one marked by graciousness towards one another, said former head of civil service Lim Siong Guan at a lecture last night.

Graciousness is about looking beyond one's needs to the needs of others, he said. It is not just about helping the poor and the displaced, but also about "the countless little interactions" between neighbours, colleagues and others one meets throughout the day.

"It is the little things that define culture and the reality of society," he added.

To illustrate his point, Mr Lim gave a few Japanese examples.

A friend of his visited Japan. After lunch, he was asked if he wanted coffee. He said yes, but noticed his Japanese friends declined. They later explained they saw others waiting for a table. "So his friends decided the right thing to do was to release their table as quickly as possible," he said.

Another story: A group climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. After the climb, most used their towels to wipe off their sweat, but the Japanese in the group also used them to wipe the safety gear clean.

"They were doing it in consideration of the next group," he said.

A third story: Once, Mr Lim was picked up at a Tokyo airport by a chauffeur. He helped Mr Lim get to the carpark with his luggage and then told him to wait at the kerbside while he ran to the car, instead of walking. "This was his expression of considerate service."

The Japan examples are "not to urge everyone to become Japanese cultural clones", he said, but to show it is possible to forge a gracious social environment.

Mr Lim was speaking at the National University of Singapore in his second lecture as S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.

Its main theme is building a better Singapore for its fourth generation, with graciousness being an essential trait for a happy Singapore.

Making the link between graciousness and happiness, Mr Lim cited a book, The Hidden Wealth Of Nations, by David Halpern. It argues that wealthy societies can become happier only by improving the quality of relationships, and not by accumulating more wealth.

One reason is that humans "derive an enormous sense of satisfaction and fulfilment" from helping and serving others, he said.

In forging graciousness, the Government can merely facilitate, he said, by building more common spaces in housing estates, for instance.

Responsibility lies with each person taking the initiative to befriend his neighbours in those spaces.

But there is cause for optimism, Mr Lim said.

Groups of Singaporeans he has interacted with in seminars, whether young or old, all rank a gracious society very highly, when asked what they want for Singapore in 50 years' time.

As this is a cultural shift which takes a long time to achieve - perhaps 30 to 40 years or more - Singapore should begin now if it wants to bring about the change by SG100, the time of the fourth generation of Singaporeans, Mr Lim said.

"It requires conviction, tenacity and action now."

Start with today's young, he urged, citing the Chinese saying, san sui ding zhong shen, which means: "At age three, you know what a person will be like for life."

He noted that primary school teachers would sometimes say they have to "undo the damage" parents did at home. Values like graciousness are more often "caught by example" than "taught by instruction", he pointed out.

"Developing a whole culture and value system starts from the home, reinforced by school and society," he said.

When family can impede culture of innovation
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2017

When he spoke to a young adult from a local start-up recently, former civil service head Lim Siong Guan asked what was the biggest problem the person faced.

The answer was unexpected: "My mother." The mother could not understand why her child, who had done well in school, did not opt for a stable, well-paying job and instead chose to join a start-up, said Mr Lim.

Mothers in Israel would think that way too - 20 years ago, he said.

On a recent trip to Israel, he asked what mothers wanted, and was told they wanted their children to be chief executives of start-ups.

Mr Lim related this anecdote and others at a lecture last night to stress the need for Singapore to build "a culture of innovation, excellence and outwardness", if the tiny city-state is to avoid mediocrity. It was his third and last lecture as the Institute of Policy Studies' S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.

He warned that as Singapore is both a city and a state, it should not be content with 1 to 3 per cent growth. This may be the norm for large developed economies, but the cities that Singapore competes with grow faster: Jakarta at 10 per cent, Ho Chi Minh City at 8 per cent and Kuala Lumpur at 6 per cent.

Higher growth rates would give Singapore more options in dealing with its social challenges, such as a "super-ageing" population, he said.

But to grow at such rates requires productivity increases that, in turn, require a different culture - one that celebrates trying one's best and trying new things, he said.

"If we want people to be innovative... to try more and to learn from failure, we have to recognise people for their effort and not only for their success," he said.

The question becomes, have they tried their best to exercise their talents and abilities, and not whether they got a gold medal, he added.

Trying new things includes being willing to work abroad and in less familiar places, he said, speaking of a large company here where, if a new opportunity came up in a less well-trodden country, the expatriates would say: "When do you want me to go?"

But the Singaporeans in the company say: "Let me consult my wife."

The wife "is more than likely to say, 'Too dangerous, don't go' ", said Mr Lim, to laughter.

"There is nothing wrong... but the Singaporean must then also be prepared to accept that his economic value to the firm is not as high as the expat's."

Whether working in Singapore or abroad, workers here should also overcome a prevailing attitude of just seeking satisfactory results.

In this regard, an overemphasis on work-life balance may be counterproductive. He said: "The call... for work-life balance is understandable, but regrettable if it is a call to be allowed to not be excellent."

Singapore should look to Finland, which has the highest per capita number of unicorns - or start-ups worth over US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion). He said: "Singapore must find our own way to promote a culture of innovation so that it is life for us - what we are and not just something we do."

'Politics will have to involve people more'
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 15 Nov 2017

In an age of diminishing trust in governments, Singapore may have to move from politics of conviction to politics of involvement, said former civil service head Lim Siong Guan.

He was speaking after his IPS-Nathan lecture last night, when he was asked if innovation should be initiated by the Government or the people.

His reply touched on the evolution of politics here. He noted that the People's Action Party Government has avoided a "politics of expedience".

"They don't do stuff simply because it's popular... but (are) prepared to do stuff which is very important for Singapore's survival and the success for the generations to come," he said.

This path - the politics of conviction - requires explaining to the people why the more difficult path is necessary, he noted.

But this form of politics may have been overtaken by the lower trust people have in governments generally, he said.

"The level of intrinsic trust has been somewhat diminished, not necessarily because of what the Government in Singapore itself has done, but I think this change is all over the world... where the population has a diminished trust in government."

He added: "It is not a case of no trust. It is a case of, we'd like very much to be able to trust, but the Government cannot simply say, 'This is my explanation.'"

This new era calls for politics of involvement, he said, adding: "We need to involve people in the process because people want to feel that they are shaping the future, or at least they've got a major part in influencing the future. This is a lot tougher."

* Can Singapore Fall? Making the Future for Singapore: Lim Siong Guan

Book launched 'to get Singaporeans to think' about the kind of society they want
By Cheow Sue-Ann, The Straits Times, 12 July 2018

Graciousness might not seem like the most important thing in defining the success of a nation, but it is paramount for Mr Lim Siong Guan, the Institute of Policy Studies' fourth S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.

Having served 37 years in the civil service, five of which as its head, Mr Lim said that based on his experience, there are four words to describe what Singapore needs in order to be a successful and sustainable nation state - "gracious society, Smart Nation".

He said: "We are a First World economy, but I don't think we can say that we are a First World society.

"We need to think about how to not just do good for ourselves, but also for future generations.

"We need to think about what kind of society we aspire to be."

He was speaking yesterday at the launch of his book, Can Singapore Fall? Making The Future For Singapore, which is a compilation of three lectures he delivered between September and November last year.

Mr Lim said that while thinking about the lectures, he came to the conclusion that to succeed and avoid "social decay", Singaporeans needed to think about the kind of society they aspired to be.

"You might not agree with me or my conclusions but my real desire is to get Singaporeans talking and debating," he said.

The aim of the lectures and the new book was simply "to get Singaporeans to think", he added.

"It is about thinking why we do things. We might all stand on the left when on the escalators, but are we doing it because we are afraid of being punished, or do we do it because we want to make moving easier for others," Mr Lim said.

He urged Singaporeans to create a gracious society and to build a culture of innovation, excellence and outwardness.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who helped launch the book at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said Mr Lim was his mentor.

"Everywhere I look in public service, Mr Lim has left an indelible mark," Mr Ong said.

Mr Janadas Devan, director of the Institute of Policy Studies, said the lectures by Mr Lim last year had the highest number of attendees among all lectures delivered by S R Nathan Fellows.

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