SINGAPORE: Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing on Thursday (Jan 11) shared his thoughts about leadership traits needed to steer Singapore into the future.
Mr Chan, speaking at the first SR Nathan Hard Seats Lecture organised by the Oxford & Cambridge Society of Singapore, pointed to the examples of leaders before his time having to decide on instituting conscription, create the Central Provident Fund and public housing as not shirking responsibilities towards current and future generations.
He said these leaders, including founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had the mettle to make difficult but necessary decisions when the need arose, and kept faith with the people. “If we want to remain successful, we need leadership teams that are just as committed, decisive in their actions and yet able to keep faith with our people,” he added.
The minister’s comments come on the heels of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s Facebook post at the turn of the year expressing his hope that the current fourth generation of leaders will pick a leader among themselves so current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can designate his potential successor.
The younger generation of leaders, which includes Mr Chan, subsequently responded on Jan 4 saying they are “keenly aware” that leadership succession is pressing issue given that Mr Lee has said he intends to step down after the next General Election. A leader will be chosen from among the group “in good time”, they said.
Leaders can only be effective if there’s a deep sense of trust between the Government and its people, Mr Chan said. He highlighted three ways for leaders to win and maintain this trust.
Firstly, leaders must be upfront with the people on the challenges and options, the minister said.
“Help Singaporeans understand what’s at stake and the trade-offs involved. Let them know how they’ll be affected directly, and spend more time on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’ or ‘how’,” he elaborated.
He also suggested working the ground and sharing as much information “wherever possible” so people can become better informed and trust that decisions were made only after careful consideration.
Secondly, leaders must continue to find new ways to communicate and connect with different generations, Mr Chan said. With a more diverse population, with different expectations of the government and in a fast-paced, digital age that has “social media influencers”, he said there is “no shortage of ideas, views and, of course, criticism”.
“At times, inaccurate and misleading information can ‘go viral’, possibly clouding a person’s view on an issue. The challenge then is to find ways to manage this, and get citizens to understand the matter at heart,” he said.
Thirdly, leaders must be accountable and responsible, Mr Chan, who is also secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, said. This means making good on promises and, when there are problems, working to put things right immediately, he explained.
People would also give their trust when they see the Government has been “responsible, anticipates and are responsive in meeting their needs” and there is an overall improvement in their lives, Mr Chan said.
The minister added: “Some policies take longer to bring forth results and the population may feel impatient.
“Each generation of leaders would therefore need to be consultative yet nimble in meeting these needs while managing finite resources responsibly. These are important so that we do not face a trust deficit, and run the risk of citizens disconnecting with or being disenfranchised by the government.”
KEEPING SINGAPORE UNITED
Mr Chan said apart from trust, each generation of leaders would also have to keep the country united to tackle challenges together.
He said in order for people to be united, they must have “a sense of a common threat, challenge, mission and vision”, and acknowledged there are some who may think the earlier Singaporeans were united because of the “life and death struggles of independence” in its early years. He also voiced the question of whether successive generations of Singapore would feel the same sense of mission and unity.
“I believe each generation must bond through different circumstances. This generation must similarly understand that we too have our share of ‘life and death’ struggles to keep this country going,” Mr Chan said.
“Our challenge, our mission, is to continue to defy the odds of history - that a small country with little common past, and no conventional hinterland, can survive and thrive with a common future and a common set of values. Indeed, I would argue that a forward-looking national identity is perhaps even more powerful than a backward-looking identity to help us bond together to overcome the challenges of tomorrow" he added.