Exceptional leadership and trust

This is an edited excerpt of a speech by minister Chan Chun Sing at the Oxford and Cambridge Society's S R Nathan Hard Seats Lecture yesterday. In it, he highlights the need for leaders to win the 'greatest asset' - the trust and confidence of people.

We face the immutable challenge of building leadership teams that can win the trust of the people. Larger and better-endowed countries may survive on their superior physical endowments. Small countries, more than others, will always require exceptional leadership to muster their finite resources to punch above their weight. However, the commitment of our people to come forth and serve - beyond their immediate and individual interests - is not something that we can always assume will happen naturally...

Our survival can also be attributed to our leaders' commitment to never shirk responsibilities towards our current and future generations. They had the mettle to make difficult but necessary decisions when the need arose, and kept faith with the people.

When Singapore gained independence, our pioneer leaders saw the need to build a credible defence force to protect our sovereignty and secure our future. However, they could not afford to have a large standing army or rely solely on volunteers. In fact, within the Chinese community, there was a saying that "good sons do not become soldiers, just as good iron is not used to make nails"; a very ingrained concept in Chinese society. Our pioneer leaders, however, stuck to their convictions and made the decisive move to introduce a conscription system.

The Central Provident Fund can be an emotive topic among Singaporeans. But reforms and continual tweaks are needed, so that the social security system is updated and remains effective to meet the needs of our people without passing the burden to the next generation.

Similarly, for healthcare. Eschewing the ideological debates, we have been and must continue to be bold to develop something that works - a system that enables access to affordable healthcare, yet inculcating individual responsibility; focusing on prevention, rather than treatment.

As for housing, some may not fully agree with the 99-year leases for their properties or when land acquisitions are required. But for a land-scarce country like ours, such regulations are necessary so that land can be redeveloped and used more efficiently for future needs.

What's recurrent in these examples is that over all these years, we did not shy away from making difficult decisions. Instead, we did so guided by our commitment - to do what is necessary for the good of Singapore and Singaporeans, both today and tomorrow. And if we want to remain successful, we need leadership teams that are just as committed, decisive in their actions and yet keep faith with our people.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said that people and the Government must work together to keep Singapore successful, and this must be grounded by a strong sense of trust and unity.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said that people and the Government must work together to keep Singapore successful, and this must be grounded by a strong sense of trust and unity. PHOTO: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE

However, decisive leaders would only be effective if there is a deep sense of trust between the Government and our people. Our pioneer leaders had this when building Singapore. As our founding prime minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, pointed out, his team had the "greatest asset" - and that is the trust and confidence of our people. Trust is a precious asset that needs to be earned and maintained by each generation of leaders.

To win this trust, each generation of leaders must, first, be upfront with our people on the challenges and options. Help Singaporeans understand what is at stake and the trade-offs involved. Let them know how they will be affected directly, and spend more time on the "Why" rather than the "What" or "How". Work the ground and share as much information wherever possible. And only so, can each of us be better-informed and trust that each decision was made only after careful consideration.

Second, leaders must continuously find new ways to communicate and connect with different generations. We have a more diverse population, with different expectations of the Government. And in this fast-paced digital age with the presence of social media "influencers", 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. Leaders also have to keep channels open for people to share their views and give feedback. If we do this well, we will harness the collective power of our thinking and actions.

Third, leaders must be accountable and responsible. This means making good on our promises. And when there are problems, we work hard to put things right immediately. People would also give their trust when they see that the Government has been responsible, anticipates the future and is responsive to their needs.

And the basic question that we have to keep answering over and over again is, has the life of each Singaporean improved? Is it better today compared to yesterday? Will it be better tomorrow compared to today?

Some policies take a longer time to bring forth results and the population might become impatient. But each generation of leaders would therefore need to be consultative yet nimble in meeting these needs while managing our 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. We have seen this happen in other countries, and we should not take for granted that it will not happen in Singapore.

Apart from trust, each generation of leaders would also have to keep the country united to tackle challenges together. Unity, however, is not a mantra that will emerge naturally. People must have a sense of a common threat, challenge, mission and vision. Some felt that our pioneers benefited as they faced the "life and death" struggles of independence; that they were united by the common goal to make sure Singapore succeed. Would younger and successive generations of Singaporeans feel that same sense of mission and thus unity?

I believe that 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; that we have to be cognisant of not just the immutable challenges, but also of new challenges that come with each generation.

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 set of common 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 today.

We may be relatively successful now, but we need to always be mindful of our immutable challenges. We need to constantly seek opportunities to become a more valuable partner, a more relevant partner, to secure our place in the world and ensure our economy can continue to thrive. We need to guard against the emergence of new fault lines, even as we continue to manage the old fault lines. We must groom a new generation to carry on our vision of an evergreen nation united by ideals and values rather than race, language, religion, ancestry or connections.

Ultimately, people and the Government must work together to keep Singapore successful. This must be grounded by a strong sense of trust and unity. Building trust would be a challenge for each successive generation of leaders and its people. It will require consistent effort to build a connection with the population and win their confidence over time.

So long as we have this trust, stay united in facing the challenges, and help each other to see the world clearly, there is no reason for us to not be able to succeed as a country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2018, with the headline 'Exceptional leadership and trust'. Print Edition | Subscribe