Conversations with Lim Siong Guan

Conversations with Lim Siong Guan

Tuesday Dec 18,2018 | IIE News

Notes compiled by Tan Yi Long, Nathaniel Yim and Amelia Chen



Lim Siong Guan, Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, Senior Fellow of the Singapore Civil Service College, and Advisor to the Group Executive Committee of GIC, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. He was Group President of GIC from 2007 until his retirement at the end of 2016.


Co-organised with Harvard University Association of Alumni in Singapore (HUAAS) on 19 November 2018, SMU had the opportunity to host Mr Lim Siong Guan to speak and share about his experience in  (Co-organised with Harvard Business School Singapore)


He shared about what inspired him to write “Can Singapore Fall? Making The Future For Singapore”

“The truth is: innovation & entrepreneurship is the life and death of anything."

These were the few areas he touched on:

  1. How Singapore has succeeded so far
  2. Observations from a workshop with young Singaporeans
  3. Insights from John Clarkes "History of the world"
  4. What determines a nation's place in the world
  5. Creating a cultural shift


On how Singapore has succeeded so far:  

1. Singapore is a brand - a brand of trustworthiness
2. The two pillars for Singapore's success: our ability to honor our word and to honor each other


His observations with young Singaporeans:

Our concerns and hopes are different when we were a poor nation as compared to when we were a wealthy nation. It used to be only chasing the 4 C's, but it’s much more diverse at this present time.


At a workshop for what young people now want for the country in 50 years, they indicated they want Singapore to be a gracious society.

To follow up on how they can be gracious, the participants discussed was on how to be gracious to people less fortunate than them. This means that graciousness is about being kind to your neighbor, not just the less fortunate. The challenge of graciousness is who will be a bigger person to be kind to their neighbor first.


A gracious society is not about being gracious to the disadvantaged but being gracious to people around you everyday


Drawing from John Clarke's history of the world, on the hidden wealth of nations:

Hidden wealth of nations-paradox of why people in a wealthier nation are happier but don't get happier as wealth goes up compared to the poorer nation. On this paradox, it links back to the hopes of the nation. The hopes of the nation when poor focus on the sense of control over life and lies in the ability to meet basic needs. This changes as the nation get wealthier, to something more aspirational in nature. 

In John Clarke's history of the world, where he examines the rise and fall of empires as opposed to the history of individual nations, he identifies 250 year lifetimes for the great historical employers. There are seven cycles or ages that these empires go through in these years - age of pioneers (where pioneers break off from the motherland to explore), age of conquest, commerce (milking the colonies), affluence (people's mindsets start to change here, where the focus becomes earning money. Usually leads to social decline), intellect (time of peace, where huge scientific advancements take place) then ends with age of decadence (also when religion declines) 

The dominance of religion leads to the development of social moral standards which the majority of society adheres to. As democratic societies progress, democracy will evolve to its final limit - when the individual does as he pleases, and that is when decline begins.

On what determines a nation's place in the world:

  • Geography - resources, and land available, the magnitude of exposure to natural events and disaster
  • Demography - social development, population size, state of education
  • Tech - Technology can be used to make up for gaps in point 1 & 2 to some extent

Technological innovation in and of it self doesn't lead to a sustainable competitive edge. A culture of innovation does. 

On how to create a cultural shift:

The fall of Singapore will come when a new kind of #MeToo hits the country, one where people just follow what has already been done and don't dare to try new things. This is inextricably linked to the poor entrepreneurial spirit in Singapore. Also, lack of family support is another factor. Asian parents are not risk-averse enough.


We need to learn how to live with fear - and it can only be learned through situations. 

We parade Joseph Schooling for the achievements he has achieved for the country. However, what about the rest who did their best? The Father of an Olympian said that his Son was deliberating about whether to sacrifice another 4 years. Really painful to hear. How do we qualify effort? It begins by recognizing the effort and not just the results. Quoting story of Joseph Schooling being invited to parliament after winning gold in Rio while none of the other athletes were invited, things like this from the top leaders don't send a very good signal.


Some overall thoughts and takeaways:

  • What got us to where we are won't be enough to help us progress, since needs have changed, since the state of society and technology have changed
  • Graciousness impedes a society's decline. Technological progress leads to a society's rise. Having the two in combination leads to continued progress!
  • If a nation's needs are the aggregation of all the individuals' needs, then naturally the needs of the nation move in lockstep with how individuals' needs are being met e.g. from meeting basic physiological needs to self-actualization.
  • How does bringing in people who are at different stages of needs influence the organization? If everyone is there to meet the most basic physiological needs by earning a decent salary, would they work harder and be more "compliant" then peers who might be looking for self-actualization/ meaning etc?
  • Just as a country's needs evolve depending on the economic stage they are in, a company's goals evolve with its own economic progress - survival first, to aspirational goals after achieving financial stability
  • On the point of a culture of innovation, this is where demographics and tech (2 of the 3 factors that determine a nation's place in the world) overlap. Demographics - where there is a society with a culture of graciousness that continues honoring each other and that steers away from results and looks at the effort. Tech - a culture of daring to step out and innovate. These two together can compensate for lack of advantage in geography, helping nations maintain their place in the world


If you are interested in his book “Can Singapore Fall? Making The Future For Singapore”, you can check it out at local bookstores.


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