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Leveraging on listening: What Singapore knows that Malaysia doesn’t

Malaysia and Singapore. So geographically close, so similar yet dissimilar. One is the smallest, shiniest city-state in the region, a progressive financial and trade hub where citizens enjoy the 3rd highest GDP in the world, while the other is a multi-racial nation blessed with teeming natural resources and the 4th largest market economy in Southeast Asia. The fates of these two countries seem so inextricably intertwined, thanks to shared realities that had already become increasingly complex by the time Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 – after a stormy 23-month union.

Racially the two countries are alike — both having Malay, Chinese, and Indian citizens, but what is proving to be that key ingredient to progress that Singapore seems to be leveraging all the way to the bank? In the following excerpt taken from the chapter “Disrupt Yourself and Your Business Before You Get Disrupted,” Center for Asia Leadership Teaching Fellow Jennifer Hurford gives an outside-looking-in analysis of how Singapore’s government understands the value of inclusivity and listening to people at the grassroots. Singapore’s emphasis on engaging all stakeholder groups, regardless of ethnic and religious differences, is helping build a 21st-century economic powerhouse. Read the full chapter in Rethinking Asia: Why Asia is Hopeful.   

Like business leaders, government officials must listen to their country’s entire population, not just the majority. Failure to do so is not only unjust but often brings about detrimental economic effects. In recent years, we have seen Singapore listen to the needs of its citizens successfully, but Malaysia, in contrast, undergoes difficulties from several disengaged segments of its population, a fragmentation that will hurt the economy in the long term. Whether you are in the private sector or the public sector, a CEO or a Member of Parliament, you must understand the interests and needs of the people you represent. And elected politicians must ensure that everyone they represent feels heard.

In Singapore, we met with a Member of Parliament and sat in on a weekly “Meet the People Session,” where citizens can speak to their representatives and voice their questions, complaints, and worries. I was impressed both by the Member of Parliament, who took time out of his day to listen to his people and by the engaged young people helping to run the sessions. This group of teens and young adults is more likely to feel part of the community, and by extension they are more likely to continue throughout their lives as engaged citizens, positively contributing to Singapore as they grow up. Crucially, they are also more likely to want to participate in the government themselves.

The ruling party in Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP), takes their obligations to the population—all the population—very seriously. They are so concerned about doing what is right by their citizens that they have committed to funding repairs in the housing estates not only for the next few years, until the next election, but for a fixed five-year period, should a different party win and oust the PAP from power.

Many other governments suffer from short-term-ism, in which politicians do what is best for themselves, in their current term, rather than what is best for the people even if it hurts the politicians’ own chances of re-election. These officials view being in power as an opportunity to spend the entire budget so that when they leave their successors won’t have adequate funds and will fail to serve the people successfully. The PAP, in dramatic contrast, have taken the high road and made sure that there will be enough money to serve the people’s needs, even if they aren’t in power. They have embraced collaboration and inclusion over self-interest, and in doing so they have built a powerful engine of success.

Unheard, isolated

The differences between Singapore and Malaysia were fascinating to witness firsthand. Malaysia is a country with immense potential. Malaysia seemed most developed among the ASEAN countries, Singapore aside, with a stable and extensive infrastructure, highly endowed natural resources, a rich British heritage, an educated population, and a strong Asian base of Fortune 500 global companies. It also has a racially diverse population, which includes a majority of ethnic Malays (53%) and a minority of ethnic Chinese (23%) and ethnic Indians (7%). There are signs, however, that these percentages are changing. A local think tank, the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute reported that the proportion of Chinese Malaysian in the population would drop to 19.6% by 2030, a drop from 37.2% in 1957 when the country achieved independence.

What is driving this decrease? Simply put, the minority group in the country do not feel heard or seen by the country’s government. One major element in their sense of isolation and their decrease in numbers within the larger Malaysian population is the so-called brain drain: many of the minorities, especially the Chinese, are leaving Malaysia and getting jobs overseas, or else remaining in countries where they have gone to do their tertiary education. For example, Australia hosts about 250,000 Malaysian students. Many also leave for the UK and Canada. In all of these cases, the members of the Malaysian minorities feel that they can achieve greater success and find greater equality under other governments.

In a few of my discussions with people I have met on the streets, I covered three very sensitive topics: state-led affirmative action, divisive racial comments, and institutionalized discrimination. It was quite surprising and frankly alarming to learn that Malaysia was the only country on the planet to practice a policy of affirmative action for the majority population, as affirmative action is generally meant to support minority populations. I learned that there was a wide range of state-sponsored benefits that the majority of Malays were entitled to while the same was not given to the two other minority groups. The second was the frequency of racial comments from Malaysian politicians to garner support from the Malays. From my close observation and interaction with the Malaysians, I could see that most of them, regardless of the race, were very respectful, if not too cautious, to one another. They wanted to carry themselves well, perhaps as a way to not offend others but to live in peace and harmony with everyone.

However, comments that stirred and orchestrated negative racial dynamics, I could see, were generating fear about letting down of the long great legacy they have built together all these while, and doubt about the future they were to work to build together. The last topic was institutionalized discrimination in which positions in the government or government-linked entities were taken up not by the measures of meritocracy, but by quota systems.

Shared stakes

The overall theme of our discussion was that the minorities in the country are not treated as equal citizens. In addition to the problematic systems mentioned above, they also have to pay higher taxes and suffer higher interest rates for mortgages. Though The Straits Times has declared, “Muslims need to realize that non-Muslims are their fellow countrymen with whom they have a shared stake in the country’s continued peace and prosperity,” this is far from being a universal mindset, and its lack is particularly evident within the Malaysian governing system. The government has not been so successful to embrace collaboration, thus leaving behind the minorities on its journey toward success, and as a result, both sides are suffering.

Malaysia needs to recognize that the minority community has been and will continue to be critical to the nation’s development: they are an extremely entrepreneurial constituency that has contributed substantially to the Malaysian economy. The Malaysian government needs to use design thinking both to communicate with all of its constituents, including the minorities and to formulate methods of devising more inclusive policies for its entire population. It should look to Singapore for an example of putting the population’s needs first, rather than benefiting one particular sector. Only in that way will it ensure long-term prosperity for the country as a whole.

The next generation of leaders in the business, governmental, and non-profit arenas will need to find new ways to solve the challenges facing their businesses and communities. Many of the problem-solving tools of yesterday haven’t worked. The leaders of today and tomorrow, therefore, will need to use both self-innovation and collaboration to keep ahead of the game and to ensure that they are both hearing and serving those they represent.

Everyone’s future

Because so many companies are fighting for the same slice of the pie, an innovative company hoping for long-term success must do something that at first seems counterproductive to success—they must disrupt themselves before they get disrupted. They also need to take all of their people with them on their journey, so that every player involved shares the same vision, and so that, when as a group they reach their destination, everyone is satisfied.

The concepts of disruptive self-innovation, design thinking, and inclusive collaboration are all crucial in adapting to change and forming strategies for the future, whether you are a leader in a company, a non-profit organization, or a governmental body. We all have many customers, in our home market or halfway across the globe, who merit more of our attention and respect; and we all have competitors who are looking to outpace us and disrupt our strategies. To succeed, we must listen to our consumers’ desires and ideas and be willing to reimagine ourselves every day, so that we can stay relevant as we progress. If we can do both of these things, we will ensure a successful and fulfilling career not only for ourselves but for everyone who relies on us as leaders of the future.

Among the Southeast Asian players, Malaysia seems to be in the best position to catapult into economic stardom. It has a host of factors to its advantage: one of the healthiest and most promising economic records in Asia, a relatively educated workforce, the 8th most developed infrastructure in the region, and growing knowledge-based industries, among others. The country is still coming to terms with the recent headlining 1MDB scandal involving former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s alleged transfer of USD 700 million to his personal accounts. But hope remains an animating force in this 61-year old nation that is still learning the steps in the complicated dance of racial and religious harmony and collaboration.

By Jennifer Hurford