February 11

6 best books about Singapore that transform your thinking

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You would be forgiven for thinking that Singapore has a dearth of literature, especially for a country that’s this tiny.

After all, it’s just a red dot floating in a vast ocean, ready to be wiped out at any time.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably started getting your interest piqued about Singapore, its history, and how it has become so remarkable, despite being an island this small.

You wonder what it has done to move from third-world to first, from a complete backwater, to a thriving metropolis.

Why bother reading about a nation so small?

I will be the first to confess that I hated most history lessons.

Reading about the histories of other nations, didn’t appeal much.

Especially when I didn’t know how it related to my life. More than anything else, we read about countries, because we think there’s something in their story that resonates with us.

There are some aspects of Singapore which I think will particularly resonate with many.

A caveat

Whilst this will include books that are fairly wellknown, such as Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going’, I also want to shed light on other untold gems within Singapore’s literature.

Here’s what I think you might want to read.

More than anything else, when I was studying university in the U.K., these books gave me a better perspective of how Singapore had come to be.

Not just the run of mill stories that everyone knows.
Not just the run of mill stories that everyone knows.

If you want to learn to grit

If I asked you what the Singaporean ethos was, what would you say it comprised?

One of the key things (at least in our previous generations, and which others have complained is a lack in younger generations), is the ability to grit.

To fight, with one’s backs against the walls, and when everyone else has written them off.

From Third World to First

I read this as a lonely student sitting in my room in Nottingham, and promptly cried each time I read about how its leaders steered Singapore through yet another tumultuous period.

When you read narratives of nations, we may often have in our minds,

What can I apply from this?

But this is not a very useful question because what happens there and then, and the decisions that are taken then and there, are very unique to the country’s specific context.

You can take away principles, but the specific method is not something that’s very transposable.

But if you look again and again at the operating philosophy of Singapore, its always been one of pragmatism.

Of what works, rather than what can be theorised on paper.

Take the example of Singapore’s decision to leave the merger with Malaysia, after it didn’t work. At that time, it seemed like Singapore was courting death. Malaysia had long been seen as its economic hinterland, with a bigger population, and more natural resources that it could use to sell to the world.

It’s an earlier version of the split between Britain, and Europe.

Yet Singapore left, when it was clear that the marriage wasn’t working out.

And from that moment, Singapore decided to craft its own destiny, rather than tying it with that of someone else.

If you want to lead

Singapore’s first leaders were probably the most kickass at what they did.

They hauled Singapore from nothing, to something of note.

How?

Read this.

The Last Fools

Peh and his team at Nutgraf has produced yet another masterpiece.

If you’re complaining about how long your Built to Order HDB is taking today, you might have thought another Chief Executive might have done better.

Even with the technology available at that time, Howe Yoon Choon built 21,000 flats in the first three years of HDB’s formation, more than what its predecessor Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) built over 3 decades.

You didn’t read that wrong.

Howe built more homes in 3 years than what his predecessor did in 3 decades.

This book is a masterclass in how to get things done in Singapore’s government. Whilst some might say that the government is today less nimble than what Singapore was in its early years, there’s still much to learn here.

One lesson?

It doesn’t hurt to serve from the shadows.

The Last Fools features civil servants who brought much of Singapore’s institutions to life, yet remained quietly behind the shadows, happy to let politicians take the limelight.

They weren’t jostling for fame or reputation. They just wanted to get a better Singapore up and running.

Its certainly a good lesson in humility, especially if you’re early in your career. It’s not always that you have to be on the centre stage where attention is focused on you. Sometimes, its better to direct from the shadows.

Vault! – Every Gen Z’s Guide to Adulting

How do careers work in Singapore? You might imagine that Singapore, with its highly educated workforce, but a conservative, Confucian society, might face multiple polarities.

You’re right.

Having a career in Singapore is not easy.

In 2020, John and Chin Bee were working in the same company. John was an academic high-flier, whilst Chin Bee was someone who admitted to playing for much of university, even going on a long holiday after she graduated.

Who would you have thought succeeded?

Chin Bee.

She was better at networking, and being a corporate diplomat. She knew how to sustain the happiness of her management whilst preserving good relationships with her peers.

That’s how you have a career in Singapore.

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If you want to manage money prudently

Singapore has no net debt.

It has one of the biggest reserves in the world, even though its a tiny country, filled with nothing but people.

No oil. No natural resources to mine.

How does it do this?

Bold Vision

The Ministry of Finance revealed some numbers in this FAQ.

Just looking at these numbers, you might be forgiven for having a big question.

How did Singapore, a non oil-producing nation, grow to have such a big reserve?

And how is it that Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that does have any net debt?

It’s explained in Bold Vision, written by Freddy Orchard, a former director at the Government Investment Corporation (GIC).

One of the key lessons there is how Singapore has prudently positioned itself for the past, present, and future, with a set of sound financial principles.

Not going into debt is one key pillar.

But the other has been Singapore’s ability to build financial, and human capital. When Singapore was unknown, Goh Keng Swee, the forefather of Singapore’s GIC, went around the world searching for investment managers who would come to Singapore.

He went to places like London and New York just to find the best.

Both Goh and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had high standards, even though Singapore wasn’t (yet) a famous financial capital.

Lee subjected Rothschild, a company that was bidding for a consultancy project then, to a gruelling questioning process.

So they teach one important lesson.

Others might not take you seriously, but you must take yourself seriously first.

If you want to manage a business

Growing a business from the ground up in Singapore is no mean feat, especially when most of the business books are based on case studies from the West.

Singapore is a different story.

For example, one classic management advice is that you should be authentic with your workers.

But that might not work in a Singapore where your workers might lose faith in you.

There are better books on managing and growing a business from scratch though.

The FairPrice Story

If you don’t know Fairprice, it is the largest grocer in Singapore, by its sheer volume of stores around the island.

Personally, The FairPrice Story has been one of the most instrumental pieces in teaching me about how Singaporean businesses operate.

Not just because I run a business.

But it shares the cold, hard truths of what happens each and every day in a business.

Of the fact that there are going to be unexpected crises, and a business’ resilience is down to how you deal with these crises, rather than just how good your plan is on paper.

Take for example the time during COVID-19, in 2022, when Malaysia banned the exports of poultry to Singapore. FairPrice ended up sourcing from places as far off in Brazil, even though the prices were significantly higher with the cost of freight.

What was interesting for me here was how FairPrice navigated the competitors that came into its market, such as the French retailer Carrefour, and then Sheng Siong.

You would read about how FairPrice was diabolical about understanding its competition, even sending staff to Sheng Siong stores to check out the prices of the goods they were selling, so that they could price better (and get more customers).

If you’d like to think different about inequality

More than any other book, You Yenn’s ethnographic study into inequality helped me think differently about the work I was doing as a social worker.

For this book, You Yenn went personally to observe the lives of the low-income families.

She would conduct home visits, sit down with them on the floors of their rental flats, and interview them.

One potentially life transforming idea was how these people aren’t that different from you and I. They want the best for their children. They want to provide good education, and opportunities for their child.

There are times when some of us might think,

hey, why don’t they work harder?

We might end up placing the bulk of responsibility for getting out of their situation, on them.

We might fail to realise that they just don’t have as many options as others.

Picture credit: Teo You Yenn, in This is What Inequality Looks Like
Picture credit: Teo You Yenn, in This is What Inequality Looks Like

You Yenn got mothers to trace out their movement through space over the week, and most of them looked like this. She then juxtaposed that with her own movement through Singapore, and the wider world. When she wanted to go for a holiday, she could.

If she wanted to eat out, and go to a restaurant that evening, there was that option.

But these weren’t always available to those from disadvantaged families.

The answer here isn’t just to provide them with more opportunities, but it may really be about starting from where they are. Seeing how they move.

Before we suggest ways to improve.

Read first, apply later

These books offer good lenses into how Singapore works. And if you’re desperate to see how to apply, worry less.

Read first. You will find the lessons slowly working themselves out in your life.

 


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