Is Singapore the new Sweden?

Does the former colony offer the best policy inspiration for UK government ministers? Michael Jenkins explores...

by Michael Jenkins
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

It’s starting to feel like it.  William Hague visited last month and on his return caused a stir with comments to the effect that UK plc just needed to ‘work harder’ to counter the recession.  Now Michael Gove is looking to Singapore’s education system to inform his model for reforming the GCSE system, which indicates a return to the O level/CSE combination abolished by the Conservative government in the 1980s. 

Even Singapore’s approach to granting employment passes to foreign workers bears some resemblance to Theresa May’s efforts to limit visas for students and workers abroad. A difference, however, is that a premium is placed on talented and rare researchers. But if there’s one area the UK could definitely do well to take a lead from Singapore on, it is leadership. Central government has set the agenda for investing in strong leadership, and business is following suit every step of the way.

Twenty years ago, the Singaporean government realised that it needed to re-invent itself, and whilst the political system in Singapore is very different from the UK’s, they’ve single-mindedly focused on this strategic objective – not letting the calamity and crisis of the world’s economy get in the way.  Perhaps it is wishful thinking to hope that our own political leaders look closer to home and follow this example.

During the current global economic crisis, Singapore continues to command good economic growth, much higher than countries in Europe and the US. Singapore has recently been rated as the third most competitive city globally and the fourth most desirable place to live and work in the world.

In Singapore, developing effective leadership is seen as central to the goal of increasing productivity and improving economic growth. More than ever before, companies there are eschewing  ‘off the shelf’ programmes in favour of tailored approaches involving live business issues. Indeed, the flexibility, which is the hallmark of quality leadership development here in Britain, is proving highly popular in Singapore – in businesses as well as government departments. Taking time out of the office to focus on real-life leadership issues in the company is not seen as a soft option.

Above all, Singapore knows what will earn the prize: the people.  The Singaporean government recognises the value of foreign talent in its economy. There are stringent controls in place to ensure that they allow in from abroad the talent they need and, at the same time, a strong focus on developing the talent of Singaporeans so that everyone has the opportunity to shine.  Measures being implemented to counter the effects of the global economic crisis includes turning to older employees and enticing them back into the workplace with flexible working practices.
Singapore’s strategy for growth in tough times is multi-pronged, but investment in leadership is at its very core. That’s the policy inspiration Britain needs.

Michael Jenkins is Chief Executive of the leadership institute Roffey Park. He has extensive experience in Singapore and contributed to the book, 'Asian Leadership: What Works'. For more information visit 

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What Lego robots can teach us about motivating teams

People crave meaningful work, yet managers can so easily make it all seem futile.

What went wrong at Debenhams?

There are lessons in the high street store's sorry story.

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

What you don't want to copy from Silicon Valley

Workplace Evolution podcast: Twitter's former EMEA chief Bruce Daisley on Saturday emails, biased recruitment and...

Research: How the most effective CEOs spend their time

Do you prefer the big, cross-functional meeting or the one-to-one catch-up?

6 rules for leading a remote team

Our C-suite panel share their distilled wisdom.