World-Class Excellence: Singapore Shoots for Gold

This past week I had the opportunity to travel with the Governor General of Canada on an official State Visit to South East Asia. One of the countries we were most impressed with was Singapore. There is much to learn from the small country that is surrounded by giants, as we observed many examples of world-class excellence.Singapore can only be described as a country that wants to be the global leader in whatever they get into, always shooting for gold.

For example, they went into producing orchids in the past few years and are now the world's third largest exporter of the flower. GDP growth was 14% last year (Canada's is 2.5% - 3%). Singapore Airlines is regarded as one of the top airlines in the world. SingTel, the major telecom operator, very quickly outgrew Singapore's population of only 5 million and is a now the major telecom provider in other South East Asian countries.

We learned about a new development project called Marina Bay Sands that has a remarkable story around its creation. It took 3 years, 8,000 people (working 2 shifts/day) and an investment of $7.1 Billion. They expect to recover the costs in the next 2-3 years from the hotels, museums, shopping malls and casinos.

A big take-away was their focus on quality, speed and working with the best. Most government-funded development projects in any normal nation are given to local businesses. The Singapore government opened up the tender for the project to the top firms all over the world and forced the local firms to compete versus take it for granted that they would get the business. The result? Companies from all over the world contributed to the project and the quality is world-class.

Singapore is now #3 in worldwide casino revenues, after Macau and Vegas. They expect to surpass Vegas next year and eventually Macau.

During the downturn, most nations were making cuts and slowing down. Singapore sped up and invested in major projects that they felt would provide them with long-term economic returns. It worked. They announced increased R&D spending while everyone else was cutting back.

Singapore is known as an efficient country, I experienced this first-hand. From the time you land at the airport (which is rated the best airport in the world) and get into a cab, it took less than 5 minutes. That's a small example; a bigger (and more important) one is healthcare. Healthcare costs (irrespective of public or private) are 3% of Singapore's GDP. Canada is 11%. The United States is 16%.

It is often said you can describe a country's culture by how their people treat one another. Similar to Canada, Singapore is a very multi-cultural society, but they take it one step further. With 4 official languages, 80% of Singaporeans live in government structured housing communities where they have pro-actively arranged families to mix between cultures (to avoid what you observe in many large cities, like Toronto and Vancouver, where different cultures are geographically clustered versus being fully integrated).

Spending a few days in Singapore and having the opportunity to interact with their government, business and academic leaders helped me realize that we have much to learn, whether it be policy, education, health-care, infrastructure, business, innovation and most importantly, on how to create a culture that is always shooting for gold.