Leaders in Wealth Creation-19Mar2012

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  • 7/29/2019 Leaders in Wealth Creation-19Mar2012



    Leadersin wealthcreationNgiam Tong Dow on thinking outside the box,Singapore's education system and which pathwe should embark on, plus the ramificationsDURING my undergraduate Years,to get away from dull prescribedtexts, I read a comic strip Lil Ab-ner by the inimitable cartoonist AlCapp. He caricatured the lives ofAmerican hillbillies - the earthy,shrewd and funny folks who inhab-it the Appalachian mountains.&*nena& 6e.:$X-mooseI RECALL a character called Gen-eral Bull-moose, who has a bullhorn voice. Bull-moose was a cari-cature of General Motors, thegreat American corporation somesay of all time.The story goes that one morn-ing he got up from bed feeling hisage. He thought it was time forhim to have an aide-de-camp(ADC) to assist him in doing thechores that he wished to delegate.The HR department sbnt himthree candidates to choose from'The first young man was an engi-neer. When asked what I and Iadded up to, he promptly said 2.The second young man who aP-peared before the general was anaccountant. When asked the samequestion, he said: "Sir l, l, looksIike 11 to me." The third youngman stepped up and was at a lossfor an answer. Instead he askedthe.general: "Sir, what answer doyou want?"This young man was an econo-mist!An economist is a distant cous-in of the lawyer. To an economist,

    a glass of water filled up half-way can be either half-full orhalf-empty, depending onhow you interpret the datagathered from due dili-gence. The lawyer is a de-scendant from the Greek SoPh-ist School of Philosophy. For afee, he can argue that black iswhite or white is black. The wordsophisticated is derived from theroot word sophist.Those who do not believe meshould read QC opinions for oP-posing parties in court cases.Reading the same facts, counselfrom both sides have the remarka-ble ability to convince the third-party reader that both are right'Which of the three young mendo you think the general selectedto be his ADC?T*r*lik8rlg **ttside tke bryxI BELIEVE that Singaporeans andAsians in general think within thebox because of our didactic sYs-tem of education. We are taughtto respect our parents and ourteachers, never to question them.In |ewish culture, the child is en-couraged to ask questions of histeacher.I understand that the role of ex-ternal examiners at the NationalUniversity of Singapore (NUS) isto validate that our students areup to the standards expected fromquestions set within the curricu-lum. They do not assess for origi-

    nality of thought. Ifthat were the case, ;how do we differentiatea First from an Upper Twodegree award?I had suggested to NUS thatexternal examiners be asked toset two out of 10 questions out-side the curriculum. This is to testwhether our graduates are able tothink outside the box.I am told that at the Californialnstitute of Technology (Caltech),Asian students normally top thefirst-year classes. But when itcomes to the second and subse-quent years, when students aretested on application of know-Iedge, their American classmatesbegin to overtake them.Wealth creators versuswse*th memegsr$AS A permanent secretary in theMinistry of Trade and Industry, Iwas privileged to know some of

  • 7/29/2019 Leaders in Wealth Creation-19Mar2012


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    was a piece of contrari-an thinking outsidethe box. Paradoxi-cally, with an ex-pected 18 millionvisitor arrivals to-day, we need to of-fer more budget. rather than\ five-star ho-tels.

    that the lack of natural gas wasnot an impediment. The Plantcould crack naphtha, a bYProductof petroleum, refining into ethYl-ene gas to serve as feedstock forthe downstream plants producingplastics and other final products'For a capital-intensive Projectwith a long gestation period, polit-ical stability and good governanceare more crucial for success thanavailability of natural gas. Sumito-mo's lapanese comPetitor Mitsui,building its petrochemical proiectat about the same time in Iran,abandoned its project when theIran-Iraq war broke out. Thisgave Petrochemical CorPorationof Singapore the oPPortunitY topull ahead.Finally, I would like to acknow-ledge the contribution of Dr GohKeng Swee to wealth creation. AsDefence Minister, he establishedSheng-Li Holdings (now knownas Singapore Technologies) tobuild up our defence indr-rstries.Under his leadershiP, ST Engi-neering used.the process of re-verse engineering to refurbishfighter aircraft and later br-rild bat-tle tanks and other equiPment to astage where we can comPete withinternational defence comPaniesin global markets.?,,.til'l ,"1 L,rv...MORE valuable than cost savingsfrom producing our own arms isthe knowledge accumuiated bY do-ing things ourselves.Since Dr Goh retired from Gov-ernment in 1986, there has beenno one to replace him as ourwealth creator. GIC and Temasekare sovereign wealth managers forour national savings and reserves,They are not wealth cteators.So I conclude with the ques-tion: Should Singapore aim to beJurong Island or Shenton WaY?

    The direction we set will have adeep impact on our political, eco-nomic, educational and labour pol-icies.What these policies are willhave to be thought through bY theMinistry of Finance and the Minis-try of Trade and IndustrY, twoministries which I had served forthe greater part of my 4O-year civ-il service career.'iii; i: ar qt!i** ir;:: *i tbt* ;p**e&1.'. -' .i[*gin*;rir; !-*xd*r*k!P af il*S{ngi**erin,{ fxex{ly *r S**r*s**y.




    our top business tY-coons. The singular strength ofthese wealth creators is their abiii-ty to think outside the box. TheYspot opportunities where othersonly see obstacles.Let me illustrate with some ex-amples. Mr Robert Kuok and hisfellow Carpenter Street rice andsugar merchants saw me at Fuller-ton Building around 1963 with aproposal to develop a five-star lux-ury hotel on Orange Grove Road.Though our visitor numbersthen were only around 400,000,he told me that those who couldtravel would be those who wouldpay for luxury accommodation.He would therefore build a luxu-ry, not a budget, hotel.

    to read in The StraitsTimes that he had an or-der from a PRC compa-ny to build two oil rigs.Knowing that his yardhad never built oil rigsbefore, I rang him to askhow he was going to exe-cute his order. He was ir---'/- ritated by my scepticism,telling me that as a businessmanhe gets the order first and then fig-ure out how to execute it.Robin Shipyard built the tworigs successfully, hiring an Ameri-can naval architect to designthem. The shipyard subsequentlYmoved its operations to China.One day I asked Mr Teo Soo

    Chuan, a leading rice merchant,what the ideal political climate fordoing business was. He said thepoliticai temperature shouid belukewarm, neither too hot nor toocold. He explained that if Indone-sia was too hot, SingaPore wouldbe scalded by the ensuing chaos.If it was too cold (efficient), therewould be no place for us'I was appointed EDB chairmanin early 1975. My first Public dutYwas to organise the ceremonY forthe signing of a joint ventureagreement between SumitomoChemicals of |apan and the Singa-pore Finance Ministry to establisha 500,000-ton Petrochemicalcracker on Pulau Ayer Merbau.Without natural gas, SingaPorewas an unlikely place to locate apetrochemical plant. There wasno lack of sceptics and naysaYers,including The Straits Times,which ran a series of articles pour-ing cold water on EDB's dream ofa heavy industry.Our partner Sumitomo told us