Life & Death



My observation this week is somewhat sombre, yet my intent is to uplift.

I was attending the wake of a husband and a father of children below ten years of age. One wonders how to be helpful and not show indifference at such an event. Yet often the most one can come out with is to be quiet, to listen, to contemplate and to be still.

Dealing with death is very much a matter of perspective. The sadness is undeniable but oftentimes the relief may also be felt.

I have found the commentary by a Bishop Brent in answer to the question “What is Dying?” to be particularly helpful:

“A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says, ‘She is gone.’

‘Gone where?’

‘Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her. The diminished size, and total loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says ‘She is gone,’ there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, ‘There she comes!’ and that is dying.”

Complement this with the words of Henry Scott Holland who was Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral:

”Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room.  I am I and you are you.  Whatever we were to each other, that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.

Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effort, without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?  

I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner.  All is well.




I have been spending the last couple of days in Mauritius as one of the speakers in the “Mauritius Africa Partnership Conference”. The conference is a strategic move by Mauritius to position itself as the gateway for investment into the whole of Africa. It is organised by the Board of Investment of Mauritius, the equivalent of the Singapore Economic Development Board in Mauritius. Attending the conference are the C-suite representatives from the investment boards in 28 African countries and more than 100 other delegates. I also met the Mauritian Secretary to the Cabinet and the Financial Secretary, and spoke to more than 30 senior officials in their Ministry of Foreign Affairs on superior civil service performance. 

There was a whole variety of speakers including Senator Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, Minister in the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office in charge of government and economic transformation programmes in Malaysia, as well as Ms Penny Low, Singapore’s Member of Parliament Penny. I spoke on Leadership in Public Service based on the Singapore experience. 

Interest and admiration for Singapore was very high, but I must say the presentation by the Malaysian Minister was very impressive and inspiring, and detailed a way for African countries that would seem to them more achievable than if they tried to follow Singapore’s experience. The approach Malaysia is making to transform itself is to be admired, and Malaysia is certainly making a direct impact and building governmental influence with African countries. 

The fact that the conference has been able to bring together so many investment agencies from Africa is indicative of a rising self-confidence among African countries, as well as their focus on economic development with a huge interest on attracting foreign direct investments.  

I list here some interesting things I personally learnt from the speakers: 

  • First from Larry Farrell, Founder of The Farrell Company, who spoke about entrepreneurship.  He described the four stages in the life cycle of ALL companies as Startup, High Growth, Decline, and Survival. The spirit of entrepreneurship is particularly relevant in the first two stages, and the loss of this spirit is what results in decline and death. Larry listed the basics of entrepreneurship as fourfold: sense of mission, customer/product vision (i.e. that any product fulfil some customer need in order to be successful), high-speed innovation, and self-inspired behaviour (i.e. behaviour driven from deep inside us). He shared that the statement by Walt Disney, who founded the greatest entertainment company in the world, reflects all four elements: “The inclination of my life has been to do things and make things which will give pleasure to people in new and amazing ways. By doing that I please and satisfy myself.” The life cycle of countries has its parallel to companies: Rise, Growth, Decline and Fall. In order to continue growing, countries should create and honour the entrepreneurs. 
  • Second from Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, the Malaysian Minister, who described the 8 steps which discipline the Malaysian strategic planning and execution process with clear ministerial accountability. While transparency of performance is an important part of the process, he warned with much humour: “It is a fine line between transparency to nudity and then to pornography!”




A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. 

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. 

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door.  “Look it up.” 

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. 

“PANDA. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

This story came from the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves – The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss (Profile Books). 

If you understand punctuation, you will also understand this life-and-death story due to a comma that should not be there. The comma may be just a little wiggle, but can contain a lot of power.  

Most of the time we simply do not pay enough attention to punctuation or to choosing words that say exactly what we mean, an exercise that frequently involves a preference for short, simple words rather than long, complicated words – most of the time, our sentences are much too long, and our paragraphs even longer!  

Many years ago I worked under bosses who insist on well-written notes that say exactly what they intend, no more and no less.  

I particularly benefited from a couple of rules

  • No sentence should be longer than 3 lines, and no paragraph should contain more than 3 sentences. 
  • Watch your punctuation and use conjunctions sparingly.  


What is the Secret to Singapore’s Success?



I spoke at a lunch event of The Economist Corporate Network last Monday. There were about 40 CEOs and other business leaders, mostly expats but a few Singaporeans. The topic I spoke on was “The Secret to Singapore’s Success?”…complete with the question mark! I had agreed to speak as I thought the topic to be both intriguing and timely, given all the excitement building up on commemorating the 50th year of Singapore’s independence.

Often when visitors come to Singapore wondering what has been the secret sauce for Singapore’s success, they get briefed on the HDB, CPF Scheme, the education system the EDB, and so on – all true, and all relevant, but, in my mind, perhaps not a fundamental enough explanation. So I started off my talk by saying:

“If you look at an atlas of the world, Singapore, the country, fits quite nicely into the letter “o” in its name.  Unlike most countries in the world whose names fit well into their boundaries in the atlas, Singapore’s name is much longer than its size.  And if you look again at the atlas, Malaysia lies to the north and east of Singapore, while Indonesia lies to the west, south and east. When Singapore became, rather unexpectedly, independent in August 1965, it had to find its own way into the future:  the dream of a common market in Malaysia was broken, and Indonesia was still conducting konfrantasi (military confrontation) against Singapore.”

When President B J Habibie of Indonesia referred to Singapore as a “little red dot” in 1998, he had meant it as a disparaging remark. Little would he have expected that Singapore would take it up as a badge of honour, a symbol of success despite the odds.

President Habibie had sought later to make amends by saying he had not meant “little red dot” to be disparaging:  he was speaking to an Indonesian youth group, and was challenging them to seek the progress and success of Indonesia by noting that Singapore, even though just a little red dot, had been able to make a success of itself.

Singapore had reached out beyond its immediate surroundings to adopt the whole world as its hinterland, its source of capital, investment, research and technology, management capability, and, most of all, markets. Later came its growth as a global financial centre, potentially the global financial centre in Asia.

Markets are critically the reason for welcoming MNCs to Singapore, because the smallness of Singapore and its economy simply means that no company in Singapore can grow merely by serving the Singapore market: the key to growth and success lies in penetrating overseas markets, mostly in the region but also globally. Of course we would wish as many Singapore companies as possible to have such global reach, but MNCs are what multiply the reach many many times over, without shutting out the Singapore companies.

What explains Singapore’s success in drawing investments from all over the world, where companies sink their money into Singapore and are prepared to wait 10, 15 or 20 years to recover their money through successful production and business operations? What explains the many research centres to discover new knowledge and design new products, where the protection of intellectual property is the name of the game? And what explains a willingness on the part of so many foreigners to park their funds and their wealth in Singapore?

The explanation lies in an ability to trust Singapore as a place where promises are kept, the rule of law maintained, justice is assured, government policies are predictable. Singapore offers reliability, integrity, quality, hard work and trustworthiness. These are what make for long-term relationships.

Trust is the root of relationships, and honour is the foundation of trust, where the people, businesses and government deliver on their word of honour.

Singapore’s place in the community of nations obviously depends not just on trust, but on being able to mobilize talent, synergise the efforts of workers, employers and government, and superior leadership. But honour has to be the starting point and the abiding foundation.





I had a most remarkable conversation with a five-year old last week.  I was waiting in my car that was parked against a double yellow line, which means no parking for cars on that stretch of road.  The clever little girl told me the police would come along and post traffic fine. I asked her why they had to do so.  She said, ever so confidently, that the fine was to collect money to give to the Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister needed a lot of money.  I asked what the Prime Minister needed so much money for.  She said it was “to buy stuff for himself”. I asked where she had learnt all these things.  She replied her dad had told her so. 

A few minutes later her brother came along.  I asked him why the police would impose a traffic fine.  He said it was because I was parked in the wrong place.  I was quite hopeful this elder kid would get things right, so I asked why the police was collecting the fines.  He said it was to pass the money to the Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister was “very expensive”.  I asked where he learnt this from, and he said it was from his dad! 

The two kids were obviously bright, but with innocent minds.  It just affirmed to me how critical it is that parents bring up their children with right attitudes, right values, and right understandingEducation for life, at the end of the day, is the responsibility of parents, not of schools.  Schools are the supplement and the complement.  

Even so, when parents place their children in schools, they must give the schools the authority to do whatever is appropriate and necessary for the education of their children, including giving principals and teachers the authority to teach and to discipline. In addition, parents must honour their teachers in the way they speak and behave, and must require their children to honour their teachers. 

Teachers may not be perfect, but if they are not honoured by parents and children, it is the children that bear the consequence of teachers who are demotivated and demoralized from the lack of respect and affirmation. 

Are you the chicken or the pig?


When I was in São Paulo, the industrial and commercial capital of Brazil, last week, I attended a meeting with a healthcare entrepreneur. 

The most important words I heard from him were:

“It is a pleasure to be the best! Don’t chase money. If you are the best, the money will follow you!”

He said he works long hours and through the weekend never thinking about money, but about how to keep pushing his business to be the best. 

He illustrated this point by giving the story of the pig and the chicken, a story of total commitment:

“The pig and the hen were debating on who is doing the more good, and they got to talking about ham and eggs.

The hen said she making very good contribution – eggs for the health of others. 

The pig responded that his was a case of total commitment, a sacrifice of himself to provide ham to others.”

So, is your commitment like the hen or like the pig when it comes to your family, work, and anything else that you undertake in your life?  



I am in the midst of the longest ever business trip I have undertaken, starting with Mexico City where I attended a meeting of the SwissRe Advisory Panel and had several GIC business meetings, then onto São Paulo in Brazil where I inaugurated what is GIC’s tenth office worldwide and again had several GIC business meetings, and then onto London for GIC meetings.  I share in this blog a good number of the little wisdoms I picked up during the trip.

Our Country Needs Good Children

First, a remark that Carlos Slim, the one of the world’s richest men and Mexican business magnate, investor, and philanthropist, is reputed to have made when someone said what is needed is to have a “good Mexico for the children” of Mexico.  Slim countered this is wrong: “What is needed is to have ‘good children for Mexico’.”  We also should think the same way of the need to have “good children for Singapore”.

This wisdom reminded me of a visit I made many years ago to a research station in the Negev desert in Israel;  the research was to develop a self-sustaining community that made its own electricity and water and grew its own vegetables and poultry – a community that would not require external supplies for its survival and sustenance. Someone in the visiting team remarked: “This is very good.  When you succeed, you can bring the people to the desert.”  The chief scientist countered with typical Israeli directness: “You’ve got it wrong. Bring the people here in the desert and we will succeed.”

Approach Life with a Sense of Humour

I was sitting at dinner in Mexico next to a senior manager who was doing two jobs at the C-suite level – in other words he was Chief of two different functions in his company.  I asked him jokingly whether he got double pay.  He, just as jokingly remarked: “No, they pay me half my pay, because I must be an idiot to agree to do two jobs.”  Life is always easier if we approach it with a sense of humour!

Competition is Good

In one of the business meetings, we were talking about business competition. Our business associate said: “When you lose a great enemy, you lose a lot of information.”  In other words, having strong competition keeps you alert and continually aware and sensitive to what is going on in the environment. Killing competition weakens those who remain.

Feedback from Readers of “The Leader, The Teacher & You

Finally, it was heartening that several people have been reading “The Leader, The Teacher & You” and were quoting the parts they were particularly struck by.  I list here what they quoted as indication of what they had found to be particularly helpful to them, which was why they were able to immediately recall what they had read:

  • “It is better to have stallions, which we occasionally have to pull back, than to have donkeys you have to kick to move.” (Dr. Goh Keng Swee)


  • “Nothing in our past is wasted.”
  •  “Be in time for the future.” 
  • “The Circle of Improvement: from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence to Conscious Competence to Unconscious Competence and back to Unconscious Incompetence.” 
  • “Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last, and least, experience.  Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind.  Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people who have all the other qualities.” (Dee Hock) 
  • “Challenge 12 is so moving:


          A blind boy sat on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet.  He held up a sign that said, ‘I am blind, please help.’

         There were only a few coins in the hat.  A man was walking by.  He took a few coins from his pocket and dropped them into the            hat. He then took the sign, turned it around, and wrote several words.  He put the sign by so that everyone who walked by would          see the new words.

         Son, the hat began to fill up.  A lot more people were giving money to the blind boy.

         That afternoon, the man who had changed the sign came to see how things were.  The boy recognised his footsteps and asked,          ‘Were you the one who changed my sign this morning.  What did you write?’

          The man said, ‘I only wrote the truth.  I said what you said but in a different way.’

          What he had written was: ‘Today is a beautiful day and I cannot see it.'”




Last Sunday was Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is a celebration honouring mothers and motherhood, maternal bonds, and the influence of mothers in society.

The celebration of Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May first happened in 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother in Grafton, West Virginia. Anna had started her campaign in 1905 to make “Mother’s Day” a recognized holiday in the United States.  Her intent was to honour her own mother and for everyone else to honour their mother, “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”  In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honour mothers.

Mothers are possibly the most important factor in the moulding of character and establishment of lifetime values in children. Values and attitudes such as honesty, kindness, patience, and hard work often get passed down, simply through example and experience.

Most of the famous leaders of history have had good, God-fearing mothers.

The mother of the first President of the United States, George Washington, was pious, and the mother of Scottish poet and novelist, Sir Walter Scott, was well-steeped in poetry and music. In contrast, it is believed that the mother of the Roman Emperor, Nero, was a murderess; legend has it that Nero was playing his fiddle while Rome burned in a great fire, a fire some say he himself started in order to be able to re-build the centre of Rome. Nero murdered his own mother, his first wife and, apparently also, his second wife.

Mothers are most critical in the development of younger children as they are protector, provider, and guide. Children grow their sense of security and stability through their mother.

But what is possibly not well understood or recognised is the critical role of fathers, particularly in the teen years of their children. Fathers help children grow up with a sense of adventure, confidence, and steadfastness – critical qualities that children require to face a future that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Children need to learn to think for themselves, stand their ground against negative influences, and grow into independent adults. 

Children grow best into well-balanced adults when they have both the protection of mothers and the encouragement of fathers at home. Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May is a day to honour our mother for their love and sacrifice, and Father’s Day on the third Sunday of June is to honour our father for their courage and resilience.

May we always remember to honour our mothers and fathers through our words and actions! 






There is a story of a duck that went into a shop and asked, “Do you have grapes?”

The shopkeeper gently said, “No.”

The next day the duck came again and asked, “Do you have grapes?”

The shopkeeper, this time with louder voice, responded, “No.”

The third day the duck showed up and asked, “Do you have grapes?”

The shopkeeper shouted, “No! And if you come along again asking for grapes, I will nail your webbed feet to the door and hang you upside down!”

The following day, the duck, shaken by the threat of crucifixion, asked, “Do you have nails?”

The shopkeeper replied, “No.”

The duck continued, “Do you have grapes?”

If you had a kid come along like the duck, would you think him smart and see how you could help him become even smarter, or would you consider him a smart aleck who had to be disciplined and put in his place?

Your reaction will tell whether you are the innovative, inventive, and creative kind or just the opposite – the staid and proud kind who will not accept anyone cleverer than you. 

If we do not have the capacity to be the smart duck, we must at least be careful that we are not the dumb monkey.

There was this experiment with five monkeys in a cage with a hanging banana. Whenever any of the monkeys tried to get the banana, all five monkeys were doused with cold water. Soon enough, any monkey who tried to get the banana would get beaten up by the others, as no one was enjoying the cold showers!

One of the monkeys was taken out and replaced with a new monkey.  This monkey wondered what was wrong with the other four monkeys, who were all placidly leaving the banana alone.  So he reached out for the banana, only to be promptly set upon by the other monkeys.  The new monkey did not know why he had got the beating, but learnt fast there was something prohibitive about the banana.  No one knew the cold water had been turned off.

Then another of the original monkeys was taken out and replaced with a new monkey who again wondered what was wrong with the other monkeys to beep ignoring the banana. The second new monkey went for the banana, only to be mercilessly beaten up by the first new monkey. 

One by one the original monkeys were replaced with new monkeys.  Finally there were five new monkeys, none of whom had experienced the cold showers.  All they knew was that the banana was an invitation to be beaten up.  Nothing could be changed, nothing could be improved.  If only the banana-which-caused-a-beating could be replaced by an ordinary banana?!  But no one dared to go for the banana, so there could be no solution.

So this is my blog for the week… do you choose to be a smart duck or a dumb monkey?  





Every year after the annual GIC staff conference, I visit 8 cities in 8 days to connect with the staff at GIC’s five offices in Asia (Mumbai, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, and Shanghai) and GIC’s three offices in the US and UK (San Francisco, New York, and London).  

This blog lists snippets of interesting observations I had on my trip.


Mumbai has a new airport that is very impressive and vast, offering a good opportunity for me to reach my target of 10,000 steps a day (which, sadly, I seldom achieve). It was striking that the general public and well-wishers are kept out of the airport. I could understand this for the old airport building, which was small and crammed, nevertheless, the Indian authorities must have their reason for still keeping the public out.

What I would like to share, however, is my experience at departure.  As is the case all over the world, there is the usual security clearance – taking out the mobile phone and the laptop, passing the bags through the scanner, and so on. What was special after the scanning was that the staff produced a book, somewhat like a visitors’ book, and asked me to sign it: name, passport number, country, and a special last column asking for comments. After some thought, I wrote: “Very efficient and friendly”, which really made the day of the security personnel! It was a comment that was fully deserved as the staff had taken most unusual care to be efficient and friendly.


Speaking of airports, someone pointed out to me that in Japan, somehow the aero bridge operator always aligns the aero bridge to the level of the plane door. I looked out for this when I arrived at Haneda airport and I can say, yes it is indeed so. The aero bridge when I arrived in Beijing, for example, was 15 cm lower than the door!  There must be something about the Japanese attitude of always aiming for zero defects. I am reminded of what my daughter told me about trains in Tokyo: it is almost a matter of honour for the train driver to align the train doors exactly with the platform markings. Contrast this with Singapore’s MRT where sometimes the train stops with half the train door out of alignment with the platform door!


Being on long flights provides me with the rare opportunity to watch movies. I would like to share two learnings.

“47 Ronin” is a wonderfully inspirational samurai film. Lots of fighting and killing – I did say it was a samurai film!  To be a Ronin – a samurai with no master – is considered the ultimate downgrade for a samurai. The memory of the 47 Ronin who put duty and justice before their fear of death has lived down through the centuries as one of the greatest examples of honour and loyalty in Japanese culture. Each year, on December 14th, thousands of people from around the world visit the graves of the 47 Ronin to pay their respects.  The film is inspired by their story.

The most memorable quote I got from the film was: “None of us knows how long he shall live or when his time will come, but soon all that will be left of our brief lives is the pride our children feel when they speak our names.” Honour, my friends, is a heritage for our children, as illustrated by this quotation from the book of Proverbs in the Bible:  “Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.”

“Jobs” is a movie about Steve Jobs, the founding spirit of Apple. The film closed with the wonderful quotation from the 1997 Apple commercial: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Do we have the courage to be crazy enough? 

And just one more Jobs quotation which explains somewhat the craziness: “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me…Going to bed at night and saying we’ve done something wonderful . . . That’s what matters to me“.

What matters to each of us? To do good?  To do right? To do our best? To be our best? These are questions worthy of thought and answer.

“LOVE” vs “LIKE”

Finally, on the last leg of my journey, there was this Singapore Airlines crew member who asked how many grandchildren I had. I told her four, three girls and a boy, and asked her in return how many children she had. She said: “Not yet, but the greater challenge in marriage is how to keep it going well.” 

I said: “There is a big difference between ‘like’ and ‘love’.  ‘Like’ is when our partner pleases us, ‘Love’ is us looking out all the time to please our partner. Two people come together because they like each other, but to keep a marriage going well, the like must turn to love.” 

She was so grateful for the exposition about the difference between “like” and “love” – it was enlightenment to her, as I hope that it is to you!