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When Singapore Inc Simply Means Having to Apologize (Part I)

Posted by intellisg on March 19, 2007

Singapore’s leaders may not be used to watching their effigies burnt on CNN. And yet this was what happened Sept last year. When activists demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Bearing the full toss of the public ire was Temasek Holdings. Having taken up a $3.7 billion equity stake in Shin Corp, Thaksin’s flagship Telco firm, Temasek found itself sucked into the maelstrom.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, Singapore Telecoms one third equity stake in Telekomunikasi Selular (Telkomsel) and ST Telemedia’s sizeable stake in Indosat – raised eyebrows in the local press which played the tune:

“Singapore’s domination of key industries poses a threat to national security.”

In the wake of the perfect storm a host of other issues such as the sand embargo and now extending to granite threatens to sour bilateral relations even further. It’s a development that throws out the question:Why are Singaporean firms so susceptible to the perils of being regularly single out as being arrogant and self serving?

The worsening climate has even led MP’s to consider doing the unthinkable, “slowing down.” In mid February 2007, the MP for the West Coast GRC, Ho Geok Choo asked whether Singapore should consider ramping down its pace of development to placate its neighbors.

“…our success and fast growth may be creating a lot of tensions with our neighbors, who feel the threats of challenges and stress.”

Her remarks prompted widespread criticism from the media of neighboring countries, especially Indonesia. Who perceived the statement as yet another example of the arrogant manner in which Singapore conducts her foreign policy. Its one that cast long shadows and brings into sharp relief – the perils of being a Singaporean firm in ASEAN.

(1). The Perils of Being Singapore Inc.

Although Temasek frequently asserts it’s not a government directed policy agency and consequently does not enjoy any special privileges. The general held view suggest otherwise. Critics note GLC’s such as Temasek are simply a network of firms designed to operate in a protected market and it is through these agencies that the government exercises its will to either project regionally and internationally.

As a result many do not see firms like Temasek as just another Asian conglomerate. At least not one that is sufficiently divorced from the government of the day to either act independently or autonomously without having to follow a national script.

Such an assertion may even be preposterous. Nonetheless it continues to gain currency amongst conspiracy theorist who regularly confect a range scenarios ranging from phone tapping to stealing whole islands!

One possible reason for the paranoia stems from the close links between firms like Temasek and Singtel to the families of the ruling elite. Again this does not necessarily suggest power resides in the hand of a few who may not altogether be inclined to act impartially. Any more than the Kennedy’s or the Rothchild’s have a secret agenda to transform America into a catholic fiefdom or Zionist Europe. The general perception of appearing “to close for comfort” to the ruling elite- real or imagined simply reinforces the belief – neighboring countries are not so much dealing with independent conglomerates as they are with the invisible hand of Singapore inc.

Indeed, it’s one that militates against the long term strategic interest of Singaporean firms regionally. As it raises the question: can Singaporean firms even continue doing business in Asean amid this climate of suspicion? This would of course depend on calculating the actual cost of maintaining the status quo and much of the trade off analysis would hinge on whether the cost of redefining the relationship between firms and government, out weights the cost of maintaining the close nexus between them.

Its one that guarantees an on going debate on how best to deal with the issue of reconciling doing what is right against what will be perceived as right.

(2). The Way Out of the Quagmire.

Against the backdrop an uncertain business environment; how do strategic planners grapple with the issue of the “perception” quotient in the context of managing businesses? Unlike numbers, weightings and factorials which are easily quantifiable. The perception quotient remains a qualitative abstraction. One which continues to confound both policymakers and businessmen alike as they struggle to make sense of how to project the right image – why is the perception quotient so important for Singaporean firms doing business in the region?

Business isn’t just a simplistic notion of demand and supply. While that may well be a palpable truth in the book sense. In reality business in all its guises is simply an embodiment of the term “relationship” in a supra context. It’s one that encapsulates not only culture, history and values but also a “shared philosophy.”

This sociological definition of business means people will invariably ascribe a name, face, nationality and even temperament to a firm. That’s the reason why the windows of Starbucks and McDonalds are regularly smashed by activist: they embody everything that symbolizes globalization. In the same way the American philosopher Theodore Rozak disparages Microsoft with his famous reference, “if you want to do what is good for kids, find out what Bill Gates wants to do in schools and do the opposite.” Here the firm, Microsoft is depicted as the evil empire one which aptly describes in Rozak’s view how technology represents predation. People create impressions about firms in the same way they form impressions about people, nationalities and races.

People will continually seek out a sense of scale to define themselves alongside firms. Unfortunately much of the science related to strategic planning be it either in business or the enterprise of war continues to pay scant regard to the importance the perception quotient and even less to how it may even be managed.

As a result even the best will continue getting it wrong as exemplified by George W.Bush in the Iraq war. When he naively said “all human beings want what we want – freedom,” to paraphrase: hence “democratization should be easy.” In reality, no one disputes, the Arabs may want freedom just like all of us. Only they don’t want to have anything to do with the American inspired variety. In the same way, our neighbors may want foreign investments. But they may not necessarily want or even feel comfortable with the Singapore inc variety. Does it make sense? No it doesn’t. Is it even remotely logical? No it isn’t. But does is it a scene that typically gets played out so often. It even suggest, they (our neighbors) are even prepared to cut their noses to spite us? Yes. As the Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos said, “hurt they will, but happy they will be no end, even as they bleed and make merry in the burning streets through the night…..”

Against this backdrop of apparent senselessness, it forces us to ask: what do can Singaporean firm do to successfully navigate themselves through this labyrinth of competing desires? Again its one where neither sense or logic features in the discussion. That’s what’s so exasperating about having to manage the perception quotient – eventually, the question will turn on: Why do our neighbors succumb so readily to appeals based on the irrational forms of identity – ethnic, racial, religious – rather than to appeals based on the rational forms – economic and level headed state craft above all? Or, to put it in dramatic terms: why do identity politics so often rest on hatreds that do as much damage to the aggressors as to their victim? Until we have a deeper understanding of the answers to that question.

We simply need to find a better way to conduct business with our neighbors. The question here do we simply fold our arms and say, well they should all calm down and take a stress pill? This approach denotes the expectation they will eventually come to their senses and hopefully do the rational thing. Or would it be wiser to take stock of these irrationalities and profile a set of countermeasures which allows us to make sense of the current divide? Again much of the calculations will depend on what the payouts would be if we do nothing against doing at least something. What then should we do?

(3) Its show time!

The challenge for firms such as Temasek in the foreseeable future requires them to take stock of the increasing volatile business environment in Asean. Firms have to consider the associated cost of being labeled as Singapore inc? This would of course require them to also consider the derivative line of questioning: does being seen as Singapore inc foster mutual understanding and trust? Or does it simply exacerbate national resentment?

If this question is answered in the affirmative, Singaporean firms especially GLC’s need to pursue independence and autonomy away from the government of the day as a matter of strategic priority.

Pursuing a strategy decoupling from the government of the day will result in firms such as Temasek devolving into smaller strategic business units (SBU’s). Each operating autonomously from the nuclei of central control. Where soft power will feature increasingly as the preferred instrument of building and sustaining regional relationships – instead of cold, rational and metallic logic which typifies how the Singapore government comes across to our neighbors.

The goal here being to define and allow smaller SBU’s to carve out their own identity outside the shadow the government of the day – in doing so they will be a better position to take corporate ownership of the perception quotient rather than being perceived as proxies. Hopefully even coming across as real conglomerates in the true sense of the word. Who are better prepared to navigate in a business environment that’s simply demanding Singapore inc to shed the image of parochialism, narrowness and insularity. Real or imagined, does it really matter?

(By Scholarboy / Darkness / Business / Politics / Strategic Studies / EP 997738 – 2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)

[I wish to thank Darkness for taking the time and effort to discuss with me the various issues which allowed me to gain a better understanding over the subject. Thank you]


21 Responses to “When Singapore Inc Simply Means Having to Apologize (Part I)”

  1. Singaporean Abroad said

    How dare anyone suggest that Temasek is a vehicle of the Singapore Government, of GLC or even any way remotely connected with the Singapore government. The fact that its funding come from the Treasury, or that it is related to the people of Singapore as finances are essentially theirs and managed by their government or even that the CEO is directly related to the head of the Singapore government is purely conincidental!

  2. scholarboy said

    “How dare anyone suggest that Temasek is a vehicle of the Singapore Government.”

    I did not say that is a fact. Pls learn to read properly. I said it is “widely perceived.”

    Like it or hate it that remains the truth.

  3. Lesson in Sarcasm Anyone? said

    Scholarboy: Please read past the first sentence of the first comment. My reading of that comment is that it is meant to be ironic.

    Anyway, it was a well-written and informative article. I would suggest also that you proofread it a few more times before posting it. ie.:

    1) Meanwhile in Indonesia, Singapore Telecom[missing apostrophe]s one third equity …

    2) Its one that cast long shadows and brings into sharp relief – [innapropriate em-dash] the perils of being a Singaporean firm in ASEAN.

    3) Although Temasek frequently asserts it’s not a government [hyphen needed] directed policy agency…

    4) Nonetheless it continues to gain currency amongst conspiracy theorist who regularly confect a range [missing “of”] scenarios ranging [redundant word “ranging”] from phone tapping to stealing whole islands!

    … and so on.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. repairman said

    Augusto de Campos???Theodore Rozak???what did you talk to darkness abt????

  5. caleb said

    The level of detail is good. The assumptions are accurate. What u r proposing is a strategy of accomodation. That I agree should be as you mentioned pursued rigorously as a matter of strategic priority. However to how far can we really go? Where is the cut off point? As you mentioned, it doesnt make sense. So are we just fooling ourselves this problem can be resolved.

    Well researched and thank you very much IS for taking the trouble and effort. I think some times many of us (readers) dont realize how much work goes into producing a substantive article that posits a very new angle to an old problem.

  6. caleb said

    I dont mean to come across as cheeky, but I think you guys were taking a jibe at him:

    I find the heading to the article too coincidental. Can you also pls share with all of us when the second part will roll out so that we do not need to regularly check this site. It can get quite mah fan. thnx Caleb

  7. Albert Friend said

    The fundamental flaw in your analysis is that you lump the Singaporean firm together with GLCs as if there is no difference. You also fail to explicitly mention that GLCs are vehicles where the Singapore Govt uses to effect a foreign policy with a hidden agenda.

    Privately held Singapore companies do not face the kind of suspicions as GLCs attracts. Let it be known that Australians feels the hidden agenda of Singapore GLCs too.

    This shadow Singapore foreign policy under the guise of commerce only fools Singaporeans, who as a nation has one of the lowest entrepreneurship and are also the most politically apathetic people in the world developed or developing . So what would an average Singaporean know about the difference between between political motivated commerce and free and fair trade? Just like how would an ordinary Singapore citizen know between repression, opression and civil liberties?

    Singapore and Singaporeans has a lot to learn! Grow up! Friendship is earned not demanded or bought.

  8. Albert Friend said

    This is in reply to Singaporean Abroad

    You remark is very juvenile and naive. Who is in control of the Singapore govt? When then is in control of the Treasury?

    Are you saying that there is political independence in the way bureaucrats work in Singapore?

    Need I ask anymore questions for the readers to see the blinkers you have on in your eyes? Self delusion hurts only the person being deluded.

  9. Albert Friend said

    This is in response to Lesson in Sarcasm Anyone?

    You are just so Singaporean!

    What more can I say?

  10. anongal said

    I am glad to see the brotherhood press has taken my advice to give the senior writers such as scholarman a chance to write. This is very commendable.

    Scholarboy, reading your post am I too believe we must now take the whole region and the world to be our ethical unit. reading your post there is only one atmosphere, one economy, one law and one definition of what a firm should be. In short what you are advocating is nothing other than universality. I am sure darkness will agree with me since you discussed the matter with him. I sure even he inserted the caveat; if you try to be something that you are not, then you will simply come across as a fake, that sums up the delimma of Singapore inc.

    Do keep it up. Will look forward with bb to the second instalment, thanks and regards to bambi boy

  11. anon said

    “Let Temasek act like S’pore Inc, without apology,” By Janadas Devan, Senior Writer, Mar 16, 2007,The Straits Times / I think what all of you need to appreciate is Mr Devan was writing strictly from the point of reportage. He is definitely not a planner. Or even a subject matter expert, but I dont think you necessarily need to be one to make a valid observation.

    Journalist are after all better trained to do this better than subject matter experts who typically adopt a ground view when they should be up there watching from a helicopter.

  12. mummi said

    scholarman it is very heartening to hear that darkness is finally making time to guide some of the younger writers. Darkness is definitely quite an unusual character. That could be one reason why so many of the boys cont to hero worship him. For one he doesnt even care whether you are a graduate or not. He seems to show an almost lack of regard for formal education and I really cannot understand why despite being very educated himself.

    Instead he puts alot of premium on creativity. I wonder why? Thats an area scholarman you should focus on. Yes I know some ppl make it a point to pick fault with your techniques and writing style, but really that is just the mechanics. The most important thing still remains the creativite content and as darkness likes to always say, the style and perspective. The rest like he used to alway say, where you graduated, how high is your education or even your working history, you can leave it outside the door along with the slippers and brollies. Here we dont have time to consider who you were only what you will be!

  13. darkness said

    This is a very commendable effort, no buts. Good is good, so I am not going to say anything that cancels out the good. Except to say it is good.

    Readers will always take pot shots. Thats how the game is played, so you have to learn to roll with it. The best way to deal with it is just to ignore it. Unless it is constructive like (3) and (10). The latter is a smart question from an smart lady, so you should do her the courtesy of responding accordingly. Otherwise she will hate you and write something nasty in the ST. The rest goes to the bin. BTW stop taking potshots at those ladies AB, my inbox is full of hate mail.

    Another thing some of you have been asking me what the reader wants. Let me tell you this readers are like the first monkeys that flew into space. There are just there for the ride. Dont get confused, they are not building rockets to go to Mars as some of you would like to imagine. Can you imagine a monkey landing a space shuttle? You write for yourself not for yr readers.

    If you do it the other way round, you are going to end up being very confused!

    When you research yr subject, YOU learn. When you write YOU are forced to distinguish, compare and contrast. The most important thing is you learn to ask.

    Asking is very important. 99.9% of ppl have a problem with asking. Bc they confuse it with begging. Thats why they can only attract flies and roaches. Its not that they are ugly or have lousy personalities. They just cannot ask. Writing is a form of asking, you are asking for the way, the truth or a technique. You are always asking.

    Thats where you have to be honest with yourself. Honesty is very important.

    Its like getting a killer date with a girl, just ask. But you notice ppl dont do that these days. They dye their hair, buy a new shirt, get their ears pierced, but they still dont ask. And they wonder why nothing happens.

    Do you know who are the richest people cummulatively on this planet? Not lawyers, doctors, accountants or even scientist. They are beggars, you know why, they ask. A professional beggar standing in Times Sq NYC can make $500! a day! You know why he ask.

    Same thing abt writing you need to keep asking. I hope this answers all your questions.Thank you and remember dont forget to ask.

  14. GLC said

    Hi darkness,

    Very interesting take. I dont want to come across in the wrong way, but I ask all the time, but I still dont get it. I admit I am bit geeky and not even very attractive and there is no possible reason why a girl would even go out with me.

    So I dont really agree that asking is the key. Besides in Singapore we all know chicks just go for one thing financial stability.

    BTW I also like the article very much. I showed it to my lecturer and believe it or not it was actually used as a discussion case study. Kudos

  15. tenderdoesit said


    I shan’t destroy the thread by sidewalling or going off the tangent / A very brave effort. It was definitely a tough subject to broach. I am even surprised that you gave a go.

    I agree a very good effort. Do keep it up. As for bambi boy I see he back to spewing out his usual MCP nonsense again. Really for someone who professes to be so worldly. I even wonder sometimes whether he knows how he really comes across when he says all the things he says.

  16. koala said

    A few pointers to mull over:

    (1) The calculations i.e you mentioned trade off analysis against pay outs. However what would the acceptable quantum of scale be? Or AQL? That may work for a case by case basis but that is not what you appear to be suggesting. Instead if I am not mistaken you are proposing nothing short of re-gutting.

    a) the relationship between govt and firms (private, GLC and otherwise)

    b)Chaging the processes to allow for a higher degree of autonomy and independence.

    How would it propose to effect a) and b). I would be very interested if you could share with me the associated logic as well from a public admin POV. Thanks.

    I also like to ask whether the brotherhood press can include a read list. This is certainly one area that I would like to research on further on an academic capacity. Regards K>H Ong.

  17. greenrover said

    This is a very informative and well researched piece of work. I wonder why we don’t ever get stuff like this in the MSM. I dont want to sound like a idiot but I cant help wondering is it bc the gahmen dont want us to know or they just dont have the skill to see wat u guys are seeing

    long live the brotherhood!

  18. cowboy said


    Can I just ask when the second segment will be rolling out? It would really save me the bother of having to check 3 or 4 times a day. Many thanks and really looking forward to the read.

  19. inspir3d said

    hi cowboy, would u like to use ?
    it will save u the effort of having to check back multiple times a day.

  20. anongal said

    Oh its bound to happen sooner of later. Really it doesnt surprise me, not the slightest. I fear scholar Boy may have perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. And its stuck. Its a tough subject – why do our neighbors hate us. I can only assume whenever this happens apprentice will have to run back to master.

    Or perhaps someone else in the net can take over the mantle of proceeding to the next stage, part 2. I am sure the boys dont really mind. Or maybe bambi should simply stop scally wagging and roll up his sleeves and dip his quill into the ink pot?

  21. spursfan said

    Nice post Scholarboy, couldn’t have posted it better myself. Am looking forward to the liberation of the Singapore economy. Note that I did *not* say liberalisation 😉

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