Opportunistic leadership

Leaders of today are mostly driven by being able to identify opportunities to exploit, rather than solving problems present. Take for example the public federal debt of USA – no government really bothered too much about the size of the debt in absolute terms because as the economy grows, the debt to GDP ratio shrinks, unless of course they took on more debt, which they kind of did. Sure, there were times when it seemed a crisis was coming but just change the rules and things seem to go on fine.

There were many of such things that happened during the period of the reign of the boomers. A lot of boundaries that were thoughtlessly set were tested, and then extended. As culture shift, people tried to stretch things: when we moved from little villages in Singapore to high-rise public housing, the high-rise was around 12- to 13-storey; others were mostly four-storey high. Then we started building 20- to 25-storey buildings for public housing, and now 40, even 50. The buildings became built even more closely. The leadership focused on opportunities to keep optimising things and turn people’s attention such that they can define what is ‘better’.

But better also requires actual problem-solving. And often times, that meant confronting the problems that we ourselves created when seeking out or exploiting opportunities. For example, as we exploit high-rise and high-density, our urban heat island effect increases; our living conditions from an environmental, climate and weather perspective goes down even as it appears materially better. People just accept that is a price to pay for ‘development’ – but there has got to be more efforts to figure a third way out.

Singapore’s dependence on foreign labour presents the same challenge. We know that foreign manpower has been integral in our economic development. But we also simultaneously recognise that getting international companies to localise their labour and employment in Singapore can make a big difference to the socio-economic outcomes of locals. Nevertheless, the potential social fissures and inequalities on both ends of the labour spectrum (extremely high paid expats, and low-paid labour in the construction industry that may not have the best welfare and environment) seems to be just accepted as price to pay.

I think leaders need the time and space to prove themselves, make better decisions and serve the people. And while we practice questioning leadership and some of our basic social compact principles, we should also be patient, and mindful that changes will take time. Helping to turn our attention into problems that should not be just accepted as necessary evil or the cost of good outcomes is just the first step. We need to jointly figure out the third way. It is not necessarily one that do not involve trade-offs (that’s probably fantasy), but one that allows us to be conscious about the point where we want our trade-off to be.