7 min read

Building for LKYSPP's 2054

The Singapore Alumni Chapter holds the key to unlocking LKYSPP’s greatness.
Building for LKYSPP's 2054

Here, I outline my hope and aspirations for my alma-mater, LKYSPP.

What Do We Represent?

What is the point of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy?

Some quarters may argue that this school is an effort by the Singaporean government to increase its soft power. If you are cynical, you may go one step further and assert that this institution is a crude attempt to enshrine Lee Kuan Yew into Singapore’s public psyche. Such interpretations miss the crux of the matter.

At its core, this school represents a belief. The Asian Century has arrived. This focus on Asia is why, every year, hundreds of students hailing from all over Asia ranging from Tajikistan to Thailand, apply to study here.

For those of us who have walked the hallowed hallways of our historic Bukit Timah Campus, we believe that our nations require good governance. We knew instinctually that our education at LKYSPP would help us play a more impactful role.

Naturally, our location in Singapore has tremendously enhanced the value of an education in public policy. Beyond Singapore’s developmental experience serving as a treasure trove of policy insights, Singapore is one of the world’s most trusted ‘information exchanges’. Just like a stock exchange facilitates the orderly trading and efficient dissemination of price information for securities, Singapore facilitates good-faith dialogue for our diverse global community, allowing ideas and information to be shared freely. Singapore’s position as a hub of cultural arbitrage allows LKYSPP students to learn from the best of what the world has to offer.

Now is the time for us to examine and define the role of our Singapore Alumni Chapter.

Not in Kansas Anymore

In the 1939 musical fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, upon arriving at Oz whispers to her dog, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

This phrase has come to represent that we are no longer in familiar territory; like Dorothy, we have been thrown into a new, disorienting and perhaps, terrifying reality. The pandemic is ending. Russia and Ukraine are at war. Global inflation is nearing record-highs. Trust in public institutions is on a rapid decline. If anything, the past two years have taught us the true cost of globalization. The assumption that ‘living in a global village’ brought us inconveniences and not vulnerabilities no longer holds.

In Singapore and Asia, such forces have thrown up new and complex policy challenges. Our leaders must face the unenviable task of grappling with these challenges. Unlike Dorothy, we don’t have the privilege of clicking the heels of our ruby slippers and saying, ‘There’s no place like home’ thrice to solve our problems.

As such, LKYSPP plays a strategic role in preparing the leaders of Asia’s tomorrow for the rocky road ahead. The values we the Singapore Alumni Chapter espouse and our actions must enable LKYSPP to achieve this mission.

Three Core Values

It’s easy to trumpet the initiatives one can do when in office. However, programs without values will be inane busyness. I would like to underline three core values that will drive the Singapore Alumni Chapter:

  • Love
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Legacy oriented

Love

The appeal of love is irresistible. It is the antidote to loneliness and the lubricant to relationships. Deep down, we all want to be loved and accepted. To build a school that will impact the next fifty generations of leaders, the alumni, especially the Singapore Chapter, must love LKYSPP.

By love, I do not refer to the romantic type of love trumpeted in popular culture. I refer to the happiest and simplest form of love - the love of friendship. While lovers are preoccupied with each other, friends are preoccupied with the same interests. Their relationship germinates from a shared interest, eventually blossoming beyond the seed of interest.

We came to LKYSPP to learn about policymaking, leaving with so much more. When we reflect on our time in this school, we reminisce about the deep conversations, late-night studying and generous dinners. Our shared interest in policy has created cross-cultural friendships that have enriched us personally and, for some, professionally. No wonder the Chinese term for alumni is ‘校友‘, a friend of the school.

We live in a world that craves authenticity. We want to be seen and affirmed. We want the luxury of not second-guessing someone’s true intention when they help us. This is why before we hurry to launch any big project, we must cultivate and nurture the affection for the school and its community. If we fail to love the school and its people like a bosom friend would, any initiative we kickstart would look self-serving. We would be like what Saint Paul calls. ‘ a noisy gong or cymbal’.

Thus, my sincere hope is that one day, students will anticipate the day they would join the alumni network. With such a world-class network at our disposal, the sky (or even the moon) is the limit.

Lifelong Learning

Our graduates are not amateurs. We are professionals, and we treat our craft seriously. Many of us aspire to leadership so that we can better the world future generations will live in. This is an admirable ambition, worth every ounce of striving we can muster.

However, the greatest mistake leaders can make is to assume that they have learned it all. They let their past successes get to their head and cloud their judgement. What was once cutting edge becomes an archaic impediment. Instead of building on success, their hubris costs them. It eradicates the secret ingredient of creativity out of innovation.

Henry Ford, The American Industrialist

For example, the father of the modern assembly line, Henry Ford. His revolutionary modernization of the manufacturing process made a car that working-class citizens could afford. In his Ford plant, he tinkered endlessly to create a moving assembly line. His repeated iterations helped him cut down the Model T’s chassis assembly time from 12 hours 8 minutes to 93 minutes in a year. Enamoured by his success, Ford became entrenched in his views.

Throughout the mid-1920s, Henry Ford refused to develop new models despite intense competition from other manufacturers who offered greater variety and customization. Sales for the Model T dropped off a cliff, and soon, it was considered old-fashioned and became the punchline of popular jokes. It was only in 1927 that Ford switched to producing Model As. By then, it was too late, Ford never regained the market share it enjoyed in its heyday.

The true cost of dogma

Fundamentally, life-long learning is a philosophy that continuously confronts us with the limits of our wisdom. Yet, it shows us that we can become even better leaders and decision-makers with sufficient epistemic humility. This is why all of us (especially the alumni) must be lifelong learners. This attitude of life-long learning saves us from the ills of complacency and dogma that have plagued even the greatest of leaders and innovators.

学如逆水行舟,不进则退.
Learning is like sailing against the currents. A failure to advance is akin to regression. - Chinese Proverb

To be a good leader who can withstand the stormiest of seas, we must know how to sail against the currents. To sail against the currents is to grapple with uncertainty, explore novel ideas, and find merit in those we disagree with. In short, leaders ride with discomfort.

This is why we, the alumni, must continue to attend dialogues, debate with each other and engage current students so that we can continuously explore new ideas. The objective is always to harness our networks to become learners and leaders.

Legacy Oriented

Lee Kuan Yew : The First Among Equals (Straits Times) 

To secure the long-term prosperity of LKYSPP, we need to build traditions and practices that will last beyond our lifetime. We must embrace the paradox of building on the past and innovating for the future. For the next few years, the alumni may still take the backseat in building up the school, but as we approach the 30th anniversary of LKYSPP, the alumni network must play a much more active role.

For the Singapore alumni chapter, by merit of our proximity, we would serve as the de-facto leader. Our level of enthusiasm and participation will influence the strength of other alumni chapters. The strength of our alumni network will, in turn, impact the experience and reputation of our programs.

If I could dream of what LKYSPP would be like in 2054, I hope we would fully embody the spirit of our founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Like him, we would be known for our pragmatism, creativity and incorruptible character. I also sincerely hope that LKYSPP will succeed in the same measure as Singapore did in fifty years.

It should be within reason that in 2054, LKYSPP, like Harvard and Stanford, would graduate heads of states, heads of central banks and cabinet officials. By then, I hope our alumni would have contributed significantly to creating a freer, safer, richer and more equitable world for all.

Kishore Mahbubani at the Harvard Kennedy School

To achieve this strategic objective, we must begin building today. As a start, we can leverage our existing networks to connect our students to thought leaders in the policy space and marketplace. We can experiment with new initiatives to support the students that come after us. As the first and second-generation alumni, we have the power of the pioneering spirit and the privilege of building from the ground up.

If we do this well, the greatest achievement would not be the success of any single program. We, the pioneering alumni, have imbued a sense of ownership in future generations of students. This deep sense of ownership will help make LKYSPP an important and lasting institution in Asia’s future.