The last thing I expected in Singapore was to debate the American presidential election. Yet Philip Yeo
pressed me for my views. His table was filled with laminated articles and print outs abut what is happening across the world. With his secretary repeatedly running in print-outs for our building discussion and a humming ipad sending me references in real time, I realized that Phillip is a dedicated student of the world and an innovation tour de force.
A program of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, SPRING is an acronym for it’s Standards, Productivity and Innovation for Growth
. With this program Phillip has become a powerful mover for Singapore’s entrepreneurial community and given it a global context. Part of his efforts have been to take Singapore’s innovation efforts beyond its borders. Philip explained that with a local workforce of 419,000 people, the local manufacturing economy currently generated SGD273 bn (US$220 bn) in 2011, but by expanding their base internationally, Singapore can have a much bigger impact.
Singapore’s companies leads many overseas efforts, but one of the most compelling is their acquisition of property abroad to set up manufacturing parks to help create jobs for the host countries. Naturally their projects are distributed throughout the ASEAN region
, (Vietnam and Indonesia), China and India. But their reach is much broader as well, with projects all over the world, including a massive airplane maintenance facility in the USA.On the floor of one of his conference rooms is a stack of topographic photos and development plans. He showed me that in some cases, he’s even filling land in to achieve enough land for these projects. Given their massive scale, they become mixed-use facilities as well, bringing housing, banks, restaurants, and shopping all integrated together.
I asked about the mechanics of running something of this scale. Typically the ventures are floated on the Singapore Exchange (SGX) to raise the starting capital. The local players get involved and normally take a majority ownership share with Singapore’s companies retaining a minority share. Then key tenants are recruited if not already targeted. In terms of operations, Singapore’s companies populates the majority of the decision making team. He says that normally the vast majority of the labor force is from the host country.
In many places they go, others were not able to invest. Corruption was many times the biggest barrier. As a condition of Singapore’s companies involvement, he insists that their projects be free and clear of these issues. I know there was much more to this then he led on. Of course I had to ask Phillip when he was going to do a project in North Carolina. He quickly responded, “Actually the USA is a good place to start manufacturing right now but we won’t invest there because when we do, the lawyers will come.” Without capped settlements for worker safety claims, Phillip says the risk is just too high.
Given the prowess Phillip demonstrated on our discussion of American politics, I realized I was not prepared to argue the point. However I was inspired to see how big ideas can transform a small country. Efforts like SPRING and Design Singapore show how the perceived weakness of the nation’s small size has been turned around into the strengths of being nimble and focused, thereby enabling Singapore to become a global design and innovation leader. Lots to learn here!