Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister of State, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Education, at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Hwa Chong Asia-Pacific Young Leaders Summit on Monday, 16 July 2012, at Hwa Chong Institution Clock Tower Auditorium at 8.15am
Mr Desmond Ong,
Chairman, Board of Governors, Hwa Chong Institution
Dr Hon Chiew Weng,
Principal, Hwa Chong Institution
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am pleased to join you at this year’s Hwa Chong Asia-Pacific Young Leaders Summit. Let me start by commending Hwa Chong Institution for its good work in bringing together youth leaders from 12 countries across different continents to network, exchange perspectives and learn from one another. To all our friends from overseas, welcome to Singapore, and I hope you will make the most of your time here to enjoy this place and make new friends.
As part of the summit, you will be discussing global issues, like tackling climate change, reducing poverty and debt, managing population and immigration challenges, and upholding universal ideals like democracy and human rights. Many of these big issues of the day cannot be solved by one country alone. Today, the fates of our communities are more intertwined than before. Problems that once belonged to sovereign states, like environmental pollution and organised crime, have now become globalised due to the free flow of people, goods and ideas.
Tackling such global issues requires leadership. And that’s why the theme of this year’s Summit, “Leadership by Example” is so relevant. Many of the issues we face today require us to confront tough choices and make difficult trade-offs between different and competing desired goals. Leaders have to engage, persuade and inspire in order to develop a consensus on the way forward.
At the same time, the exercise of leadership has become more complex and challenging. In an internet age, hierarchies are flattening, information is proliferating and public expectations are rising. People do not just want to be told the answer, but they want to be part of the process in coming up with the solutions. These are positive developments, but they also bring fresh challenges. For example, the internet gives us unprecedented choice and free access to information. But the internet can also be an echo chamber that amplifies inflammatory opinions, half-truths and untruths, thereby potentially undermining trust in authority and institutions.
In such an environment, the imperatives of good leadership are more keenly felt that ever before. Leaders have to do more to win the trust and respect of the people they lead; they have to engage and listen to a wide range of diverse views, especially in an internet era where hierarchies are flattening, and people want to have their voices heard; they have to persuade and inspire, to rally and mobilise people towards a shared purpose and common goals.
All of you are future leaders in your own communities and countries, and you should recognize and understand these realities and challenges of leadership. But you also need to see the tremendous opportunities for positive change and transformation that leadership can bring. And that’s why I would like to challenge all of you to think hard about how you can be more effective leaders; how you can take steps to lead by example, and to bring about tangible improvements in your own communities.
I am not here to offer any grand advice on leadership—it is something you will all have to learn and discover for yourself. But I would like to share a few brief reflections from my own experience.
Firstly, leadership is about service. This is critical because leadership must come from a desire to serve, whether it is your community or your country. The concept of service also applies in leadership itself. A servant leader, in particular, is one who pays attention to the needs and the development of the people he leads and seeks to maximise their potential, by empowering and encouraging them. The effective leader is one who does not have to be very prominent; he gives his people credit for their successes. I like an old Chinese saying that goes: if the effective leader has done his work, the people under him will say that the achievements they made were done by themselves. There is another quote about servant leadership which makes this point: “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” Whether in professional or personal environments, I believe the person who focuses on serving first, will succeed in the long term.
Secondly, leadership is about active listening and learning. Leaders are not super human beings who somehow have the right answers all the time. Leaders must keep learning, and improving themselves. They must be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. The former US President Eisenhower once gave this advice to potential leaders: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” And this advice is even more relevant today, in an age where knowledge is proliferating, and technology is advancing very rapidly. All the more, the leader will not know everything. And in fact, the people whom he leads may know more, especially if you are in a very specialised field.
Leadership should be guided by the lights of learning and reason. One way to learn is to actively seek out information. Before making a decision, always get the best and most current and reliable information. Distinguish between hard facts, and speculations, opinions or even rumours. But at the same time, do not just expose yourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with your own. It is easy to find people that confirm your own view—the economists call this ‘confirmation bias’. Instead look for perspectives that challenge your own assumptions and beliefs. Also, broaden your circle of interaction with people who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You will learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, and to understand where the people who disagree with you are coming from. In the process, you will make better decisions and become a more effective leader.
Thirdly, leadership is about doing and making things happen. Leadership is not about telling people what to do. It’s about showing the way, setting an example with your words and actions, and ultimately, inspiring people to follow. Some of the global challenges that you are discussing in this Summit may seem large and overwhelming. But you should not be daunted by the scale of these challenges because you can begin to make a difference in your own communities by spearheading innovative projects that meet very specific local needs.
For example, a group of students from Hwa Chong Institution, who felt strongly about nature and conservation, recognized the need to raise the community’s awareness of the importance of preserving our nature reserves. It’s something huge to start battling a problem like this. But they began by designing a guided trail around the rich biodiversity of MacRitchie Reservoir (a reservoir in Central Singapore). So they started to make a difference in a very small but meaningful way. It is a simple illustration but it shows how young people like yourselves can get involved in making a difference, in shaping the character and tone of society and improving the lives of those around you.
I am confident all of you will develop and grow as leaders, as you progress through school and later on through your careers. You will have your achievements and successes that you’ll be proud of, and also your share of mistakes. That’s OK. Learn from your failures and always strive to improve. Develop your own style of leadership, and learn how to be effective leaders in your own way.
Finally I hope that as you deliberate on issues and engage in frank and constant dialogue at this Summit, you will also take the opportunity to develop lasting friendships and bonds and create a global fraternity. Capitalise on this experience to step in each other’s shoes and understand each other better, both individually and culturally. I urge you to take back with you the lessons learnt during this exchange and share your experience with your peers when you return home. I wish you a very successful Summit and a productive and inspirational learning experience.