The mentors who made me

STANDING in my early 30s in the Istana in front of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, dressed in his impeccable white, I knew that there was no point in being overawed by the presence of Singapore’s founding father. No matter what I said, he had heard it before. But if I squirmed, he would yawn, and that would not be good for me, to put it mildly. So I put up a brave front as I answered his questions on the role of the Indonesian military after the fall of President Suharto, the agency of Islam-based politics in that country, and whether the archipelagic country would break up, and how Singapore should position itself in the new regional circumstances. Let us say that I passed that examination.

What followed was extraordinary. Mr Lee’s razor-sharp mind tutored me to think strategically about events and their impact on our tiny island city-state. His mentorship alerted me to the need for integrity, intelligence and decisiveness in thinking. Integrity means never fooling oneself (or others) through delusional thinking. The world will not be what Singaporeans want it to be: Instead, Singaporeans must be what the reality of international affairs obliges them to be. Intelligence means alertness: Singaporeans must never take the present state of global affairs for granted but must possess the knowledge-born foresight to determine their course of action before events strike them across the face like a slap. Decisiveness means having the iron willpower to act before events overtake the capacity for action. In the years since I met that giant of a man, my professional life has been guided by his instinctive realism, which itself was born of a deep understanding of human nature — both its selfish limitations and its ameliorative capacity for rationality, empathy and compassion.

Mr Lee’s insights into world affairs was preceded by that of Mr Leslie Fong, the editor of The Straits Times, whom I still believe to be the best editor of that newspaper. I was a mere “rookie” — a recent recruit — on the paper but had secured an interview with Malaysian Defence Minister Dato Sri Najib Razak, later to be Prime Minister of his country, in which he spoke with alarming candidness about Malaysia’s relations with Singapore. The Straits Times ran my article, which generated controversy invariably, but it resulted in Leslie giving me a pat on my shoulder soon after and encouraging me to do more good work. His courage in standing up for good journalism sparked my ambition to be an even better journalist. Again, I suppose that I passed that test. Leslie’s leadership of ST was the zenith of the quality of its regional coverage. He knew the region better than anyone in the newsroom and stood up for us. The Straits Times has deteriorated completely today to the point of possibly terminal decline because of an abysmal lack of managerial and editorial leadership.

Leslie’s mentorship was preceded by that of the incomparable Lim Siong Guan, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. MINDEF is where I began my professional career. Mr Lim’s weekly “prayer” meetings with staff had nothing to do with religion, unless by that term you meant complete and utter faith in Singapore. Those “prayer” sessions consisted of Mr Lim providing MINDEF staff with tutorials on Singapore’s tryst with destiny, its chances of survival and success, and what we should do to stay abreast of the recurrent trials of global politics.

My path to MINDEF lay though the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where I graduated with a fine degree in political science. The redoubtable Michael Leifer gave me a scolding in my first term, shattering the academic ego that had built up in me during my school days in Singapore. But by the time of my departure from LSE, I was at the top of the class, and Professor Leifer had turned into a benign mentor who spoke about Lee Luan Yew’s success in developing Singapore from a third to a first world in one generation.

His relentless erudition had worked its magic on me. He had cleared the basics of my understanding of that academic discipline of the debris of false expectations and consequently wrong choices. I doubt that I could have withstood Mr Lee’s grilling on Indonesia without what I had learned from Professor Leifer’s lifelong interest in Southeast Asia in general and in Indonesia in particular. Also, my education at LSE prepared me to hold my own at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I was privileged to be selected as a Mason Fellow.

However, it was during my sojourn in Indonesia as a consultant that a billionaire befriended me, I know not why but he mentored my entry to the world of business. No begowned academic rules apply in that naked, vicious, cutthroat world. What he taught me in his rough-and-ready Bahasa Indonesia in idiomatic shorthand was the pithy lesson: “In business, you must always give before you take”. He made me a businessman. By business, I mean the ability to create wealth for others before I claim a share of that wealth.

And so life goes on. I owe my success to my mentors. Had I met the wrong set of people, I might have become a failure or a charlatan. I am neither. And I have just written this piece to say why.

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