A Dispatch From Singapore

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, Richard R. Smith shares some leadership lessons from that country, which previously experienced a SARS outbreak.

March 10, 2020
 
 
Singapore Management University in Singapore

While Singapore was recently the home of Crazy Rich Asians, a more current view might be “Crazy Vigilant Singaporeans.” The COVID-19 outbreak is causing alarm around the world, but here in Singapore, we find a quiet calm as we go about a significantly modified way of life. The small island country is a natural hub of human connections with more than 20 million visitors a year, yet it has managed to mostly contain the virus's spread quite rapidly. Ironically, the early spike in the Singapore numbers was a result of early detection and fast action to contain the spread. As a long-term resident of Singapore, I must commend the national efforts and share a few leadership lessons.

Learning from the past -- ready for the future. “Here is your key card, log-in access, office key and personal thermometer,” said the university administrator when I started teaching many years ago. I was puzzled with the thermometer as a standard-issue device for every employee. In fact, I remember joking about it and suggested that they also give us a snorkel in case of tsunamis (my sarcastic American humor is not always appreciated). Since I was not here during the 2003 SARS outbreak, I never appreciated the importance of having a thermometer in my desk drawer, but now I use it twice daily. How often do we really take critical lessons from the past to protect our future?

Planning alternatives -- the ability to move quickly. “Every instructor must complete the training for delivering their courses in an online format in case of emergency,” the university provost told us more than seven years ago. It seemed a bit unnecessary at the time, but all of us completed the training -- and were retested each semester. Who would have thought that in 2020 we would need to shift more than 1,000 courses to an online format with less than 12 hours' notice! That could not have been accomplished without the compliance for managing online learning and the ongoing vigilance to keep things running. While we are all set in our own operating modes, how often do we consider what potential risks these worn patterns might hold in the face of disruption?

Clarifying expectations -- universal diligence. “Stop right there! Give me 10 feet and then you can come by,” says my faculty colleague as I meet her in the common hallway. We are still great friends, but it is everyone’s responsibility to avoid unnecessary human contact. Most offices have implemented a split-team arrangement (half of a functional group works at home, with alternating weeks), large gatherings are canceled and restaurants are empty and hotels darkened as we all spend more time at home to avoid interactions with others. To enter a mall, restaurant or any building on our campus, you must pass a temperature screening and oftentimes record your presence. Everyone is on alert, and we have suspended visiting. It is clear that in Singapore we miss all our friends from China. They are still our good friends, but they just can’t visit right now. I wonder, how can we create an environment where mutual expectations are so well understood and executed with pragmatic respect like in Singapore?

Recording data -- information for action. “Prof, I need you to sign in with your contact number,” explained the security guard at the university gym. I had already passed the temperature screening (noted with a colored sticker on my chest), but it was also necessary to provide more data so as to know exactly who is where and when. Contact tracing was a new concept to me and seems like a nearly impossible task, given the movement of people in any large city. The nature of the virus, being very contagious before full symptoms, makes it hard to contain.

For example, if three days ago you were in the university coffee shop next to someone else who was contagious, how would you know? Thanks to manual methods, coupled with facial recognition and device tracking, much can be done to piece together history. Singapore has been able to successfully map and link almost all of the COVID-19 cases. As a result, people sometimes receive a call letting them know that they were exposed and to immediately self-quarantine at home. We live in such a data-rich environment today, but are we able to quickly leverage data from multiple sources for a cooperative effort?

Of course, like any emergency situation, not everything is perfect. While there is a surface calm, there is also an underlying fear. Recently, while on the MRT train, I witnessed a passenger sneeze … the human stampede to get away from him almost knocked me over! And of course, the panic buying after Singapore raised the code-orange alert level did cause some unnecessary alarm -- and empty supermarket shelves for a day … We laugh about it now.

Other than a few incidents, life in this city-state continues on. But as we go about our business in this new normal, forgive us if we don’t shake hands, we carry our hand sanitizer and we might just feel more comfortable wearing a mask on our face.

The nation’s readiness for emergencies is perhaps a function of the size and potential vulnerability, but is still nothing short of remarkable. In spite of the global crisis, classes and university operations have continued without disruption. I am proud of my local colleagues and government officials for their preparation and diligence during this crisis. We are not through this situation yet, but I owe these Crazy Vigilant Singaporeans a debt of thanks and hope that we can all learn from them.

Bio

Richard R. Smith is a professor at Singapore Management University, where he also serves as deputy dean for the Lee Kong Chian School of Business. He is co-author of Rethinking the Business Models of Business Schools: A Critical Review and Change Agenda for the Future.

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