Your Singapore, and mine, too

Your Singapore, and mine, too

Dear Singapore

I write this letter as I turn 89 for two reasons. First I want to thank you; second I want to tell you why Singapore has been so important to me, as it has been to many people.

By way of background, the first visit I paid to Singapore was in 1975. In 1979 I was asked to come and live here for one year to get rid of three small Australasian businesses that my British parent company, Ranks Hovis McDougall, didn’t want any longer. They had decided to develop in the United States. I thought that was a mistake. On arrival in Singapore I realised that the businesses I had been asked to get rid of were potentially valuable. So I decided to grow them. That’s how I got to build Cerebos Pacific Ltd. The business was bought by Suntory Ltd of Japan in 1990.

With the exception of a five year period from 1999, I have now lived in Singapore for the last forty-two years. I am very blessed to have been here for that long and to regard Singapore as my true home. I have many things to thank Singapore for.

First, and right at the top of my list, is having known Mr Lee Kuan Yew and many of the ministers who worked with him. I could write a lot about the impact Mr Lee made on the world but I will tell one story. When Marina Bay Sands (MBS) was complete, LKY was getting quite old. One of his ministers took him to the top of MBS, showed him the magnificent view of Singapore and said “You built all that”. “No,” replied LKY, “They built all that.” And his arm swept across the span of the city to denote the population of the Island.

Mr Lee’s personal humility is reflected in the fact that, at his request, there is no statue of him.

A city-state is more than an individual. As we all know, the CEO’s job is to build a culture. From the simple but assertively enforced principles on which modern day Singapore was founded, an amazing country and a fantastic society has emerged. It has encouraged creative people to join in developing what was so soundly based. Singapore is now a country where many more want to live than can currently fit in.

We all struggle with the paradox of the opposing ideologies of the West – the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan et al – and Authoritarianism epitomised by China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Belarus et al. We ask ourselves which “side” to take, as if in a school playground. But the business of modifying capitalism and accommodating authoritarianism is no kids’ game. It has to acknowledge that freedom is as capable of corruption as any other system of governance.

The more we learn about life and how it is created, developed and perpetuated, the less certain we become about absolutes. We learn that belief is only credible when accompanied by doubt. For centuries we have understood that there are two sides to every argument. Only more recently have we learnt how close those two sides are. Only now do we work for them to meet.

Greater knowledge brings with it greater forces, sometimes of conviction, sometimes of physical power, often of both. Handling these more powerful ingredients is not easy. We remain mortals for all the progress we have made. We can be just as stupid as the Dodo, just as unfortunate as the Dinosaur. Steadying the craft that finds the middle way – the way that all can live – requires strength and stature in a combination that is extremely rare. Singapore has those qualities. That is why I stay in Singapore and will do so until I die.

I have given a couple of the political and business reasons for admiring Singapore. Let me end with a somewhat less fraught story.

During our five years overseas at the start of the century we came back to Singapore each year – Eliza and I still had our apartment and we had many friends we wanted to catch up with. The last time we returned in order to stay for good, as we had always intended. The Immigration Officer at Changi Airport was a Malay lady. She took my Passport and did the necessary work on it then she handed it back to me.

“Welcome back,” she said, “It’s nice to have you home”.

“And it’s nice to be home, too, Ma’am,” I replied.

Thank you, Singapore.

John Bittleston