Singapore, All In On 4G Succession

The country’s first woman president calls on the next generation of leaders to step up. Should companies think so far ahead too?

It was her first address as the country’s first woman president. Sitting behind a podium desk before Parliament, President Halimah Yacob offered a series of bold initiatives for a city-state never shy about being just that. Her strongest message: a callout to the next generation of emerging leaders. 

In her recent address, the president stressed the urgency for Fourth Generation (4G) leaders to make bold policy changes, saying they should not be “content to tweak things at the margins” to ensure the country adapts and thrives. And in some ways, the island country or city-state is already far ahead in its political succession planning; after a recent cabinet reshuffle, 4G leaders now helm two-thirds of the ministries. 

Such vision is in line with Singapore, which has historically been known for being run like a well-tuned corporation built into one of the world’s most important financial centers. Only now, the “Zurich of the East” is gunning for high-tech supremacy and is fostering an aggressive succession plan to get there. 

“Singapore has realized there’s a global fight for brainpower,” says Michael Distefano, President, Asia Pacific at Korn Ferry. “They are doing things to try to keep their home-grown talent.” Effective succession is at issue here as well. Distefano says that it is instrumental to identify emerging leaders, “long before they are stars,” to adequately prepare them for the uncertainty of future challenges and manage their expectations.

According to Tonny Loh, senior client partner at Korn Ferry in Singapore, there are several key traits the next generation will need in a disrupted digital world. For one, as Singapore continues its international push, the next leaders will “need to have that global mind-set, global perspective, and the ability to operate in different local contexts,” he says.

Courage to challenge the status quo and take risks is key, too. “As President Halimah rightly points out, we need to make bold changes and we need to be able to challenge difficult topics, to make those bold changes,” says Loh. “What’s needed is the courage to speak or think differently. This is very often a trait where many leaders, especially here in Asia have significant gaps.” He also stressed the need for next-generation leaders to have the ability to manage ambiguity and take risks. A recent Korn Ferry research on best in class digital leaders revealed that Singaporean leaders show a high level of discomfort with ambiguity which limits their capacity to manage and adapt to changing conditions.

“Increasing their comfort level in dealing with ambiguity will be essential for leading in the digital age. Finding ways to embrace it more frequently in different situations will help grow their capacity for working through and making decisions in uncertain conditions, as well as fostering breakthrough solutions,” he says.