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Getting Singapored

Kishan Rana  |  New Delhi 

A successful service organisation builds up a vast fund of knowledge. The problem: it resides with people, or in dusty dossiers.
How might this be mined, producing stories that have inspirational value, which in the telling further embellishes that brand? That is what Singapore's renowned (EDB) has done in a seemingly hagiographic but essentially honest narration as one of the drivers of Singapore's prosperity.
I was struck that the compilation includes narratives by 28 current or past EDB officials, each on a specific foreign investment project, or an investor country, or an industry sector. They offer extraordinary insight into investment promotion.
Economic promotion is a notoriously inexact craft. It involves the mobilisation of resources, calculation and chance. Innovation often takes place when opportunity meets preparation. A story from the vast repertoire of Singapore's EDB illustrates this point well.
In 1969, was looking to a location in SE Asia for a machine tool plant. When EDB learnt that a senior vice-president was to transit Singapore in a special aircraft, it offered to show him Singapore's "heavy commitment to skilled worker training".
It opened its training center on a Sunday, to prove its commitment to skill development; decided to set up that factory in Singapore.
An identical experience was recounted at a CII-organised training seminar in New Delhi in 1997, by the young representatives of a major US precision industry company. They carried out an internal campaign to sensitise their management to the emerging opportunities in India.
In the end, a senior executive was asked to stopover in India on way back from South Korea. They persuaded one of their contacts to keep a manufacturing plant near Gurgaon open on Saturday night, taking him there directly from the airport; the next day was reserved for Agra.
Again, that changed the company's thinking about India. Within a year, two joint ventures had been established!
Not everything works as planned. Time is the biggest enemy, reshaping the context unexpectedly. EDB learnt that success also carries its price.
In 1970, it lured to invest in Singapore. The products were an instant success, re-exported to Germany, at just half the German cost.
upped its investment from an initial $35 million to $150 million. EDB gave 'first mover' privilege, an exclusivity protection agreement, turning down Japanese companies that sought to come to Singapore.
By 1975 Europe was in recession, and the 35 camera was old technology, overtaken by the 'single lens reflex' (SLR). went into receivership in 1981. EDB went to Nikon to ask if it would take over the manufacturing facilities, but having been spurned earlier, it was not interested.
The net gain: the 5,000 superbly trained Singapore workers shifted to other ventures, especially the new SMEs that were mushrooming.
EDB wooed Seiko in 1970-73 to set up a major watch plant. It overcame doubt amongst members of Seiko's management board, deftly handled hostile questions on Singapore's reliability as a national location, and acted coolly after having won.
The lesson: many climb bandwagons that are on a roll, but to persuade the first investor is the hardest job of all.
The story reveals how success replicates itself. By 2002 the wafer 'fabs' employed 12,000. Results in wooing the services industry were dramatic; of the 10 "world class universities" targeted, 8 accepted, where they are now "strong icons... nothing like it (exists) anywhere else in the world, not even in Boston".
The account by the legendary Phillip Yeo, Chairman of EDB, speaks of the qualities of "passion" and "courage to take risks" which this organisation sought in the top talent recruited.
This it did in the simple realisation that attracting foreign investment and technology would define Singapore's future, and so indeed it was.
Much of Singapore's success story is relevant to India. Do our institutions of excellence ever narrate their real stories? Do we woo investment well enough?
Our FIPBs and the high-level investment advisory boards resemble hollow boxes""visible, even attractive from the outside, but devoid of promotional power, utterly lacking in marketing expertise. Can we learn from others?

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