Today, I spent Chinese New Year having a most enjoyable lunch at L'Opera with H.E. Ambassador A. Selverajah of Singapore and Daphne Teo, his deputy chief of mission. It was just the three of us over a nice three-course lunch of antipasto, scalloppine with marsala sauce and gelato so it was an extremely candid and colorful conversation about the beauty of the Philippines, why Singapore works, and what leadership is all about.
Lucky meeting with the future Pope
Ambassador Selverajah was once ambassador to Berlin and concurrently was assigned to the Vatican. He had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II six times. On one of his visits to the Vatican, in the last years of Pope John Paul II's reign, he decided to call on then Cardinal Ratzinger at the Vatican, simply because Cardinal Ratzinger was from Germany and Ambassador Selverajah was ambassador to Germany. They had a very nice meeting. Little did he know then Cardinal Ratzinger would go on to become Pope -- and what a great and lucky opportunity that was to meet the future Pope before all the pomp!
Singapore's success story
We also talked much about Singapore; and I came away learning so much about Singapore and its success story, and wanting to visit again.
"Singapore's such a success story," I marveled to both of them. "I wish the Philippines could emulate Singapore and what it's been able to do over the years."
"Well, the Philippines and Singapore are very different so it's difficult to compare the two," Ambassador Selverajah said. "Singapore was founded by immigrants so over generations we've passed on the values of hardwork and thrift. We've been a very thrifty nation."
"We also are a very hardworking nation," he added. "We've had no choice. We're an island-state with no resources. We're small in terms of size and population, and we have no resources. We don't even have oil."
Ambassador Selverajah also credits the ability of the government and private sector to work together as another reason for its success.
A great leader
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for Singapore's success is former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had the foresight and management skills to turn this island-state from what was basically a backwater village into a prosperous and vibrant First World economy.
"You're lucky to have such a man as a leader," I said to him.
"God is kind and wise, you see," Ambassador Selverajah laughed, and I suspect that he was only half-teasing when he said this. "Compared to other countries in the region, we didn't have size or natural resources. So he had to give us some kind of resource. He gave us a great leader."
Special qualities of a leader
What did Lee Kuan Yew have that was so special? "He's a truly smart man and a great leader," Ambassador Selverajah replied. "He walks the talk. He sets the example and talks straight. He doesn't tolerate corruption."
A third book for younger generations
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has apparently written two books on his life -- including the one in the photo here called The Singapore Story -- and his experience as Singapore's leader. Recently, however, the former PM's been worried about Singaporeans under 35 who he suspects take their wonderful and prosperous lifestyle for granted. They've not learned how hard their forefathers worked to get Singapore to where it is, and now the former PM worries that the younger generations may lose this economic miracle.
He wanted to write a third book on this particular issue when some media suggested that they ask him some hard questions instead that the younger generations have been wanting to ask him, and that his frank answers should instead be put into a book. He agreed, and the result of these series of interviews is a third book entitled "Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going," aimed at younger citizens, that is selling out at the bookstores. Apparently, younger Singaporeans are rushing to buy the book, and Singaporean parents are buying the book anyway for children who aren't lining up at the bookstores.
Ability to laugh at one's self
Another trait Singaporeans seem to have isthe ability to regard themselves humorously. In a reportedly rather critical speech, former Indonesia President B.J. Habibie reportedly referred to Singapore as the "little red dot." He has since denied making such a statement but Singaporeans have started using this statement to refer to themselves with pride for the success the island-state has become in spite of its physical limitations.
In fact, Singaporeans apparently like the "little red dot" remark so much that the Singapore government has published two books on Singapore entitled "Little Red Dot 1" and "Little Red Dot 2."
Hopefully, Ambassador Selverajah will not be returning to Singapore anytime soon. But if and when he does leave the Philippines, he says he will miss two things. "I've been here over two-and-a-half years now," Ambassador Selvarajah said, "and if I leave, I'll really miss the beauty of the Philippines and the warmth of the people. Filipinos taught me about relaxing and enjoying life."
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Tickets for the dinner and concert cost PhP 1499 per person.
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