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Heads up – Embassy 35

Coming up trumps

One of the first purchases T Jasudasen made on his arrival in London was an Oystercard.

Singapore’s new High Commissioner is quite content to leave the flag car parked at the Chancery and brave the hustle and bustle of the tube or bus (after all, he comes from the city that invented the congestion charge – and by the way, diplomats posted in Singapore do pay for road usage!)

Using public transport is a great way to “get under the skin of a place,” he says. And while Londoners are being cautioned to “mind the gap” on the tube, his job as a diplomat here is to “find the gap”.

It’s only by staying ahead of the game that Singapore – cast adrift in 1965 as a tiny, crowded, multicultural city state with no natural resources – has evolved into one of the most efficient and competitive economies in the world.

The dynamo behind this transformation is Singapore’s 88-year-old ‘founding father’ Lee Kuan Yew who, after the May elections, has decided to step down from his mentoring role in cabinet to make way for a new generation of leaders, including his son Lee Hsien Loong who is the current Prime Minister.

But don’t expect a major shift, says the High Commissioner. “Revolutionary change causes too much destruction; evolutionary change gives you time to adjust and correct errors.”

Turning adversity into opportunity is the Singaporean way. “We can’t change the cards that history has given us but we try to play the best possible game with what we’ve been dealt,” reflects Jasudasen.

So instead of bemoaning its lack of natural resources, Singapore invested heavily in its one asset: people.

“We’ve spent much effort into getting our education system right,” says Jasudasen. And with an innovative ‘multiple pathways’ schooling system that helps each individual reach maximum potential, their dropout rate is among the lowest
in the world.

A merit-based system of equal opportunities is also a way to maintain the delicate balance in multicultural society and get the best out of people, he adds.

Top students go on to compete with the best in the world. The High Commissioner himself got a place at France’s prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Adminstration which proved invaluable when he was posted there as Ambassador (1997-2004).

“If you come from an Anglophone culture it is useful to learn to think and operate in a different way,” he says.

Nowadays many Singaporean students opt to study at home. With two Singaporean universities in the world top 50 and a string of research institutes, Singapore is aspiring to become ‘Boston of the East’ and is attracting some of the brightest and best from South East Asia, China and India, says the High Commissioner.

Quality education and a focus on R&D has enabled the island to leap up the value chain where it is now a leader in the high-tech digital industry (every household on the island has access to superfast broadband), as well as the biotech and pharmaceuticals fields.

For example, when the SARS virus hit Asia in 2003, it spurred Singaporean researchers to become a leader in the production of vaccine test kits and cheap, effective thermal scans.

A multicultural society of Chinese, Indians and Malays has also given Singapore a foothold in the growing economies of China, India, Southeast Asia and the Gulf.

That has seen its financial sector expand from traditional banking and the forex markets into asset and wealth management as fund managers increasingly set up financial services in Singapore to get a slice of the growth opportunities in the region.

But the challenge, says the High Commissioner, is to find ways to “remain relevant” to the region.

The High Commissioner knows Singapore’s neighbours well – his last posting was as High Commissioner to Malaysia (2006-2011) and prior to that he was Ambassador to Myanmar (2004-2006), which gave him an appreciation of the role that ASEAN has played in that country’s reform process.

“Myanmar had gone through a difficult period in its history and ASEAN believed that isolation was not the answer.

“Our approach was to take them in as a member of our family and when we meet the rest of the world they get to see how the rest of the world works and this helps them evolve into a normal country. I am confident they will achieve great success within a decade or so.”

Now in London, the energetic High Commissioner is constantly looking for where he can add value to what is already a very strong relationship.

He also takes a keen interest in the work of the Commonwealth and the IMO, where Singapore is an active member of the Council sharing its maritime expertise and experience with other member states.

And even in his down time, the High Commissioner makes a point of meeting Brits across the UK from all walks of life – whether he’s shooting pheasants in rural England, sharing a pint of Guinness in a Belfast pub or sitting on a metroline (Singapore-managed) London Bus or cab.

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HE Mr Thambynathan Jasudasen

“Revolutionary change causes too much destruction. Evolutionary change gives you time to adjust and correct errors...We can’t change the cards that history has given us but we try to play the best possible game with what we’ve been dealt”

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