Field Lab: Exploring Business and Leadership in Singapore

As our bus maneuvered around the massive construction site in between the cruise terminal and the financial district, students in Professor John Girard’s Global Comparative Leadership class got a first-hand glimpse of Singapore’s seemingly endless economic boom. The site will soon be home to an expanse of new high rises that will more than double the size of the current financial district. “The state believes: If you build it, they will come,” our guide, Tony, told us with a smile.

Undoubtedly, if you want to study business and leadership, there are few better places in the world to do so than on the island of Singapore. The country is not only the fourth largest financial center in the world, but it also retains a vibrant mix of both traditional and modern businesses. Professor Girard of Minot State University has visited Singapore several times and was eager to share the experience with his students. “I think Singapore is one of the most culturally unique business capitals on the planet,” he said, “and we’re going to see that in action today.”

At the Urban Redevelopment Authority we gathered around an impressive model of the city to gain a better sense of the variety of businesses that are currently operating in Singapore. However, the true meat of the field lab was being able to interact with real business owners all over town. As we made our way across the city visiting a range of businesses including market vendors, Chinese medicine experts, and carpet sellers, there was one word that kept coming up: adaptation. It was evident that traditional traders still had a role to play in the Singaporean economy—but they needed to be able to change with the times.

Student, Emily Kathe of The Ohio State University chats with Anthony, a local spice trader. “He made a really good adaptation to how his trade has changed over the years,” she reflected. “He’s been successful because he was willing to be innovative.”

One great example of this was uncovered in Chinatown where we had the opportunity to meet Anthony, a second generation spice trader, who has a passion for curry and a keen business sense. When Anthony realized that modern Singaporeans were too busy to wait around for spices to be ground on the spot in the traditional way, he transformed his business to meet the new demands of his customers. Now Anthony sells prepackaged spices that he mixes himself, and even includes simple recipes along with each packet so that his busy customers can prepare quick and easy meals. Anthony’s business is now booming because he found a way for it to remain relevant in the modern world.

The need to adapt was also a recurring theme in our discussions about leadership throughout the day. As our guide, Tony, explained, “different people require different types of leadership styles.” He then added, “If you ask my staff what my leadership style is, they’ll all say something different.” Tony is not only a tour guide, he’s also a successful entrepreneur, running a hostel, restaurant, and tour company. He emphasized that the autocratic approach to leadership that is seen most often in Singapore needs to adapt, as well. That sentiment was shared by Ben Lee, a start-up guru we met with nearby who assured us that the spread of entrepreneurship in Singapore is helping the country move away from more hierarchical approaches to leadership.

Students walk through the Malay district of Singapore as they explore how traditional businesses have transformed.

As our bus eventually made its way from the Malay section of town back to the ship, Professor Girard said, “If I had my way, we’d repeat this day in five different ports.” Girard believes strongly in the importance of exposing his students to different types of businesses so that their in-class research and discussions about leadership around the world can be better informed.

About the Author

Tori Hogan

Tori Hogan

Tori Hogan is an author, filmmaker, photographer, aid specialist, and global nomad. Her endless curiosity about the world has led her to spend time on every continent and in more than seventy-five countries. Throughout the past decade Tori has traveled throughout Africa, Asia, and South America producing films and educational programs about how to improve the field of international aid. She received her B.A. from Duke University and a Masters in International Education Policy from Harvard University. More information about Tori and her recently released book, "Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey Into the Realities of International Aid," can be found at www.beyondgoodintentions.com .