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Think Big, Act Boldly

Blog | Life and Leadership   |   October 16, 2015

by Mrs. Pamelia Lee

In 1966, marriage transplanted me as a young sapling from the island of Hawaii, across the Pacific ocean, to the island of Singapore. And in the 1970s I found myself transformed from housewife to government officer, with the heavy responsibility of marketing Singapore.

As I struggled with fulfilling my new role in the Singapore Tourism Board, a friend advised me: “Don’t forget, you are not being hired to maintain the status quo; you are being hired for your ideas.” I never forgot this, and took on courage and boldness, despite my lack of experience. I feel it’s this boldness and eagerness to innovate that became key to transforming Singapore tourism over the years.

The Singapore tourism experience of today did not come out of thin air. It was a series of battles and victories. Mistakes and successes. But one thing was consistent—our conviction to think big, and act boldly.

There are two project stories I would like to share that illustrate innovative, user-oriented thinking as key to a project’s success:

1. Sentosa Link Bridge

Back in the day, Sentosa was only accessible by boat. I pushed heavily for the bridge linking Sentosa directly to the island of Singapore. I had a lot of reservations too—I did not want to sacrifice the island feeling of Sentosa, at the same time we had to move forward to make Sentosa more accessible, so that we could maximize its potential. The bridge finally opened in 1992, and I was so relieved that the bridge did not diminish the charming island feel.

But earlier on, when I pushed for the bridge, I was alone in this recommendation. The senior staff of Sentosa did not support the link. I felt that Sentosa was neither here nor there at the time—too near to offer a sense of adventure, and too far to be convenient. So I took my stand.

My business instinct told me that without a link, Sentosa’s development could not be intensified nor could it support residential developments. Sentosa has the capacity to cater to the mass market. To cater to the market, the cost of conducting business had to be low. That would not have been possible if every drink, every souvenir, had to be carted over by boat.

I was asked to prove my point by conducting a study, which the Ministry of Trade & Industry would finance. I hired Harry Helber, who established that the character of the islands would not be marred by a land link. He also showed that the government could easily recover our capital investment through land sales.

The Helber report was adopted. It led to the building of Sentosa land link, the introduction of residential homes, and more hostels. I supported the idea of residential homes from the start. Sentosa finally saw the rosy projections from the Helber report and agreed to it.

My dream for Sentosa is that one day, it will be like Hawaii, where part of the fun is staying in a local hotel, to experience lazing and dining in a different setting. To achieve this, the island feeling of Sentosa must be vigilantly maintained and car access can be controlled, not eliminated.

As the link bridge in this story illustrates, everything is interconnected. Tourism is not an island; it is interconnected with private sector services as well—hotels, businesses, services. The user experience is best conceptualized with these connections in mind.

2. Night Safari

When Bernard Harrison, former chief of the Wild Life Reserves Singapore, brought the Night Safari proposal to the Tourism Product Development Plan committee, the sceptics had a field day. One sceptic, who was a zoologist and really loved nature, felt it would not work because we could not stage what animals do.

But Harrison knew what others did not know: that the night light would hide all things unsightly and guide the eye to see what the planners would want visitors to see. Singapore is cool and exotic at night, and this proposal fits our objectives to develop more night entertainment activities. After so many attempts, we finally developed a viable outdoor, night attraction.

When the proposal first came to the committee, I thought to myself, we should let the animals run wild, and put the humans in meandering net enclosures. I wanted people to walk up and feel nature in an intimate way. The closeness to nature was indeed achieved, but without net enclosures.

A Vision for Singapore

At the Singapore Tourism Board, we were not being bold just for the sake of it. Our courage and drive were fueled by a vision and dream for Singapore. We were faced with all sorts of obstacles, but every decision and move we made, we would always ask ourselves: will this help move Singapore forward? And will this create a meaningful experience for both tourists and locals? We fought for innovation as well as cultural significance and relevance.

“Innovation” was not exactly in our daily vocabulary but it is deeply imbedded in our culture. A deep sense of the customer or tourist experience enabled us to provide outstanding products and services. Here are some ways that our work as tourism officers reflects a culture of innovation, which are applicable in business as much as in tourism:

  • We take a “How Can” rather than “Cannot” approach.
  • We initiate positivity and optimism to achieve a goal.
  • Design and build with the environment at large in mind, rather than their individual projects alone.
  • Be mindful of building a legacy for future generations.
  • Be open-minded. Take the “humble pie” approach and keep exploring and learning.

We are constantly perfecting the Jewel called Singapore. In essence, this means we set out to polish our facets, eliminate our flaws and determine how to set Singapore to its best advantage. To find new and outstanding ideas that will work and bring us to the next plateau.

Many ideas you think are wonderful will fizzle out if you don’t take into consideration the way the market works, or in the case of tourism, what is happening in the countries around us. But everything is a journey, and fear of failure should be nonexistent.

Who’s Next?

The tourism industry needs visionaries, inside and outside the industry to harness the best resources in the world to reach new heights. Singapore needs visionaries, in this generation and the next, to be stewards as much as innovators, whether in tourism, small business, or a large MNC, and to bravely take our wonderful story into the next exciting chapter. And I hope you will be one of them.

Mrs Pamelia Lee has been described as a visionary for Singapore tourism. Her ideas, leadership, and passion for Singapore are behind many of the country’s tourism highlights, milestones, and achievements. Mrs. Lee is former Chief Coordinator of the S$1 billion Singapore Tourism Product Development Plan.

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