What Singapore’s Executive Summary Secret can teach us

Singapore Cityscape Photo: Joseph Fernandez

Q: Can a country think, act & behave with one mind?
A: Yes — the answer is Singapore

Singapore with its outlier story compels the world to look at it with a lingering sense of admiration — a small city-state in South East Asia measuring 721.5 kilometers with 5.6 million population that transformed itself from a muddy trading outpost of Asia strategically situated between India, Malaysia and China to a global trading and finance leader that is now the 21st Century’s ‘talent capital’ of the world — attracting the world’s most coveted professionals to work out of this city of immaculately manicured tropical gardens.

So, here’s where the story of its emergence as an Asian leader gets more fascinating. I picked it up from a chance conversation with a retired civil servant who used to work with the office of Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Being a Cambridge educated lawyer, Lee Kuan Yew insisted on reading a perfectly crafted executive summary before he read through any report placed on his table.

When a document that required a decision reached his table for an approval, one glance at the executive summary let him know if he needed to turn the page. Often, he would glance at the executive summary and return the document to be presented again with more detail and deeper research.

This focus on the executive summary had a cascading effect on Singapore ensuring that everyone at every level of an organization understood the purpose of the work they were doing at a level that was relevant to them.

This obsessive focus on the Executive Summary galvanized the entire Pioneer generation of Singaporeans to think, act and behave with one mind in the mission of building their city-state.

Of course, Lee Kuan Yew was an iconic leader of his people instinctively understood the art of being a consummate communicator. Take a moment to listen to his Mudflats to Metropolis speech to get a flavour of his style:

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Mudflats to Metropolis Speech: YouTube

So, coming to the core, what is an executive summary?
An executive summary is an overview of your report for a group of decision makers, explaining the situation, your solution and its benefits. An executive summary is ideally 2 paragraphs, though it can extend to a page. A thumb rule you could use it that it does not exceed more than 10% of your document.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind. An executive summary should communicate independently of your report for a decision maker who wants to understand the issue at a glance. The irony, of course is that the best executive summary that you create can only sit atop the best report that you have created!

The key difference between an executive summary and an abstract is as clear as daylight. The executive summary empowers you to make recommendations, proposing a solution. The abstract provides the gist of a paper usually in an academic environment without offering an opinion.

Singapore’s executive summary focus has made it a sought after talent capital of the world. At every level of Singapore, there is a continuous upward drive for excellence which manifest in the question: how do we do better the next time round? This again is as clear as daylight, when you drive through Singapore, whose roads are known to serve as Formula 1 race tracks too:

Singapore Freeway Photo: Joseph Fernandez

A great insight I have received into writing an executive summary comes from my friend LT Aaron, a Singapore citizen, who asks these three questions of the subject he is focused on: What is it? What is it made up of? How does it all work together?

The first question zeroes in on the nature of the situation or challenge at hand, the second question looks at all factors that are influencing it and the third question envisions a comprehensive solution built on logic and reasoning that has a lasting benefit.

This brings us to a criticism often leveled at Singapore is of its being a nanny state that is overprotective and interfering unduly with personal choice. But its journey of excellence was made possible in the Asian reality. That it leveraged the diverse strengths of its Chinese, Malay and Indian people. I am sure that its executive summaries first written in English, percolated to every level of society in the languages best known to the people: Chinese dialects, the Malay and Tamil languages. Singapore made it possible.

Arab Street, Singapore Photo: Joseph Fernandez

And so what Singapore’s executive summary teaches us —is that those two powerful paragraphs you craft for impetus, impact and influence — can transform your community, your company and your country.

It is, simply put, is how you get everyone on the same page.

— o0o —