New Capabilities in Strategic Leadership: Insights from Singapore

Singapore’s experience holds lessons for the establishment of robust, future-oriented national strategy frameworks elsewhere.

Date Posted

1 Aug 2012


Issue 11, 14 Aug 2012

The Vision Working Group of the Project on National Security Reform in the United States (US) recommended the establishment of a Center for Strategic Analysis and Assessment in its July 2010 Report and Scenarios. The Group determined that the US needs a place, a process and set of capabilities, in the Executive Office of the President (EOP), to develop and test grand strategies for the nation, and particularly to support the national security system.

Many nations produce national security strategies. They are frequently documents that represent a comprehensive discussion of where a country is going and what it wants to accomplish; a list of aspirational goals by a ruling party or an administration.

Countries such as the United Kingdom and Singapore have established such long-term, whole-of-government thinking and planning capabilities within the heart of their administrations. These are capabilities that will be of growing relevance to any country in a world of increasing complexity.

For decades the private sector has routinely used management tools such as forecasting, scenario based planning, strategic visioning, political and economic risk assessments. Such tools are sometimes used in pockets, in specific government agencies or departments, but they are rarely, if ever, used across all agencies — especially in a whole-of-government manner.

The question is: what mechanisms should a government develop to improve a nation’s ability to plan in a whole-of-government way for its future; to be better prepared for a future that is very different from its past?

Towards an Adaptive National Security System

A nation’s security is rooted in the successful integration of all major elements of national power: economic, diplomatic, military, informational and so on. When successfully combined, the vitality of a nation is ensured and the country’s ability to encourage positive change throughout the globe is enhanced.

If “what is” and “what is not” in the arena of National Security is artificially or prematurely narrowed, it is likely that situations will be misread and that can ultimately, and negatively, affect a nation. Ten years ago, the challenges related to sub-prime mortgages, earthquakes, automobile emissions and pilot training rosters were not typically the focus of national security. Today, it is clear that they might well have been. The point is no one can imagine or determine now with certainty what might affect a nation in the future.

Threats can be assessed and prioritised based upon considerations such as urgency, impact, magnitude, mitigation options and intention. Opportunities can be assessed and prioritised based upon considerations such as knowledge, expertise, probability of success, resources, long-term sustainability, proportionality and intention.

A National Security System needs to become a “learning organisation” that can anticipate, adapt to, and successfully address the widest range of threats and opportunities. As a complex adaptive system, the future security system should possess certain inherent qualities that will be critical to success. It must:

  • Share information and collaborate horizontally;
  • Accommodate unanticipated needs and partnerships;
  • Ensure agility in the face of uncertainty;
  • Incorporate ad-hoc structures and processes; and
  • Maintain a long-term view.

Because all national security systems are complex adaptive systems, it is difficult to separate geo-political, social and economic phenomena. These elements interact as a system of systems. In most instances, it is a complex system of complex systems and that is the challenge facing a nation. Perhaps the most important characteristic about complex systems is that they cannot be controlled — at best, they can be influenced. And the systems can only be influenced if understood intimately.

In the US, a White House Center for Strategic Analysis and Assessment would need to learn, analyse, assess and synthesise risk, foresight and aid the development of “grand strategy” across the government, supporting whatever national security structure is in place.

One of the Vision Working Group findings was the need to synthesise “all of government” — and sometimes “all of society” — solutions to complex system issues and problems. The only successful way to do this is to be constantly learning about systemic issues — through hyper learning modes using accelerated learning processes, coupled with foresight tools such as Delphi techniques and risk assessment. These enable the development of scenarios for planning, and ultimately contribute to the ability to develop “Grand Strategies”.

Every country could benefit from the systematic use of these tools and processes to improve decision-making. Creating mechanisms for this to happen at the whole-of-government level requires context and synthesis. It also requires breaking down the stovepipes of government so they can work together effectively.1

Lessons from Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures

A study of Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures yields many lessons that can assist in the establishment of such strategic institutions elsewhere. According to Peter Ho,2 a former Head of the Singapore Civil Service, there are four major roles for Singapore’s Centre, all of which should be represented in the US EOP Center’s set of capabilities. They are:

  • “Challenge conformist thinking” by building global networks and partnerships with academia, think tanks and global thought leaders through conferences and projects;
  • “Identify emergent risks” by creating risk maps and communicating emerging issues to decision-makers;
  • “Calibrate strategic thinking processes” by using scenario planning and risk assessment to develop policy and new capabilities;
  • “Cultivate capabilities, instincts and habits”, by using systems and strategic frameworks and mindsets to deal with uncertainty, disruptive shocks and whole-of-government approaches regularly.

This set of capabilities & mindsets represents a strategic capacity for Singapore that, although not specifically scalable to all countries, would certainly enhance country governing structures the world over.

Such capabilities can be realised by the establishment, within the highest levels of government, of an institution (or at a minimum, a process and a set of capabilities), that enables the development and use of forward-looking global contexts to improve decision-making. It would do so by integrating all major elements of national power — economic, diplomatic, informational, defence and others — in order to assess 2nd, 3rd and 4th order effects of decisions and develop “grand strategy” where necessary. Singapore represents an example of where this kind of thinking is thriving.

The assessment capability of such a system should be developed using five essential planning perspectives of 1) space, 2) the planet, 3) regions, 4) countries, and 5) internal (domestic) for each three-time near, mid, and long-term cycles. Each of these near, mid, and long-term assessments would include both geographic and functional dimensions.

The assessment of risk will need to encompass system risk most of the time. Frequently, the impact of a particular course of action has an associated economic or political risk. However, risk in a world of complexity requires an understanding, not only of individual risk variables but of the interactions of risks associated with all of the system variables across the STEEP risk spectrum — Sociological, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political risk.

Conclusion: Sustaining Strategic Leadership

As the rate of change and the complexity of challenges continue to increase, there is little doubt over the value of conducting long-term strategic planning and attempting to create “anticipatory governance” in the Leon Fuerth sense.3

The turnover and shifts in priorities that accompany successive administrations and/or leaders can render this process difficult, but not impossible. Long-term planning, to the extent that it can be carried out at all, may be limited to a few years. Strategies that take longer to achieve may be discarded by future leaders and this is expected. Policy planners must, in order to remain relevant, tailor their strategies based on the political priorities of the leadership under whom they serve. Nevertheless, with some changes in processes and culture, a Strategic Centre could ameliorate this situation even if it cannot eliminate the problem completely.

Perhaps the best way to level the changing priorities issue is to be inclusive in the range of issues studied and prepared for. That way when a new priority comes along (or a new Administration in the case of the US), the staff is knowledgeable about the issue, but does not “throw away” the base work on all issues: so when they become “hot” once more, decision-makers are not starting all over again with new studies and new people.

In conclusion, a Strategic Centre’s core capabilities need to include:

  • Strategic and systems thinking and “visioning”;
  • The development of a holistic and evolving view of the global environment and national security context;
  • The ability to game specific scenarios to assist in the formulation of contingency plans and to test the impact of proposed policies;
  • Regular development of scenarios in 10, 20, 50+ years;
  • The capacity to house leading edge tools and technologies for assessments, especially “system risk”;
  • Engaging in “red teaming” and alternative analyses to test assumptions and solutions with rigorous problem analysis;
  • Providing, when necessary, classified research environments;
  • Development of “grand strategies” as assigned by the leader and facilitating long-term planning and preserving institutional memory;
  • Providing networking and outreach to government, academia, industry and the general public including public seminars and conferences;
  • Challenging conventional wisdom in the Singaporean sense and the Project on National Security Reform sense.

Such Centres will help senior government policymakers everywhere to plan for the future, and the role their country will play in that future.


Sheila R. Ronis, PhD is Professor of Management and Director of the MBA/Master of Management Programs at Walsh College, and a Distinguished Fellow with the Project on National Security Reform. This article draws from her research as a Fulbright Specialist Scholar.


  1. Ronis, S. R., ed., Project on National Security Reform Vision Working Group Report and Scenarios (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2010).
  2. Ho, P., “Thinking About the Future: What the Civil Service Can Do”, ETHOS, Issue 7 (January 2010), Centre for Governance and Leadership, Civil Service College, Singapore.
  3. Fuerth, L. S., Project on Forward Engagement. (Washington, DC: George Washington University, 2006).


  • Marshall, G. C., The Winning of the War in Europe and the Pacific: Biennial Report of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, July 1, 1943, to June 30, 1945, to the Secretary of War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945).
  • Project on National Security Reform, Forging a New Shield (Arlington, VA: Project on National Security Reform, 2008).

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