Liu Bei and today’s war for talent: Tan See Leng teaches from Romance of the Three Kingdoms


A global “war for talent” is on.

And an easy and powerful way to understand the situation is through the story of the great ruler Liu Bei repeatedly assembling his generals and advisors in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In Monday’s (Sep 12) Parliament sitting, Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng told the nation in Mandarin just why:



“In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei is good at making friends with all heroes under Heaven. He swore an oath of brotherhood with legendary generals Zhang Fei and Guan Gong in the Peach Garden. He personally paid the master strategist Zhuge Liang three visits to his cottage to recruit the latter.

Liu Bei used his exceptional knowledge and talents to field a team par excellence. At the pivotal Battle of Red Cliffs, Liu Bei and Sun Quan joined forces, defeating Cao Cao’s mighty army.”

Three lessons, then, from this story: 1) Attracting top talent from different fields will require deploying different pull factors, 2) Small powers, strategised well together, can defeat a larger one.

And importantly, 3) Top talents benefit everyone on their teams. Because the story is not just about superheroes like Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, Zhuge Liang and Sun Quan. It’s about the team of more everyday people benefiting from their skills, and working together to accomplish great things.

As Minister Tan continued:



“If we are to have a place on the international stage, we must adopt a two-pronged strategy: on the one hand, accepting top talent from various countries; on the other hand, continuing to develop and support local talent.

Local talents can expand their professional knowledge and networks through exchanges and mutual learning with top international talents. This creates more and richer employment opportunities for other people. Here, our country keeps prospering and our people share in the rich fruits of economic growth.”

The goal of ONE Pass

There are, as Minister Tan also points out, ways for Singapore’s private sector SMEs to benefit from these top talents under the ONE Pass scheme for excellence in various fields.   

“Indeed, some SMEs could benefit from directly hiring the ONE Pass holders, while others could tap on the Pass holder’s expertise through consulting services, or inviting them to join their Boards,” said Minister Tan.

“Just as importantly, a vibrant, growing economy will create more business opportunities or build a new eco-system for our SMEs who may be partners, contractors, suppliers or service providers. This may be in up-and-coming sectors like the green economy or FinTech, where there will be new cheese for our SMEs,” he added.

The Government’s nod back to Romance of the Three Kingdoms for informing the search for new possibilities and forward horizons is wise: the book is very much a story about how to manage talent for a nation’s best benefit.

Because Singapore’s foray into this “global war for talent” is ultimately about locals too. In fact, Minister Tan spent a significant part of his speech assuring local workers that they remain front and centre.

“But let us not forget what our goal is,” said Minister Tan after explaining to Parliament (a brief version is on his Facebook) the safeguards in, and targeted nature of, recent work pass enhancements as well as work done to ensure that locals can compete fairly and strongly.