It's all about Amelioration

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Of Policies & Contradictions

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I came across this foreign blog, and this comment by an expat made me ponder:

I’ve been in Singapore, had built a large company there and to this day, am still a director and advisor to Singaporean businesses and institutions. Singapore is one of the most uncreative places in the world. Almost no innovations has come out of that island nation jewel. Now that I’ve attracted the frowns from all our Singaporean viewers, understand what it is I am saying. Stop and listen, and open your eyes.

I do not consider myself anti-Singaporean, it’s just that I have noticed and have pointed out to many Singaporeans that the price of civil order in their nation has been high – at the price of ‘outside the box thinking’.

Years ago, the Singaporean consulate organized a number of high-tech brain storming sessions in Canada. The consensus was that Singapore would never be able to develop a made-in-Singapore animation business because:
A. they lack innovation and creativity
B. their cost of labour is high
C. they’re too absorbed with themselves…with things like status

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photo by 1Happysnapper

Gees. I’d like to say that it’s a refreshing perspective, but it’s the painful truth.

A lot has been discussed of late about our ruling party’s policies with regards to immigration and building human capital. Here’s my take on it.

Contradiction Number 1: The use of civil service to spur innovation

As a country a size of an island, we desperately need to transform a labour intensive economy to a knowledge based one where human capital is the pillar of growth. Thus far, we have open many doors to attract the best brains in the pharmaceutical, bio sciences and the media industry. But here’s the irony. While attracting foreign brains, a high percentage of our local talents are emigrating to greener pastures which causes a brain drain. This poses a paradox that only our government can answer.

I always scoff whenever I read that our ministers are attempting to create a culture of innovation and start-ups. Our government is used to using power or its wealth to create the vision that they want.

Double tourism figures? Spend millions and build  world-class casinos and resorts. Increase GDP figures? Open the floodgates via loose immigration policies to lower labour cost and increase competitiveness.  Create a Silicon Valley? That my friend cannot be built overnight.

The very fact that the foundations of our island is built on a backbone of bureaucratic civil service of ruthless efficiency says it all. To think of it, our civil service is placed in the centre of everything. 80% of us live in such government housing, about 60% of our GDP is produced by Government Linked Companies (GLC)s like Singtel, Singapore Airlines and ST Engineering just to name a few.The critics and detractors of such a system have been silenced by the stellar and resilient economic figures of the past 2 decades. However when it comes to innovation and productivity, it is another story altogether. As a country that comes up tops in economic growth and wealth compared to other developed nations, it is surprising that we have few homegrown private corporations that have shaken the world. Besides Creative’s sound card, when was the last well-known patent produced by us? Oh yes, we have the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system, which is the first in the world, but even that is an invention from a government entity.

The government sees this problem and has diverted a significant amount of its funds to build innovative incubators like the biopolis and fusionpolis where it can house the best researchers and scientists in hope that knowledge can be harnessed and produce a breakthrough in sciences. Every corner of the building, down to the toilets are designed for the reason of promoting interaction so that knowledge can be shared. I’ve been on a study trip there as part of my Knowledge Management module back when I was in university and our professor pointed out that despite the infrastructure to promote interaction, the observation is that these researchers or scientists still tend to stick to their own ethnic group. That’s a challenge by itself. How typical of our ruling party I thought then. Always assuming it can use means to influence how it wants its people to think or act.

It is part of the culture shift that has to happen if we want to create a knowledge based economy and we all know that it takes shake ups of seismic proportions to change a culture that has been ingrained in us ever since we’ve gained independence. The culture of conformity and meritocracy, are culture traits that are not really conducive to a creative, innovative society. The worrying thing is, it cannot be changed overnight. Our general population, imprisoned by its education system,  is already conditioned in terms of mindset and aspirations. Creative minds are not bounded by such society norms. They cannot let financial burden or the stress of society cloud their sense of freedom and individualism. This is also the basis on why our very own local doctors, musicians, researchers move overseas.  These are people who are passionate about their work, value individualism  and do not want to be burdened by the high cost of living here, so as to further pursue their line of work. Many who have children are also disenchanted with the one dimension education system here.

My take is this. Can imagination flourish in a society where people can’t openly criticize the government? Imagination means thinking outside the box, always asking, always probing. It is difficult to have odd ideas about technology, without having odd ideas about politics.

I applaud the many assistance given by the government when it comes to funding and  harnessing  entrepreneurs through platforms like SPRING Singapore. However, it must understand it’s top down approach of running the country’s economy from its state-owned enterprises is stifling innovation. “Not everything big is good”. Microsoft was just another small medium enterprise as well before it became a giant.  What’s the point of issuing scholarships to top local brains only to bond them to the public sector? And will the use of tax payer’s money to fund budding entrepreneurs be the best way forward? Certainly not for the long run. The basic hallmarks of the civil service are efficiency, discipline and execution. Whereas the entrepreneurial culture is about challenging the norms, being rebellious and being different. Thus, how is it possible for civil servants to lead the push for innovation? An entire contradiction in values. The impetus for economic growth must start coming more from the private sector and it’s good to see that we are attracting more venture capitalist and private equity firms to our shores. The government’s role should be limited to funding universities start-ups and allow the private sector to harness the potential from there on. It should also adopt a hands off approach to various industries to allow them to flourish by itself.  The “nanny state” mentality has to go as it breeds complacency and reduces the incentive to innovate. Case in point, the many failed ventures and investments of our GLCs ( Singtel-Virgin Mobile, Keppel Corp-Suzhou, ST Engineering-Micropolis just to name a few).

Contradiction Number 2: Competitiveness in expense of innovation and productivity

I am baffled by the recent loose immigration policies by our ruling party. We were on the right track, I thought, entering the 21st century, targeting to attract the top talents to our island as well as nurture and educate our citizens. Basically attempting to shift from  exam meritocracy to talent meritocracy system.  However, along the way, I kind of felt we got lost.  None of us will ever know how they come up with decisions up there, but being too focus on competitiveness has left innovation and productivity very much wanting. We became addicted to GDP growth, the ruling party sensing that it’s citizens are not reproducing and working hard enough took the quick fix approach and open its floodgates to immigration. People from all walks of life seeking a modern retreat and a superior currency wage became one of us suddenly. It’s like Stalin’s five-year industrialization plan for USSR in the 1930s where the focus was on the mobilization of resources. Companies were soon found competing on labour cost savings rather than generic growth of intellectual capital  internally. With no minimum wage set, many citizens find it impossible to compete with cheaper alternatives, despite going for the countless upgrading and re-learning  courses. This abundance of cheap labour can be detrimental to productivity in the long run.

We are being led to think that Singapore is entering a golden era of being the pride of the east, with Swiss living standards and lifestyles of Monaco. However, my fear is whether we are able to achieve our productivity goals in years to come, before we hit a law of diminishing returns and cannot afford to immigrate our way to remain competitive any longer.  Many developing countries  share our same vision, aspiring to be global hubs and first world countries. If our growth story last decade was merely through accumulating of resources like labour, instead of the true essence of human capital, we are leaving ourselves very vulnerable in the near future, not having any competitive edge over other developing countries.

As quickly as they arrive in throngs to attain permanent residency and build a life in our island, they can just as easily relocate once they find greener pastures else where. It is naive to think that they are similar as immigrants of yesteryears, where they will stay put indefinitely. We are living in a globalized world mind you. By then, the truly talented breed of Singapore citizens have been jaded by the lack of opportunities and ventured overseas, and we will find ourselves alarmingly short of  human capital to spur us in the future. At least now we know why our ruling party is so keen to integrate and appease our new residents… our future lies in their hands.

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Written by Nabs

April 21, 2010 at 9:56 am

Posted in MIND, Politics

14 Responses

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  1. […] Discourse – It’s all about Amelioration: Of Policies & Contradictions [Thanks Nabs] – guanyinmiao’s musings: Reaching Everyone For Active Citizenry @ Home (REACH): […]

  2. An article in Financial Times interestingly pointed this situation out a few yrs back. But the government’s strong influence over business and economic direction has also led to a degree of complacency, with most managers failing to take the initiative and averse to risk-taking.

    As a result, most corporate leaders in Singapore prefer to stick to tried and tested management styles and policies, rather than push the envelope and break new ground.

    Among the key Asian economies, Singapore has the highest proportion of state-owned or government-linked companies. Forty-five per cent of Singapore’s top 20 companies, for instance, have state shares of more than 20 per cent.

    The proportion among Korea’s top 20 companies is 15 per cent, and among Japanese and Hong Kong enterprises, 5 per cent.

    The majority of both government-linked companies and private sector groups have a top-down management style, which, critics argue, has stifled creativity and innovation in the workplace.

    “Part of the problem with a top-down method is it becomes very performance-driven,” says Dr Bruce Avolio, director of the Gallup Leadership Institute, which helped undertake the research. “This leads to a lack of focus on talent development.”

    Ur no. 1

    April 21, 2010 at 11:51 am

    • I cannot agree more.

      Anything linked to the civil service is extremely performance driven. After all, they are using taxpayer’s money to fund start ups. Can they stomach a 1 to 10 success ratio?

      Nabs

      April 22, 2010 at 10:25 am

  3. The Author says: “Oh yes, we have the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system, which is the first in the world, but even that is an invention from a government entity.”

    Wrong. Norway (Oslo) was the first in the world to introduce ERP. We copied them.

    Tan Ah Kow

    April 21, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    • My bad.

      I swear I read it in some local publication a while back though. I will double check on that.

      But you get my drift aye?

      Thanks for the heads up!

      Nabs

      April 22, 2010 at 10:23 am

  4. Oh well, Singapore is the world’s first to implement congestion pricing scheme known as Area Licensing Scheme in 1975.

    At least we can always count on our government to be ‘innovative’ in such aspect.

    Ur No. 1

    April 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm

  5. I think COE is the only invention by us. Area Licensing Scheme has been practised by many cities in the world except that they charge zero fee and apply to a smaller areas in their cities and not entire business district.

    wayssswayss

    April 22, 2010 at 1:11 am

  6. I think there are many new inventions and innovations but they are not disclosed to the public because they are top secret for avoiding others to copy and for maintaining our own competitiveness. Who said we do nor have innovation and cannot think out of box? Only time will tell when the truth is revealed and status of our innovation is disclosed to the world. Those who choose to leave because they are not good enough for our system. Look, we have many top scientists joining us, right?

    wayssswayss

    April 22, 2010 at 1:15 am

    • I agree, only time will tell. I don’t think copying is a big issue. That’s why there are intellectual property laws in place.

      But my worry is that there is lack of generic growth. How many new inventions and patents come out from our universities and polytechnics only to become “just another project”? No follow up to commercialize it due to insufficient funding and “safe” aspirations of the students. I have many friends, including myself that have such experiences and feel the same way. For my case, our angel investor had only $20,000, which to me is just lip service.

      Plus, how many local private entities are world beaters like I mentioned? We pale in comparison when we bring in our counterparts like South Korea and Taiwan.

      There is an issue of attracting the top creative minds here. The main motivation of these people be it athletes or scientists is money and opportunities. That to me is a slippery slope. Because we cannot be too sure that they regard Singapore as home. A permanent residency is just a piece of paper at the end of the day. Immigrating labour/talent over emphasis on generic growth is what worries me. Our national identity will definitely be diluted and we would become a nation of stellar GDP growth, but definitely one without a soul.

      Nabs

      April 22, 2010 at 10:25 am

  7. thank you, for your information

    ika

    April 22, 2010 at 7:14 am

    • Many thanks for reading ika!

      Nabs

      April 22, 2010 at 10:26 am

  8. Debt consolidation by combining all your debts. For example, if you have store cards,Credit cards, personal loans, mortgages and other debts, you probably pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month to make only minimum payments. Debt consolidation allows you to pay all your debts together into one. You still owe the same amount, but have a lower monthly payment for the price of a low monthly rate. This simple change adds a huge savings.

    karata ukaa

    April 22, 2010 at 2:07 pm

  9. […] Comments – voix.deviant: dragged by gender role? [Thanks Ian] – It’s all about Amelioration: Of Policies & Contradictions [Thanks Nabs] [Recommended] – guanyinmiao’s musings: Reaching Everyone For Active Citizenry @ […]

  10. What innovation have they (government) shown? Using the price mechanism to control everything in Singapore is not the way to innovation.

    iSick

    April 26, 2010 at 5:32 pm


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