Perspectives of Singapore

[Important note: My blog posts reflect my personal opinion and not that of my employer or any other association I belong to.]
For a good part of today, I listened to what other Singaporeans thought of Singapore and its future. These people were relatively notable figures but their views were diverse and they didn’t always agree to agree with each other. Such discourse, over time, will be good for our country.

I learned of how new citizens have adapted to this country, and how much they love this country. Of how a Jewish man became a Singaporean and how a local had trouble accepting this fact, insisting he was European. I also heard of those in the lower socio-economic class who are slipping through the cracks. However, on its own I do not believe this is going to be a strong enough reason for the country to choose a different direction.
This is because firstly, no system is perfect, just as no human being within each system is perfect. In most societies, save for Utopia, there is usually a group of people who are, in some way, disadvantaged, either economically (poor education and job), physically or mentally. There are growing numbers of NGOs (or Voluntary Welfare Organisations, in Singaporean terms) which reach out to help specific groups like these. My lunchtime discussions with members from a VWO which works with the lower socioeconomic group revealed that the most difficult thing to change is mindset. Once these people accept that they can make a better future for themselves, the more tangible improvements can take place – i.e. skills upgrading for the adult holding a low-wage job in a factory, and education for their children.
The bigger question, then, would be how to create such a change of mindset. This is something that many people with good intentions should look into. Teach a man to fish, the saying goes, rather than keep on giving him fish. May I add that even before that happens, help him realise that he can fish on his own. Or else, once you leave him to handle his fishing rod by himself, he may revert to his old ways, believing his cause his hopeless. Some speaker(s) noted that Singaporeans could be more resilient in the face of such challenges.
Discussions also shifted to the other end of the spectrum, albeit in less detail. The integrated resorts, it was argued, have created jobs and doubled certain workers’ incomes. On the other hand, the social repercussions have yet to be quantified. It is hard to put a numerical value on such things, as with many others.
Another issue was sustainability. How to move away from being a ‘nanny state’ with a top-down approach, to one where, like in flood-hit Brisbane, citizens mobilise themselves to help their neighbourhoods. I think this will take time. Entire systems will need to be tweaked at least, in school, home and work, to reward more risk-taking and less internal competitiveness. But we are a competitive society that still prides itself on being ‘world class’. This, said at least one speaker, smacked of ‘hubris’.
In between the discussions, I sneaked a peek at a new book sample I downloaded by a HBS/Stanford/INSEAD professor titled [Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results]( The first chapter described how Sony, despite its then huge market clout and superior hardware, was beaten by Apple’s iPod and iTunes store. Sony’s internal competitiveness, which spurred different business units and regions to outperform each other, helped get it thus far. But this culture did not help when it was time to adapt to the new threat. As a result, Sony’s market share and share price plummetted, and now Apple is riding higher. It wasn’t as if Apple’s hardware was superior from the start – the early iPod even used Sony batteries – but Apple was much better at making people collaborate.
Likewise, if we are to remain competitive in a sustainable way in this new era, I feel something inside has to change. But that usually means something has to give. Are we willing to accept a loss of standing, a few notches in various world indices for some years, in the hope of reaping greater rewards in the future? Would we allow our children to take up more artsy degrees and jobs that didn’t pay well? Would we dare to quit our day jobs to pursue our dreams? Would we take our Government to task for making this leap of faith, knowing that we might suffer for a short while, uncertain of the future, or give them a chance? If you thought ‘No’ for any of these points, then there will be big challenges ahead for us.
[Aside: as a faithful Arsenal fan, I totally understand what it’s like to not win cup titles for years in the hope that this will build up a young, talented team in a more cost-effective and sustainable way… I continue to hope!]
Yet there is hope, like some speakers observed. Singaporeans are generous with donations (even though we all could put in more volunteer time), and while we are a young country we still share some commonalities, such as Singlish jokes – as an elderly Englishwoman aptly pointed out. We could do with more Ps and Qs, and less ‘busyness’. There are many paradoxes because focusing on having the positive traits of certain qualities also brings up their negative aspects.
So do we want to change? How will we change? And can we sustain this change in the hope for a better tomorrow?