Press ballyhoos Steve Wozniak’s soundbite, misses the mark

The power of the press never ceases to amaze and in this instance, tickle me. What began as an innocuous interview by BBC titled Steve Wozniak: ‘Think for Yourself’ became WSJ’s Wozniak: Apple couldn’t emerge in Singapore and Penn-Olsen’s Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak questions Singapore’s Creativity. This morning, as all of Singapore reads the news, almost all locals will be nodding along to Woz’s, WSJ’s and Penn Olsen’s words. I think Singaporeans should enter the Guinness Book of Records for the largest collective and most prolific of self bashers in the world. I mean, Woz IS the co-founder of Apple, Wall Street Journal is a credible news source and these people can never be wrong. Or can they?

Herein lies the real and global problem, not just one unique to Singapore and its police-state, authoritarian image as portrayed by mainstream media and Woz himself – most people do not question enough about the dish they’re served. It looks like pepper crab, therefore it must taste like one. Few would enjoy the dish if it ended up not tasting like what they ordered (e.g. chilli-spiced butter crab), and far fewer would ponder on the culinary magic and technology that went behind making it that way, and the grander purpose of things.

Don’t get me wrong – Wozniak is right when he states that Apple couldn’t emerge in Singapore. It still can’t, but it took Silicon Valley over 30 years to produce the Apple that we know of today, on the back of a large homogenous market that is North America. Tiny island/city-state Singapore began on its journey of building up its tech scene way later, around the early to mid 90s, and still has many more obstacles (and mental stereotypes) to overcome. It will also never be Silicon Valley, by virtue of the different deck of cards both regions had to begin its play with. What sort of legacy Singapore and Asia Pacific’s tech scene can leave behind, is one that we’ll all continue to hammer away on. I prefer to leave judgment to the perfect hindsight that most spectators always seem to have.

It is true that Singapore’s traditionally structured society has left little room for personal latitude in its denizens. However, I disagree that the propensity for personal creativity is the only measure for the creation of iconic successful companies like Apple. I don’t hold it against Woz though; he probably didn’t spend enough time in Singapore to peer past Singapore’s stereotypes and experience our counter-culture and discover the creativity that’s stewing in our tropic jungle’s undergrowth. Spending days speaking at boring stiff-suited motivational talks organized by the government can easily do that to someone even as amazing and neotenous as Woz, not to mention spend your time talking to the very same people who have perpetuated the construct in the first place, even as they’re tasked to undo that now.

We don’t have more successful tech companies in Singapore not because we don’t have creative people here who aren’t allowed to develop a counter-culture; it’s because we have yet to see a critical mass of self-actualized individuals stay and contribute to Singapore’s economy. The government has had to design a society that can predictably produce enough of the right sort of workforce for its planned economy, where opportunity costs combined with the idealism of meritocracy has placed its denizens in an economic maze without an exit. Few punch through the walls, break out on charts and approach the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s often the second mouse that gets the cheese; the first one dies because someone had to be clobbered by the mousetrap and made an example of. And so the “creative” types leave for greener pastures, and Singapore is poorer as a result. That’s gotten better in recent years, especially with an immigration-fueled population growth. After all, cynics and stereotypists have always been lagging indicators of what’s really going on at the ground level.

Steven Goh left a great comment at the Penn Olsen article that I wanted to requote here:

singapore is a bit like orchard road.  great at collecting brands.  but only learning now how to make some of it’s own.

i don’t agree with woz.  that’s the singapore of 5 years ago.  singapore has changed (for the better) and should take some credit for it.  but it’s another 5 years of change before opinions from guys like woz will change as well.  so don’t be discouraged.  it seems it’s a national sport of singaporeans to beat themselves up.  there’s progress.  be proud of it.  make some more.

I had coffee with James Norris yesterday, and had an interesting conversation about education and self-actualization. I think there is a bunch of overlap between neoteny, self-actualization and creativity that if amplified, will go a long way for any society, city and country. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and am quietly hopeful of what I’ve been working on, and will continue to do my part to make an impact and leave Singapore and the world a better place for my son to inherit.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tim Chong

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.