WSJ Story on Creativity in Singapore – “Was Woz Right?”

Sam Holmes and Shibani Mahtani of Wall Street Journal put together a balanced piece titled “Was Woz Right?” with contributions from a bunch of folks in Singapore, in response to Woz’s initial comment. I’m honored to be quoted alongside people such as Min Liang and Adrian Pang who have accomplished much more in life than myself. It probably had something to do with my reaction to Woz. I thought I’d reproduce my email to Sam in its entirety, since parts of it had to be dropped to fit the article length.

On Dec 20, 2011, at 12:58 PM, Holmes, Samuel wrote:

Hi James,

Given the sheer volume of hits we had on the Woz story, we’re putting a few responses by Singapore-based types from a range field’s to Woz’s comments about Singapore.

Do you agree with Steve on his views about Singapore’s systems removing all the creative elements from society?

I would generally concur with Steve’s observations, but only if Steve had been referring to the Singapore 10 years ago. I think Steve, like many others, is making the statement as someone who isn’t very informed about Singapore and its inner workings.

Everyone should think of Singapore 40-odd years ago as a tiny tech startup most concerned with 1 thing. Initially, that one thing was “survival” (in a volatile and once hostile region), and as Singapore reaped the economic fruits of her people’s labor, that one thing became “continued success”. At the beginning, the only way to ensure survival was for the city island state to be staffed and run by its smartest and brightest. Our founding fathers took the greatest risks, made the hardest decisions and implemented policies that account for a lot of what Singapore is today. They were co-founders on the same boat, and the boat had to steer in no more than one direction. The “creative elements from society” were hardly in existence back then. When you had yet to fulfill your Maslows’ hierarchy of needs, you won’t think of art, music or literature, much less starting up the most amazing consumer electronics company of all time, Apple.

Fast forward in time, and the Singapore today is akin to a multi-national corporation. It’s an ocean liner in the Straits of Malacca, and a larger proportion of its inhabitants (both local and immigrant) have had it with running the economic rat race and are asking more fundamental, existential questions. The Singapore of old could never afford the human resource to develop its creative aspects as a society. The Singapore of today can, and is trying hard to do so. It can now put down lifeboats and let helicopters and seaplanes visit and leave. Singapore lost a bunch of its creative elements along the way as it transitioned from sampan to ocean liner, because it simply didn’t have the economic space to accomodate them.

The Singapore of today is in a very different place, and I’d like to think, is headed towards a much better creative/artistic/innovative future. If Woz bothered to dig harder beneath its surface, he will be surprised at the degree of positive deviance that is going on underneath the obvious facade.

How hard is it to kindle innovation and creativity in Singapore’s industries?

It’s not any harder to kindle innovation and creativity in Singapore than it is anywhere else in the world. I’d argue that its in fact a lot more friction-free to “kindle” here than in most places around the world, given how pro-business and efficient Singapore generally is. Just look at the thousands of foreign companies large and small who’ve used Singapore as their base of operations.

What’s hard is to keep the tiny flame burning, brighter and larger than when it first began. Singapore never really had much in the way of native industries, because our best and brightest were sucked into the Singapore engine to fuel its survival or success, depending on which era we’re discussing. The rest of its demographics became the support infrastructure to foreign companies, and while you have the occasional outlier (Creative, Razer, etc), most made money and lived well, but did so as lifestyle or SME businesses. I have my own hypotheses on how our outliers developed, and it would be interesting to study our outliers (be it people, companies, etc) and try to amplify the “positive deviance” there.

I think innovation and creativity is bandied around too loosely as catchphrases.

You’ve spoken a fair bit on this on your blog post but if you could give us something unique for the WSJ we’d be very grateful…

Other people we’ve spoken to include Min-Liang Tan from Razer USA and the CEO of Amobee. Hoping to get some artsy types as well.

Sam Holmes | Staff Reporter
Dow Jones Newswires | The Wall Street Journal
10 Anson Road #32-08, International Plaza, Singapore 079903

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+.