Today was supposed to be a blogging holiday, but I had to say a few words after reading yet another article picking on Singapore’s innovation track record, lest they stay inside me and sour my first day of 2013. In terms of publication date, Dawn Lim’s guest contribution to MIT Technology Review actually pre-dates A. Ananthalakshmi’s piece at Reuters which I’d already previously commented on, but both articles shared similar undertones. They remind me of a Hollywood original and its re-make, with the same plot and different lead actors and supporting cast.
This is how I’d summarise it – Singapore has spent billions to build, attract and be recognised for its innovation for at least the past decade. Collectively, its small market, history, risk aversion, society, brand envy, opportunity costs, government, multinationals, investors and entrepreneurs make up the chicken-and-egg problem that has held Singapore back from yielding new role models that US, China, South Korea and even Israel has ample supply of.
Depending on which camp you subscribe to, you’ll think that Singapore should stop trying so hard as evidenced by its track record (critics), the government should increase its subsidies (locals), or that the focus should be on Southeast Asia’s other larger markets instead of tiny Singapore (neutrals), such as Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. The Singapore government itself will probably be a little miffed that it has been put on the spot by MIT’s Tech Review, given that it had started its 4th university (SUTD) with the help of MIT.
I think it’s common for people to try and take down the bird that’s perched the highest. Singapore’s achieved a lot in its short 4-odd decades of independent history and its economy is well diversified, but its society is only just starting to shed its regimented past and act out of the box. Its populace is questioning authority a lot more much to its leaders’ consternation, but it’s a natural phase of its society’s evolution; we need a strong and continual dose of patience and self belief and give Singapore (and the rest of Southeast Asia) time.
The Singapore government should also focus less on the money, and more on the soft culture that attracts iconoclasts and internationally mobile (but non-obvious) talent. It’s a thin line to thread, not one the Singapore government does well, but an important one for it to do better at, lest it chases away all of its innovators.
I’m a fan of Asimov’s Foundation series and see many parallels between Singapore and Foundation. Both had no natural resources. Both were founded by leaders that were trained as technologists, not philosophers. Lee Kuan Yew reminds me of Hari Seldon. Singapore’s leadership role in the creation of ASEAN, export of its governance, town and industrial planning reminds me of Foundation’s foreign policy and export of technology for projection of influence. Like First Foundation, Singapore is facing the onslaught of its own “Mule”. The world is changing hard and fast. Real inflation is rampant; I just learnt that QB House’s $10 hair cut in 10 minutes, is now $12. Productivity is on the decline. It is the responses of its leaders, government and people that will shape Singapore’s future and determine our fledgling nation’s future, not pessimistic journalism.
I hereby prescribe the pill of patience and self belief for all of us. Happy 2013!