Growing up in Singapore, we were always taught that this is a special country that can exist nowhere else. A confluence of multiple factors helped account for our success today. Geophysical ones like a deep yet sheltered harbour, prime location along major trade routes contributed to our successful port.
Strong, visionary leaders read worldwide trends accurately (e.g. trade & globalisation), positioning the nation to take advantage of these tailwinds. Our small but compliant & hardworking populace followed the leaders’ vision, kept them in power and executed the plan. Inclusive multi-culturalism, zero tolerance for corruption and upholding the rule of law built a business-friendly environment supporting economic growth.
These factors have certainly helped us greatly when we were playing catch-up to the rest of the world. Despite a lack of natural resources, we had many models and examples to emulate in our journey to success. But now that we are among the richest and most technologically advanced societies, can we maintain our momentum?
The same factors that helped us could very easily become the cause of our downfall. Maybe our historical success as a port makes us unwilling to kill a sacred industry as isolationism re-emerges. Perhaps our leaders might fail to read global trends correctly and make bad decisions. The population loses faith in its leaders and emigrates or votes in populists who bring the country down. Old fault lines of race, religion or new ones of class could emerge, tearing the country apart from inside.
As a society and government, I think we need a new playbook to navigate the winds of change. Unfortunately, this one has not been written; everyone is still touching and feeling their way through. Here are some controversial perspectives that might put us in a better position to tackle the new world order.
1. Government: Don’t run Singapore like a corporation
Running the country like a giant MNC has been a key contributor to Singapore’s past success. Compared to other mixed economies, our government has a stronger influence on capital and labour flows. Through policies, incentives or direct ventures, they encouraged capital and labour to focus on growth areas. This minimises waste and multiplies the rewards when the forecast is right.
In this new era, the government remains in the driver seat of economic development. Despite having the brightest minds, they might be too slow off the blocks or worse, get the prediction wrong. With the rise of the digital economy, we already see some evidence of the former. I think we have reached a stage in national development where the government needs to gradually release control. Allow private enterprises to bring the nation onto the next lap and focus on being a failsafe against market failures.
2. Enterprises: Don’t rely on the government for direction or support
This brings me to the next point on enterprises. Take a look at our stock index and you will realise most local companies fall into 2 categories. The first are essential industries (e.g. Real Estate, Banking) that serve as the backbone of any economy. The second are mature sectors (e.g. Manufacturing, Marine, Oil & Gas) that were growth areas earlier in national development. These enterprises benefitted from the government’s earlier capital and labour allocation policies, but have now stagnated in its absence.
Efforts to encourage greater entrepreneurship in new industries still fall back on governmental support & vision. This limits the creativity, growth and competitiveness of start-ups, setting them up for the same fate as their predecessors. Even successful local start-ups today draw from the old playbook of copying overseas business ideas for the local market. There is no truly innovative enterprise using an original business model that has found international success.
For all its failures, the US free market system continues to produce innovative, leading companies that are household names today. Having a larger domestic market aside, are Americans more capable or intelligent than Singaporeans? Evidence of Singaporeans excelling in US colleges suggests otherwise. I think it comes down to 2 things: boldness to try untested ideas, and starting outside the Singapore market.
3. Society: Be open to and celebrate failure & mistakes
How do we cultivate this mindset among Singaporeans? Unfortunately, most of us grew up with a one-dimensional image of success inherited from our parent’s experiences. The preferred path has always been a linear staircase of inexorable upward progression. Ideally, excelling in school gets you a degree from a top university, which secures a job in a top firm. Do well in the company and get promoted until you end up in a respectable position.
Deviations from this path, whether intentional or not, are frowned upon as shameful incidents to be avoided. Such expectations may be realistic in the past, but the VUCA world today makes this a wishful fairy tale. Many companies are finding it challenging to stay afloat, let alone retain and promote staff. Retrenchments and terminations are increasingly common, and not necessarily a consequence of poor performance. As a society, we need to be more accepting and open to failures, mistakes and alternative definitions of success.
This is a choice we must consciously make in our daily lives. We need to change our perspective toward those on these alternative paths. The values and messages we impart to our children should shift away from this unhealthy preoccupation with grades. Instead, encourage experimentation and celebrate how mistakes and failures have made us wiser and stronger. If we do, I think we stand a good chance of not just surviving but thriving through the challenges ahead.