I often feel like we don’t explore Lee Kuan Yew’s personality enough. His swag. He used to smoke, drink and hang out with lawyers, criminals, academics and communists. His white-washed political persona is far less interesting. He was once a visionary, entrepreneur and hustler extrodinaire.
I read a fantastic article once by someone who said that if you take a war strategist like say Napoleon or Clausewitz or Sun Tzu and you put them in a modern day war room, it might maybe take at most a few days for them to get up to date with modern warfare- they’ll need to learn about high-tech systems, but it’s still intuitively understandable.
On the other hand, try getting any early trader to understand and manage something like, say, Facebook. Money and business has gotten ridiculously complex. (I’d like to make sense of this better. I like to consider myself a somewhat knowledgeable person, but I am woefully aware of my shortcomings in these fields.)
Anyway, here’s the point- Singapore has never been one to innovate, business-wise. (Correct me if I’m wrong! I would love to hear from you.) Our business model, as far askI’ve understood, is one of early adoption. That was the driver of our success. You remember the examples from social studies class, right?
We let other people handle the risk and the pain of trial and error. Consider the USA, for instance, which is arguably the birthplace of innovation and crazy experiments. (I imagine many will protest this. Your protests are valid. Consider this an oversimplification.) The conditions arekideal for generating these crazy business ideas. There’s a culture of failure acceptance, and a sacred right to pursue happiness in whatever means you see fit. Their society is large enough to support a few crazies who want to change the world.
Then the moment they find something that works, we take over. We create conditions that are ideal for the nurturing of these young saplings. Favourable tax conditions. Government policies with prudent long-term planning. Solid infrastructure, educated and compliant workforce. We’ll take your crazy idea and we’ll implement it in a cost-effective way.
Our best companies were, and continue to be (in my opinion, please correct me if I am wrong) “first followers”. We don’t take the risk of innovating ourselves- we let other people do it first, and once something works, we are the first (and best) at following. The problem with that today is that we’re no longer the best at it. Enter China and frie.ds. They have adopted “our” (quotation marks because these things don’t belong to anybody) system, and they’re leveraging resources that we simply don’t have.
If we continue to compete as “first followers”, we’re screwed. We can’t produce as much, and at such low cost.
So the only way forward, as I see it, in this simplistic sense, is to begin innovating. But Singaporeans have never been innovative… have we?
We have. And in a remarkable field, too- nation-building.
Think about it. The birth of Singapore- unexpected independence- was handled by some of the greatest entrepreneurs our soil has ever seen. They were pragmatic, forward-thinking, and a little bit ruthless. (You have to be.) They were visionaries who dared to imagine something that had never existed before, and they created something that was the envy of statesmen around the world. Sure, we had unusual conditions and certain advantages. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Figuring out your advantages and leveraging them to create something meaningful and useful.
HDB. Singapore Airport. Garden City. MRT. Reservoirs. Throw a stone and you’ll hit a foreigner- sorry, I mean an instance of remarkable vision. Dreams made reality.
It remains one of the greatest ironies, perhaps a repeated motif in human history- men and women of great vision and innovation practically engineering a society wherein they would have never survived.
If Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and others were born and raised in modern day Singapore 2000, instead of the chaos of colonial pre-65 Singapore, perhaps they might never have had the chance to meet the people and experience the ideas that made them think for themselves. Think bigger, think risky, think different. And the institution they put together would eventually stifle the very chaos that must have played a role in creating them.
I am now curious to know what Lee Kuan Yew would be like if he were born in 1990. What would he be interested in, what would he be passionate about, what would he be using his skills to fight for? I’m guessing he would be an opposition politician- because, if you remember correctly, that is what he was. The PAP was once an opposition party. Or would he be a nobody at all, without encountering the catalysts that drove him to do what he did? Would he just be an above-average guy in an above-average job? I’d like to ask him that.
I believe that Singapore is a deeply pragmatic nation. It’s become a part of our DNA now, and we can’t reject it. We are a fundamentally pragmatic people. Even when we dream, we dream not because we want to be wishy-washy, idealistic tree-hugging hippies. We dream because it is somehow the pragmatic thing to do. (Disagree? Our nation was built on dreams. How like that?)
Here’s another fun bit of irony- Lee Kuan Yew and friends were largely western educated- Lee himself was kicking ass at Cambridge, getting double starred first class honours. (Did you know there was such a thing?) It was the white man institution that taught Lee to seek freedom from the oppression of the white men (who did do a good many things for our society). In the end, the greatest service that the British did for us was to teach us that we could transcend them.
So consider this- it was the men in white that taught us how to be pragmatic. But the pragmatic thing to do now is to transcend the men in white themselves- the over-dependence on our institutions, on top-down directives, on the monopoly of ideas. As Chan Chun Sing said, diversity is the only survival strategy. So I believe that the previous lesson will apply- the greatest service that the PAP could do to Singapore is to make itself redundant. To create conditions where Singapore’s survival is not dependent on PAP super-dominance.
Keep daring to dream. Our nation was built with dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise- even if they claim to be playing for the same team.