Is Singapore Ready?

Singapore is a very interesting country in which to live and work. It is not often you will find a country with such a strong economy based pretty much on two main resources, in this case: 1) a port that makes it a great hub for international shipping, and 2) people. That is pretty much it. No minerals, little agricultural, and you can pretty much forget oil. Since people are the main thing that will propel this economy forward, you would assume the country would be careful to cultivate a workforce at the leading edge of the knowledge economy.

But that might not be a safe assumption…

Last year, Sudhir Vadaketh published a pair of compelling essays looking at Singapore’s apparent lack of readiness for the knowledge economy. Based on Vadaketh’s essay and our own examination of higher education here, the key challenges noted below seem to be largely related to education (and unfortunately, this is not really limited to Singapore — others in Asia face similar challenges).

Unwillingness to challenge authority
Developing new knowledge and creating better processes for delivering it requires challenging the status quo and upsetting someone else’s way of thinking. Singapore’s education system, at all levels, has not traditionally encouraged this. The lecturer talks, the students copy it down, then they repeat it all on an exam. Memorization takes the place of critical thinking and challenging old ideas. This is also reflected in a political arena that does not encourage a lot of opposition; currently, only 6 of the 87 elected seats in Singapore’s Parliament are held by opposition members, and that is the highest number ever (other single-party-dominant countries in the region — such as Malaysia and Vietnam — should take note of this, too). Politically, it may seem to make sense to encourage stability by reducing opposition and friction in government, but leaders should remember that “stability” and “growth” are not the same thing.

New ideas will sometimes fail, and a society that does not allow for failure is a society too afraid to try something new. Knowledge work requires new ideas to stay ahead of trends and in front of competitors, and anyone unwilling to take a chance will find they get left behind. Whether it is parents’ drive for perfection or the make-or-break world of single-chance exams that decide your future, many Singaporeans hesitate to take a chance on something without a guaranteed outcome. You can see this in universities, with students who are far more concerned about knowing what would be on an exam (“Prof, what EXACTLY are you going to ask???”) than about advancing their understanding of the field. This has hurt creativity and entrepreneurship in the country; while the World Bank ranks Singapore as one of the easiest places to start and conduct a business, a fear of failure still holds many people back. Since so much creative and knowledge-based work is done by small, agile startups, this will be a real problem as the country goes forward. (One of our workshops — “Failure Is an Option” — helps leaders manage risk while encouraging innovation and experimentation.)

Individualistic rather than collaborative
In today’s work there is often no single right answer; instead, a holistic solution based on a variety of disciplines and functions has become the norm. Work in Singapore has typically been very individualized, though, with a strong concern about being measured for one’s own skills compared to others. Students know they will be evaluated based on how well they answer questions on their own, rather than on how effectively they work with others. Collaboration muddies those waters, but collaboration is essential for bringing together various perspectives and identifying opportunities for new knowledge and processes. That kind of agility is what makes one knowledge-based firm more successful than another, but employees who are trained to “color within the lines” and stay within their functional boundaries have trouble coming up with great ideas because they often don’t know what they do not know. (Our workshop on Leading Collaboration helps leaders create an environment where working together becomes the norm, rather than the exception.)

Fortunately, there is some change on the way for Singapore. The government began implementing a new plan in 2002 to build Singapore’s creative capabilities, including a number of educational changes designed to tackle the above challenges. We are still waiting to see the effects of that long-term effort; the first graduates who spent their entire academic career in that system will enter the workforce soon, and leaders need to be ready to take advantage of the skills those students bring. For now, though, it seems the social and educational upbringing of many of today’s knowledge workers in Singapore have not given them the best preparation for the challenges of the modern working environment, suggesting that Singapore has yet to make the best use of its greatest natural resource.

By the way, Vadaketh and his co-author, Donald Low, published Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus earlier this year. Sounds like it is worth a red.