Society On A Tricky Onward Journey

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What is Singapore’s road to success lined with? Photo: Danila Shtantsov / Shutterstock

HAVE we grown too comfortable as a society? Are we losing our edge? And if so, what should we do about it?

From MRT incidents to SingTel broadband failure, the hue and cry has been heard islandwide. In the “perfect Singapore” that was dreamed into being and carefully moulded over the decades, the hairline cracks are now showing.

Ageing equipment, policy shifts that cooled down the ardour of Singapore property investors, a worsening economy, rising costs, global shifts in leadership and a bewildered system trying to cope with rapid changes are variables in play. It doesn’t help that we have a demanding population that expects perfection from a well-paid civil service that has promised service to match.

Trying to “future-proof” a nation isn’t proving as straightforward as it seemed before all the disruptors weighed in with considerable force. Lulled into a false sense of comfort, over time Singapore seems to now find it difficult to handle curve balls.

How then do we find that sense of purpose and direction? This week’s Friday Focus offers  some insight into this issue.

Growing In Discomfort

Darryl Wee,  Managing Director (Southeast Asia), The RBL Group

If I had to give Singapore a grade for how “futureproof” ready we are, I would say we get an A for effort but a C+ for effectiveness.

If we look at what the government is grappling with today, I can honestly say that we are making every effort to help futureproof our economy and country for what is to come. However the disruptions caused by technology, changing business models and political uncertainty are unprecedented. As a country, we cannot solely rely on the establishment for all the answers. As a people and an economy, what can we do to mitigate this at our level? How can we learn to ride the waves of change instead waiting to be told what we could do?

This leads me to the effectiveness score of C+ which is driven by how resilient we are, and how agile we are when it comes to learning new things. I would argue that as a nation, our resilience has not been significantly tested beyond a recent riot, public transportation breakdowns and wireless network outages. How we respond to this in future will be key.

My main concern is our economy’s current level of learning agility. If I were to compare my interactions with leaders and chief human resource officers outside Singapore, I find a high level of enthusiasm to continue to learn and explore concepts. Unfortunately when I compare that with some of my interactions here, the difference is stark.

I tend to find a higher portion of senior leaders here more resistant to trying new things and willing to take a calculated risk against the status quo.

Perhaps we are too comfortable with what we have today, or perhaps we do not have a culture where we allow for learning experiences in the organisation.

I go to the analogy of the lobster. For the lobster to grow it starts to feel uncomfortable in its shell. It then finds a safe place to rid its old shell, and grows a new one. This process is repeated and repeated again till it gets to its full size. If, as a people, we cannot learn to live with some discomfort, how do we continue to grow into our full potential? If as a people, we do not have an environment where we can shed the old and grow the new safely, how do we adapt to the future?

Like a highly effective computer system, Singapore has all the necessary hardware and technological systems. It is time we now start to focus on the software. We need to have the right attitude and culture to be able to create a new system that propels us forward successfully for next 50 years.”

In A C Of Uncertainty

Dick van Motman, Chairman & CEO, Dentsu Aegis Network/Southeast Asia

When I first moved to Singapore in 2001, I was taught that life in this country revolves around the five “C”s — Condo, Car, Club, Credit Card and Cash. I soon learned that a sixth “C” was equally important: Complaining.

There’s not a people in the world that are so vocal when confronted with disruption in their daily life flow, but I realised quickly that this is actually a good thing that signals a deep connectedness of the population with their country.

The Singaporean national identity is intertwined with the uptime of its major services, like broadband and public transport. If they break down, Singapore — and in a sense its citizens — break down, too.

Social media has only amplified their already loud voice.

I have lived around the globe and that level of buy-in with the infrastructure is unique. When something similar happens in Jakarta or Shanghai people are annoyed but move on. Not Singaporeans. They’ll sink their teeth in like a pit-bull and won’t let go until the problem is solved.

Even though the local populace keeps the authorities and service providers on their toes, there is an argument to be made that Singapore went from being a startup that dictated and moulded the future to its vision, to a reactive nation state. Everyone studying the concept of disruption knows that entities that are reactive, as opposed to proactive, eventually get their lunch eaten.

The volatility of today’s geopolitical landscape in the region — mass demonstrations in Jakarta, a drug war in Manila and the occasional coup in Thailand — still makes Singapore the safe haven in Southeast Asia. But the reality of today’s world is that rules are made overnight and by anyone. A single bet on security and stability can prove to be risky.

If Singapore decides that it is about long term innovation and not just compliance I would argue that it should add another C to it’s repertoire: Chaos. If that is too strong a word “Creativity” would suffice, too. The fluidity that comes with creativity is the ingredient that leads to true innovation.

Creativity, diversity and dialogue make an ideas-based world go round and the foundation for this is found in ambiguity and organic evolution as opposed to control.

Law and order makes for good business these days. There is a reason that the last big entity to move its regional offices to Singapore was Interpol. But did the city really need another law and order flagship store?

Wouldn’t a buzzing creative HQ cause more sparks in the red dot? A tiny hint of organic unpredictability and a slight move away from the comfort zone allows a society to become truly innovative. And as long as the very vocal and beautiful complainers of Singapore are able to voice out and keep everyone responsible on their toes, who knows, this mighty mouse might roar again.

Optimistic About The Future

Money K, who works in the financial services sector.

I don’t have a crystal ball but my view is that Singapore’s continued success is dependent on three factors:

1.       Succession
2.       Disruption
3.       Diversification

Succession
Not only in political terms but also across all levels of society and the nation as a whole. Are we preparing the next generation to be able leaders in government, the civil service, the private sector, family businesses, NGOs, community organisations and so on? Whatever organisation a leader belongs to, it is probably the most important responsibility to ensure a succession plan with a pipeline of talent to take it to new heights.

Disruption
New companies are defying regulations, and disrupting traditional companies and business practices at an alarming rate. They are founded on artificial intelligence, the sharing economy, robotics, biotechnology and other rapidly evolving technologies. The largest taxi company owns no taxis (Uber), the largest hotel company owns no rooms (Airbnb), the largest retail companies own no retail space (Amazon or Alibaba). More such upstarts will emerge in the future to usurp incumbents.

Diversification
An investor seeks diversification in his portfolio to mitigate risk. Likewise, we need to embrace diversity as a way of life to protect our future – diversity in talent, diversity in education, diversity in the national population, diversity in business. We can’t have all our eggs in one basket. Shipping, oil and gas and manufacturing sectors are in a slump. What’s next? As a nation, we need more industries and platforms to keep the economy vibrant, providing opportunities for all.

At the same time, we are witnessing the rising tide of populism, protectionism and parochialism globally. Brexit and Trump are illustrative of this new wave of insularism that is insidious to global growth and prosperity. It has the potential to widen income gaps and threaten global wellbeing in terms of politics, economics and the environment.

I am optimistic about Singapore’s future. Singaporeans are quick to pivot and change as the situation demands.

The region (both Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific) will be a more vibrant place economically as well as in lifestyle and culture. The next phase of history will see a dominant Asia. Singapore will thrive as an important nexus in this growing and prosperous region.

The Singapore economy will be multi-faceted with new industries and platforms. There will be some displacement in terms of jobs but overall Singapore will be a great place to live and work.

There will be some challenges — the environment, security, and a widening gulf in wealth between the haves and have-nots. These will not be solvable; they just need to be managed in the best way possible.

The Singaporean identity will evolve. It will be less about “kiasuism” and the materials things in life and more about the quality of life and the pursuit of a larger dream of a happy, contented people in an exciting metropolis.

Always Have Options

Lee Yew Moon, Freelance trainer

More than 10 years, there was an effort to “streamline” everything. The idea was to offer one fix for every situation. If the MRT line ran from A to B, then take away the buses.

The thinking then was there would not be duplication. That also made us dependent on one means of transport. That weakened us.

While that approach has been put on the backburner, that mentality prevails among many — that there is only one solution and there are no alternatives.

Even when there are options, and people are required to compete, is the general environment such that the competition is viable?

High rentals cause businesses to either not be able to compete, or results in lower standards, which is another issue.

In the case of SingTel, we have alternatives. I make it a point not to be monocultural with amenities. Phone line is  with M1, broadband with SingTel. I’m considering an alternative broadband provider.

Should it be built into Telco contracts that if SingTel goes down, another takes over?  They do that for lawyers, so why not service providers.

It’s amazing that after the recent failure of SingTel’s Mio broadband service, we haven’t heard from anyone. No press conference. Nothing said.

The attitude towards the provider is affected by how the provider reacts to us. If the provider had come out and told us it would take so many hours to resolve the matter, at least we can accommodate it.

When it goes to 24 hours and even longer, then the anger is justified. People should consider going to another provider.

If I were a customer, if it’s mission critical, I would have more than one service provider. If it’s a small business, I would probably approach SingTel and ask them to make good. If they don’t respond positively, I would move somewhere else, and I would sue them.

In the past, institutions like the Singapore Telephone Board delivered whatever they promised.  It wasn’t convenient but what they said, they did.  I recall my dad applying for a phone line and was told we could get it only about two years later because all the available lines were used up.

Two years later, it arrived.

Similarly, I recall walking into immigration Department at Empress Place and seeing a long line waiting to apply for passports.  I was told that it would take about 45 mins.  I was served in 40 mins.  So, the reality met the expectations.

With the SingTel outage, while there were no explicit promises of uninterrupted service, it was always implicit in their promotional material and in justifying their top executives’ pay packets.

Not So Well?

Sivaram Rajagopalan, CEO, Shiva Consultants

Singapore is used to living well… and in a well.

We have been isolated by many of the challenges out there because of a highly efficient government mechanism and infrastructure, that in turn leads to efficiencies in the private sector. So, life is generally pretty good, and as a result these disruptions are seen as very significant.

Yes, we are faced with MRT/Internet challenges today and there will be others. I recall the appalling cable-car accident of 1983, the Robinson Shopping centre fire in 1972. We recovered and improved to prevent re-occurrences. We will again.

The walls of our well need mending, even if within our well it feels like an earthquake.

One must have the confidence that these will be addressed. Meanwhile, contribute as best as you can to find a better way — innovate. It is telling that we become a bit ‘caught-out’ by disruptions, so as a people we could be more agile, while being patient. We need a balance of both adaptability (part of agility and part resourcefulness) and patience (give time and support the resolution). It is also important to note that it is also these inconveniences that actually help us appreciate the value of what we have, and serve as important guides on our journey.

Have you noticed that every time there is an inconvenience we have a slew of “they should have” moments? This is our mind looking for solutions. Our attempt at agility, at innovation. I don’t mean that we should have more inconveniences, but that we should learn to explore and expand our thinking. To think out of the box, you actually need to do it. Get through or around the innovation.

If you have “time” wait for someone else to solve it, or else find your own solution.


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