The report by the Committee of the Future Economy (CFE) came out last Friday, and it’s been raging the headlines of The Straits Times and the Business Times ever since. There are more and more success stories and prospective ‘success’ stories that are being sold to us (Singaporeans), and I wonder if people ever wonder about the narrative being sold to us and the feasibility of CFE’s report.
Of course, there will always be the critics. But what is wrong?
Reading The Straits Times today, I chanced upon an article about how Singapore could help prospective SMEs travel into ASEAN. One budding entrepreneur suggested a ‘travel fund’ of sorts, to help fund business trips for growing SMEs to look and tap into business opportunities in ASEAN. At that point, I was thinking – really? – is this the state of which we need our government to interfere into our lives and businesses? Are we really that helpless?
Of course, we cannot discount the fact that he is right – a travel fund will indeed help SMEs look into growing opportunities in ASEAN, as well as give credence and help reveal the opportunities that Singapore can potentially tap on. But is this level of involvement really necessary, and is it warranted?
When we were looking into challenges of the future (about 2 years ago), productivity and innovation were words being thrown around (they’ve become buzzwords in the Singaporean dictionary almost). Flash forward to today – they’ve become apparent in the CFE’s strategy for maintaining growth, repeated over and over again – how the government will encourage investment in research and development, and how this will then lead to knock-on effects on productivity and innovation. The aim and objective of the CFE’s goals are clear – to make sure that Singapore sees sustained growth of 2-3% (ambitious, particularly for our advanced economy) and to ensure that Singapore is relevant in times to come. Relevant being – the adaptability of our workers, as well as the adaptability of our economy in dealing with both disruptive innovations as well as continuous innovation.
But is it that simple?
Critics (this one here included) have said that the report is hardly conclusive, but it’s been the best bet (and guide) to ensuring sustained growth in Singapore – correct. But it is hardly constructive and helpful in establishing what productivity and innovation is, and what they mean.
It seems that governmentality in Singapore is an overtly surgical approach – what we can do, we fix it – and we craft policies such that we can achieve this. But it seems to be a mismatch of sorts – policies are like a sum of coherent actions but we seem to have misunderstood what both productivity and innovation mean.
Productivity is something that is hard to quantify – most often than not it is measured by the rate of output per unit of output. We’ve continually progressed in terms of education, and it can be said that we are continually getting better at the things we do. However, why do we have declining productivity rates?
Our standing as an advanced economy and our growth has been heavily reliant on the importation of foreign labour to make up for our lack of resources. Simple economics – the more input, the more output – but as we try to curb our love for foreign labour, we have declining productivity levels (not helpful). The government has aimed to curbed this by implementing incentives at the workplace to become productive (find new ways of doing things!) and strengthening support systems (ensuring workers get the right pay, workplace practices are safe and non-discriminatory). Only time will tell if this pays off. But is there something more sinister underlying this – why have we become almost dependent on the government (when we should be responsible for our own productivity levels?) We’ve always been prideful of our meritocracy – that no matter where we come from, we all have a chance to make it in life – and we often reap what we sow. If so, why have we become so desensitised to work productively? (forgive the equivocation)
The same thing goes with innovation – we’ve tried ways to incubate our own innovation, and there has been success at this. We stand as one of the most research-intensive countries (per capita) and this has paid off as our industries expand abroad. Innovation is a tricky thing – it can be borne out of adversity, or just a spark; it takes sensitivity to see a certain need and also people willing to fill those big shoes. Its been said that Singaporeans are often risk-adverse – we often take the safe way out (blame the old rhetoric our parents were told as kids – get a job, get security – that’s the most important). It’s not to say that it is entirely irrelevant – but as the government tries to change this rhetoric (ref: reformation of education system, abolishment of PSLE grades, encourage entrepreneurs) does it not risk turning against its own head (when it’s the one saying we need more engineers, and we socially engineer each population to fill the shoes of the recently deceased?). How are we going to fill those big shoes that we speak of if we’ve been brought up to believe the contrary; coupled with the fact that we’ve been entitled to a huge slew of governmental policies designed to (i) encourage saving (ii) discourage risk-taking, especially with social engineering of each population (iii) ensure that we’re taken care of till the coffin?
We seem to have forgotten what productivity and innovation mean – particularly when we try so actively to foster innovation and increase productivity. In developmental studies, economic growth does not necessarily equate with development. Numbers however, make most of us happy – when we see economic growth we mostly rejoice (and this is true, because the government has been extremely good at passing the fruits of our labour around – through cheap education, lucrative CPF saving plans, subsidies for HDBs – and they’ve made it accessible to the layman). But if we are simply cradled by the government (coupled with its overt governmentality), how will we ever learn how to be productive and innovative? – we will simply become a nation without a soul.
For a small country like Singapore, governmentality is extremely instrumental in ensuring the livelihood of both the people and the nation. But have we lost the capacity to think for ourselves and more importantly act for ourselves, for our own good, and to believe that we can do it on our own merit?