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Ideas for a nation, beyond SG50

Singapore — If necessity is the mother of invention, then for much of the first 50 years after gaining independence, Singapore had plenty of inspiration, not only to survive, but also to thrive — a fledgling nation grappling with unemployment, housing shortages, and a lack of land and natural resources.

Illustration: Adolfo Arranz/TODAY

Illustration: Adolfo Arranz/TODAY

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SINGAPORE — If necessity is the mother of invention, then for much of the first 50 years after gaining independence, Singapore had plenty of inspiration, not only to survive, but also to thrive — a fledgling nation grappling with unemployment, housing shortages, and a lack of land and natural resources.

The Republic’s first generation of leaders was able to pluck the best practices from elsewhere and create something uniquely Singapore, such as taking the concept of public housing and fusing it with social aims by way of the Ethnic Integration Policy.

But in the next 50 years, no longer can the Republic merely adapt and refine what others have done — our future depends on original ideas, solutions, technologies and skills if we want to make our presence felt globally.

To innovate is to transform and challenge convention, and it takes nerve to make risky decisions and stare down the possibility of failure. This won’t come easy to most — particularly when the success of Singaporeans thus far means there are many conventional roads to a life of relative comfort and security.

As such, it is those among us who are willing to take a chance on the unknown and chase bigger dreams that we want to celebrate in our National Day special edition this year.

New ways of thinking

For example, as the Government ramps up efforts to mine the ground beneath our feet for space, Associate Professors Tan Soon Keat and Chu Jian of Nanyang Technological University and their colleagues are envisioning life underwater — think activities that lend themselves to the dark, such as cinemas and shopping malls — and have developed the material needed to build undersea structures.

Other researchers are concerning themselves with the business of moving Singaporeans efficiently from one place to another — a field that has never been more important at a time when our public-transport system is showing signs of strain. Dr James Fu of the Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alliance for Research and Technology is among the scientists here leading projects to make driverless vehicles a reality on our roads. Other institutions, such as the Future Cities Laboratory, are looking for better ways to predict traffic conditions, to create a transport future that anticipates demand and supplies ways of getting around at the push of a button.

Businessman Allan Lim and his team, meanwhile, have dedicated themselves to making urban rooftop farms in our concrete jungle a reality and wean Singapore off food imports, despite not having made back a cent since they set up the business. His dream? To build the biggest rooftop hydroponics farm in the world, “to show people we can (do it)”, said Mr Lim, who has already built a successful biofuels business.

Outside the laboratory, innovation can shape the community. When The Thought Collective’s Kuik Shiao-Yin, Tong Yee and Elizabeth Kon set up their tuition agency 13 years ago, they thought mainly of helping students prepare for their General Paper exams. Yet The Thought Collective has grown into a viable enterprise with a social heart, where students are placed in communities to do social work — subverting conventions one may hold about the tuition industry.

The Lien Foundation meanwhile, with CEO Lee Poh Wah at the helm, is looking for new ways to care for the vulnerable in our society — from children to senior citizens and to getting Singaporeans to plan a good death. Working with industry players, it is pioneering new models of care, such as a new preschool set up with voluntary welfare organisation Asian Women’s Welfare Association that will see special-needs children learning and playing together with their mainstream peers.

And against all odds, marine biologist Peter Ng, together with his mentor Professor Leo Tan, managed to raise S$46 million to open the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, forging the way forward for Singaporeans to better appreciate — and fight for — our natural heritage.

Overcoming fear

Small countries, said The Thought Collective’s Ms Kuik, who is also a Nominated Member of Parliament, must “play a big game to survive in the world”.

“People in small countries must take the risk to think long, see wide and dig deep,” she said.

Unfortunately, the fear of taking paths less travelled, an “addiction to playing it safe” and an “obsession with model answers” limit Singaporeans’ capacity to compete in creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Innovation, she feels, could come only from people with “hope”. “If we choose to linger in doubt, cynicism or disillusionment, we stop ourselves from seeing possibilities and will not get there,” she added.

In.Genius founder Lim Seng, who is in the middle of efforts to put the first Singaporean in space, said the young in Singapore must be trained to be “global” and think like leaders from Day 1. “One key weakness (among Singaporeans) is lack of courage to take responsibility, (in other words) the paranoia of failure and making mistakes,” said Mr Lim, who has weathered scepticism over his space dreams, despite a successful career in aviation and defence technology that spans the public and private sectors. “A lot of people love to ask permission (and) push the buck up, to shun taking ownership. This is a terrible disease.”

Ms Pat Law, founder of social influence agency GoodStuph, concurred. “At risk of ‘Margaret Thatchering’, I believe we need to instil a greater sense of ownership among Singaporeans. That water bottle littered on your HDB’s stairway isn’t the Government’s problem, for crying out loud … can’t you just pick it up and throw it into the bin?” she said. “We are known to be champion complainers — which isn’t a bad thing for we demand standards, but we were, once upon a time, self–sustaining as individuals too.”

To succeed, Singaporeans cannot fear the judgment of others. Said Lien Foundation’s Mr Lee: “If you want to solve the deepest problems of human life, you have to be in a sense abnormal. Stop accepting the status quo, stop going with the flow, stop conforming.”

Staying the course

Innovation, said In.Genius’ Mr Lim, also requires perseverance, grit and the willingness to take responsibility for one’s vision. “It’s not a ‘eureka’ moment, but a very tedious journey.”

Once, when he was asked how to ensure success when building a hypersonic space place, Mr Lim shared the process: Create a model of a draft design, do simulations, test a prototype in a wind tunnel, test a demonstrator, crash and “redo this cycle 400 times till we get it right”.

Stressing that there are no “short cuts”, he said: “Our education system produces many paper engineers or good administrators … we lack doers. Only doers will and can make mistakes, and ‘crash’ and learn and ultimately succeed.”

The Singapore Brand — efficiency and credibility of institutions here — and the Republic’s nimbleness as a small country are assets that should not go to waste. NTU economics professor Euston Quah noted that Singapore’s strengths lie in her ability to recruit top talent from around the world and heavy investment in education. Also, he said: “Singapore has no dogma or ideology that is necessary for the nation to subscribe to.”

Added design consultant Joshua Comaroff, whose firm Lekker Architects is among those that designed a pre-school for a Lien Foundation showcase of unusual pre-school concepts: “I find it interesting that many Singaporeans describe their society to me as reactive and uncreative. This is funny because many people from outside Singapore see it as a very restless, dynamic place ... a society that has the will to totally restructure and rebuild itself, and to make almost ridiculously ambitious plans.”

But Singapore must also see itself in cosmopolitan terms, as an exporter of ideas to the larger world. “This also involves a more open self-image, of Singapore as a diverse and fluid society,” Mr Comaroff said. While Singaporeans have been frustrated by the influx of foreigners, immigrants help fuel small, “highly dynamic” societies, he added.

Ms Kuik’s big idea to take Singapore forward: Stop defining children by grades. “So much potential and possibility are snuffed out by our ridiculous obsession about exam grades. Help our children discover the skills and strengths that make them who they are,” she said. “Let them be free ... and they in turn will lead this country into an amazing future.”

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