More space needed for people to take the initiative

Wednesday's editorial ("Revive disruptive spirit of yore") suggests that changing mindsets and culture is the critical factor for Singapore to confront the new age of disruptive technologies.

It cited the pioneering spirit of daring to do things differently, with approaches contrary to conventional wisdom, as an example of how Singapore can reinvent itself.

However, there is a critical difference between conditions then and now.

Then, the Government took the lead and made all the changes. People merely followed, and accepted and adapted to the changes as they came.

Now, the disruptive changes brought about by technology make everyone a follower, including the Government.

This is the critical factor. As long as the people look to the Government as the change-maker, their mindset remainsthat of a follower.

Disruptive technologies force everyone to make changes. The question is: Are we followers or leaders?

The rediscovery of the pioneering spirit can happen only when the people, and not just the Government, have the gumption to take the lead in breaking new ground. As a people, Singaporeans have been accustomed to being compliant followers, not risk-takers with derring-do. This is largely the outcome of having a dominant and capable Government.

And as long as the Government continues to be dominant and capable, asserting leadership in every aspect of life, people are unlikely to stop being mere followers, happy that their lives are being well looked after.

Obviously, I am not suggesting that a weak and less capable government would be desirable to force people to change.

What needs to change in governance is a broadening of space for people to take the initiative, and for people to not be deterred by the prospect of punishment if one deviates from the safe and sure passage.

In other words, there should be more dangling of the carrot and less threatening with the stick when people do not follow the leaders' way of doing things.

People have to come to realise that being different is not necessarily wrong.

This can come about when the Government actively encourages ground-up initiatives, avoiding a top-down approach that compels everyone to toe the line.

This is where a mindset change is absolutely critical.

Thomas Lee Hock Seng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2016, with the headline 'More space needed for people to take the initiative'. Print Edition | Subscribe