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Sake, windmills and the art of craftsmanship

I went to Fukushima in Japan to find out how good the sake is.

It is exceptional, but I found something else interesting.

Then I went to the Netherlands to look at how they harness the wind for energy, and discovered that very same thing.

There is a wondrous sameness in the pursuit of excellence.

Sake and windmills couldn't be more different and the people making them are separated by the width of the earth.

But they beat the same path to mastery of their craft.

What is it that makes them do their work with single-minded devotion to want to be the best?

It is a question Singapore is asking as it attempts to develop a culture of lifelong learning and respect for deep skills.

This was how DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam put it last month:

"Innovation... requires, firstly, deep specialisation. Whether you look at the German firms that are at the frontier or the Japanese or Swedish or anyone else, when you visit them, when you look at why they are world leaders, you will find people working in the enterprise who have deep mastery of skills."

How do we get more people, especially younger Singaporeans, to make this mindset change and move away from a mindless pursuit of academic achievement for its own sake?

I found some answers during my recent travels.

The sake breweries I visited were mainly family businesses dating back more than 300 years.

It is hard work, the brewing done in the winter, when the rice to make the sake has been harvested and the air is cool enough for the fermentation to take place.

Many of the workers are farmers and this is their winter job when work on the farms ceases.

But it is the brewer or toji as he is called who is the master craftsman, his skill passed down through the generations. He controls the elements that make for good sake, starting with the rice, the way it is milled, the quality of the water, yeast, temperature, humidity, how the fermenting mash is stirred.

The basic method has not changed over the years but the brewers are constantly looking for new ways to improve the brew.

Science helps, and there is much research done to produce the strongest yeast that yields the best flavours.

One brewery invented a machine to mill the rice grains down to the purest starch.

To watch them work, and see how seriously they take the job, you have to wonder what drives them.

All this just to produce a colourless drink you wash down with your sashimi?

But then you taste the delicate flavours and get to know the rich history of this centuries-old tradition and you understand why it is such an integral part of Japanese culture.

There is something else I discovered.

Though there are many breweries and they compete in the same market to produce the best sake, there is a surprising amount of cooperation. They share their techniques and knowledge, and work together with the local research institute to perfect the art of sake-making.

It has been a successful collaboration, and Fukushima has won the most prizes of all the sake-producing regions in Japan in the last three years.

Here is an important truth: The pursuit of excellence isn't an individual effort, one man working in isolation conquering all others to emerge champion. This would be completely alien here because rice-growing and sake-making are what make the community.

It defines who they are.

The craftsman isn't just an individual excelling at his work. If it was just this, his craft would not survive the centuries.

Instead, it thrives because he belongs to a community and his identity is rewarded with the deep respect others have for his craft.

It is also what I found in the Netherlands.

Here the first windmills were built 600 years ago to pump water out of waterlogged land, much of which is below sea level.

The imperative to work together is even greater as it is a matter of life and death, and out of it grew the strong communitarian spirit that has enabled the Dutch to overcome their geography and develop some of the most advanced flood protection schemes in the world.

It is quite a sight to see a modern windmill, soaring more than 100m into the sky built with advanced technology and engineering.

I visited one site with four of these propelling wonders.

But here's the Dutch thing: It is owned by a cooperative of almost 2,000 members and they have come together because they believe in wind energy and want the Netherlands to be among the best in this area.

Their combined energies are a match for the cold winds that blow in this part of the world.

I asked a man working on its famed dyke schemes why he is so passionate about his job.

He says it is a Dutch tradition and he is proud to be part of it.

Like those sake brewers, he identifies his craftsmanship with his community, and it drives him to want to do better.

These are deep cultural instincts developed over the centuries that have shaped the peoples in Japan, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Singapore?

Every society has to find its own answers regarding what it wants to excel and develop deep skills in.

For Singapore, it is a pressing issue as it looks for new ways to grow the economy.

The easy answers of the past, relying on foreign companies with their technology and expertise, may no longer be enough.

It now has to dig deep and develop its own craft. Better to focus on those areas in which it has a natural advantage or which make use of what it already has.

How about developing the skills to become the best traders in South-east Asia? (But that means knowing the languages and cultures of the region and being prepared to work in those countries).

What about mastering an understanding of the tropics and how best to make use of the abundant sunshine and rainfall?

I do not know what the answers are.

Ultimately, it isn't just an economic issue about creating jobs and increasing wages.

What we decide to be good at will shape the society we are and the values we uphold.

That's what I found in Japan and the Netherlands.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Sake, windmills and the art of craftsmanship'. Print Edition | Subscribe