Adaptation - the most essential skill

Miel

To survive, we cannot simply accept changes imposed on us; we need to make targeted adjustments in the face of competition

When Darwin observed that nature was defined by the survival of the "fittest"? he was not emphasising physical prowess but adaptability. The ability to successfully adapt to changes in the environment has explained the continuation of certain species and the demise of others. Adaptation is the most essential skill for the future, as it has been throughout the past.

Adaptation should not be taken as the simplistic imperative to continually change or accepting changes imposed on us. It is important that we have a more nuanced comprehension which underpins the greater imperative of taking ownership of how and why we change.

First, adaptation is value-free. It is perfectly possible to adapt into something more evil or dangerous, even self-injurious. History is replete with examples, such as Germany in the early 20th century, turning from a relatively enlightened state into a brutal hegemon; the Middle Ages when Europe swung away from the corridor of learning and plunged into the dark room of ignorance and denial; and China, after decades of brilliant maritime exploration turning its back on the world during the mid-15th century.

TAKING OWNERSHIP

Second, adaptation is a function of conscious choice. Whether at the country, firm or individual level,

adaptation that is not conscious is equivalent to an abdication of responsibility to take ownership for defining, even if only marginally, one's own destiny.

The first generation of Singapore's political leaders are a good positive example of taking ownership of adaptation. With hindsight bias, it is easy to assume that our present success was inevitable. It certainly did not seem that way in 1965 and continued to be a matter of some doubt for at least the first decade and a half of independence. On all fronts - security, economic, diplomatic and political - that generation of leaders tried many things and adjusted their strategies as they went along on the basis of what actually worked.

The source of successful adaptation is not preconceived as belonging to the academically smartest or the wealthiest. It is precisely because we cannot predict where, how and from whom the better ideas or superior leadership will arise that we cannot lock ourselves into fixed social constructs.

To provide for national defence they had to scramble to find solutions, such as National Service, to take the place of withdrawn British forces; and to be humble in actively requesting help from India, Britain and Israel, amongst others, to build up Singapore's capabilities.

On the economy, disrupted by sudden separation from the Malaysian hinterland, they went against post-colonial economic fashion to select an export-orientated rather than import substitution strategy and to aggressively seek foreign investments from multinationals.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

On social policies, they chose to maintain but expand the existing compulsory savings scheme, now known as the Central Provident Fund, and to make heavy and sustained investments in healthcare, housing and education. These choices adapted existing but limited colonial policies.

On the foreign policy front, to buttress Singapore's position internationally, they promoted Asean and from the start participated actively with energy and ideas to make it a useful regional forum. They learnt on the hoof how to play their part on the international stage.

TRIAL AND ERROR

Third, this experience illustrates that adaptation is not one-shot. It is an iterated process of trial and error. It should be treated as axiomatic that some stages of adaptation will inevitably be sub-optimal or outright failures. Therefore a requirement for successful adaptation is a resilience to struggle past the difficult stages.

Fourth, dominance is not a guarantee of successful adaptation. In fact the inertia from being dominant can be powerful and fatal.

Kodak, the once dominant force in the photographic and movie film industry, failed to adapt to the emergent technology and collapsed into a shadow of its former self. IBM, on the other hand, also once dominant in its industry, left the hardware side of the technology and transformed itself into a pure services business. It continues to do well.

Kodak ignored the tremors of technological change because it was too well insulated by its total dominance. IBM's dominance was challenged by rising new companies, such as Apple and Microsoft, which shocked it into taking dramatic steps to reinvent itself several times from the 1980s, after decades of undisturbed dominance.

Fifth, adaptation is not one-directional. It is convention to think that adaptation is always about the new. This is not true. Adaptation is about what works and what works may well be trying something from the past.

One example of the reaching back into history to adapt is how the multibillion-dollar Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) has been rolled out. The technocrats of the PAP had in recent decades placed an emphasis on efficiency in communication and distribution of public policy "message and effects", which can be described as wholesaling of policy.

In contrast, the PGP has been the subject of an intensive, extensive and expensive public outreach campaign. Thousands of Pioneer Generation Ambassadors have been trained to engage each pioneer on a personal level and in his or her household. This is a throw-back to the "retailing"? of policy which defined the 1960s and 1970s and a break from the "wholesaling" of policy that defined the PAP style from the 1980s onwards.

Finally, adaptation is not its own reward and by extension it should not engender a sense of entitlement. Its virtue must be measured in terms of actual results.

Continually chasing paper qualifications, job hopping to "build up experience" or going off on soul-searching gap years do not equate to being a more productive worker or necessarily being more valued by the market.

Adaptation is about targeted adjustments to ensure survival in the context of competition. We must be hard-headed about measuring effectiveness in competitive terms.

Singapore needs to make adaptations as it confronts the challenges on several dimensions. We have an ageing population, high wealth inequality and growing regional economic competition.

All of these are complex problems. But they triangulate on a central paradox of how to manage the expectation of entitlement on both ends of the political spectrum.

SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT

The political left has made considerable inroads since 2011. Significant structural commitments have been made to make healthcare, housing and education more affordable for households and individuals.

On the economic front, we seem to have a quasi-Keynesian approach to ever expanding grants and subsidies for workers and firms to cope with competition.

The danger is that this can set us on a dangerous course to a crutch mentality in both Singaporeans and local firms. We must be careful not to remove that edge of mortality which is a necessary incentive to drive personal and commercial endeavour.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in a recent discussion at St Gallen, used the analogy of a trampoline rather than a safety net as the appropriate approach for Singapore.

I would agree but note that the Singapore Government, in response to political pressure, is pouring so much resources into social and economic support policies that we must be coming close to the line of indifference between the two philosophies.

There is equal danger of entitlement on the political right. This refers to the much-debated concept of meritocracy. Unfettered meritocracy can easily lead over time to an entrenchment of a dominant and self-righteous elite who seize the commanding heights of society and economy.

Being adaptive as a nation means ensuring a system of strong social mobility, and not one with a channel for the smartest and another channel for others. This is because the smartest then become dominant and create path-dependent channels for their children, which have in-built advantages that may be impossible to rival.

The source of successful adaptation is not preconceived as belonging to the academically smartest or the wealthiest. It is precisely because we cannot predict where, how and from whom the better

ideas or superior leadership will arise that we cannot lock ourselves into fixed social constructs.

Reconciling the two, to temper meritocracy so as to ensure strong social mobility while avoiding drifting to the extreme of feeling that the State should provide for all needs or insulate firms and individuals from the tests of the market and social competition, is a political challenge of the first order.

The Singapore of tomorrow will be the product of how we adapt in response to this paradox.


•The writer is the chief executive officer of the Future-Moves Group. FUSE, his new book on strategy, will be released in bookstores and online next month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Adaptation - the most essential skill'. Print Edition | Subscribe