Thinking Aloud

Is Singapore becoming an old young country?

A country's age is about the psychology of its people and their attitude towards the future

When MRT trains first started breaking down in 2011, the initial reaction was surprise, even disbelief.

How could it happen in super-efficient Singapore where everything works?

And wasn't the MRT still a relatively young and new system?

I can still remember the first time I stepped into the brand-new trains in 1988 and onto the promise of a new age of modern mass rapid transit. It didn't seem so long ago.

But, of course, we now know that beneath the shiny surface, many things had begun to age, including the timber sleepers which hold the tracks in place and the signalling and power supply systems.

Now everyone is saying how old the system is and in need of a modern replacement.

Old or new, young or aged?

It isn't a question of years, but of psychological make-up, of keeping up with the times and being alive to new possibilities.


The question is as relevant to Singapore, the country.

We often think of it as a young society, newly developed and still finding its feet among the nations of the world, many with centuries-old histories and traditions such as China, India, Japan, France and Britain.

Fifty is young in terms of human civilisation, too short a time to develop a new language or culture, perhaps even a sense of national identity.

But 50 can be old for MRT trains and tracks and Housing Board flats undergoing redevelopment.

A young country can also become old when its people stop believing what can be achieved tomorrow and become more concerned with protecting what they already have, fearful of losing everything.

This type of ageing is more dangerous because there are no obvious outward signs, no dramatic breakdowns that signal it is time for renewal.

A country grows old when its organisations become big, multi-layered and bureaucratic, when decision-making slows down and its people are afraid to take risks. I don't think this is a widespread problem in Singapore - yet.

But there are worrying signs that its reflexes have slowed down and it is not moving as fast and nimbly as it should.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the need for Singapore to move faster in adopting new technologies in areas such as having a national e-identity system and promoting cashless transactions.

Other countries had been quicker off the mark, he noted.

I can cite two other examples.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) recently announced it had scrapped plans for a national bicycle-sharing scheme due to be launched by the end of the year because there were already at least two commercial companies offering the service outside of the plan.

LTA's decision may be the right one - it depends on how these companies perform - but I was struck by reports which said that the national plan had been mooted as early as 2014 and that it had taken two years to study the scheme's feasibility.

Why does a bicycle-sharing scheme take so long to plan and implement?

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising, knowing the number of government agencies that are likely to be involved in the process, including LTA, URA, HDB, NParks and more.

But that's precisely what ageing does: when the bureaucracy grows in layers and size and the number of people you have to consult for a simple decision multiplies.

Atrophy can set in quickly.

It is worrying that a relatively simple scheme like bike sharing which almost every big city around the world has - there is even one in Astana, Kazakhstan, which I visited last year - took such a long time to consider.

Even then, the plan was aborted after several fleet-footed Chinese companies decided - quickly - to park some of their bicycles here.

Another example: It was announced last year that changes will be made to the way pupils are graded in the national Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

But the new method will not be introduced until five years later, in 2021.

I can understand the concern about giving pupils and educators more time to prepare for the changes, but is it necessary to delay implementation by so many years?

If indeed the new system is an improvement over the old, why not start earlier so that more students would benefit?

I hope the public service will take in what Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said last month when he urged it to "think big, start small, act fast".

In other words, become young again.

It is the economy though that I worry most about when it comes to premature ageing.

The changes taking place in the business world are even more wide-ranging and bewildering, with new technology and competitors constantly disrupting the old.

Singapore companies have to be as innovative, creating their own brands, unique to their own strengths and experience.

A young country should feel energised by the possibilities that new technology and markets can bring, especially one situated in dynamic Asia where growth is expected to be among the highest in the world.

Yet, the mantra we hear today is that the Singapore economy is entering a mature phase, and can expect to grow by only 2 to3 per cent a year, in line with how the advanced economies are growing.

Is this another sign of premature ageing?

There are large parts of the economy which are nowhere near those of the advanced countries in their level of development and sophistication - for example, in construction, services and the SME sector.

Companies in these areas cannot behave like mature businesses but must be like young upstarts eager to change the world around them.

The danger of Singapore becoming an old country isn't about its population ageing, which is a separate issue.

It has nothing to do with age and everything to do with the psychology of the people and their attitude towards the future.

Think old and past it, and it will be downhill from here.

At 52, Singapore is a young country and should behave its age.

•The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline Is Singapore becoming an old young country?. Subscribe