Thinking Aloud

Keep head down like the rooster or carve own destiny?

As an uncertain future looms ahead, how Singapore and its people respond counts

Warning: another rooster story ahead.

If you're still reading, here goes.

Suppose you were a rooster, which of the following would you prefer?

One, you have absolutely no idea that on Chinese New Year's Eve, you would end up at the reunion dinner table.

So you live blissfully (as much as a farm chicken can), with no worries until the fateful day when the end comes suddenly and unexpectedly.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Or two, you know exactly what will happen to all your feathered friends, including yourself, but there is nothing you can do about it, and you live your entire life knowing the end is nigh.

Or three, you have an inkling that something bad might happen but you don't know what or when it might strike.

The future is uncertain and you're torn between worrying and preparing for the worst, and enjoying the moment and making the best of it.

Roosters have it simple: It is Option 1 for them, chop chop.

But for the rest of us, the Year of the Rooster looks like another version of Option 3: The British vote to leave the European Union, Mr Donald Trump's election, the shifting balance of power in the region with China's growing strength, and the slowing down of the Singapore economy have made the future more uncertain than it's been for some time.

How should people and countries respond to uncertainty?

Stay calm, keep your head down (like the rooster?), or become even more proactive, bolder, take greater risk and try to carve out your own destiny?

Looking at the actions of various leaders round the world, there has been a range of responses.

Whether you love or hate him, you have to say US President Trump belongs firmly in the latter camp.

It has been only two weeks since his taking office but his forceful charge - the plan to build the Mexican wall, the ban on Muslim visitors from seven countries, the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership - has been felt all round the world.

He can't be sure all the things he is doing, or says he will do, will work out or fail disastrously, and damage his presidency and the country.

But he is a risk taker, even if recklessly so.

You could say the same for Chinese President Xi Jinping - I mean the risk-taking part - seeing how he purged the Chinese leadership of corruption, strengthening his hold on power and launching his bold plans to bring China closer to superpower status.

The One Belt, One Road initiative, the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea are not without risks and uncertainty.

But they also hold rich promise for China's future if successfully executed.

You might also include Russian President Vladimir Putin in the risk-taking camp.

Singapore?

I do not think the future today is any more uncertain than it was 50 years ago. But the challenges have changed and Singapore today is a different society. What hasn't changed though is this: How it responds to uncertainty will determine the outcome.

It is an issue that is as relevant here, especially at this stage in Singapore's development as it tries to make the transition to a more developed economy and polity amid growing uncertainty.

Indeed, it was the subject of some discussion at a dialogue with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month which I moderated.

At the EDB Society-The Straits Times forum, several among the audience asked if Singapore should be bolder and more daring in policymaking and execution.

One said: "Entrepreneurship and risk-taking is needed to give Singapore's economy a second wind, especially in an uncertain global political economy."

Another put it this way: "To some, the pioneering leaders who built Singapore's economy to what it is today were entrepreneurs in their own right with a 'dare to dream, dare to do' attitude. Today, the perception is that civil servants are more risk-averse, more focused on not rocking the boat before their next posting."

Responding, PM Lee acknowledged that earlier leaders such as Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen were outstanding leaders but also "mavericks who could push and make things happen".

Such a mindset, he added, was needed in the public sector more than ever, but it was harder because things were "more settled".

"You must have that freshness to look ahead and say: On this, we are too settled, we have to change. Not just change things but change from being settled."

I couldn't agree more.

It remains to be seen though how this translates to policy and action.

There is a view among many - I suspect especially among those in the public service - that it was easier to be bolder in the earlier years because the people were easier to rule and not so troublesome as they are today.

I think this is a mistaken view, and a convenient excuse for inaction.

You only need to look at some of the changes the early leaders made to appreciate the risks they took.

When they decided to make English the working language, it could have provoked a violent reaction. Language is an emotional issue in any society and much blood has been shed in many places over its place in the community.

English wasn't the language of the majority here and it was alien to many Chinese, Malays and Indians.

They were too docile then to protest?

Those who say this forget the political temper of that period, erupting occasionally in violence on the streets.

Today's population pales by comparison.

Yet, the political leaders then took the risk and Singapore's future changed irrevocably.

Another risk-defying act: introducing national service in 1967 to all able-bodied men when they turned 18. It couldn't have been a popular decision, the logistics involved must have been frightening, and the result quite uncertain.

What if angry young men, now newly armed, turned against their superiors?

But the decision was taken and the Singapore Armed Forces hasn't looked back since.

Faced with an uncertain future, Singapore leaders took the bold, risk-taking road.

I do not think the future today is any more uncertain than it was 50 years ago.

But the challenges have changed and Singapore today is a different society.

What hasn't changed though is this: How it responds to uncertainty will determine the outcome.

Will Singapore sit back accepting its fate in the changing world (chop chop?) or seize the initiative and take the rooster by the neck?

Happy Chinese New Year.

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

SEE INSIGHT

Making S'pore future-ready

Learning culture ensures workers have the right skills

A liveable home well-connected to the world

Opportunities for growth as companies look beyond home

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'Keep head down like the rooster or carve own destiny?'. Print Edition | Subscribe