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Why a culture of mastery matters

A combination of structural and cyclical changes in the global economy is bewildering enough for even policymakers in both developed and developing countries. But individuals, too, need to make some sense of the contours of a changing world in which they will have to make a living. In his remarks at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum recently, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam focused on how nations could negotiate their way through the next, slower phase of economic and trade growth. In a nutshell, the best way of dealing with change is to embrace it. That means putting innovation at the forefront when thinking of products, services and processes.

Cynics might say some Singaporeans today have lost their robustness in coping with change. Instead of taking calculated chances with the new and unexpected, they prefer to remain in the comfort zone of the old and familiar. That's just the half of it, of course. There are a good number of Singaporeans who understand that innovation could also take the form of subtle changes, for example, giving new life to old classics. The critical point is that the desire to innovate, in whatever way one chooses, comes from not being satisfied with just attaining competence in an area but striving to be a master in a field as it changes over one's lifetime.

Singapore's response to the changing times has to be a collective effort to develop a culture of mastery across economic sectors and professions. One reason for the celebrated success of Germany's small and medium-sized companies, known as the Mittelstand, is a penchant for specialisation which helped them to carve out international space far exceeding their size. The mastery of skills demonstrated by workers elsewhere did not occur spontaneously. The personal pride taken in doing work of exceptional quality was the result of a national culture that celebrates excellence in whatever form expressed and regardless of the status of a job.

Japan's master craftsmen, with their perfectionist disdain for mediocrity, provide just one template for national excellence that allows certain work to hold its own in a world of high-precision automated competence. Likewise, the specialists behind handcrafted Swiss watches are responsible for the enduring pedigree of these products. These examples serve as a reminder that innovation and excellence should not be equated with esoteric work done in laboratories or software development houses. A culture of pursuing mastery can help make innovation flower in all nooks and crannies, from Institute of Technical Education workbenches to pop-up kitchens at speciality events. Immersed in such a culture, even "trivial" pursuits could be turned into an art form, like the creations with latte foam of an Osaka youngster gaining online attention.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline 'Why a culture of mastery matters'. Subscribe