When family can impede culture of innovation

Mr Lim Siong Guan said there is a need for Singapore to build "a culture of innovation, excellence and outwardness".
Mr Lim Siong Guan said there is a need for Singapore to build "a culture of innovation, excellence and outwardness".

When he spoke to a young adult from a local start-up recently, former civil service head Lim Siong Guan asked what was the biggest problem the person faced.

The answer was unexpected: "My mother." The mother could not understand why her child, who had done well in school, did not opt for a stable, well-paying job and instead chose to join a start-up, said Mr Lim.

Mothers in Israel would think that way too - 20 years ago, he said.

On a recent trip to Israel, he asked what mothers wanted, and was told they wanted their children to be chief executives of start-ups.

Mr Lim related this anecdote and others at a lecture last night to stress the need for Singapore to build "a culture of innovation, excellence and outwardness", if the tiny city-state is to avoid mediocrity. It was his third and last lecture as the Institute of Policy Studies' S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.

He warned that as Singapore is both a city and a state, it should not be content with 1 to 3 per cent growth. This may be the norm for large developed economies, but the cities that Singapore competes with grow faster: Jakarta at 10 per cent, Ho Chi Minh City at 8 per cent and Kuala Lumpur at 6 per cent.

Higher growth rates would give Singapore more options in dealing with its social challenges, such as a "super-ageing" population, he said.

But to grow at such rates requires productivity increases that, in turn, require a different culture - one that celebrates trying one's best and trying new things, he said.

"If we want people to be innovative... to try more and to learn from failure, we have to recognise people for their effort and not only for their success," he said.

The question becomes, have they tried their best to exercise their talents and abilities, and not whether they got a gold medal, he added.

Trying new things includes being willing to work abroad and in less familiar places, he said, speaking of a large company here where, if a new opportunity came up in a less well-trodden country, the expatriates would say: "When do you want me to go?"

But the Singaporeans in the company say: "Let me consult my wife."

The wife "is more than likely to say, 'Too dangerous, don't go' ", said Mr Lim, to laughter.

"There is nothing wrong... but the Singaporean must then also be prepared to accept that his economic value to the firm is not as high as the expat's."

Whether working in Singapore or abroad, workers here should also overcome a prevailing attitude of just seeking satisfactory results.

In this regard, an overemphasis on work-life balance may be counterproductive. He said: "The call... for work-life balance is understandable, but regrettable if it is a call to be allowed to not be excellent."

Singapore should look to Finland, which has the highest per capita number of unicorns - or start-ups worth over US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion). He said: "Singapore must find our own way to promote a culture of innovation so that it is life for us - what we are and not just something we do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'When family can impede culture of innovation'. Print Edition | Subscribe