When family can slow Singapore's efforts to build culture of innovation: Lim Siong Guan

Former head of civil service Lim Siong Guan doing his second lecture as IPS Nathan Fellow at Auditorium, Shaw Foundation Alumni House, NUS, on Oct 10, 2017.
Former head of civil service Lim Siong Guan doing his second lecture as IPS Nathan Fellow at Auditorium, Shaw Foundation Alumni House, NUS, on Oct 10, 2017.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - Speaking to a young adult in a local start-up recently, former head of civil service 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 chose instead to join a start-up, Mr Lim recounted.

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

On a recent trip to Israel, he asked what mothers wanted these days. He was told they wanted their kids to be chief executive officers of start-ups.

Mr Lim told this anecdote and others during a lecture on Tuesday night (Nov 14) 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' SR Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore.

He warned that as Singapore is both a city and a state, it should not be contented with 1 to 3 per cent growth. This may be the norm for large developed economies, but the cities 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.

  • ‘Politics will have to involve the people more’: Lim Siong Guan

  • SINGAPORE - In an age of diminishing trust in governments, Singapore may have to move from a politics of conviction to a politics of involvement, said the former head of the civil service Lim Siong Guan on Tuesday night (Nov 14) .

    Mr Lim was speaking after his IPS-Nathan lecture, when he was asked if innovation should be initiated by the Government or the people.

    In his answer, he touched on the evolution of politics here. He noted that the People’s Action Party government has avoided a “politics of expedience”.

    “They don’t do stuff simply because it’s popular... but (are) prepared to do stuff which is very important for Singapore’s survival and the success for the generations to come,” he said.

    This path – the politics of conviction – requires explaining to the people why the more difficult path is necessary, he noted.

    But this form of politics may have been overtaken by the lower trust people have in governments generally, he said.

    “The level of intrinsic trust has been somewhat diminished, not necessarily because of what the Government in Singapore itself has done but I think this change is all over the world... where the population has a diminished trust in government.”

    “It is not a case of no trust. It is a case of, we’d like very much to be able to trust, but the Government cannot simply say, ‘This is my explanation,’” he added.

    This new era calls for a politics of involvement, he said, adding: “We need to involve people in the process because people want to feel that they are shaping the future or at least they’ve got a major part in influencing the future.”

    “This is a lot tougher,” he said.

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

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

"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 pointed out.

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 expats 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 with the Singaporean's decision to not go... 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," he said.

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. "The call... for work-life balance is understandable, but regrettable if it is a call to be allowed to not be excellent."

In its path to innovation and excellence, Singapore should look to Finland, which has the highest per capita number of unicorns - or start-ups worth more than US$1 billion (S$1.36 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."