Friday 31 August 2012

A future of our own making

by Devadas Krishnadas, Published TODAY, 30 Aug 2012

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally speech not only hit notes of humility and sincerity, its positive reception was reinforced by his indications that some long sought-after policy adjustments, such as paternity leave, would be finally forthcoming. 

This willingness to shift was underscored by the announcement of a national conversation. This is intended to feed input to the general review of policies to be headed by Minister Heng Swee Kiat. Such a step signals a new "co-creative" model of policy making.

For such a model to work, Singaporeans must play their part. It begins with participation. As one cliche goes, "decisions are made by those who show up". Today, "showing up" can be done virtually as well as physically. However, participation alone is an insufficient threshold to ensure that this experiment succeeds. 

It is critical that the signal-to-noise ratio in communication is well managed. If not, we will have to make sense of a cacophonous crowd rather than a sonorous symphony. There are three requirements for this to be done well. 


First, filters to separate picture from static. This should be the responsibility, not only of the Government but also community and civic leaders as well as responsible social media activists. Filters are needed to mediate the process of engagement and help sense of the emergent narrative. 

Second, Singaporeans need to educate themselves on the issues and perceive them not through the monocle of self-interest, but with a binocular lens which balances self-interest with the larger considerations of community and nation. The focal length of these lenses must be sensitivity to the longer-term, not merely immediate preoccupations. 

Third, we need to manage our emotions in this national conversation. There is considerable pent-up passion behind the varied grievances of Singaporeans. That emotional energy will need to be managed with maturity by all.

Emotion can be valid justification for a point of view. But emotion is not a good process with which to deal with it. Input should be thought through and presented soberly, with due consideration and respect to differences of view. 


The Prime Minister also had a sober message about being open to change. 

He alluded to how radically things had changed over the past 20 years, and cast forward to how different things could be in 20 years hence. In so doing, he signalled a transition in the Government's perspective: From one that viewed society as complicated, to one which views it as complex. Let me explain.

Complicated systems are those which may have many moving parts, but which all function together in a predictable manner - like a mechanical watch. A part of the frustration felt by Singaporeans in recent years was the sense that the Government acted as watchmakers, maintaining a society they treated as nothing more than a complicated precision watch in need of occasional tuning. 

A complex system, such as a society, is one in which all the constituent entities are interdependent and interconnected. What one entity does creates ripple effects affecting all others and in difficult to predict ways. Vitally, unlike complicated systems, complex ones are capable of adaptation. 

Complex systems can be unpredictable and can eventuate in large outcomes, such as financial meltdowns. This unpredictability does not mean that complex systems cannot be somehow managed. It just means that managing it is a much more involved process than that of a watchmaker tuning a watch.

In a complex system, the watch tends to have a mind of its own. 


Poorly adapting complex systems not only throw up negative large-scale events but also respond badly to shocks. Conversely, a complex system that exhibits adaptive resilience thrives despite shocks, sometimes even because of them. The societies which possess adaptive resilience have confidence in their identities.

Is Singapore a poor or resilient adaptive complex system? 

Our own history is strong indication that we are good at adaptation. We have thrived through tumultuous change. Just because we are getting even more complex, does not mean that we cannot match up to the higher ante of adaptation required. 

The moral compass of the nation lies within each of us, magnetised by the warmth of shared values and not steered from the outside by the grim iron of economic numbers. Knowing this, we need not fear losing ourselves even as the frequency and amplitude of change increase.

This conviction must be of a shared attitude of mind and a spirit of heart. It should not require a government department to cultivate; it must be an autonomously activated, self-sustaining chain reaction of positive energy. It must be real, not manufactured.

To facilitate this, we have to have more trust that people have the intelligence and maturity to be self-regulating in their social and political conduct. Not all will live up to this standard, but the deficiencies of a few should not be determinant of the standard for all.

This trust needs to be both between government and people, and among the different constituencies of people within the community.


Successful adaptation does not mean that every challenge can be defeated. It means also learning to come to terms with changes which cannot be avoided. 

During the process of the national conversation, we should be prepared to make some reality checks on our expectations of just what can change and what cannot.

First, it is our lot in life to be a geographically limited country. The implication is that density of urban environment can only continue to intensify. No amount of conversation will change that. 

But coming to terms can be a positive process of self-awareness of the things that matter more, over the things that matter less. In other words, we work on the things we can change, such as building our social harmony amidst the density, and fret less about the things we cannot, which is the density itself. 

Second, we are an ageing society and that is a persistent driving force of social change. While some may be resistant to the placing of aged centres near them now, they will likely change their minds when they themselves are turning aged.

Realistically, with ageing being so pervasive, we face a future where infrastructure for the aged will permeate every part of the community. Introducing this infrastructure progressively allows us to stay slightly ahead of demand.

Third, we are becoming more diverse. As Shakespeare has Hamlet observe, "there is nothing that is either good or bad but thinking makes it so". I suspect that adjusting to this new reality of social diversity will be the greatest test for most Singaporeans. 


Fourth, our existing public infrastructure is ageing. The MRT and the main highways are now some 25 or more years old. We have the means to recapitalise and extend them. 

The occasional failure is, on the grand scale of things, a blip not a bomb. So let us take a deep breath and cut ourselves some slack even while insisting, justifiably, on high standards. Cutting slack simply means not over-interpreting the meaning of occasional failures and consequently growing despondent that we are systemically decaying.

Fifth, and most importantly, let us mature to accept that the Government is not our parent and the people are not its children.

To expect the national conversation to be a binary one, where complaints flow in one direction and solutions flow from the other, is naive and self-defeating. For the experiment of co-creation to work, solutions have to come from the community and individuals as well as the Government. 


Complex systems are capable of the phenomena of emergence. This is where macro reality is created by, but is distinct from, the action of the micro activity. The wonder that is consciousness, generated from the chemistry of neural activity, is an example. 

Similarly, the new narrative for Singapore will emerge from the activity of a multitude of conversations, iterations of discussions, resolutions of tensions and, yes, even clash of ideas. We should be willing but patient enough to see this process through.

The future is not certain. We are not in full control of events and some driving forces of change are fixed. What is flexible is our attitude towards these driving forces. We may not be able to fully recognise our future before it is here, but we can do much to make it the way we want it to appear.

We can give deliberate attention to the things we can control and take ownership of the process by which we do so. We already have a good start. We have a leader who has the wisdom to know that it is better to change while we can, and not when we must, and the courage to acknowledge that the need for change applies to himself and his team as much as it does to the people and the nation. 

Devadas Krishnadas is Director and Principal Consultant for Future-Moves, a foresight consultancy. He has extensive policy and operational experience in Singapore's public sector.

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