Tuesday 24 November 2015

Singapore needs a cultural change, says DPM Tharman at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum 2015

It must not only have an economy driven by innovation, but innovative society: Tharman
By Yasmine Yahya, Assistant Business Editor, The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2015

Singapore requires nothing less than a cultural change, from the classroom to the boardroom, if it is to grab growth opportunities, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said last Friday.

Speaking at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, said Singapore has to move progressively not only towards an economy driven by innovation, but also towards an innovative society.

"That's what will assure us of success even in a relatively troubled world and a world of weaker growth," he said, as he outlined the long-term trends that will be a drag on economic growth and international trade in the years to come.

He noted, for example, that structural shifts in China, which is moving away from an investment- and export-led growth, will likely lead to slower growth in international trade.

An innovative society will mean developing worker skills through SkillsFuture and working with companies so that innovations and productivity gains are shared across the supply chain.

But, ultimately, it boils down to culture, Mr Tharman said.

For starters, Singaporeans have to take pride in the mastery of skills.

"Innovation... requires, firstly, deep specialisation. Whether you look at the German firms that are at the frontier or the Japanese or Swedish or anyone else, when you visit them, when you look at why they are world leaders, you will find people working in the enterprise who have deep mastery of skills," he noted.

"Not that they were highly educated when they were young, but they are developed through life and they become masters of what they are doing."

This is not just a matter of training schemes and government incentives but a matter of culture - taking pride in mastery, he said.

Furthermore, Singaporeans should take pride in entrepreneurs who are creating and developing their own brands, he said, naming home- grown fashion labels In Good Company and Aijek as good examples.

Singapore also needs to change the culture in education - to move away from an obsession with children's grades and focus more on giving them diverse experiences, he said.

"No one knows for sure how we get a creative people. But there is some consensus that diverse experiences in life, particularly early in life, do help.

"Diverse experiences and interaction with people from diverse backgrounds, that helps," he said.

"And that means everything you do on the sports field, in the dance hall, in debate and even when you're just daydreaming."

Mr Tharman even took a couple of minutes out of his speech to endorse daydreaming, saying that the meandering of the human mind is not purposeless.

"Because that brain process is very similar to the brain processes involved in creativity. That's what the brain imaging studies now tell us," he noted.

"They've got these high-resolution brain imaging studies that show which part of your brain is working and how, when you're doing different activities. And the brain process that's working when you're engaged in creative activity, when your brain is going beyond existing boundaries, is the same brain process that lights up when your mind wanders and meanders."

Singaporeans should "let kids flex that part of their mind", he added.

There are changes in Singapore which signal that a culture of innovation is starting to take root, Mr Tharman said, citing examples he had read about in The Straits Times.

There is ViewQwest, a company featured in the paper last week, which is marketing smart devices that allow users to control their home appliances with their voice.

Another firm, Page Advisor, allows customers to create a tender for a job that merchants can then bid on.

Meanwhile KK Women's and Children's Hospital and Singapore General Hospital have started a trial on a new method to detect gestational diabetes, which is both affordable and can help reduce premature births and obstructed labour.

And last Tuesday's paper had a "wonderful example" of Nanyang Technological University holding a lecture via holographic display.

"Something is gradually bubbling up in Singapore but we have to give it a real push across the board," Mr Tharman said.

"And we are determined in Government to give it a push. But corporate management has to seize this, treat this as the key priority for the future."

This means maximising the innovative potential of everyone in the team, whatever job they are doing.

"The cleaner's job can become better when working with the right equipment. The driver is now handling much more than just going from one location to another. The driver is actually planning and managing logistics as efficiently as possible. Whichever job you look at, we can transform it."

Such a culture would not only make jobs better, but also allow incomes to keep growing and allow Singaporeans to thrive even in a world of greater uncertainty and softer economic growth, he said.

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