Is the economic strategies committee (esc) recommendations old dressed up as just-new – Part 4

February 17, 2017

Q: What is your opinion concerning the proposal to reform the current education system to sow the seeds for an innovative culture geared towards the digital revolution. It has been said – Singapore’s current education system is deemed to be overly exam focused and to involve little more than memorisation and regurgitation. Rather than promoting critical thinking.

A: This is a well trodden path – every time, the subject of leveraging strategically on innovation and creativity comes up – education is always pushed forward as the silver bullet to deliver the goods. I am not so sure why this seems to be the preferred approach especially in Singapore. As mind you many other countries who have a home grown economy that leverages on innovation and creativity don’t nearly have an education system that differs dramatically from ours – they’re also exam based. And no matter what you say, formalized education will always require some level of cramming and regurgitating to some extent – so when politicians and leaders argue the point – bad education stymies creativity blah blah blah – it really says a big fat nothing.

Besides when it comes to schooling. Singapore is right up there with the best in the world.

So the question I think you should be asking me is why is it – our students can perform so well as to even get into some of the best universities into the world. But they can’t seem to replicate the same success as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?

Might this be an Asian disease? Like how my nose is flat and not sharp and angular? I don’t think so because the Taiwanese and Koreans and even the Chinese don’t ever seem to be constraint at all by either historicism, ideology or for matter philosophies like Confucianism to grow firms like Samsung, Haier et al.

Some say success a la Apple or Boeing business models require critical mass in terms of a hinterland that can absorb these products domestically first to grow before spreading their wings globally. But then again if one examines a small country like Sweden that doesn’t have a big population and even less of a hinterland – they don’t seem to have any problems making the tech jump from everything ranging to aerospace to power turbines that generate electricity. Neither does Israel have that problem either – you want to snuff out fat people in international airports they could probably supply you with the right kit to get the job done. The Israelites are so good at developing killing machines and methods that it’s their leading export and you can find their stuff in practically every militaries in this world in one shape or form.

So I don’t see formalized education as the issue. I much prefer to see the problem in terms of how the custodians of power in Singapore define the term education.

Q: How do you think the custodians of power in Singapore define education?

A: Narrowly.

Q: What do you mean by that statement?

A: No comment. But I will say just this. Children are very impressionable. Often as adults we don’t even realise how influential we are in shaping their destinies by just the mere act of living and breathing and going about our business. Take the case of where I turn the wheel of life – what really holds back kampung folk? Bad policies? No.

Superstition. Mumbo jumbo. To be precise the hantu (ghost) – in the kampung the fear of the hantu is so strong and omnipresent that it even has the power to shape destinies – Tamil schoolgirls who take the short cut thru my land during the rainy season draw blood from their lips when they are menstruating. Why because they believe in the devil lives on the hill – and he has the power to visit them in their dreams to ravage them if they fail to follow ritual.

The hantu and their kin – the potianak, orang minyak, Jembalang, jerangkung, Bunian are all very real in the Kampung sphere – that is why religion is so dominant in the Malaysian provincial scene…as only it can offer protection against malevolent spirits real or imagined.

Once ritualism, mythology and folklore takes hold of the young mind – often it is impossible to eradicate. Not even with the power of reason and logic.

Singapore also has its own unique category of hantu’s. Or myths. Depending how you see the paranormal influencing the mind.

Kids in school see their peers having the latest smartphones. They visit their peers homes for birthdays and marvel at how well the other half lives – this of course is what the Harvard Business review doesn’t write about when we talk about why the income gap is such a solvent. And naturally that kid will wonder how can I live the same good life?

So they all work towards landing a scholarship. In university, they hear how good life is for the scholar. He seems set for life and all that needs to be done is to follow the yellow brick road diligently without once straying off like one of those software programs that is loaded to self driving cars.

Do well in school. Land a scholarship. And the rest of life will fall into place. You even get to marry that cute girl with the short skirt next door. Hence the brightest and the cream de la cream aspires only to be a high ranking civil servant or a stat board honcho.

That’s Singapore biggest Hantu that really holds her back.

After all why even step out of line and bother with the high road of aspiring to be an enterprise owner?

What if I fail?

Isn’t that a form of education? Or might we be talking about a social cultural theoretical science here? Maybe it’s closer to Hantuism. I don’t know. You decide on this one.

My point is what society puts on a pedestal and venerates. The rest will consider the gold standard and just work towards.

You go to Nebraska and Ohio and all you see is kids playing with John Deere type dinky toys. Why? Because farmers are rich. Some of them even own Honda jets like Homer Tan. So everyone aspires to be a farmer over there. See the nexus – what society puts on a pedestal and venerates….

Same with Hong Kong every MBA graduate aspires to be a property developer like Super duper Li. Why because that’s the gold standard. Again you see the same superstition or myth working its magic.

In China every university student aspires to be the next Jack Ma of Alibaba. As only he gets to have lunch with Obama.

And the most grotesque aspect of this cult of emulation is when the elites begin to start mythologizing their own version of the narrative and begin selling it to the masses.

Q: So you’re against the scholar model?

A: No. I am not against it. But I think it needs to be less of a hantu factor in the Singaporean psyche i.e kids need to weaned off the corrosive belief, if they don’t cut the grade. They have failed or have to settle for second best. They need to believe. There are other ways to make it and even perhaps buy their own Honda jet. They need to believe in not only one path but multiple pathways to actualizing personal success. Above all they need to believe in the notion of dignity of labor – with the benefit of good work ethic, they can be successful in life.

As for the scholarship system it needs to less parochial, insular and less inward looking – it needs to be infused with a deep sense of reality.

Q: What would your version of that reality be?

A: Go and work in the private sector for five years first as part of your bond agreement. Not a GLC. But a real private enterprise. Better still make it extendable in mid career years when they begin harbouring delusions of grandeur – go see how the world really works. Like General Yeo. I’ve never spoken to him. But I am sure if the guilds can arrange to interview him about his worldview along with attitudes concerning some of his objects of interest – it would be very different from what it used to be when he was just the foreign minister of Singapore. As he is one of the few that managed to successfully make that transition from being a civil servant to someone holding a senior rank in an enterprise – it’s a very different ball game. With different rules along with opportunities and constraints. This is what I mean by reality.

Always remember what I said earlier – as it’s anecdotal to even qualify as axiomatic and a veritable. What society puts on a pedestal and venerates. The rest will consider as the gold standard and work towards like ants seeking sugar.

Let me give you and example. During the Ming Dynasty. Every kid in the coastal regions of China dreamt of being a merchant seaman. Why? Because the exploits of Cheng Hu was the equivalent of reaching the forty two level of world of Warcraft.

That was what really scared the living daylights out of the Ming mandarin class who saw the exploits of the treasure fleet as an erosion of not only the status quo. But it even threatened the way by which they would perpetuate their ritualized class politics in the imperial court.

So these Mandarins burnt all these ancient comic books that would have otherwise made China the greatest Superpower on this planet. Surpassing even the Roman Empire. They even banned the construction of blue water class ships by limiting their size and tonnage.

To put it another way they made rugged individualism, the quest for exploration and risk taking all bad words.

People who showed such tendencies were put to the sword. They lost posisition. Got kicked out. Exiled or banished for half baked reasons.

But when you eviscerate an idea – you also kill so many good things along with it – you know Kompf. I am an old school sailor – give me a mineral oil compass, divider, maps, sextant and a Rolex that loses only ten seconds a month and no more and I can make port at every way point give or take a day or two – so I can appreciate what China threw into the furnace along with the travel logs of the Treasure fleet.

As at that period. China had reached a peak of naval technology unsurpassed in the world. Chinese shipbuilders also combined technologies they borrowed and adapted from seafarers of the South China seas and the Indian Ocean. For centuries, China was the preeminent maritime power in the region, with advances in navigation, naval architecture, propulsion and artillery. From the ninth century on, the Chinese had taken their magnetic compasses aboard ships two whole centuries before the Europeans. They were so sophisticated. They even knew the subtle difference between magnetic North and theoretical North and could make the necessary adjustments not to run aground on shallow waters. In addition to compasses, Chinese could navigate by the stars when skies were clear, using printed manuals with star charts complete with Astrolobe tabula. Star charts had been produced from at least the eleventh century. So astronomy disappeared as well. That was why China was riven with incidences of famine after the end of the great voyages. If you know Chinese history well – you will be able to trace out how the vital sciences of the ancient world, such as Astronomy degraded to such a level where the Mandarins couldn’t even publish their annual almanac to inform farmers when to sow and harvest reliably – it was catastrophic and like all nationally insipired ideas that put’s that sword great endeavours, many goodies went up in smoke.

And what did this book burning Mandarins do thereafter – they began to turn away from the sciences and instead take comfort in trivial pursuits like poetry as a means of promoting their own erudite and useless class politics.

By the early seventeen century the cost to China was fatal when European war ships made their appearance in Canton.

This is a good example of what can happen when a nation has lousy role models. Everyone suffers. Except those who happen to live in ivory towers.

Q: So how do we grow our own home grown version of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates?

A: As I said earlier in another interview. I can’t remember when – that is not the cogent question. The real question is how to does a nation go about climbing up the value added ladder – and to accomplish this. You need to get out that idea from your head that anything commercially viable in the innovative or creative sense necessary requires a USB port or wires – there are many things in this world that successfully sells commercially and the provide many with employment which do not necessarily require batteries. A well designed coat hanger uses the same amount of plastic resin than one that you buy in the Pasar malam (flea market). But it commands a premium price. Same goes for everything from space saving furniture design to traffic cones that light up at night to promote driver safety.

Kompf don’t get fixated on the likes of Gates and Jobs. I know when we regularly talk about innovation and creativity, it’s usually given the same semantical treatment as high tech. But to me that is only one of many ways to see innovation and creativity in action – for me the field of possibilities of those two words is very wide from designing better wheelbarrows that doesn’t cause slip disc to fashionable clothes and accessories.

To me those two words are so broad that they don’t even have to include the likes of only Gates and Jobs. Somewhere in between there is space for perhaps even a Vipp. You know that Danish guy who decided to design a pedal bin for his wife because she worked in a hair saloon.

You know Kompf. How you see a word or sentence usually determines very much your outlook and approach in life.

Maybe what I am trying to say is we may have to unlearn many things before learning new things to make real and meaningful progress.

Q: OK I get it. You’re saying innovation and creativity are small words that don’t necessarily require cutting edge technology. But can it be commercially viable?

A: Why not? If there is a demand and you as an entrepreneur can figure out the supply business end. You have a self sustaining loop. You know I happen to spend a lot of time in the wild. One of the biggest problems we have with cars in the frontier is rodents creeping into the hood and chewing on electrical wirring and disabling cars. It’s a huge problem with frontier men and maybe also with people with weekend plated cars in Singapore. Just imagine you’re in a Leopard tank and the turret can’t rotate for nuts because rats have chewed the electricals – that’s not funny. Because in a jungle craft. If there is a war I would probably be throwing peanut butter at the enemy instead of hand grenades. I am just kidding.

Back to point. In the scale of things, this is a major problem in field craft. It’s such a dreaded problem to me that one day while racking my head to get on top of this problem. I got so frustrated that I kicked a mosquito coil and it slid under my engine – the following day I discovered there were no rats.

Since then whenever I go to the field for over nighters – I light a mosquito coil and put it under my engine and it’s good to go for twelve hours straight. That’s how small the words innovation and creativity is to me.

I figure one day I might print myself a couple of thousand of carton boxes with a brand name like Rat-off! And sell as an anti critter solution to frontier men and militaries all round the world that face this perennial problem. All I have to do is go to NTUC buy up all the mosquito coils and get my maid to rebox them and sell it in online.

Q: Are you really thinking of doing that?

A: My point is innovation and creativity should be a very small word. You’re a hawker selling Mee Pok. One day you decide to add some strange condiments. It taste better. So good that your customer base grows. One day the Michelin foodies decide to give you a plaque. In my book that hawker is leveraging on innovation and creativity. It may be very small to you Kompf. Then again. Small is beautiful. Because every Singaporean can be an innovator and creator of value.

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