Getting topnotch speakers to a civil servant-run event on raising productivity isn’t enough to encourage innovation in Singapore.
By Fang Shihan
THE event started off promisingly enough, with the Other Steve slated to speak about: “Innovation and Creativity In the 21st Century”. Organised by Singapore’s WDA and NTUC LearningHub, the session began with a keynote speech by Ms Josephine Teo, Assistant Secretary General of NTUC.
Oh no, you heard alarm bells going off too? Government? A People’s Action Party Member-of-Parliament? INNOVATION?? *beep beep!* cognitive dissonance!
The event marked the launch of the DRIVE (DRiving InnoVation Excellence) series, a list of keynote speeches comprising of big shots (like Steve) who will “impart their knowledge and experiences on innovation solutions and applications for competitive advantage and business excellence” to eventually “build a more productive, high-performing work environment”.
Productivity drive lah. You know, the 1 billion dollars that Tharman allocated to the National Productivity Scheme? This is part of it.
Here’s the logic: The local workforce needs to be more productive to compete in the world market and to reduce dependency on a foreign slaveworkforce. Government needs to keep the economy buzzing. Government therefore needs to do more to raise productivity. Being more innovative helps companies find better solutions to their productivity problems.
Looking like a wide-eyed schoolgirl (a cute one at that), Ms Jose enthusiastically rolled out the reasons why Singapore should innovate, what the government is doing to help PMETs and why we should achieve innovation excellence.
Now you can start scratching your head. Innovation excellence? That’s like saying ‘creative best’ – and what marks the difference between innovation excellence and innovation mediocrity?
I’m just being pedantic. Let’s move on.
No one’s going to argue that Steve exemplifies innovation. The guy designed the first, and then the second Apple computer which in his own words “had half the parts and ten times more things than any other low cost computer.”
But it wasn’t so much of his string of successes that struck home, it was his beginnings as an outlier in the education system. As a high school student, he was the anti-social, over-achieving nerd who garnered top grades and awards. The kind you’d flip in the dustbin just for the heck of it.
However, he did have a teacher who told him to pursue his passion for computers by going down to a company once a week to program. There were no computers or programming in his school back then.
Later on, he began munching through computer manuals that he found at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre after office hours when “the smart people that worked there left things unlocked”.
It was clear during the Q&A, after his speech, that this struck a chord with an audience all-too-familiar with the rigid education system. It’s not so much the science of an apple computer, or the creativity within both Steves that put Singapore and the U.S. on different levels of innovation development.
It’s how children are taught when they’re young. Imagine if at age 10, Steve Wong decided that he wanted to be the best programmer in the world. He stops paying attention during history or Mandarin classes because of his obsession with coding. Is his form teacher going to encourage him to pursue his interest? Or will he be chucked into remedial classes after school?
Where do the smart overachievers end up? Somewhere in the civil service serving a PSC scholarship bond.
Or, imagine Steve Wong now age 16, decides that he wants to do some research in NUS. Sorry, security just got tighter and you need a pass to enter the labs. Now, I’m not advocating trespassing of tertiary institutions by teenagers who may or may not know better but you get my point.
Steve Wozniak would not and could not have founded Apple if he grew up in Singapore. He may not even grow up to be the still-excitable-over-new-ideas Steve we know today. After all, where do the smart overachievers end up? Somewhere in the civil service serving a PSC scholarship bond.
More tellingly, it wasn’t his speech that drove home the message that Singapore really should be labelled de-innovation hub. It was the questions that came after.
One educator asked Steve, who volunteers as a teacher, how to ‘teach’ his charges ‘to be creative and innovative’. Our man, clueless about the very Singaporean tendency to conflate processes and goals, replies that he frees his students up to explore their own directions. His innovation is in the delivery of the teaching content, and not the content itself. This point may have been lost on our local educators.
Another asked if the race for grades spoils the learning process, which probably wasn’t a very good question to ask a man who never scored less than over-the-top grades while he was a student. He did however, leave some food for thought when he explained his motivation for forgoing Stanford or MIT for Colorado while he was picking his University. It wasn’t the pedigree, or the reputation of the school – it was the snow that attracted the Californian. How many local parents would allow their children to enter anything but the ‘best’ schools for their grades?
Education system aside, the internet and the brain that starts with ‘G-O’ (it’s not God) has opened up opportunities like none before, for self-taught inventors to learn skills via online content. Steve donates computers on a regular basis (even before the internet was invented, he was quick to add) with hopes that students could exploit the network of users for their own knowledge.
How then does he feel about censorship in schools?
“schools have a right to censor things to a certain extent. That does not affect what’s censored at home….I’m sort of a no censorship type of parent but if a parent wants to censor their child that’s fine. That should be their decision in their home. We’re all different… [but]…that’s one thing I don’t have a good answer on. Because I tend to fall into the free speech side of things. That’s different from schools with young people.”
So, do what you want Singapore. But in Steve’s world, the trend-setters get space to be creative, support to be innovative, and… free speech.
We have to be kidding ourselves if we think we can buy ourselves to becoming an innovation hub by splashing out a billion bucks on a productivity scheme and inviting big shot speakers over.
Fundamentally it even seems conflicted to bring a speaker to speak about innovation when all you’re really after, are solutions to be productive.
When laundry services evolved from Dhobies balancing sheets on their heads to rows of washing machines in shopping malls, it didn’t require much innovation. Just some product research and capital investment. Furthermore, innovation requires certain amounts of inefficiency, redundancy, unaccounted-for ‘play time’ and the freedom to do nonsense that won’t immediately be anything more than nonsense. Tough for a government so hell bent on results.
So, de-nnovation capital? Here’s what Steve Wozniak had to say when he was quizzed about the pride and joy of Singapore’s early startup scene – Creative Technology.
“I’m not too familiar with it. Maybe you can tell me more?”
Shows you where we stand in the world of innovation.