I've been looking through my friend, Simpleman's post on the 'Elite in Singapore' and through reading the various postings, I started to think about - Who really made Singapore? It's an important question to ask because I believe that if we can answer the question on who we were, it will enable us to answer the question of how we are going to get ahead. The future as they say is often in the past.
Lee Kuan Yew will undoubtedly get the prize as the individual who did the most to make modern Singapore. Our first Prime Minister was a masterful politician and nobody should be in any doubt of his intelligence, tennacity and integrity. The man was educated in the best of Victorian Britain's traditions and the Victorian Values, which later became repackaged as Asian Values, have helped Singapore create a culture where hard work, education and honesty are rewarded. Even if I think MM Lee's position on affairs in the Middle East will be dangerous for Singapore, I admire the fact that even in his mid-eighties the man's mind remains sharp as a razor.
On the whole, Singapore has also been blessed with good government. Say what you like about government officials in Singapore being obnoxious, Singapore's civil servants are intelligent, hard working and most importantly honest with the best intentions at heart. The government has been by and large very effective at delivering the goods that government should provide like water, urban planning and a clean and safe environment.
However, while good government, lead by competent people has played an important role in Singapore's success, the real success of Singapore lies in the hands of Singaporeans themselves.
Yes, the government provided an education system but it was up to Singaporeans to make use of it. Yes, the government provided a police force but it was up to Singaporeans to respect the laws of the land. Technocratic competence in the civil service has given us a world-class government but that technocratic competence would mean very little if people were not willing or able to execute beautifully laid out plans.
Singapore's economy is in actual fact built by small-time entrepreneurs from China and India and other parts of the world. More often than not, these were men who were barely litterate but had a good nose for opportunity, a head for figures and a ruthless drive to make a better life for themselves. The drive and hunger provided by these men is what has built Singapore. It was these men who understood that their children could achieve a better life through the things that the government was providing and they helped the government to provide things by funding complementary institutions like private schools and so on.
Perhaps I'm getting a tad cynical in my old age but I think Singaporeans have underestimated their own contributions to the nation. We've become so in awe of the government that we seek every solution to our problem in the government and we become unable to find our own drive and hunger.
This is seen in the continuing awe that we hold government schoolars in. Somehow we see them as being central to our success. To be fair, the government schoolarship system has helped nuture a cadre of competent people to run the show. To be fair, most government schoolars are from humble origins and have risen by merit. However, should we, the general population hold them in such awe? Should we be so enamoured of "White Horses" that we grant them special privilleges that they are embarrased by?
The answer is NO. Government schoolars are good at keeping the system running but that does not make them necessarily good at creating new value. Take the army for example. The SAF scholarship is one of the most presitious scholarships available in Singapore. Thanks to this system, our officers are highly educated people. I was exceedingly privilleged to be lead by men who were good leaders who happened to be SAF scholars. I think of Colonel Toh Boh Kwee my former Commanding Officer. I think he was an Oxford Graduate but he was more importantly a commander who lead by example and was dedicated to bringing out the best in his men. I think of LTC Tan Chong Lee, my former Battery Commander (BC), a Cambridge Graduate who was married to his job. Most of all, I think of LTC Lam Sheau Kai another former BC, from the LSE, who made it a point to go to his men and talk to them in Hokkien so that he could communicate effectively.
Do I think the SAF Scholarship system automatically secures the best man for the job? I don't. It was my provillege tobe lead by men who were leaders first and SAF scholars second. Quite a few people I knew were less fortunate. They were lead by SAF Scholars first and leaders second. When you provide a secure and guarenteed path for people, there is a risk that they become more interested in reaching the end goal rather than the job at hand. Why strive so hard as a platoon commander when you know that as long as you follow the script given to you, you'll be the GM of a Temasek Listed company before your 40th birthday?
And even when the SAF schoolar is genuinely dedicated to the job at hand, he's not given enough time to make a difference. Commanding Officers come and go. Likewise for battery and company commanders. They stay in their post for a year and before you know it they're gone. I say this with some pride but at one stage in the artillery formation, all the active battalions were run by men who were 23SA Battery Commanders. Why? The reason was the fact that 23SA officers served tours of 2-years rather than 1 as was the norm. As such they could grow into the job and show real results of their leadership. - Football teams have a similar situation, Man U does well because Sir Alex Ferguson has been in the job for 20-years. How good can our leadership actually be if people in varoius jobs are not given the opportunity to develop in their jobs?
Finally, I'm reminded of what Uncle Andy said: "You know the army is going downhill when so much attention and training is lavished on the officer corp at the expense of the NCO corp." Officers are planning people. Smart people can come up with all the plans but if their not executed properly, they are useless. NCO's or Specialist in the SAF are the people who get things done. They are the people who get things done because they are close to the men and they have grown into their jobs. CO's may come and go but an Regimental Quartermaster (RQ) Sargent may stay in the same job for a decade or so. A good RQ ensures that the battalions logistics are in order, without him the battalion is useless.
Can society continue in its current mode when everything is focused on the planning people (officers) while ignoring the doing people (specialist)? How can we compete against the masses of China and India with a government staffed by clever technocratic people but while the masses or the people who get things done have not been as well developed?
A while back, an emminent academic pointed out that the future of Singapore will be in the hands of the SME's. Small time entrepreneurs with a good a idea and the guts to try things our despite established norms. Where will these entrepreneurs come from? Alot of them will come from ambitious foreign talents, mostly from developing nations like China, India, Nepal and even neighbouring Malaysia. A good many more should come from the rank and file of ordinary Singaporeans who may not fit into the established pattern of government schoolarships but are celever enough at varoius things.
These people need to nutured. Their hunger is what will drive Singapore. It was what drove Singapore in the past and it will do so in the future. Super government can help but it's not necessary or useless if the average member of the population does not have hunger. Look at the way in which Hong Kong has succeeded with a hungry population but very ambivalent government. It's time Singaporeans lost their awe (This does not mean we lost our respect of good government or appreciate the value it brings) of the government and political leadership and start valuing their own strengths and weaknesses instead.