Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What Should the Government Do?

The Singapore Government is generally regarded as an exceedingly efficient and effective organisation. If you ask anyone who has lived in Singapore for any length of time, they'll testify to how well thought out everything in Singapore seems to be and they will undoubtedly give credit to the one organisation that is everywhere - the government. To it's fans, the Singapore government can achieve just about everything possible.

There is, however, an exception. That failure lies in its ability to produce "world-class" people. While we may be the perpetual "Asia-Pac" and "Global" hub for huge corporations, we have yet to produce a Nobel Prize winner, a readable author, a noteworthy film director, actors who can be watched outside MediaCorp's direction and an Olympic Athlete. At best, we only seem able to brag about the people from elsewhere who want to live here. Much as I might get "flamed" by the online crowd, the truth of the matter is that we need the so called expats to come here and run the show.

This issue has been bugging the heck out of the Singapore Government. In its usual fashion, the government has convened the usual gathering of experts and set up an array of programs to throw various sums of money at any aspiring artiste or athlete. The closest we came to getting "world class" winners was when we hired a few young ladies from China, who promptly won a few bronze medals and a silver (against their fellow Chinese who stayed with the motherland) and once they collected the money, they went home to China. The government got to bask in some glory and the public had a field day bitching about how we, the tax paying public, were being screwed by our government that was being screwed by ungrateful bitches from China (for the record, in Singapore it's acceptable to be screwed by White People but totally unacceptable to be screwed by anyone darker than a shade of pink.)

This happy scenario has changed recently thanks to Mr. Joseph Schooling, who won our first-ever gold medal at the recently concluded Rio Olympic Games. Not only did Mr. Schooling win the gold, he did it in style by beating the greatest swimmer ever (Michael Phelps) and breaking the Olympic Record. The government was quick to jump on Mr. Schooling's success and the gold was celebrated by a full house of parliament.

As usual, the online media had a field day bitching about how the government had nothing to do with Mr. Schooling's success and that somehow it was a shame for the rest of us to get involved with celebrating this new champion. The government, in its efforts to do the right thing by the people is now scrambling to do what it can do to make more champions.

Let's take a step back and ask ourselves if this is actually necessary. Why is the government on a mission to produce Olympic champions or artiste or even Nobel prize winners? Is this even the business of the government.

I don't believe it is the business of any government to get into the business of trying to help produce Olympic Champions or any form of artiste or Nobel Prize winners. If you study the track record of governments trying to select "winners," you'll find that they are very bad at doing so. Sure, the Soviet Union and it's Satellite states produced plenty of Olympic Champions but the human costs were high - one only has to look at the cancer and sex change statistics of the old East Germany which came from athletes who had been pumped up with steroids beyond any healthy level. The Soviet Union did produce plenty of artiste, but all of them made it a point to defect the moment they had the chance and all of them took the first chance they could to hit back at the state that screwed them.

If you take Joseph Schooling as an example, you will realise that he's the product of success despite the state. His story echoes plenty of the success stories of other professional athletes in the West and of artiste who made it big - his parents had faith that he had a particular talent and took the socio-economic risk of downgrading their home to be able to send him to the USA so that he could get the training he needed (think of Leopold Mozart who gave up everything to ensure Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could become the Mozart or how Mike Agasi who drilled tennis into young Andre).

The Schoolings took the risk that young Joseph would succeed and thankfully they're faith has been repaid. The state has given Joseph enough prize money to make up for the money his parents spent and nobody should deny Joseph a penny of the endorsement deal that he's just signed with Nike.

However, the key point here is that the Schooling family took a risk. There was nothing to guarantee that young Joseph would ever achieve the success that he's just achieved. The nature of professional sports or art or science is that only the very few succeed. Most of the people in these fields struggle just to have a glimpse of the "Middle Time." We all look at the massive million dollar salaries that movie stars make but nobody looks at the fact that every waiter in LA is an "actor" waiting tables while waiting for his or her big break.

The truth of the matter is that you got to be something of a risk taker if you want to be in sport or an artiste. You got to have hunger to succeed in fields where the odds of basic survival are non existent. 
Entrepreneurship is about believing and creating things that are unlikely to come to pass.

Governments, including the Singapore government are by their very nature designed to work for the masses. Governments measure success by the "overall" statistic and not by any particular record or instance of brilliance. Governments will always talk about GDP figures rather than individual fortunes. The success of an education system is based on literacy rates and not on individual prizes.  
The Singapore Government has done a brilliant job at this and to deviate from this approach would be damaging to society. It's like asking a lion to adapt a vegetarian diet. 

Alternatively, Singaporeans should ask themselves if they are prepared to pay the costs of less equality. In the USA, you have the best universities in the world. You have more Nobel Prize winners and you have more great contemporary artiste than anywhere else. Yet, you have a school system (especially in the inner cities) where kids can't read after nine years of formal education. We have less brilliance than the USA but all but our most mentally impaired can communicate in more than one language and even the most dense can count. 

To a certain extent, the government can play a part by building infrastructure (more labs, more swimming pools etc etc). New Zealand does a brilliant job in ensuring that the All Blacks will never be lacking in basic facilities. However, beyond that, its not the job of government to "nurture" winners in sport, art or science. At the most, governments can help create a culture where risk taking is less frowned upon but other than that, governments should stick to do what they do best. 

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