Recently, I was at the annual National Science and Technology Awards 2006, where awards are given to scientists who have contributed significantly for their scientific pursuits in Singapore. Of course, the night was filled with good food and entertaining speeches from both Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports & 2nd Minister for Trade and Industry) and Dr Sydney Brenner, a Nobel laureate (who won the Science and Technology medal this year for contributing to the research and development in Singapore).
In this commentary, we draw a few interesting points briefly from Sydney Brenner’s speech and piece together some earlier thoughts of mine on the life sciences conundrum to answer whether social engineering is appropriate in Singapore. The essay will address how the removal of social engineering can help to remove the locals’ animosity towards foreign talent.
In essence, Sydney Brenner’s speech centred on his role as a catalyst in the research and development scene and some interesting points about the culture of Singapore. For those who might not know this, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology was formed in 1987 at the National University of Singapore before it becomes a research institute under the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). It should be interesting to note that he pitched the idea originally to Dr Goh Keng Swee, our former deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. Paraphrasing his words and his tribute to Dr Goh, Dr Goh thought that Singapore’s success at that point (in the 1980s) would not be sustainable in the future and it would be important to transit from a “nation of technicians” to knowledge based economy. Even in its transition, he remarked that it was impatience in Singaporeans that drove the research and development for the past five years (which I preferred to attribute to the establishment rather than the people). It helps to wonder whether that comment is a sarcastic one but it is preferred to be taken as a positive note. Of course, he brought up the point about a generation of young Singaporean scholars who will become the foundation to the next stage of growth in our biopolis. Of course, we can only take a crystal ball and wait for ten years later to see whether they will prove the current critics (including myself) wrong.
“Singapore’s growth has been based largely on one-time changes in behavior that cannot be repeated. Over the past generation the percentage of people employed has almost doubled; it cannot double again. A half-educated work force has been replaced by one in which the bulk of workers has high school diplomas; it is unlikely that a generation from now most Singaporeans will have Ph.D’s….”
Of course, the interesting conclusion is that the inputs rather than increasing efficiency contributed to the growth of Singapore at that point. This now ties in to the central theme of this commentary.
Social engineering of the workforce is one of the dominant forces in Singapore economy. For the past thirty years, our government has launched various drives in different periods of time to encourage young students to study engineering, IT and life sciences. During each cycle, there were great promises and subsequently lead to great debacle. Most of the people who went into each hypes from engineering, IT to life sciences ended up in becoming insurance agents, salesman, stock brokers or jobs which they did not envision themselves to be in. The quotas for the intake to the field of study during that hype will be increased suddenly. It is obvious that the establishment (or the group behind the social engineering) believes in the theory of supply economics that if you increase the supply to fulfil a demand, you can achieve the critical mass that might result in a boom for that industry. This theory is successful for a manufacturing economy where you need to train workers in a collective for mass production of goods. Once this process is replicated to areas that demand research, innovation and creativity (in the Arts), it will start to break down. Thinking without innovation is useless and innovation without thinking is of course, dangerous.
Year after year, the accumulation of the failures in the social engineering experiments leads to a disgruntled nation. Those who refuse to adhere to the social engineering process in their student days become the role models until their expertise become fashionable in the interests of the nation. Social engineering can produce many workers and that is the only advantage of such an approach. However, in research and innovation, the success of one maverick invention outweighs twenty patents created.
To engineer creativity and innovation is human (and mediocre) but to create an invention that will take the nation’s enlightment to another level is divine. No matter how the establishment tries to wiggle their way out with the conventional excuses of creating jobs for the nation, they cannot run away that these created jobs will not translate the billion dollars boom. In our current approach, social engineering will churn out small and medium size level enterprises, but not a Google. If you want a better example than this, Creative Technologies demonstrated that their one achievement outweighs all the Singapore enterprises or government holding companies.
Another good and current example is in digital media where a local Singaporean went to the US to pursue his dreams and eventually end up producing movies like the Matrix. Here is an interesting anecdote about my foreign colleagues and bosses who found it difficult to understand Singaporeans for being materialistic and lack of vision. Actually, they are clearly mistaken that Singaporeans possess no vision or dreams but they just want to pursue what they love. Ironically, that is a western value which my colleagues claim that they champion. They only appreciate the current drive by the higher powers to change things but they lack the historical perspective that the young workers (who they are here to educate) realized that they were statistics for the social engineering process and not pursuing something that might be of interest to them. The deep seeded anger cannot be subdued by just welfare but rather the prospects of growth in the job. If they truly understand the rule of value proposition, there must exist future prospects of growth (from pay to promotion opportunities, i.e. find ways to turn an outstanding honours or masters research assistant into PhD), otherwise, the issues will be there, no matter how many years they stay.
If our nation is thinking of going beyond a nation of technicians, we need to curb the “impatience” within us and cultivate the passion of Singaporeans to think of greater heights. A brilliant invention takes time. If the establishment want to use that as an excuse to continue the same social engineering, they have to accept the repercussions of a nation who are growing to hate that they are the “statistics” rather than the shareholders of this homeland they belong to. Returning to the question of this essay, there are two answers to the question. Social engineering is appropriate to help the working classes in addressing healthcare, security and domestic problems. However, the approach is useless in the research and development circle. To control research and innovation is like curbing an artist to take his art beyond his level. A balance needs to be struck rather than tend to go to either extreme (too much maverick and too much control). They can still stick to the current approach perhaps for manufacturing industry and that ensures our future prosperity. That is the economic reality based on our size as a little red dot. However, to show our mettle as a little red dot of research, creativity and innovation, we need to allow Singaporeans to pursue their passion (even if their alignment of research interests differ from the superstars which they hire from abroad). Ultimately, that bet to move beyond social engineering will open the space, foster at least a moderate “making a difference” bunch and perhaps the less animosity between Singaporeans and foreign talent.