Saturday February 25, 2012
Creativity, an alien word to workforce
INSIGHT DOWN SOUTH
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
Obedience and blind followers to orders may have earned Singapore’s civil servants the title of Asia’s best, but at the expense of ‘creative elements’ in society.
IN the face of the mass foreigner intake, the old battle-cry for economic upgrading to meet the challenge of China and India has been all but forgotten.
At its peak, the strategy was in the news virtually every day, focusing the nation’s energy on upgrading skills and rebuilding a higher-skill economy.
Today, there is hardly any media talk about it. Instead the main topic is how many foreigners to bring in.
The restructuring policy called for higher skilled businesses and the moulding of a new breed of innovative workers – not just hard-working, obedient ones – with schools leading the way. The success, if any, has been minimal. Singapore is relatively still a highly regulated society.
Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak, who contributed significantly to the microcomputer revolution, said recently that a company like Apple could not have emerged in a society like Singapore.
The reason: Society is structured and the people are not taught to think for themselves.
“Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behaviour is not tolerated, (and one is) extremely punished,” Wozniak told BBC in an interview.
Wozniak questioned the existence (if any) of creative people, great artists, great musicians and great writers in Singapore.
About Singapore, he said that although many people are educated, have well-paid jobs and nice cars, “creative elements” in society seemed to have disappeared.
“Inspiring creativity was important to a company like Apple,” he added.
“When Singapore’s civil servants were ranked as Asia’s best several years ago my reaction was one of cynicism, dismissing it as another self-glorying headline.
“But, on further reflection, I felt the ranking wasn’t entirely irrational. If fact, I thought, if there were one group of people in this world who possessed the best ingredients for good civil servants, it was Singaporeans.
“These are sticklers to regulations, obedience of superiors, have a good general education and are largely corrupt-free.”
In the 1970s, a Japanese billionaire, one of the richest men in the world, was asked by Fortune magazine what was his measure of a good worker. He answered with one word – “obedience”!
Even today, debate about whether a nation’s workforce being ranked the best civil servants – obedience and blind followers to orders – is an asset or a curse in the 21st century.
Some Singaporeans think that having a compliant work-force, rather than one which challenges what it thinks, is poor company policy.
The government wants to see an innovative workforce, but on the other hand it doesn’t want workers to be too outspoken or become too experimental.
The same applies to schools, where teachers demand blind obedience from students.
There have been reports of students who used a different method to solve a Mathematics solution found it marked as “wrong” even though they got the answer right.
A few enlightened principals, however, are allowing the children a more expressive environment.
Wozniak’s views found ready agreement from many Singaporeans.
Said Tatiana Ann Xavier: “He is quite right that a company like Apple is unlikely to emerge in a society where polishing apples helps to win promotion.
“Creativity lies with the non-conformists; never with the conformists. The government should ponder over his (Wozniak’s) hard truth.”
Singapore has turned direction for cheaper money-making projects like casinos, instead of pursuing a high-skilled economy, others said.
Instead of moving higher-skilled, the authorities are pushing up growth by importing millions of cheap workers from Asia, pushing productivity growth down to almost zero.
Partly because it reflects the Singaporean’s general reluctance to take too personal initiatives, more people want to join the civil service.
In some years, more than half the Singaporeans polled said they wanted to make a switch from the private to public sector.
It has prompted Professor Eugene Tan to ask: “Have we become a template nation, one so reliant on templates that we suspend our sense of judgment, common sense and initiative?”
Occasional views of employers are polled about the Singapore worker: In one, they described him as reliable and diligent but lacking in creativity and leadership.
Another polled found Singaporeans, though highly educated, neither expressive nor articulate.
I remember an occasion when I was invited to give a talk about my experiences covering Singapore’s race riots in the 1960s.
The talk was to mark Racial Harmony Day. The audience – several hundred Secondary 3 and 4 pupils at a premium quality school.
The format was for me to talk for 20 minutes followed by a Q-and-A session, then tea next door.
Before that, the project’s teacher cautioned me not to expect too much.
It went according to expectation. No one in the straight-A audience stood up to ask a question.
After some silence, the teacher announced: “If there is no question, we’ll go for some tea. And any student who so wishes to can approach the speaker there.”
Immediately two boys approached me and asked two relevant questions. After replying I turned to the teacher and said: “Well, not everyone was reticent.”
After a pause, she said that the students who asked the questions had come from Taiwan.