Thursday, March 5, 2015

“Complaining is our national pastime”

In Singapore recently, my Bulgarian friend (with his wife and 19-month old daughter, who could hold the attention of those around her with her limited vocabulary which she compensates with eye contact and hand gestures) and I had dinner with a Singaporean. She teaches math at the local university and is also an art critic, specializing in architecture. “I wrote about your hotel,” she exclaimed. The hotel has become my own favorite, “offering lofty sky gardens” [says their flyer] bordering the all-glass floor-to-ceiling windows-cum-wall running the length of the room on the 14th floor. The rooms are generously adorned with wood, including slender frames of cube-like figures randomly stacked against the glass treatment (but no monkeys to do acrobatic stunts.) And from the reception desk all the way to lounge on the 16th floor, I would be greeted by Pinoy staff members.

The Singaporean has a PhD in AI (Artificial Intelligence) but would ask if we could share ideas how the youth of Singapore could keep on with the progress that has defined their city-state. She has lived in Japan for 7 years and also in Argentina. “You know, complaining is our national pastime. We always talk about what’s not working in Singapore. By now you know that I am both left and right brain. And while we’re teaching Singaporeans about creativity, I think we still lag the world because our nation developed with us, the people, following the vision set by our leadership and the rules that came with it. And that’s my point in asking how our youth could keep on with this progress.”

And she would continue: “In the case of Japan, perhaps because the system works, they would not hone their creativity even in the electronics industry which they once dominated. They can pursue technology but they’re creativity-challenged as far as applications are concerned.” And so I would relate the story of Toshiba and Apple. Toshiba had developed the hard disk the size of a dollar coin but they never figured out an application.

Enter Steve Jobs: He was not thinking technology but human empathy. That music is the way to the soul and the Walkman was the best the device available, with its own limitations – perhaps up to a hundred songs. Yet the soul can represent something that is truly vast and can be fed lots of songs, say, a thousand songs. But then Toshiba would sell the ownership of the teeny-weeny hard disk to Apple. The rest as they say is history. But Jobs would also explain how simple creativity is: it is simply connecting the dots.

There was a rumor that Lee Kuan Yew has died. He has been in hospital since early February or for practically a month (as of this writing) and the latest news is he was in ICU being treated for pneumonia. And the nation seemed to be in the mood of dissecting his strengths and weaknesses, the biggest concern being “we don’t have a succession plan.” 

It appears, volunteered another Singaporean, the son who is the Prime Minister doesn’t have the charisma, the vision, the leadership and the managerial skills of the father. “When he is confronted with questions in the Parliament, he can’t articulate his position nor his responses to these questions and he falls back on the talking points re the Singapore GDP.” I had to smile to myself because I had just read about one of our economic managers in the Philippines waxing poetic about our ability to continue with an accelerated growth rate of even up to 8%. [Haven’t we predicted boom times for decades?] Because he would also fall back on the talking points re the Philippine GDP. For instance, while the government has approved a huge infrastructure budget, it has yet to translate it into an efficient execution process. And the same applies with the targets set for FDI yet we remain the laggard in accumulated FDIs.

The big difference with Lee Kuan Yew is during his time, as many Singaporeans would explain, he was able to articulate a vision for Singapore and the core values that Singaporeans had to embrace to attain that vision. And as importantly, he would spell out the “how” to get there. And that while Lee Kuan Yew muzzled the opposition, the opposition in the past would also shoot themselves in the foot. Singaporeans are smart enough and won't be swayed by populist talking points. And yet for many years that was what the opposition tried to do.

“And that is why we are concerned. To keep on with Singapore’s progress, we cannot resort to a populist character. For example, we know we have zero natural resources, even our water comes from Malaysia. We are a tiny piece of land and all we have is ourselves, people. Indeed we need foreign investors like they have been successfully attracted by our leadership. But the son can’t articulate how we shall raise our population to 6.5 million. Lee Kuan Yew in the past would very easily explain whatever targets or goals or even KPIs (key performance indicators) he set for Singapore.”

I asked a Singaporean colleague about the flag and he went to Google to capture the precise words and read: “First the colors. Red stands for universal brotherhood and equality of man. White symbolizes pervading and everlasting purity and virtue. The crescent moon represents a young nation on the ascendant, and the five stars depict Singapore's ideals of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality.”

We were introduced to the Commander of the Singapore Guards, and in the Singapore Armed Forces they are considered the elites, and I realized I’m indeed a senior citizen. He looked like a PMA cadet, young, fit and trim. And he was introduced by his first name, not as a general or commander. We were in our business attire and he was in civvies, and could be mistaken for an athlete. And indeed he is and is passionate about football, and would break into a grin when he said he roots for Liverpool. And could rattle the names of players counting back years including stars from Central and Eastern Europe, where he knows we come from.

The Guards are in charge of the National Day Parade and 2015 is special, the 50th anniversary of Singapore. And the deputies made certain the Commander would meet us being one of the sponsors – and having traveled from a distant place. “I wish you’d come on the 9th of August for the parade itself,” he would add. We were comparing notes with my Bulgarian friends well aware that command officers in our own countries would look like the elders of this youthful Singaporean officer who personified “a young nation on the ascendant.”

There is not that much secret behind the success that is Singapore? First of all, they had a visionary leadership in Lee Kuan Yew. And the people, as they themselves profess, are smart enough not to be swayed by populist talking points. As importantly, they never sleep on their laurels. To complain is not unpatriotic, and in fact is their national pastime. Yet they are committed to the pursuit of their vision as a nation.

Is there a blemish in the record of Lee Kuan Yew? They would relate to the one time during a question time in the Parliament when Lee Kuan Yew was pointedly questioned about the preferential discount he received from a developer for the house in Bukit Timah. He did not explain it other than to say that he “got a discount but who has a problem with that,” and stormed out while belligerently tossing the pen in his hand. Of course, he was an autocratic leader.

I am writing this back in Connecticut and had read about Obama’s own challenges and can only conclude that indeed perfection is not of this world. Thus, there really is not that much secret about the success that is Singapore? But that can only be true if we Filipinos would: (a) look outward not inward; (b) seek to learn from others; (c) clarify our perspective; (d) distinguish our faith from our heart and from our thinking; (e) keep the fundamental givens; and (f) keep it simple?

And that means being committed to the pursuit of a vision as a nation, and not be swayed by populist talking points or sweet-talking economic managers? But first we need visionary leadership? And then as a people we need to toss “kanya-kanya”?

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