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Rules Are Meant to Be Broken: The Future of Singapore

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 20/10/2015 Valerie Berset-Price
SINGAPORE © Getty SINGAPORE

Breaking down the blocks that built Singapore may be the only way to save it.
For years, Singapore's location in bustling Southeast Asia made it the perfect crossroads for trade; goods, services, and ideas were ripe for the picking, and Singapore selected the very best of all of them for itself. In the last 75 years, Singapore has completely transformed itself from in impoverished nation to an international example of successful high-density urban infrastructure.
Utopian by design, Singapore excels in order; its collection of cultures living in harmony by a carefully curated orchestra. There is a rule for everything and a deeply entrenched expectation of obedience that is handed down from the government as well as the familial unit. And Singapore's manmade landscape, at once serene and beautiful, is also sterile and confining; what could be a veritable cascade of symphonic melodies broadcasts notes as captivating as elevator music. This predictable anthem has served it well in the past, but can it continue? And for how long?
Highly attractive to global companies who want a cultured, yet pure, slate for their international dominance, Singapore has given huge multinational firms like Dupont, Procter and Gamble, Merck, among many others, access to their Asian markets while also providing a huge talent pool of top-end researchers and developers. Yet the workforce in Singapore hasn't been imported, like much of its companies and leadership, and there is a real struggle to marry the intense doctrine of rule-following with the risk-taking, out-of-box innovating and problem-solving that is embedded in many Western cultures and companies.
Teaching the next generation of Singapore to improvise, think on their own, and, above all, accept failure as an acceptable learning tool is today's challenge for multinational firms having roots on the impressive island. The lesson, however, may be more targeted at the older guard, who may be hesitant to let go of its reigns to let its younger counterparts take the risks needed to transform Singapore from the executor of (other companies') innovation to a thought leader with entrepreneurial spirit.
That is to say Singapore's reputation for innovation is not a cultural one; much of what is produced and launched from Singapore has sprung from its gorgeous canvas and not the brush strokes made from its own people.
As it stands now, Singapore pays dearly for its innovative edge, providing the playground for companies and niche markets that have the capital and a high success rate. However, it is already showing signs that its growth is unsustainable. As product life cycles decrease and competitors increase, Singapore's rigid bend toward uncompromising performance excellence also means it is less agile than other markets. It also means that, should this bend continue, it will always be at the mercy of the companies who call Singapore home, as its rooted workforce currently lacks the assertiveness skills, courage and grit to take the helm of these international ships themselves.
The burden of navigating--and growing into this role--falls squarely on how well the Singaporeans and their multinational companies communicate and relate to each other. This has less to do about language (English is the first of several taught in schools), and more to do with teaching an entire workforce that initiative and risk-taking are not only encouraged, but required, in order to preserve the perilous economic future of their nation.
A top-down approach that encourages more freedom of expression (in the form of mess and error) will unlikely revolutionize Singapore unless it is also approached culturally, where learning by trial-and-error is accepted and challenging current thinking is embraced. Law-abiding cultures, like Singapore's, must then make it a rule to break the rules; like Madam Yajun Wu and Longfor Properties did in China, It must start by removing the powerfully steep rungs from its heirarchic ladders and permitting all levels of an organization to have a stronger say in its future. Obedient, oppressive silence is no longer an option; Singapore must adapt or it will fade.
And Singapore is not alone. Top-down cultures literally need a manual on how to break the rules. They otherwise have no idea how to do it. Optimizing the collaboration and communication across cultures, providing the frame work to demonstrate the soft (yet difficult) skills of taking risks, resolving conflict, mastering debate, challenging authority and questioning procedures must be taught, as those are skills that go against everything Singaporeans were previously taught, and all skills they are now required to learn for their own sake and for the sake of Singapore.
One of its most famous innovations--its authoritarian nature and highly strategic design--will be what ultimately holds Singapore back from continued growth and transformation. To fully capitalize on its location and reputation, it will have to take a good hard look at the precise building blocks that formed its success. It will need to question them, dismantle them fully, and then construct something completely new and brilliant.
Fortunately, this isn't Singapore's first rodeo when it comes to revitalization. This time, the building blocks are there. Now all they need are the right tools and the right people to wield them.

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