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The engineered society


While waiting at my favourite tailor, a fellow Singaporean chalked up a conversation. Unsurprisingly education became a topic. Singapore regularly scores in the top bracket in the PISA test (probably empowered due to lots of homework) and the US is adopting Singapore math.
However my counterpart highlighted a different aspect: " The Singapore school system drills you to build an ever growing portfolio of problem solutions and hone the skill to match any occurring challenge to this portfolio" he continued " Devising new solutions is not part of the package".
I hear the howling, that creativity is a much honoured skill in Singapore. Sit back for a moment and muse my (admitting biased) thoughts on the fabric of Singapore:
In its oldest part Singapore is a trading post. It has deal makers (traders) and kulis (fulfilment, carrying merchandise from and to ships). This old structure shines through until today, where "becoming rich" is the ultimate Singaporean achievement, enshrined in the 5 C. Deal maker is the most revered profession. Contemporary Singapore however is different. It is essentially an

Engineered Society

What does that mean: everything is planned out, desired outcomes are executed diligently, known solutions are applied to apparent issues, quality is controlled, margins for errors are specified and tolerance is a measured quantity.
It seems that approach has worked out very well for Singapore so far (even when some dislike it). Let me backup this claim:
  • Being land and resource scares, the founding fathers designed a system where service excellence made a difference: engineering, a world class port, a swift and impartial legal system for trade disputes, an educated workforce, a secure environment and top financial institutions. All this was planned, it didn't just grow
  • Few genuine inventions originated from Singapore (not surprisingly due to the limited size of available R&D budget), but the, relative to the country, huge budget has been spent to excel in engineering disciplines. Point in case: Singapore stands out in water treatment, land reclamation, airlines and aviation support industry, defence industry and specialty electronics
  • The system of Pension Fund and Public Housing with its racial quotas ensures a standard of living that is worth working for. The prevention of the formation of "cultural living quarters" supports the idea of a harmonious multi-racial society. Good education helps too. And from what I see: it's working
  • The world class tuition industry can only exist when the mode of examination is "pattern matching" - recognise the given question and match it to the pool of known solutions. The tuition centres cater to the perceived need of expanding the pool of known solution (a trade seemingly shared with Korea).
  • Even the maker movement has been integrated into government planning and startups are catered for in Block 71 (more on that later this year)
  • Political engineering: To ensure minority representation, some districts elect a group of members of parliament instead of electing individuals. (You wouldn't suspect other motives, would you?)
Engineering however has its limitations. As my friend Alvin reminded Dr. Balakrishnan: " Progress needs the square pegs in round holes, the misfits, the odd ones, the different thinkers, the experimentors, the tinkerers".
The biggest challenge ahead could be the very fact, that made it so successful in the past: the engineering mind set. As the joke goes: " We love the latest and greatest, bleeding edge. Just provide us three reference cases where this has been successfully implemented for at least 3-5 years".
Engineers identify challenges, apply and optimise known solutions. Engineers don't venture into the unknown (Scientist and artists do). The future however is unknown, the flying car thing didn't really work out. So the challenge ahead (can we engineer a solution for that?) is to reconcile the engineering with the early Singapore spirit: venturing into the unknown.
As Antoine de Saint Exup?ry would remind us: "
Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it "

Happy future to everybody!

Posted by on 01 January 2015 | Comments (0) | categories: After hours

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