Singapore must not alienate its brightest

by Ngiam Tong Dow

Comments from M. Thiru: As a Tamil I could draw parallels when the concerns of this article come to the population sisze and why our own talents are important. We SL Tamils & the diaspora are a small-sized population and our problems are numerous. So the unity in purpose is very important. We must be inclusive of all tamils to arrive to a secure position as a nation of people. Even our Tamils born and growing up in foregin lands too must be included without being disloyal to their new countries, so that they too can contribute.

PROFESSOR Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, has enunciated the concepts of 'soft power' and 'hard power'. America's invasion of Iraq was an example of hard power. Winning the hearts and minds of the people is soft power.

In classical Chinese thought, the equivalent distinction would be 'wen' and 'wu', the pen and the sword, or the scholar and the warrior. The Chinese ideal is a combination of the scholar and the warrior in the same individual.

The difference between hard and soft can also be applied to knowledge, distinguishing between 'hard knowledge' and 'soft knowledge'. Rocket science, which requires heavy investment in jet-propulsion technology, is hard knowledge. Researching demand for luxury cars in developing countries requires soft knowledge.

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ALTHOUGH Singapore's best minds compare favourably with their peers in larger countries, we lack the numbers to research hard knowledge. Similarly, we do not have economies of scale of production for hard technology.

Our comparative advantage is in conceptualisation more than design, in blueprints more than production. This does not mean that we can simply conceptualise without having to design. But not having the numbers, we have to excel at the upstream conceptual and blueprint stage of knowledge.

 And for us, the competition is between cities, not with countries. Singapore has to compete with London and New York, Paris and Milan, Shanghai and Beijing, Tokyo and Kyoto. At the level of cities, the competition is intensely individual.

But with a small population base of three million, how do we get the critical mass to make a difference for Singapore?

First, we have to provide space for the creative and talented to think. Our teachers at schools and universities have to learn to respond to disconcerting, even rude, questions from their pupils. Our government and political leadership have to learn to accept alternative views on public policies and resist the temptation to rule uncomfortable questions out of order.

I would say that having 'OB markers' is to put a cap on thinking, with one crucial caveat: In a multiracial, multilingual and multi-religious Singapore, there will have to be OB markers on matters of race, language and religion. Not to place OB markers on race, language and religion is to invite disaster.

Beyond this caveat, there will be no creative Singapore without the freedom to think. Only a free contest of ideas can give rise to the effervescence of creativity. Without creative thinking, Singapore would have lost in the competition between cities.

The competition between cities differs from competition between countries in one crucial aspect. Cities compete on ideas, and ideas spring from the minds of individuals. More than in any other society, in Singapore, the individual counts. The individual makes the difference.

As Singapore globalises, more and more younger Singaporeans will seek tertiary education abroad. Because of their thorough grounding in Singapore schools, most Singaporeans graduate at or near the top of their class. Our talented young are identified by their professors and offered PhD fellowships. Others are recruited by multinational corporation (MNC) employers.

Hopefully, they will meet and marry fellow Singaporean spouses. Hopefully, when they are more settled in their careers, they will return home and raise their families here.

Our best and brightest who graduate from the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University are also talent-spotted by MNCs, banks, transport and logistic companies, and a whole host of specialised businesses, which the indefatigable Economic Development Board attracts to Singapore. As the world globalises, employers recruit talent not just to meet their local Singapore needs, but more for their international business. There is a global search for talent. Competition between cities is competition between the talented.

Singaporeans, with their fluency in English and hard science education, will be in demand not only at home but also abroad. The Majulah Connection has found scores of Singaporeans and foreigners who have worked in Singapore holding CEO or very high management positions in Fortune 500 companies. Though not in abundance, Singapore has world-class talent.

In the global competition for talent, we will need to appeal to the emotions, the heart more than the mind. Attracting a Singaporean to return with a top job offer is only a matter of dollars and cents. Getting him or her home to start and raise a family here is a matter of the heart. We need to try. The alternative is extinction. Quo Vadis, Singapore?

With a small population and a narrow talent base, we have to take care not to alienate our best and brightest. They are the most mobile in today's knowledge-based world. As a society, Singapore should never quit on anyone, and neither should Singaporeans quit on Singapore.

The writer is a former permanent secretary at the Finance Ministry. This is an excerpt from his talk to the Temasek Club on Thursday.

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Posted August 15, 2004