Becoming an Innovative (and Inclusive) Society

by Lex-xis (16S03M)
Photos courtesy of Raffles Archives and Museum

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DPM Tharman speaking to students of Raffles Institution in the Albert Hong Hall.

On 22 February 2016, Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam addressed the Year 2-4 students as well as guests from other schools as part of the annually-organized National Affairs Lecture Series. In his lecture, entitled ‘Becoming an Innovative Society’, DPM Tharman covered the growing need for Singapore to become an innovative yet still inclusive society, and offered insights into how we as a nation might go about achieving these goals.

DPM Tharman started the lecture with an observation of how our world as Singaporeans is very different from when Singapore first came to be half a century ago, but at the same time very similar in many aspects. While widespread poverty and unemployment have become problems of the past, the fundamental values that guide us, such as meritocracy, have remained constant.

In the past, Singapore had a large advantage over other developing countries in the region due to our better skilled labour force. However, as emerging markets such as China and India catch up in terms of skills and level of education, Singapore no longer has that same comfortable advantage. Additionally, technological advancements in recent years has brought about much more intelligent, nimble, and softer machines that have the ability to analyse data and spot trends as efficiently as humans — perhaps, even more so.

Hence, it is no longer good enough for Singaporeans to merely be skilled in the most basic sense of the term — we have to be innovative. Innovation, as DPM Tharman put it, is about creating new value with a ‘special touch’, and not just value-adding to what already exists. But if we are to become a truly innovative society, Singaporeans should not rely on a few individuals or firms for innovation, but should be engaged as individuals themselves in a continuous process of innovation that starts from a young age, beginning with our education system.

 

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In order to innovate, Singaporeans need to first have a strong sense of themselves as individuals, and must want to do things differently in their own unique way, and not just be an indistinct part of a collective. Naturally, this does not seem to go together with the image of a cohesive society since innovation seems to emphasise individualism and every man for him or herself.

However, DPM Tharman believes that an innovative society and an inclusive one are not mutually exclusive, as long as Singaporeans respect everyone else. Citing Switzerland and Japan as examples of societies brimming with innovation yet still remaining remarkably inclusive socially, he highlighted that Singapore will need to improve its social culture to instill a sense of respect for mastery in every field of work — whether blue or white collar — if we are to achieve the same level of innovative success as these countries.

DPM Tharman also emphasized the importance of Singaporeans being willing and able to learn throughout life, and not just in school, as the traditional belief that merely going through the education system and graduating means that one is set for life no longer holds. He shared that his experience as a student was just the start of his learning, since most of what he knows and actively applies in his work was acquired on the job. Hence in addition to actual learning, Singaporeans also need to develop the skill of learning throughout life.

As students, we should try to have as many diverse experiences outside the classroom as possible, such as in our CCAs or even in simple activities like playing sports with our neighbours. DPM Tharman believes that interacting with others helps develop the creative mind as we are exposed to new ways of thinking that may be different from what we are used to, and at the same time will also help us learn to interact with others comfortably and respectfully.

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DPM Tharman visiting the Raffles Archives and Museum.

He urged the audience to start creating a culture of questioning, experimenting, and being willing to fail, as we cannot dream of being innovative without accepting failure. He cited that most innovative firms encourage their employees to try new methods and test new theories even though there was a possibility of failure, as only through repeated experimentation and failure may we eventually discover a new method of looking at an existing problem.

Finally, he highlighted the need for students to marry the theoretical and the practical by learning through doing things and not just from the Internet. As proven by neuroscience studies, the skills attained by repeating doing something stays in our minds for a much longer time than what we ‘mug’.

To conclude his speech, DPM Tharman reemphasized the importance of Singapore managing the tension between innovation and inclusiveness, and that people must grow up learning what their strengths and weaknesses are, but also recognize and appreciate the strengths the unique strengths of others that we may not necessarily possess ourselves. Thus, his vision for an innovative, new Singapore is one of mutual respect and humility in learning.

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