How to build a wise citizenry – a strategic look at Kishore’s Big Idea

Last Saturday, the Straits Times published Kishore Mahbubani’s Big Idea Number 9, “To future-proof the country, build a wise citizenry.” (Read the article here). Professor Mahbubani is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former ambassador to the UN. Underpinning Mahbubani’s idea is the fact that Singapore has been enjoying exceptional success in the fifty years of its independence. By exceptional, he does not mean outstanding; rather, he alludes to its radical meaning – being different from normal. And he adds that what is different from normal cannot be sustained; ultimately, Singapore will drift to normalcy, perhaps creating political upheaval. One of the drivers to resist this is to have a wise citizenry. In this article, I explore what we Singaporeans need to change in order to become that “wise citizenry” and why it may be some time yet before we get there.

The Kiasu (or “Fear of Failure”) Syndrome

“Kiasu” is a Hokkien term that literally means the fear of failure but it doesn’t quite mean that when it is applied in local vernacular. It really means the fear of losing out or the need to keep up with the Joneses. Many people have used this term derogatorily when applied to Singaporeans. Yet, I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. What I do find worse is Singapore’s bent for the literal meaning as well. Many of us have grown up in the safe and sheltered utopia built by Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his merry men. This cocooning of the citizenry now stands in the way of its wisdom as we are not accustomed to propose an idea and then test it. The fear of failure breeds a fixed mindset that tethers the citizenry to a very near and narrow goalpost.

It’s not my problem

Having long deferred thinking to the socio-political elite, we normal Singaporeans are more preoccupied with the latest gadgets, the latest fashion, the fastest cars. Happenings beyond our shores do not concern us very much, and we adopt the attitude that it is not our problem. Many of us are oblivious to the threats that lurk just outside our border partly due to the government’s ever-efficient machine lulling us into a false sense of security. Ask any of us if we expect a terrorist incident to hit Singapore in the next five years and chances are, we will say no (or at least “don’t know”). The issue here is not that we don’t care, but well, it’s just not our problem (the government will solve this problem, right?).


Many of us don’t think strategically about our issues, preferring rather to deal with the here and now, and the obvious. This is in some part due to our pragmatic ways and other parts due to our intellectual bent. Just look at the escalation of debt we have carried by over the last 20 years and you can see how prolific short-termism has grown. Hitting the shopping centres, buying multiple properties, using numerous credit cards, all show our propensity to trade the future for the present. This will put paid to Mahbubani’s big idea.

What you see is all there is (WYSIATI)

This is a term coined by Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who used this to describe a person’s propensity to accept things at face value and to not dig deeper and uncover assumptions and see new perspectives. Many of us Singaporeans are prone to WYSIATI because of its simplicity and its attractiveness. After all, if all there is is right in front of us, then we don’t need to expend any more effort to look beyond it; to shift our perspective; to question our assumptions. Unfortunately, our problems are seldom ever all that we see.

We have some way to go yet

I know, this is a generalization and I may not be fair to many of my fellow citizens. I am sure you can find exceptions to everything that was set out here. Mr Mahbubani is one of them. But if we want to be the wise citizenry that he exhorts us to be, then we need to call it as it is and then move to make the changes. If we are uncomfortable with the image staring right back at us, and therefore refuse to peer into the mirror, then, chances are, there won’t be change. And the normality that Mahbubani predicts will set in. So perhaps as our government sets out to develop the workforce, they might like to look into building resilience in thinking that some of us currently lack. This will be the first step of many to build a wise citizenry.

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