What it takes to be exceptional? A FutureScape exercise


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In his May Day speech last Friday, PM Lee exhorted Singaporeans to remain exceptional. Even though Singapore is a “little red dot”, we punch way above our weight; to wit, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China and India. In PM Lee’s mind, Singapore’s success requires three ingredients: a successful economy, hardworking and skillful workforce, and an outstanding leadership team. In this article, we apply FutureScaping to these three thrusts and assess what it means to remain exceptional. (This article is based in part on Prof Robert Constanza’s article, “A Vision of a Successful Economy without Continuous Economic Growth” See http://www.humansandnature.org/economy---robert-costanza-response-40.php)

Successful economy

What does this mean? If you Google “successful economy” you will see for one, the typical GDP growth, productivity and taxation. Yet, there is a growing debate for the non-economic growth successful economy. According to Herman Daly, University of Maryland professor, “The economy is a sub-system of the Earth.” Therefore, by extension, the economy cannot grow bigger than the Earth. If the Earth is not growing in size, then economies cannot grow ad infinitum. Hence, the issues that dog the Earth, like global population growth, biodiversity and climate change, are key ingredients for the successful economy. “Gaps in income (will) decrease between countries and within countries, and this contributes to building strong social capital,” says Distinguished University Professor of Sustainability at Portland State University, Robert Costanza. In fact, some of the indicators of a successful economy according to Costanza include a non-growing global population of about 8 billion people, steady-state material throughput between countries, narrowing wealth distribution, increasing quality of life (QOL), increasing global biodiversity, and declining CO2 emission. What this shows to us is, our definition of a successful economy needs to steer away from the typical GDP and productivity growth metrics, which have been drummed into us for the past few years without much success. Perhaps the government should look beyond such self-centred intents and go down the sustainable route; after all, Singapore is part of the Earth.

Hardworking and skillful workforce

I am struck by what this means; hardworking and skillful by today’s standards, or by tomorrow’s? Because if we were to apply hardwork to today’s standards, then we will be looking to increasing our station in life, rising ever earlier and ending the day ever later. Yet QOL (as measured by Maslow’s hierarchy of subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom) would drop precipitously, putting paid to the notion of a successful economy. No, hardwork cannot be working longer hours. In fact, there is a strong negative correlation between hours of work and QOL. What we need is “smartwork”. Smartworking people tend to get more things done in less time. They are not so much working as performing functions that are a blend of learning, working, teaching and playing. The line between functions is so blur that people can work twenty hours a week, and yet get much more done that our current 44-hour mandated workweek can. Skill is therefore learnt on the job, while playing and hypothesizing. And with a narrow wealth distribution, the cost of learning is borne by the community, making each person a skillful worker in an evenly balanced ecosystem.

Outstanding Leadership

This is where is gets murky. The idea that decisions are made only at the top may run counter to the very idea of the successful economy. When people have more time to participate in political dialogue, since we are working only twenty hours a week, with strong interconnectedness of people around the world through a super-Internet, and the coming together of interest groups working for the good of the commons, rather than for its own self interests, national decisions are taken through discourse and dialogue, rather than one of top-down centralized command. Leadership, therefore, comes from within the populace, and outstanding leadership comes from outstanding communication.

Waking to a new world

It sounds like Utopia, I know; but to some extent, it is a global picture of what might come along in the year 2115. Yet, Singapore cannot forget that it is still a part of the global ecosystem, and its size behooves that it plays with the emerging global rules. It can strive to be exceptional, but by whose standards? If the world is slowly moving towards dissolution of borders, then Singapore needs to be more open, not more protective, of its gates. It is only when we can let in the many talents that will help Singaporeans themselves learn what they don’t know, adopt better work ethics, and understand that they don’t hold the key to every sliver of knowledge, then we will be on our way to becoming exceptional.

As it stands right now, we are just good.

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