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Singapore's state of disruption

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 05:50

"If we do not disrupt ourselves in a manner of our choosing, somebody else will do so in a manner we do not like."
- Ravi Menon, managing director, Monetary Authority of Singapore

DISRUPTION. Possibly the most overused word in today's global lexicon, it refers to the upheaval that is created when a new business (these days, usually founded by a smart alec entrepreneur) uproots an established method of delivering a product or service.

Think Spotify, a music-streaming business that has sounded the death knell of CDs. It has, as its most vocal opponent, rock star Taylor Swift, who felt that it did not adequately value her art. It has been estimated that Spotify may be worth more than the entire music industry put together.

Or take Whatsapp. Acquired by Facebook for US$19 billion, this instant messaging service allows users to send messages over WiFi, avoiding mobile text charges and disrupting telcos' revenue models.

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And then there's Kickstarter. This crowdfunding platform lets creators raise funds from the public for their projects, no longer leaving startups to the mercy of traditional financiers and levelling the playing field between high net worth and heartland investors.

State-led innovation is one thing …

Previously the domain of tech geniuses and business rebels, disruption has now been adopted by the government as one of its strategies to make Singapore future-ready. How serious is the G about this? Just look at what we're naming our committees: Janil Puthucheary, Singapore's minister in charge of GovTech, is also the co-chair of the Deep Dive on Disruptive Technologies, which I thought referred to a Deep Sea Think Tank rather than a sub-group of the Committee on the Future Economy.

On March 22, 2017, Dr Puthucheary delivered the keynote address at The Business Times' Leaders' Forum themed "Disruption and Transformation". He spoke of the state as accelerator, flinging wide the gates to innovation by developing a digital government. He noted that rate-limiting factors today are download speeds and the ability to virtualise work, and pledged to create a technologically conducive business environment.

This is what Singapore does best: identify game-changing trends and develop new infrastructure in a way that only a well-funded, cohesive and focused government machinery can.

But the government's ambitions are bigger than just facilitating innovation; it wants to "be the disruptors and not the disrupted", the minister declared.

… State-sponsored disruption is something else entirely

It is one thing to embrace technology, quite another to be a "disruptor". True disruption is messy; by definition, it tears up rulebooks and up-ends the norm. It asks not "what is permissible?", only "what is possible?"

Not all change is disruption. The minister quipped that by setting up GovTech, an amalgam of three pre-existing agencies, "we have disrupted ourselves". But the combination of three government divisions hardly qualifies as a disruption, except to the poor civil servant responsible for the integration process.

Singapore is proud of many of its homegrown tech companies. Carousell is a popular community market place for buying and selling items. RedMart is a widely used home delivery service for groceries. But these companies are not disruptors - they are businesses that have rolled out existing services more efficiently, and thus, successfully.

Would true unicorns of disruption - those that today command billion-dollar valuations - have made it past the starting gate if they had been conceptualised in Singapore?

A ride-sharing app would have faced stiff roadblocks from taxi drivers and strenuous road safety objections. And an Internet platform to advertise your home for short stays to total strangers would have your neighbours barricading the lift lobby. The reason Uber is allowed to ply our expressways, and Airbnb may be allowed to operate on our shores, is that they have received international acceptance. To deny them could harm Singapore's standing as a global city and top tourist destination.

If we want to be a petrie dish for disruption, we must be open to having our neat regulatory frameworks dismantled. This is something the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is ready to try, with its regulatory sandboxes for fintech companies. But disruption needs more than a relaxation of rules and top-down edicts.

Singapore's education system is a rigorous and demanding one. Our consistent ranking at the top of global education league tables comes at a price: students drag their heels from one tuition centre to another, resort to rote learning and are too busy memorising model answers to think, to dream or to let their imagination roam.

The heavy emphasis in our schools on mathematics and sciences (topics in which it is possible to score a perfect grade) marginalises the humanities. The upshot is that we have a low tolerance for failure, are unused to dealing with messy grey areas, and our DNA is hardcoded to believe that there is a "right" answer to all questions.

Singaporeans celebrate effort only where it is accompanied by success. If we want to grow successful disruptors, the environment must be one that is organic, encourages entrepreneurship and invention, and thrives on diversity of thought. It is not something we can hot-house, like a Gifted Primary Three student. Put another way, world-beating unicorns are born in the wild; they cannot be farmed.

Failure is part of the process, noted Ravi Menon, MAS managing director, at the BT Forum. "Many experiments fail; that's a necessary part of experimentation. If all experiments succeed, then those are not experiments; they did not push the boundaries," he said.

It is a laudable philosophy, but hardly an operating principle today. If Singapore wants to disrupt, we should start by taking a sledgehammer to our education system.

  • The writer is joint managing director at TSMP Law Corporation
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