From cloners to explorers

Singapore’s future depends on its leaders embracing innovation—and difference

“As I look at the evolution of Singapore, there was a period from the 1990s to early 2000s where we were a nation of cloners,” says Wee Luen Chia, ServiceNow’s managing director for Asia. “As a relatively new nation, we didn’t really need to be super-innovative or the first to think of an idea. Instead, we’d observe great ideas in education or housing or manufacturing in other places and do it more efficiently at home. That was how we bootstrapped our development as a nation. We cloned what others were doing, but we did it better.”

Chia, who kickstarted his career with seven years in the Singapore government’s information and communications authority, recalls how government leaders would go on frequent “study trips” to examine overseas enterprises, commercial operations, and modes of government before transplanting their insights into Singapore’s industry and policy ecosystem.

Strong foundations served Singapore well, but as Chia puts it, it’s not enough for Singapore’s highly skilled, advanced economy to further its edge.

“We’re a leader now,” Chia says. “We can no longer afford to adopt what others are doing and execute well. Singapore’s future has to be about innovation.”

Ingenuity, diversity, and a counter-culture shift

This is no secret, of course. Over the past two decades, Singapore’s annual investment in research and development soared from some $3.2bn in 2001 to more than $9.2bn in 2018. The end of 2020 saw Singapore’s government earmark at least $25bn for the next five years of R&D, with most going to health, sustainability, manufacturing, and the digital economy.

How we innovate is going to be increasingly important, beyond the amount of capital we put in.

Both public and private sectors have recognised innovation is crucial to Singapore’s future. Those investments appear to be paying dividends.

“We’ve been seeing the fruits of our R&D investment, not just in core areas like manufacturing,” Chia says, “but also in less obvious places—innovations like vertical farms in our carparks or more accurate and less intrusive saliva tests for Covid-19.”

He adds, “how we innovate is going to be increasingly important, beyond the amount of capital we put in.”

A key example of that is using digital technologies such as analytics or AI to improve the speed and scale of innovation, says digital futurist and innovation strategist Charlie Ang.

“Cognitive technologies, like AI, can help us to better sense, serve, and satisfy customer needs,” Ang says. “A more customer-centric, data-driven approach can turn innovation from an art form into a scientific process. The more rigorous and repeatable we make innovation, the more we can accelerate the process and improve the odds of success.”

Another example of focusing on avenues of innovation, according to Chia, is diversity: engaging a greater number of different, even contrasting voices to generate new ideas and opportunities. And that’s where Singapore’s leaders, he says, need to undergo a bigger shift in thinking.

“In Singapore’s foundation years, we had a core group of highly educated, highly committed people whose decisions would unilaterally shape the country’s direction—which worked in that time of uncertainty and risk,” Chia says. “And as we now become trendsetters, we must discard this concept that ideas or decision power should be limited to a small group of people. That’s where diversity and inclusiveness come in.”

Ang agrees. “If you’ve been doing things in a certain way for so long, you tend to get stuck in incremental thinking,” he says. “That’s simply not good enough when both technologies and business models are disrupting everything we do at an incredible speed. You need much more blue-sky, big-picture thinking and a lot of imaginative, strategic, and interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Chia cites Singapore’s high level of education as an invitation for organisational leaders to canvass more diverse ideas and test them with consistent processes “where the best ideas floated are scrubbed, refined, and adopted.” He also points to open-source software as proof that inviting a broader spectrum of ideas from all sorts of people, rather than limiting innovation to a select group of elites, leads to the best possible outcomes in any system.

“With open-source, there’s no central governing body, but there is a system of trust where different developers provide checks and balances so the best ideas get promoted through the ranking,” says Chia, who led open-source software firm Red Hat in Southeast Asia before joining ServiceNow. “It’s the same with how we run organisations or even countries.”

Chia acknowledges that this poses substantial challenges to Singapore’s private and public sector leaders—not least from a national culture that traditionally espouses deference to authority. “Creating that environment where people are ready to speak up in Asian culture is especially tough to do,” he says. “The way we move forward is for leaders to make a commitment to seeing these ideas through, setting an example by how we work with really smart people from diverse backgrounds. We’re no longer just doers; we’re explorers.”

An explorer’s mindset

While tooling up on Web3 or the metaverse may not hold immediate application to broader business and society, Chia holds that learning about new technology is required for any meaningful innovation. “There’s this feedback loop where you develop use-cases once you understand the technology, then improve the technology based on the results of those use-cases,” he says. “It starts with knowing the tech and exploring the what-ifs.”

Ang encourages leaders to discover how different families of emerging technologies can interact to create new paradigms and generate new value. “We’re seeing immense growth in cognitive technologies like AI, the blockchain computing system, and immersive technologies like VR,” he says. “What matters most is not a single technology, but how innovators and creatives can build powerful combinations that radically change the way businesses operate, governments function, and consumers consume.”

And as we now become trendsetters, we must discard this concept that ideas or decision power should be limited to a small group of people

But perhaps most important is creating organisations where people feel safe sharing and building on new ideas. “You might not come up with an idea, but you can be responsible for tweaking it and making it better, so that it becomes everyone’s idea,” Chia says. “There has to be a sense of accountability in joint innovation. And doing that is hard. But that’s what great leadership is about: aligning to a common vision, showing that you value diverse voices and creating processes or rules of engagement for the best ideas to rise to the top and be continuously improved on.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Singapore, according to history and legend, was rediscovered numerous times by explorers ranging from Indonesian princes to British privateers. Each time, the island promised something different to those who encountered it. As the nation formed, it evolved.

That continuous searching for the better is perhaps Singapore’s greatest strength.

“What might be good today may no longer be in two years, when everyone else has caught up,” Chia says. “That’s the way of the explorer: the journey never ends.”