Dr Kirpal Singh

The Innovation Race

Travellers' Tales: Interviews with Thought Leaders in Innovation

Dr. Kirpal SinghAbout Dr Kirpal Singh: Kirpal Singh is an internationally acclaimed writer and poet. For over 20 years he taught Literature at the National University of Singapore and at the Nanyang Technological University, before being asked to join the Singapore Management University where he now teaches Creative Thinking. Kirpal is the author of ‘Thinking Hats and Coloured Turbans: Creativity across cultures.’

GG: We are interested to find out if you think Singapore is innovative?
KS: Singapore was creative and innovative in its very early years as a young, new Republic. From 1965 to about 1975 Singapore brought into play many new, exciting programs at all levels so as to forge a dynamic, prosperous, productive nation with economic viability and moral strength/courage. This took some doing and plenty of creative energies and innovative resolve. Our grand public housing scheme (the envy of many countries), our *retirement* scheme- the CPF (Central Provident Fund), our language-policies vis-à-vis education…all of these(and more) can be cited as good examples of Singapore being creative/innovative. Then, I think, came stagnancy- from about 1976 to about 2010, sadly little that is strikingly creative/original/innovative took place. Yes, there have been *small* instances of displaying some creativity and innovation but on the whole Singapore remained pretty docile, paying more lip-service than actually embracing creativity/innovation. From about 2010 Singapore has again begun to take creativity and innovation quite seriously.

GG: Do you think Singaporeans are creative?
KS: I believe Singaporeans, like others, can be creative, but the creative eco-system needs to be firmly in place and entrenched as high value. To be creative takes plenty of courage as risks are involved. Singapore has been, for too long, a *kiasu* culture- i.e. afraid to lose. And when/if one is afraid to lose one takes shelter in the known, the habitual- and that is creativity’s negative core. So if you ask me I’d say Singaporeans tend, generally, to be adverse to risk-taking and therefore, honestly, adverse to the new, the original, the creative, the innovative. By and large Singapore leaves it to others to break new ground and then copies/borrows/follows…sad but true.

GG: What type of culture do you think has been built in Singapore over the long term? Eg Do you think the leadership of the country in the past allowed for succession planning to set up a culture that embraces innovation?
KS: My candid answer will be NO. Indeed, even now people firmly state that because our founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, constantly affirmed the virtue of consistency, they, too want the nation to continue without altering its status-quo too much, too often. So the culture is one of *if it ain’t broke why mend it?*….and we all know that while this motto may serve in the short-term, in the long(er) term it can be perilous-as exemplified in the current plight of japan….*Adaptive creativity/innovation* is, I am afraid, NOT the answer to genuine creativity/innovation.

GG: What do you think Singapore will be like in the future?
KS: My sense is that Singapore’s young are starting to assert themselves and this means finding new pathways, different pathways to the future, especially in terms of careers. They are bolder, more robust, more willing to be like their grandparents in terms of trying new things and venturing further ashore. My students at the university now appear to be more risk-taking and more adventurous. My worry is that the main driving force seems to be financial/economic. There does not, still, seem to be a passion for creativity/innovation beyond the bottom line. But unless and until Singapore gives a tight hug to creativity/innovation per se it is not going to go very far. Following benchmarks set by others is NOT the way forward if a nation, an individual, a company or any organisation wants to push for creativity/innovation. Singapore has almost always acted reactively-i.e. it implements change when necessary. It has not got a good record (yet) in terms of seeking new ways of doing things, experimenting, taking-risks: as a conservative nation Singapore has always waited for others to experiment and then adopt/modify/qualify. So there is much still to be realised if Singapore wants to be viewed as a nation that truly champions creativity and innovation. A lot of money has been set aside for various grants, etc but most of the time there is little follow-up in terms of theory becoming real. Hopefully the pressure from the young will help change this old-fashioned mindset