Go with a smile!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Vivian Balakrishnan and Steve Wozniak

The rest of this will be about this article, a speech given by Vivian Balakrishnan and maybe a reply to Steve Wozniak. But first a few vaguely related comments.

As we all know, 1995 was year zero of the Great Internet Revolution. It was the year that the internet – to use a phrase by the great Douglas Rushkoff – went viral. And ever since then, Singapore has tried to become a mini-silicon valley. But I think it has been less successful than it could have been.

I have friends who try to go down the motivational speaker path. I’ve had that phrase “if you think you can, you can” thrown at me. I’m actually a believer in a weaker version of that phrase, where whether you can, and whether you think you can are positively correlated. But taking the mind over matter to the extreme is just not my kind of thing. And it’s not like I don’t have a record of occasionally driving myself to achieve big feats. My mother was really into that motivational speaker thing – paradoxically she never really had much control over her own life. It put me off all this motivational speaker thing for the rest of my life. In a way I do understand the power of the subconscious, but maybe it was a matter of style. Being relentlessly upbeat and positive is totally not the way I do things.

An aside - you know I’ve grown to like America a little bit more this time around that I’m here because it’s not that relentlessly upbeat and positive like it was in the 90s. America was at its greatest during the Depression and WWII, when it was operating in “how the fuck are we going to get out of this fucking shit” mode. And it could be in a stage right now. Or not.

Anyway, there was a big jarring gap between how relentlessly negative my mother could be at times, and the motivational stuff she listened to. It was just too wacko for me. I am an eccentric person, not a crazy person. And there was this time when I got sent to motivational speaker summer camp, got a little disruptive in class, and ended up in a screaming match with the instructor. So this motivational Anthony Robbins type of stuff is really not for me. In fact I am reminded of a comment made by a friend who was perusing this blog. “Some other guy, I didn’t know it was his blog. Once I read sieteocho I knew it had to be you, because nobody does cynical and sarcastic like you do.” Which I of course took as a compliment. I’m a critical guy, both in the sense of being pejorative and in the sense of being analytical and objective about stuff.

The other thing for me is to go down the startup path. And I don’t actually know that I’d ever want to do that. But I might end up in the orbit of a startup or something. Right about now. Partially it was that – you know, I knew, or I knew of a few people – Rafflesians of course – who have actually made their mark on the computer industry or changed the world. Tan Min Liang of Razer, Andrew Ng of Coursera. It is notable that they chose not to do so in Singapore but instead went to the US to do it. I had a friend who decided to quit his job and move to the States. He wanted to found a game company. He didn’t manage to do so but instead ended up working for Google. We were both job hunting at the same time and we were talking to each other quite a bit and comparing notes.

Not all were Rafflesians, of course. Then there was a Malaysian I met, studied in Singapore, is a friend of Crazy Frog. He did a PhD for the same professor who “advised” me for my master’s project. (Putting advised in quotations because he didn’t do shit). And then he founded a company with my professor, (and my professor preferred running that company to advising his students). My uncle was made redundant when he was middle aged, and so he ended up starting a small company, and it managed to survive.

So we do know about people who change the world. In fact, this changing the world thing is significant. In a way the older pre-1965 generation changed Singapore, but individually, they didn’t “change the world”. The system called for them to be cogs in the system, and they did it very well. And consequently, when we were growing up, they also taught us to be cogs in the system as well, not fully realizing that for our generation, the price of entry is to actually change the world. Like change it yourself, instead of being a small part of a large something that changes the world.

So now anyway I will move on to the main point of this blog post which is to critique the speech that Vivian Balakrishnan has given in response to the infamous comment by Steve Wozniak that Singapore would never produce an Apple.

Vivian says that we were late to this game, we only started 30 years back. Which is sorda true. Hewlett Packard was started up in… Fairchild Electronics was started in … These two were the iconic enterprises that built Silicon Valley into what it is today, and the reason why Silicon Valley is called Silicon Valley not hi tech valley, not PC valley, not internet valley.

But it doesn’t explain a few things. It doesn’t explain why, during the early days of Creative Industries, they were more interested in making Sim Wong Hoo lim kopi rather than supporting him. It doesn’t explain why even today, Singapore’s prime strategy has been to lure multinationals to set up shop here, rather than have great home-grown enterprises.

It doesn’t explain why Chartered Semiconductors failed in its quest to become a great electronics manufacturing firm. Now, wafer fab is dominated by Foxconn, Asus, Acer – the Taiwanese and Chinese. It doesn’t explain why Finland produced a Nokia and Estonia produced a Skype, and Singapore has not achieved anything on that level. It doesn’t explain why South Korea has managed to grow Samsung into a world beating electronics firm and cleaned Nokia out of business. I get a sense that Singapore is still paying the price for years of not giving a fuck about your local industry.

It’s true, what the Googlers said. Singapore doesn’t really value its engineers. The problem is the cult of Lee Kuan Yew – not that he was a useless guy, far from it – but he promulgated a great man theory. There was a period of time when he was merely the first among equals, and he should have stayed that way. Anyway, Singapore is a place where all the good things are disproportionately attributed to the managers. And suddenly everybody wants to become a manager and nobody wants to be the engineer. So the govt can say all they want about getting more people to be engineers. But until they let go of the great man theory, everybody will want to be managers and imperial eunuchs.

And yet Singaporeans aren’t actually that great at being managers. For some reason our superior education system, which has trained our primary school students to be the best at science and maths in the world, hasn’t actually created great managers. We always hear people saying that the top positions at the MNCs, even at the regional headquarters in Singapore, need to be staffed by foreigners. I don’t know whether that’s true, or whether it’s their policy not to allow Singaporeans to staff regional headquarters in Singapore. Anyway – you know that’s the hazards of allowing your economy to be dominated by foreigners.

Thing is, I’ve heard the same being said about South Koreans in Samsung. Like, the top positions at Samsung aren’t actually manned by South Koreans. IT’s as though this system, which has made us the best students in the world – at least when it comes to testing – doesn’t do shit for us when it comes to teaching us how to manage. Perhaps not allowing students to think for themselves when they are young kids is really handicapping their mental development. It’s like you’re so busy pumping into the heads of your youngsters shit that doesn’t matter, that they don’t have the time and space to develop themselves in the areas that actually matter. It’s all well and good when you’re grappling with theoretical knowledge and critical thinking. But it’s actually not enough. Sometimes you have to plan your own life, instead of sticking to a timetable that has been drawn up for you by a curriculum planner sitting in an office far removed from you. Sometimes you have to be a little disobedient and question authority. Sometimes you have to not have life planned so nicely for you, and deal with the really really big questions early in life: what am I going to do with my life? Singaporean kids are, generally speaking, not allowed to answer this question by themselves. So while they are good material for entry level jobs, or middle management, they’re not going to excel in being industry leaders.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were practical jokers who got into trouble for disrespecting authority when they were young. You need to build that spirit into people, or at least you need to learn to abstain from destroying that kind of spirit in youngsters.

Same for artists. It isn’t that easy for people to create a new vision. But the same remarks for engineers apply. Basically we are living in a society where anybody other than the top executives are accorded much respect, and that’s wrong.

More importantly, it’s about what Singapore doesn’t need. We don’t need your fucking managers. We don’t need managers who think they know better than the experts. We don’t need them to obstruct the efforts of people who might want to stretch out and go beyond the stated aims of their respective organisations. We don’t need poisonous atmospheres where people have nothing better to do with their lives than to protect their fucking turf all the time.

“The point I am trying to make is that an open, secure, comfortable, family-oriented, and welcoming place, is also a core part of our strategy.” Singapore has always excelled at building infrastructure – building the hardware part. But it’s the software that has often faltered. When I was in school I was made to read the classic sociological study of Silicon Valley, “Regional Advantage” by Anna-Lee Saxenian. After that I wondered whether Singapore was closer to Silicon Valley, or Route 128, which was supposed to be an industrial conglomerate built near MIT, to rival Silicon Valley, but never managed to produce the same level of achievement in the real world.

We lack a few components that were highlighted in the contrast. We lack openness, we lack tolerance for failure. Singapore, with its high cost of living might be intolerant of failure. This may not necessarily be a problem because high tech startup scenes have flourished in places like NYC and Chicago, with their hugely expensive real estates.

Another huge obstacle to there being a flourishing startup scene in Singapore is that we have a culture which actually actively celebrates rent seeking behavior. We love it when people are bankers, and they get rich from exploiting people for labour. We love it when they are rent seekers, who earn money by monopolizing access to certain resources. We’re not that respectful of people who earn money through the fruits of their labour. But as before – if that wasn’t a problem for NYC or Chicago, it shouldn’t be a problem for Singapore.

Also useful to consider are two sociological pillars of Singapore: the HDB and NS. NS may not be anything that you'd ever worry about if you were an employee of a stable business. You get automatic no-pay leave every year to serve your country. But if you were running a start-up, it is intensely disruptive. Losing a partner for two weeks at a time, when you're struggling to stay ahead of the competition is a bit like operating with one hand tied behind your back.

Another rule that's not very conducive towards a start-up scene is the requirement that you cannot apply for a HDB flat and get a subsidy if you're not married or intending to marry. On one hand, this has prevented the HDB from becoming the hell holes that public housing has turned into in other countries. On the other hand, if you've watched "Social Network" you'd know that start-ups are usually housed in garages and bachelor pads, the sort of living arrangement that this "subsidy only for married couples" was designed to prevent.

It’s a little too early to say whether Singapore will succeed or fail in becoming a hot tech start-up location. I’m not that personally well versed in how things operate in Singapore, since I have only worked in a larger organization which happens to use a lot of high tech. I certainly hope that our software part can improve.

Lastly I hope that Vivian Balakrishnan sticks to carrying out meaningful dialogue on the future direction of Singapore instead of making slurs about the gay agenda of certain other politicians.


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