Subba’s Serendipitous moments

January 4, 2010

Looking backward, looking forward

Filed under: Learning,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 11:34 pm
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Having lived all my life on the edge, I am kind of used to the vicissitudes of life and have taken it in remarkable stride. By all standards 2009 was a very difficult year as I found myself helpless or vulnerable at some very crucial moments. Now, 2010 appears to be challenging — a new environment and a different set of expectations. And since challenge is something that I have always thrived on, it should be exciting.

Last couple of weeks I had no human contact or access to an electronic network. I was practically shut out from the outside world. It was rich solitude barring the chatter and noise from the deeper self. It gave me time to build new perspectives and perhaps shed some old ones.


Clearly, five key passions either individually or some combination has governed my life: the longing for understanding and love, the urge to learn constantly and pass the learning to others, the drive for personal excellence and to build excellence around me, the deep empathy for the underprivileged and finally a sense of fairness to others even in the most intense conflict.


These five passions have driven me to unknown stations in life, thrown me amidst deep chaos, and yet helped me emerge stronger and more rooted to life, growth and humanity.


I longed for understanding and love, because at a deep level, I am a loner despite my extrovert self. I am a solitary thinker and learn independently. Understanding relieved the loneliness and the occasional feeling of love moderated the rebel in me.


Learning came naturally though I despised formal learning approaches. I was always intrigued by the ambiguous and the dichotomous, the interface areas between two disciplines and the process of discovery . That explains the number of posts on learning here. I also cannot contain my enthusiasm to share what I have discovered.


The pursuit of excellence served as an elixir for growth and discovery. I have often got upset when some people routinely chose to be mediocre without even examining the trade-offs.


While the above helped me soar, the sufferings of the deprived and the underprivileged held me to the ground. Their pain often brought tears to my eyes. I could empathize with their state and reach out to them. Whenever I saw them struggle them to break out of their circumstances, they inspired me. I just wanted to be a catalyst in some way to help them in their endeavor.


A sense of fairness has always governed every action even if I have to deal with conflict. Perhaps I am intrinsically cognizant of the law of karma!


As I said earlier I passed through some big challenges last year and in a way felt compelled to review my passions. The solitary sojourn was a great opportunity. I realized that the law of unintended consequences applies to personal passions as well. Delving deeply, I discovered the following:


I have been naive that by discussing people’s weaknesses and/or the system’s weaknesses and showing them a better path, I would contribute to a better individual, community or organization. I have learnt now that people have interests, beliefs, biases and prejudices that, once firmly entrenched, are not easily dislodged– and certainly not by logic or even by evidence. My role is to do my best, understand my boundaries and respect their mental orientation


Yes, people do change their minds, but experience has more influence than even the best argument.


Helping people change their minds is more art than science. As a change artiste, I need to have a lot more tools in my repertoire.

Many people would rather live with a problem they can’t solve rather than adopt a solution which (they think) is risky.

Pragmatism often decides people’s choices. And sometimes the pursuit of excellence is too high a price to pay for pragmatism. The same is true for honesty and sincerity. My role at best is to highlight the tradeoffs and not champion my values.


I just have to accept that the longing for understanding especially the philosophical and emotional dimensions of an issue combined with the pursuit of excellence have led me to be overbearing. Some have benefited, but quite a few have been bruised. I am only fortunate that I managed to keep this streak under control whenever I wore the counselor’s mantle or took on a coaching responsibility.


For me, the passions– no matter how contentious or futile– has a stand-alone meaning. It is called freedom. As I start the new year I hope to improve my awareness and understand the boundary conditions better.


Hopefully the world will follow Kahlil Gibran’s dictum: To understand the heart and mind of a person look not at what he has already achieved (or failed), but at what he aspires to do.

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October 1, 2009

Swami Viekananada and John Rockefeller

Filed under: Business,Learning,Perspective,Stories — Subbaraman Iyer @ 2:07 pm
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When visiting Chicago, Swami Vivekananda stayed in the house of a businessman who was an associate of John D. Rockefeller. Many times had Mr. Rockefeller heard his friends talking about an extraordinary and wonderful Hindu monk, and many times he had been invited to meet Swamiji but always refused.

At that time Rockefeller was not yet at the peak of his fortune, but was already powerful and strong-willed, a hard man to advise. One day, on a whim, the millionaire briskly walked through the door and said he wanted to see the Hindu monk. Swami Vivekananda, who was behind his writing table, did not even lift his eyes when the magnate entered the study room. In their ensuing conversation, Swami told Rockefeller secrets about his past that Rockefeller alone knew. Then, Swami boldy explained that God had given him all his wealth in order that he might have an opportunity to help people and do good.

Annoyed that someone dared to tell him what to do, Rockefeller stormed out. Coming back a week later, he brought plans to donate an enormous sum of money to charity. This was Rockefeller’s first large donation to the public welfare. “Well, there you are,” he said to Vivekananda, “You can thank me for it.” Swamiji then said softly, “No sir, it is for you to thank me.”

source: The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 9

August 3, 2009

Be yourself

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” — Chinese proverb.

I can’t think of a more simple, yet a deep truth. I was discussing my earlier blog post with 2 of my friends. Both believed that to be successful one should adapt, which means constantly changing oneself to circumstances. And if one has to change, one has to let go one’s true self. I will write my response to their observations in a separate post, but for now, I just want to do a follow up post which hopefully should clarify my stance.

I think most of us have a tendency to sell ourselves in situations even when we faintly perceive that we are being evaluated or judged. We worry too much about who we think we should be, instead of just being who we are. We over-value what we aren’t and undervalue what we are.

Regardless of where, when, or why of any situation, we should always be ourselves. I am specifically referring to a staying true to one’s principles and faith. The challenging part of this that there will be times when we need to challenge ourselves from a personality standpoint. We cannot just say, “Well, that’s the way, I am”. We all have such opportunities to challenge ourselves in matters of ability, growth, mental models and even beliefs. I say this with a smirk because I can tell from experience that it isn’t easy, though it may sound so.

People miss the amazing leverage that can come into play when they do buy into their vision for their own life and determining what’s preventing themselves from achieving it.

Death isn’t the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside of us while we live.

July 27, 2009

When intuition outsmarts rationality

In October 2001, a fire crew was fighting a fire in a disused bingo hall in Leicester in the UK. Even though it was big, the fire chief decided it was safe enough to send the crew into the building.

They were starting to make progress in knocking the fire down when the fire chief decided something was wrong, and ordered his team out of the building. The team protested, unwilling to give up the progress they had made. But the fire chief insisted and as they exited the building it exploded in a massive fireball. If the decision to evacuate hadn’t been made the entire team would have been killed.

It turns out that the fire was one of the rarest and most dangerous phenomenon in firefighting – a backdraft. The fire chief had never experienced a backdraft before, he just knew that something was wrong and they needed to get out. In the ensuing investigation it turns out there were three things that were unusual: the smoke was more orange than usual, air was rushing into the building rather than out of it, and the fire was unusually quiet. The fire chief was right in his decision, he just didn’t know why at the time.

Well, all is well, that ends well.

But let’s take a moment and reflect what could have happened to the same event in a different set of circumstances. Assume that the fire chief was not the decision maker but he had to refer the decision to his boss.

There was clearly no evidence that something unusual was underway and that the teams were in disagreement with the fire chief. The teams were actually making progress and were engaged in a great endeavor to put out the fires. Normal rational thinking would have demanded that the boss would overrule the fire chief. The firemen would continue to fight the fire and the entire team would have been killed.

An investigation would have ensued and the decision would have been termed as rational and the whole thing written off as a terrible tragic accident.

July 16, 2009

Accept your true self and be happy.

A plum once said, just because a banana lover came by, I converted myself into a banana. Unfortunately, his taste changed after a few months and so I became an orange. When he said I was bitter I became an apple, but he went in search of grapes. Yielding to the opinions of so many people, I have changed so many times that I no more know who I am. How I wish I had remained a plum and waited for a plum lover.

Just because a group of people do not accept you as you are, there is no necessity for you to strip yourself of your originality. You need to think good of yourself, for the world takes you at your own estimate. Never stoop down in order to gain recognition. Never let go of your true self to win a relationship. In the long run, you will regret that you traded your greatest glory – your uniqueness, for momentary validation. Even Gandhi was not accepted by many people. The group that does not accept you as you is not your world.

There is a world for each one of you, where you shall reign as king / queen by just being yourself. Find that world… in fact, that world will find you.

What water can do, gasoline cannot and what copper can, gold cannot. The fragility of the ant enables it to move and the rigidity of the tree enables it to stay rooted. Everything and everybody has been designed with a proportion of uniqueness to serve a purpose that we can fulfill only by being our unique self. You as you alone can serve your purpose and I as I alone can serve my purpose.

You are here to be you… just you.

There was a time in this world when a Krishna was required and he was sent; a time when a Christ was required and he was sent; a time when a Mahatma was required and he was sent; a time when a Einstein was required and he was sent. There came a time when you were required on this planet and hence you were sent. Let us be the best we can be. Don’t miss yourself and let the world not miss you.

In the history of the universe, there has been nobody like you and to the infinite of time to come, there will be no one like you. Existence should have loved you so much that it broke the mould after making you, so that another of your kind will never get repeated. You are original. You are rare. You are unique. You are a wonder. You are a masterpiece. .. your Master’s piece. Celebrate your Uniqueness.

June 27, 2009

In Government spin zone

In the times we live, the quality of a first rate mind is to be able to identify spin. The only negative side effect is that in the process one gets labeled as cynical. What was once purely seen as creating an image to put a sheen on performance, has now degenerated into an orchestrated spin often to substitute performance.

The best way to do spin on a co-operating and conniving media is to use data. Since the art of spin was invented in the U.S. let’s start there:

The data dished out indicates that continuous claims for unemployment benefits dropped. The naive reader would be led to believe that job creation is happening and unemployment is declining. The reality however is that once continuous claims are made, the recipients drop out of the claims rolls. This is confirmed by my economist friend — Dr. Ananth in his column as well. So, the drop in unemployment claims has nothing to do with generating jobs. This disclaimer is not stated even in the fine print.

The US non-farm economy lost only 345,000 jobs in May though it was expected to lose 500,000. One just inflates the “expected” figures and when the real number comes it is seen as better than expected, notwithstanding the fact that even the real numbers are high.

The flurry of visits to China by important officials in the Obama administration goes beyond the apparent significance. The US Treasury Secretary’s visit and before that the U.S. Foreign Secretary’s visit reiterating their U.S. was committed to a strong U.S. dollar is laughable. This is crude spin at best.

The U.S. is the biggest debtor and China has no choice but to accumulate U.S. dollar assets and suffer erosion of value as its currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar. As long as U.S. outsources its manufacturing to China, and as long as vested interests dictate that China’s economy has to be export driven, a weak U.S. dollar serves both sides. The U.S. keeps asking China to revalue its currency is nothing but a meaningless side show. Another case of spin.

The reality is that job creation in the U.S. since 2000 has been very low, and yet to keep the economy expanding the interest rates were kept low which created the asset bubble. We saw the repercussions of the asset bubble. Despite the bubble and the meltdown, China didn’t seize the opportunity to build a domestic economy. It simply increased the export rebates and boosted manufacturing capacity. Making the shift from export driven economy (which helped China taste success) to a domestic economy is akin to making the step from a state led economy to a market led economy. The present Chinese ruling elite has chosen to postpone the inevitable.

So, to keep up with the fact that Governments are doing something and that the economy is recovering we are entering the “spin zone”. Markets have rallied sharply since March 2009 and this is often cited as saying that all the stimulus spending is working. President Obama’s stimulus may become the cause of another bubble.

However if there’s more transparency and if the governments follow the principles of Government 2.0, by sharing all data and empowering citizens, it would be hard pressed to reveal the truth and curtail the spin.

Investors like bubbles. Media, to be relevant loves them. And Governments these days are too willing to generate one. And did I say that getting firmly entrenched in the “spin zone” and expanding the zone is often the first step.

I would certainly like to hear about the other spins that the Government puts across.

June 21, 2009

Will Singapore learn the lessons from the financial crisis?

Just finished reading Daniel Gross’s book, Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation. It is available as an e-book too. It is a book that I recommend to all executives and civil servants who are responsible for developing policy and strategy because it is important to place emphasis on perception tools as much as we do for analytical tools. There are similarities between the actors in the dumb money operation and in the Singapore civil service.

Dan writes:

“The Dumb Money creed rested on four pillars: perpetually low interest rates, perpetually rising asset prices (especially for housing), borrowers of all types remaining perpetually current, and perpetually strong markets for debt. The high priests of this cult were the nation’s central bankers.

In 2007 and 2008, each of the pillars of Dumb Money began to crumble. The rules of physics still applied to finance. Interest rates, it turned out, could rise. Asset prices could, indeed, fall. Borrowers, having seen no income growth in a decade, fell behind on their debts. All of which helped cause the markets for securitizing debt and derivatives to break down”

The people who blew up the system weren’t anarchists. They were members of the club: central bankers and private-equity honchos, hedge-fund geniuses and Ph.D. economists, CEOs and investment bankers. And the (overwhelmingly legal) con they perpetuated on themselves, their colleagues, their shareholders and creditors, and, ultimately, on us taxpayers makes Madoff’s sins look like child’s play.”

Looking back, the investors who believed the stories told by Madoff and Stanford—that they could deliver steady, positive, market-beating returns in any type of climate, despite the manifest failure of virtually every other money manager to do so—were obviously foolish. But our best financial minds also spun tales and theories with great assurance, making seemingly irrational and unprecedented activity seem completely sensible. And we bought them.”

So, Why do the best and brightest get it so wrong? One easy way to explain it is here.

The arrogance of power. Combine that with great wealth, quick progress, a group think syndrome, limited thinking style and big responsibility at a relatively immature age and you have a potent mix. It invariably leads to hubris. Hubris was typically responsible for the downfall of heroes in Greek tragedy.

In addition, people in positions of great power and/or wealth will often interact primarily with people like them, both at work and in their social life, most of whom share a similar world view. They start believing that they are the only ones who understand what is going on and what needs to be done. Everyone who disagrees with them is just plain wrong or worse downright stupid. When problems occur, they tend to circle the wagons and become even more isolated.

Now Singapore’s civil servants are intelligent people, but they have become ensconced in their ivory towers. There is too much group think and there is rarely a marketplace where ideas compete. Most Ministers and civil servants come from the same elitist institutions and often have a tendency to very much function like a club. I do not know how much debate happens during the cabinet meetings, but after observing Parliament proceedings closely I have rarely seen a good debate or alternate viewpoints being pursued.

More importantly, having seen civil servants and executives in Ministries and statutory boards interact, the “group think” syndrome just continues to strengthen because they don’t want to be left out of the club. Worse, any alternate view is interpreted as a challenge to the authority, not just to a point of view. Has kowtowing the superior become the SOP (standard operating procedure) or is it a “survive and grow” strategy or worse the natural default behavior? With so many Minsters and civil servants coming from the military side, I would not be surprised if compliance fetches a better premium than creativity.

The Singapore media has never had a track record of triggering new ideas or debating current ideas. It has always served to propagate official thinking and giving it a spin.

Now, can the top honcho always get it correct? And what’s the risk of his reading the situation wrong or coming up with the sub-optimal solution? I shudder to think.

If the financial crisis has one thing to teach the Singapore government and civil service, it is that systemic failures of massive proportions are possible. And the best and the brightest (in Singapore they are judged when they are 18 years old based predominantly by their school leaving scores) with their group think cannot be the fountainhead of wisdom.

Wisdom and government dominance have been strange bedfellows. And incompatible too.

June 16, 2009

Why do smart people do stupid things?

This has always been intriguing. I always thought that it was perhaps the smart people do things on the spur of the moment. Courtesy my friend Shekhar Gupta, I understood that intelligence and rationality are different. Once one understand this concept, it is easy to understand why smart people can do stupid things.

Think of the mind as having 3 parts:

Autonomous mind that engages in problematic cognitive shortcuts or “Type-1” processing. The mind jumps to the first available solution automatically and without any conscious control.

Algorithmic mind that engages in Type -2 processing — the slow laborious thinking, often leading to analysis paralysis.

Reflective mind that decides when to make do with the judgments of the autonomous mind and when to call the algorithmic mind.

The reflective mind determines how rational a person is. When and how one’s reflective mind springs into action is determined by a number of behavioral attributes including whether one is dogmatic, flexible, open minded and so so. Most importantly it also depends on whether one has fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

An inflexible mindset or a fixed mindset person has trouble assimilating new information and hence invariably ends up force fitting the problem to the solution that he has in his head. And then even though he is smart, he is lazy to find a better solution.

This article provides a succinct analysis. For a thought provoking analysis I strongly recommend reading Carol Dweck’s book. It is bound to influence any thinker. For a very entertaining yet thought provoking book that can significantly change your perspective, I recommend reading Dan Ariely’s book — Predictably irrational.

Have you known of any smart thinkers doing stupid things?

June 9, 2009

Singapore’s research and development needs a major rethink

Amongst the few Singapore civil servants I hold in great esteem for their clarity, sense of purpose, courage to stand up for what is right, one of them is Ngiam Tong Dow. He was the Perm Sec of the Ministry of Finance and the PMO . During the last few years, he has written some excellent pieces on the Singapore policy making process, governance, current quality of civil servants and other topics.

I have always found his writings thought provoking as he judiciously blends the philosophical with the pragmatic. There is always some clear takeaways from his writings. I wish I could chat with him and pick his erudite mind for some of the public policy dilemma that I have not been able to understand or reconcile with.

Mr. Ngiam in his usual characteristic style hints that Singapore’s R&D sector needs a rethink. He doesn’t dwell much on it neither does he make any specific suggestions.

But as I see a lot ails the R&D sector, especially in the IT area which I understand well. Here’s the record: Despite having a IT R&D sector for close to 20 years, and having spent hundreds of millions of dollars, the R&D sector has produced nothing to be even remotely proud of. There was the ITI, the ISS, JSAIC, CWC, just to name a few. They all had grandiose visions, programs, and ample funding. Then they were merged, combined, they took on new names and yet after 20 years, not a single technology, product, process, framework or anything worthwhile which the industry could use has come out of the labs. It was always a small “r” and a big “D”, and even there, the results have been dismal.

It may be ironical that the 2 best private sector firms that Singapore produced — Creative and Hyflux did their own R&D outside Singapore — the former in the U.S. and the latter in China as Mr. Ngiam points out. I met the CTO of Creative a few years back and he smiled indulgently when the talk about Singapore R&D sector came up.

Yet the Government focuses on R&D and each year their budgets have gone up. It is sad that the metrics of R&D performance is still predominantly input driven and no one is accountable for the outputs.

The only thing that I would like to ask Mr. Ngiam is how long will the Ministry of Finance continue to be satisfied with input metrics in the R&D category and when will it look for active output metrics. If companies like 3M, Microsoft, DuPont, P&G as well as some of the university labs are moving towards zero based budgeting, output driven metrics and clear directions for R&D effort, why is Singapore Inc not emulating them?

For those interested, Mr. Ngiam’s entire article is reproduced below. It makes very interesting reading.

June 6, 2009

FINANCE MINISTRY’S 50TH YEAR

Building more world-class S’pore firms

By Ngiam Tong Dow

THE year 1959 was a fateful one for Singapore. It was granted self-government by the British after 140 years of colonial rule. Other than foreign affairs and defence, the new Singapore Government led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew was free to pursue its own social and economic policies.

Mr Lee chose Dr Goh Keng Swee, the only economist in his team, to be our first finance minister. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) was housed in Fullerton Building. The General Post Office occupied the ground floor; MOF occupied the second to fifth floors.

As MOF alumni, we can be proud of belonging to the pioneering team, led by the inspiring Dr Goh, our minister, and by the late Mr Hon Sui Sen, our permanent secretary. We worked our guts out to pull the economy out of stagnation.

The Finance Ministry that Dr Goh established was not your traditional Treasury. Together with Mr Hon, he created the Economic Development Division to spearhead our economic development. The Economic Development Board (EDB) was set up as the operating arm of this division, tasked with finding jobs for the thousands of young students pouring out of our schools each year.

The EDB was given a grant of $100 million to get going. In return for the freedom to operate, its performance was continuously assessed. It was rated on outcomes more than outputs. The EDB chairman had to report annually the dollar value of the foreign direct investments committed to Singapore. He still does.

MOF’s fiscal policy has always been to stimulate growth through investment. As Permanent Secretary (Budget), I accorded higher priority to the development over the recurrent budget. The development budget invests for the future. In the early stages, the development budget was spent mainly on building infrastructure.

Over the last 50 years, we have seen Singapore’s budget priorities move from physical infrastructure to defence capability and now, education and training.

Though we are not totally free of ‘white elephant’ boo-boos, MOF’s track record in allocating scarce capital is good. Our current revenue was enough to pay for both operating as well as development expenditure. If the Government were a private corporation, we would have been able to finance all our capital expenditure without a cent of debt.

Was Singapore’s MOF more virtuous than our counterparts elsewhere? The fact of the matter is that we did what we did because we had no alternative. Without oil or other natural resources, budget surpluses and CPF savings were our only sources for accumulating reserves. Except in extremis, reserves are not intended to be spent on rainy days of the business cycle. The fundamental role of reserves is to serve as backing for our currency. A stable and convertible Singapore dollar is our lifeline to international trade on which our very survival depends.

In spite of the immense pressures exerted by the rest of Government on the MOF, I would be wary of dipping into our reserves to tide us over the troughs of business cycles. I remember the first global oil crisis of 1972. Mr Hon, by then Minister for Finance, refused to subsidise consumption. He thought it better for Singapore to swallow the medicine of inflation in one gulp. The cost of living index stabilised within 18 months.

MOF’s mission as guardian of the national budget will be more challenging in the future. For instance, before we can decide on how to allocate the research budget, we need to have some idea of the knowledge domains that Singapore has a more than even chance to compete in. Is it biotechnology, nano-engineering, solar energy or something else?

Spending on R&D in my view is too narrow a focus as a growth strategy. In any case, we do not have the breadth and depth of talent to compete successfully with the Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Russians, and in the near future, the Chinese and Indians.

We may be able to hire a few superstars to head our research institutions. But a Nobel laureate cannot work in isolation. He or she needs teams of young researchers to do the basic experiments. Young PhDs in China work for a fraction of the wages we pay our young dons at our two research universities. Ms Oliver Lum of Hyflux told me that the core membrane research work of her company was done at Hyflux laboratories in China.

Rather than pursuing high science whatever the cost, we may have to adopt a less lofty approach. We should ask ourselves: What are the knowledge domains we can excel in?

Singapore has a fair track record in building townships, industrial parks, container ports, submersible oil rigs, vocational and technical education and water treatment installations like Hyflux. As the example of Singapore Airlines shows, it is possible to build up a world-scale Singapore company on our own. SIA’s founding board had no foreign director or CEO.

The way forward for us is to have the guts to build another 25 world-scale ‘SIAs’ in the knowledge domains where we have a competitive advantage.

I learnt many lessons in economic policymaking from Dr Albert Winsemius, Singapore’s first Economic Adviser. The most valuable lesson he taught me was that you have to do the things that matter yourself.

After pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps in the pioneering years, we now outsource the CEO jobs to foreign talent. The irony is that when trouble looms, the foreign CEO just dusts off the seat of his pants and walks away with his sign-off bonus negotiated when he first signed on.

I refuse to believe that the Singaporean has so lost confidence in himself.

The pyramids of Egypt were built by the Pharoahs’ Hebrew slaves. The Egyptian Pharoenic race is now lost in antiquity. The Jewish Hebrew nation continues to thrive.

Quo Vadis Singapore? The above is an excerpt of a speech Mr Ngiam, a former senior civil servant, delivered yesterday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ministry of Finance.

May 24, 2009

Singapore and Israel — a study of contrasts

I had a chance meeting with a NUS don and we ended up discussing my post on whether East Asia can produce a Susan Boyle. While remaining neutral about the arguments that I put forth, he mentioned the reason about Singapore being “small”.

I have heard the argument of Singapore being “small” ad nauseam. Singapore uses that as a convenient excuse whenever there’s a short coming or if they have to justify any hard measure to contain order. They also use it to explain away many of the things where they have come short. But, if you turn around and ask them how Singapore achieved some wonderful things in specific areas despite its small size, the discussion has veered off into a different direction.

Size and stability may be good, but lack of size and stability is not a deterrent to be successful. This reminds me of the famous lines in the old classic The Third Man: ” For 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

To serious skeptics, I usually cite Israel (population of 7.2 million) as an example.

Israel since its independence in 1948 has fought a several wars with its neighbors. It is always in a state of military preparedness. Yet it ranks highest in terms of human development, freedom of the press and economic competitiveness amongst Middle East countries. It is a parliamentary democracy and the average span of Israeli government of 22 months. The governments have often changed for a number of reasons — political scandals, peace process with their neighbors and the role of religion. It has the highest level of civil and human rights comparable to any Western world democracy and the freedom of press has been ranked highest amongst the Southwest regions.

Economically it is rated 3rd in the World Economic Forum’s Global competitiveness report. It has the 2nd largest number of startups after the US and the most number of companies listed in NASDAQ. Many of the large technology vendors like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco have advanced development centers in Israel.

Contrary to the Singaporean thinking, the Israelis have used the small size of Israel as an advantage. A Israeli start up knows that is home market is limited and hence function as a “mini-multinational” from day one. A surprising thing among Israelis is that they are never scared of failure and if 5% of the start ups in US are headed by repeat entrepreneurs, in Israel the ratio is well over around 30%.

Now coming to creative arts, Israel music has influences from all over the world. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has been operating for over 70 years and performs over 200 concerts each year. It also has a vibrant theatre scene.

How does one explain these successes in so many diverse fields despite its size and lack of peace? My view is their ability to be an inclusive society and they valuing diversity. All Jews irrespective of their lineage are welcome and they constitute 75% of the population. Muslims are the largest minority and it equally welcomes Christians.

The difference between Singapore and Israel was neatly summed up by Guy Kawasaki in one of his recent visits to Singapore. He called Singapore an one-opinion town. His precise words were: Israel has 5 million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions. Singapore has 5 million people, six entrepreneurs and one opinion. Yesterday Lydia Lim a political correspondent from Straits Times referred to this difference, but only to defend Singapore and make a statement that Singapore has more than one opinion.

Her effort was painstaking, but what she ended up doing was only to reinforce the Singapore’s stability mantra which gives the society the order, but fails to deliver the innovation and creativity that Singapore badly needs in these times of global slowdown.

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