Alexis Ong: Singapore needs to encourage ‘bad behavior’

Alexis Ong: Singapore needs to encourage ‘bad behavior’

It’s time to shake things up in Singapore if we want to play parent to creative empires like Apple, Google and Facebook. But first we need to overhaul our education system

Singapore is a creative deadsville. Or that’s pretty much the view of Apple’s Steve Wozniak.

In a recent interview with the BBC, he stated that a company like Apple couldn’t “emerge in societies like Singapore where ‘bad behavior is not tolerated’ and people are not taught to think for themselves.” 

At first glance, it made the small pseudo-patriot in me annoyed, but for the most part, the great and mighty Woz speaks the truth.

It's true, Google is setting up in Singapore, but it’s a fancy, shiny new data center.

Fitting, when you reflect on Wozniak’s comments focused mainly on the social limitations of “structured societies” like Singapore, where individuals aren’t truly free to express themselves and experiment with institutional boundaries.

Wozniak’s comments are really a scathing indictment of the Singapore education system, its strictly regimented curriculum and by-rote study techniques that sustain the city’s “formal culture.”

He points out that everybody is “educated,” but clearly the Singaporean education isn’t the kind of education that gives rise to the people like Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg.

Of course, these guys also attended “big name” Ivy League schools (albeit for a short time), but the notoriously brand-conscious Singapore mindset makes the mistake of equating names like Stanford and Harvard with success.

Brin and Zuckerberg are proof that it’s not about where you get your education, but how you go about using it.

This mindset is cultivated from youth. But in Singapore, where children are streamed into different academic tracks and under pressure to get into a reputable school before the age of 12, the push to conform is enormous.

Wozniak made a couple of suggestions when he was here in March as a guest speaker for a government-organized Driving Innovation Excellence talk.

One of his more memorable points was that it is more important to “motivate students to learn than to teach them things.”

Doing this involves a lot more work on the educators’ part to get students to become self-motivated to resolve out-of-the-box problems and create new things. 

This isn’t going to happen with the current status quo. The way parents have to groom and prep their kids for legions of standardized tests and exams is too deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

And to fix these micro-problems, one would have to rehaul and rejig society here from a very basic, very fundamental nuts-and-bolts level.

So, no more campaigns telling people what to do, and how to do it. No more self-explanatory signs telling people to flush the toilet or not to pee in the elevator.

If Britain is the nanny state, we’re amah city.

Bottom line: creativity isn’t something that can be enforced, taught or bought.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t creativity going on in Singapore, but Wozniak’s main point was that a creative titan like Apple could never emerge out of these conditions.

None of this is breaking news. The real lesson that Singapore needs to absorb is that individualism isn’t bad … and we shouldn’t have to have someone tell us that for it to kick in.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Alexis Ong.


Alexis Ong has a degree she doesn't use, but can read, write, and do some arithmetic. She's spent the last few years in Singapore and previously lived in New York and Boston.

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