Week 6 — Lessons from Israel (Part I)
Two separate innovation-related narratives have unfolded in parallel this month: (a) the Singapore government has announced a S$400 million Hyundai innovation centre to produce electric cars; and (b) TikTok is moving to a bigger office in Singapore’s financial district, paving the way for it to use Singapore as its beachhead for the rest of Asia.
The first narrative illustrates the stylized manner in which our government is attempting to manufacture innovation, whereas the second narrative reflects the commercial realities forcing TikTok to grow organically around the world—their failure to do so would only result in domestic market cannibalization.
Why did our government intervene in one instance but not in the other? There appears to be a disconnect between the two narratives — a paradox of two opposing truths juxtaposed side by side, even though they are part of the same story. How does Singapore foster a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, without sacrificing the standardization and structure that have traditionally conferred stability onto our society? Are these policy objectives mutually exclusive? Has any attempt been made to reconcile the divergent thinking between the two, or even just to appreciate more than one truth alongside another?
As Thomas Friedman put it 12 years ago, “I would much rather have Israel’s problems, which are mostly financial, mostly about governance, and mostly about infrastructure, than Singapore’s problem because Singapore’s problem is culture-bound.” (From Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, a 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.)
In the Israeli army, soldiers are divided into those who think with a rosh gadol — literally, a “big head” — and those who operate with a rosh katan, or “little head.” Rosh katan behavior, which is scorned, means interpreting orders as narrowly as possible to avoid taking on responsibility or extra work. Rosh gadol thinking means following orders but doing so in the best possible way, using judgment, and investing whatever effort is necessary. It emphasizes improvisation over discipline, and challenging the chief over respect for hierarchy…But everything about Singapore runs counter to a rosh gadol mentality.
This disconnect remains largely intractable today. Singapore differs dramatically from Israel both in its order and insistence on obedience. Fluidity is produced when people can cross boundaries, turn societal norms upside down, and agitate in a free-market economy, all to catalyze radical ideas. Thus, the most formidable obstacle to fluidity is order. A bit of mayhem is not only healthy but critical.
In the local start-up scene, it is a commonplace that we cannot wait for the government to put in place the necessary changes — we have to get the job done ourselves. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that entrepreneurship is the best way to resuscitate our sputtering economy. But governments can’t have foresight for things they refuse to see. In any case, no government changes its course unless there is a crisis. When our government fully awakens to this reality, we’ll be ready, but in the meantime, we shall be the “masters of our own fate” (Invictus, William Ernest Henley).
At the end of the day, we all want Team Singapore to win. It’s not without a twinge of regret when we look behind at what otherwise “could have been”. If we care about the future of Singapore, we can only put our ambivalence to one side and devote ourselves to doing our jobs ferociously well, knowing that the fight isn’t about winning a battle within Singapore, but about winning the war with the competition. Unity is not conformity, and the call to convergence is a call to identifying the forces within us that make convergence so difficult.
“In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.” — Winston Churchill