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Letter to SG Perm Secs

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Sep. 28th, 2010 | 11:12 am

I was invited to lunch earlier this month with a couple of Singapore Permanent Secretaries, for Manpower and for Public Service under the PMO. We had a great time chatting and I reaffirmed my positive impression of the calibre of Singapore's public sector leadership.

Today, I finally got round to sending them a thank-you letter:

Thank you very much for inviting me to lunch. I enjoyed our conversation thoroughly. Lionel has invited me to speak at the CSC and I look forward to the opportunity.

I had a few thoughts following from our discussion. May I share them?


We observed at lunch that our fertility rate is now 1.22.

One of my friends, a born-and-bred white-collar Singaporean in her early thirties, married with no children and no intention of having them, commented that some species just don't breed in captivity. And when I flew in to Changi the other night, I drove past HDB flats with fluorescent lights blazing in every corridor even at 1am, and I thought to myself: don't they keep hens under lights, too, to maximize egg productivity?

Or maybe the birth rate would go up if MDA stopped blocking playboy.com, who knows. :)


More seriously though, a low birthrate is currently conceived as a problem. But why not reframe it as an opportunity? One of the chief causes of entrepreneurial risk aversion is the need to support a mortgage and family. But if Gen X and Gen Y are opting out of the gene pool, let's respect that choice; maybe they're not failed breeders: instead they're latent entrepreneurs and investors. All the money that would ordinarily be budgeted on children can go towards entrepreneurship. SDU's loss could be EDB's gain!

There is a larger issue here. We live on an overpopulated planet, and sooner or later we will have to find sustainable economic models that are not premised on population growth.


In the same way that China and the US hope to reap economic benefits from embracing clean energy, I believe Singapore can pioneer a model of sustainable economic growth that aligns with zero population growth – not necessarily here, but globally. If the native population with their excellent educations and economic stressors do not reproduce, we bring in immigrants to make up the difference. Sure, the high-end immigrants tend not to reproduce either. But is that really a problem? The world is a big place, and we can keep skimming the cream for a very long time. In fact it's cheaper: they come already educated and start paying taxes right away.

I was re-reading Richard Florida the other day and Singapore has done a lot of things right since his first book came out.

The irony of anti-immigrant sentiment is obvious: the objectors wouldn't be here but for immigration. I would be perfectly happy to see the new face of Singapore look whiter, browner, or yellower than it is today. Would we rather have a meritocracy or a bumiputra policy? It's a tough choice, but I trust our leadership to make it. The world is flat and survival today demands the same kind of tough-mindedness as the first generation displayed fifty years ago. The cells in our bodies are constantly being replaced, but shapes of our bodies, and our souls, stay the same...


Speaking of immigration politics: we already have NMPs. What's stopping us from giving PRs and guest workers the right to vote for non-citizen MPs?

Even if they had only a voice but no vote, an NCMP could still represent their constituencies in Parliament, and it would send a strong message to people inside and outside Singapore that we respect foreign talent. Guest workers deserve protection, and PRs deserve representation, especially the ones who have been here for years but haven't taken the final step of citizenship. This is the 21st century and citizenship doesn't need to be all-or-nothing. After a few years, when the novelty has worn off, the lines between guest worker, "local", and foreign talent would be thoroughly blurred, and I think that would be for the better. True, there are some logistical challenges in administering the constituencies, but if Facebook can manage 500 million users flowing in and out of their systems, surely Singapore can manage 5.

(I got the idea for NCMPs from George Friedman's book The Next 100 Years.)


If you'd like to meet the geeks and technopreneurs who I personally consider the new face of Singapore, I'd be happy to show you around hackerspace.sg one of these evenings. The members come from all over the world: Seattle, New York, and California, but also Austria, South Africa, Cuba, and Hungary. They've all moved to Singapore in search of opportunity and if we want to encourage an equal entrepreneurship among our native talent, the least we can do is level the playing field for our scholars, already disadvantaged by NS, by encouraging them to come back and work for startups, not just big MNCs.

By the way, I've been visiting the local IHLs to encourage the ICT/IDM schools to teach a more startup-friendly curriculum. Many of them have incubators on campus but teach only those programming languages that are suited for big banks, so there's a bit of a disconnect. Yesterday I met with the deputy principals of Ngee Ann Poly and Singapore Poly; next I will meet Temasek and Republic and engage further with their IT faculties and entrepreneurship development departments.

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Comments {2}

Letter to Perm Sec

from: preetharam
date: Oct. 30th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)

Enjoyed your tongue in cheek humor, particularly the comparison to hen houses or egg incubators.

Teaching entrepreneurship is a challenging task and one that as you rightly point out, should start at school. I recently tweeted a Guy Kawasaki interview where he talks on entrepreneurship education in Singapore (among other things http://wp.me/poXJz-1H). He says kids in Singapore are taught that the bright light at the end of the road is a job in the government or MNC, not the messy entrepreneur startup founder.

Will be in Singapore to see for myself.

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apropos birthrates

from: murli184
date: Jan. 24th, 2011 06:10 am (UTC)

On the baby question, while the macroeconomists and policymakers look at the 20,000 feet view and conclude that it's about lack of time and money, I prefer to look ground up. How many of my peers (I'm a little younger than you) are married, let alone thinking of making babies? Not that many. Many aren't even dating anyone. Why? They aren't thinking, "how will I ever make enough money to buy baby formula?" That's so far down the road that I find it laughable that that's the usually attributed reason for the low baby-count. I think it's a combination of:

- high expectations in mates, at least in part driven by the media
- fickleness and flightiness even after acquiring a mate
- people feeling and acting like they've reached adulthood later in life than previous generations. There was an NY Times article about this some time back. Dashed if I can find it again.
- just an active choice that making babies (and more generically, living a 'programmed' life) isn't the be-all-end-all and a realisation that there are several possible paths through life

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