Singapore: The Apple of Nations

The ETHOS Roundtable brings together thought leaders and practitioners to discuss key issues of interest to the public service. In this session, renowned futurist and Global Business Network cofounder Peter Schwartz discusses Singapore's prospects as a young city-state in a future where talent and innovation will determine success.

Date Posted

1 Jan 2010


Issue 7, 14 Jan 2010


Mr Peter Schwartz, Futurist and cofounder of Global Business Network

Ms Quah Ley Hoon, fomer Director, National Population Secretariat

Mr Kwek Mean Luck, Deputy Secretary (Industry), Ministry of Trade and Industry (then Director, Industry Division)


SCHWARTZ: Can a place or an organisation that is new and self-created have what I think of as soul—the kind of soul you find in Paris, with its thousand-year history, or even New York, with several hundred years of layered development and immigration?

There was a book published a number of years ago called The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, about a group of engineers trying to build a new computer a day with an enormous sense of passion. In the new and self-made world of high tech, that passion is the equivalent of soul. There are clearly analogues to Singapore.

In my view, Singapore is the Apple Computer of nations. You go to Apple headquarters and you feel their passion for building something astonishing that will transform the world. If you go to an Apple store, it hums, it's electric, there's passion, there's juice. Everybody who works there wants to be there. Apple reinvented the computer and then the music and telephone industries. The CEO, Steve Jobs is a brilliant leader, reputed to be irascible and difficult to work for, but with a very clear sense of vision and purpose.

The difference between Apple and Singapore is that the people of Singapore don't know how good they have it. They don't know just what a remarkable entity has been created here. They don't share yet that sense of passion that the people at Apple do.

You have to convey to your people, and to your customers and visitors, that you share the same sense of passion for your country. And this is an astonishing country. It is the city of the future, but you need to tell the world. You want people going home from Singapore and say "I want my city to be like Singapore!"

The civil service embodies the values, dynamism and behaviour that make Singapore succeed.

There is a sense that what is possible here is not yet fully realised. It isn't that people are unhappy. Instead, there is the sense that not only are things good, but they have to be better. That is also true at Apple. They keep pushing the frontiers, like in Singapore.

The passion of the people of Singapore is an underutilised resource. Part of the brilliance of your founders is the creation of the civil service, which embodies and keeps alive the values, dynamism and behaviour that make Singapore succeed. In that sense, the single most important institution in your future is the Civil Service College.

In many ways, I think city-states are the future of the world. It doesn't have to be a formal arrangement. The San Francisco Bay Area and New York City are quasi city-states, with a life and management of their own. The great cities of the world are really the engines of change. Already, eight of the ten biggest cities are now in Asia, which is the way it was a thousand years ago. This is where the juice is.

KWEK: Can Singapore be the Apple of commerce and industrial economies, particularly in terms of design and attractiveness? We are building up Singapore not just for tourism but also to draw people, particularly high-end global talent, for at least one to two years and, if possible, to anchor some of them for the long term. Related to this and the question of soul is whether Singapore is importing too many ideas from overseas: Formula One, Integrated Resorts, the Singapore Flyer, attractions which are not intrinsically Singaporean. Do we need our own intellectual property (IP), so to speak, perhaps something that represents the best of both Asia and the West?

SCHWARTZ: But you do have the IP: You know how to run a country! Singapore is a made-up country with a colonial past and without much deep history, unlike many countries in the region. Up until independence, this place was only moderately interesting; it was not by any means the centre of things. Since independence, however, it has become incredibly interesting because of what you've done here. But the thing about great world cities is that they bring the world into the city.

Size should not be a factor in accommodating diversity: Singapore is about the same size as the San Francisco Bay Area.

New York is one of the best examples. You find the whole world represented on almost every street of New York in one way or another. Tokyo, on the other hand, is not a world city: it is Japanese through and through. Shanghai is well on its way to becoming a world city. Beijing is not. Hong Kong is, and Singapore is becoming ever more so. I see this as a distinguishing characteristic of the great cities of the future.

If you look around the world, there are no great modern cities in the tropics except for Singapore. So from that point of view, you have demonstrated that tropical cultures can have highly sophisticated cities. So I think you have a huge opportunity to sell your know-how in managing urban environments. You will be sending your very skilled, able people to manage other cities in the world. You are already doing some of that for your ports and airports. This is also how Singapore will extend its reach; you will be the hub of a network of cities.


QUAH: If Singapore, like Apple, is founded on a clear vision and direction, what happens to those who don't fit into the package or share the particulars of the vision? There will always be a population who cannot leave or be exportable. At the same time, every world city will be bringing in the best people in the world. How do we distinguish Singapore? We do hear a lot, for example, about some who want to stay in Singapore because this is a clean and safe environment for their children, and the country is well managed.

SCHWARTZ: There are a lot of people who do not like a place that is too perfect, too neat, too clean. Creative people want something different. Utopias are boring—they would rather be in some other place that is a little rougher and that's fine. Right now, as a young person growing up somewhere else in the world, you don't think about Singapore as a destination. You think about Shanghai and New York or the Bay Area and maybe London as the place you want to be.

Singapore is not the best place in the world for a single male who would rather be in Amsterdam or somewhere similar. But it is a great place for a family with children and most of the talent of the world is the latter. These are people for whom the opportunities—resources, capability, talent, and the standard of living for them and their family—are vastly better here than anywhere else. They are less interested in New York's East Village. They need a good laboratory and a decent place for their graduate students to work, to meet and so on.

KWEK: We recognise that we are decent at making life good for families. However, we may not be so good at appealing to the creative class that Richard Florida highlights. How critical is it for us to be a home for all these different demographics?

SCHWARTZ: If you're going to be a centre for creativity, you're going to have to be more tolerant of creative people, and they are incredibly diverse. From my point of view, this is a critical weakness in Singapore, whether it be in terms of gay rights or tolerance of physical difference and appearance. Creativity and diversity go hand in hand. Part of what makes the San Francisco Bay Area work is its cultural diversity. If you've got a family with children, you'll probably live in Palo Alto or Atherton and so on. On the other hand, if you're a hip young person, you'll probably live in San Francisco, as that's where the juice is, where the night life is, where your friends hang out.

Singapore is about the same size as the Bay Area, which has a range of manufacturing, services, banking, tourism, and perfectly ordinary middleclass activities; the area covers San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Berkley. So your size should not be a factor in terms of accommodating diversity.

You need to open up the dense middle and give the bottom, particularly young people, an opportunity to participate.

You have done a good job of engaging and attracting talent from elsewhere, particularly in science and technology. But I think part of the strength of Singapore is how deeply engrained the founding values of the country are, including a profound sense of insecurity: the recognition that Singapore is fundamentally vulnerable and that you have to survive on your wits alone. I think this is a profound motivator, and makes people willing to do things they might otherwise not do. People coming to Singapore, such as myself, can never feel that. We come with a different psychology. We think "What a cool and interesting place to be!", and not "What an insecure place to be".

One emerging issue we have identified is the possibility of a sixties-style youth revival in Asia that will challenge the establishment. We see signs of this in China and India. The next generation in Singapore and in Asia could turn out to be very rebellious and progressively stranger.

QUAH: There are home-grown pockets of creativity in Singapore, some of whom have done well around the world. How can we retain, nurture and develop our own distinctive creative talent and innovation, going forward?

SCHWARTZ: You already have the scientists and the engineers, there's no question. The issue is whether you have the next layer of marketing and design— this is where creative culture and the question of tolerance and diversity come into play.

There is also a sense that Singapore is still run with a corporate mentality: top-down, not bottom-up and not highly participatory. There is still energy at the top, but there is a big thick middle that has become conservative, bureaucratic and risk averse, because all the incentives are against rocking the boat. They play by the rules and enforce the rules, and make it hard for anyone at the bottom to find their way or contribute. The high quality of governance and an honest system also means things sometimes get slowed down. More people, more rules, more density leads to the accumulation of a dense fibre of constraint. At the same time, because you have done well, you now have a lot of talent and capability looking for something to do and wanting to make a difference, in a system that already works extremely well. This is a problem of success, not failure. Many big companies have exactly the same issues.

The challenge is to bring back some of the bright young talent who see exciting things happening around the world, and do not have the patience to plod through the bureaucracy for twenty years to get things done. So you need to open up the dense middle and give the bottom, particularly young people, an opportunity to participate.

One idea is to create a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-like outfit to allow for innovation outside the usual stream, where you can experiment and be allowed to fail, which is critical. Create a mini ministry to conduct experiments in governance: How would we run things differently? How would we organise things differently? If you were to invent Singapore today, what would you do? How would you build it? This could be used as a nucleus for innovation elsewhere.

The next generation in Singapore and in Asia could turn out to be very rebellious and progressively stranger.

EDITOR: Does it make sense for Singapore to sponsor something like the Ansari X Prize,1 where we attract innovative solutions to tricky problems? The ideas may not come from us but they come to us because we're the ones who issue the challenge.

SCHWARTZ: It's a good idea and could lead to something. I'm on the board of the Auto X Prize and it's a powerful mechanism to stimulate creativity.

Another useful idea is the MacArthur Fellows Program,2 which are commonly called the Genius Awards. Every year, a secret committee picks 20 to 30 talented individuals who exhibit unusual creativity relatively early in their career, although some are as late as 50, and gives them US$100,000 a year for five years, with no strings attached. Over 800 Fellows have been named since 1981; interestingly enough, there is no common trend in terms of their background or formative environment. The impact of this award has been disproportionately large, in terms of its second order effect and on the creative culture. Singapore could set up something like this award for its own citizens as a low-cost tool to draw out talent.

The ETHOS Roundtable was hosted by Alvin Pang, Editor of ETHOS, in July 2009. Peter Schwartz was in Singapore for a monthlong sabbatical, during which he delivered a New Insights Lecture on "Emerging Strategic Issues and Wild Cards" at the Civil Service College and conducted a number of workshops for scenario planners in the Public Service.


  1. Twenty-six teams from seven countries competed for the US$10 million Ansari X Prize, which in October 2004 was awarded to aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen for building and launching a private spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometres above the earth's surface, twice within two weeks. Since then, there has been more than US$1.5 billion dollars in public and private expenditure in support of the private spaceflight industry.
  2. For more details, see

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