Global Cosmopolis?

The past days, Singapore seems to be under the spell of Global Entrepolis @ Singapore, a gathering of entrepreneurs, technopreneurs and the ‘venture capital community’. Here, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong outlined a strategy to power Singapore’s economic growth through innovation. The strategy is to enlarge Singapore’s economic space through free trade agreements, education, and research and development.

“Some people believe in the old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Here in Singapore, our belief is ‘innovate or vegetate’. We break the old mould when faced with a different situation and innovate to stay ahead,” Mr Goh said. Mr Goh said a culture which encourages risk-taking and tolerant of mistakes is critical to innovation. But he admitted this will not happen overnight.

Singapore has done a remarkable job the past decades. It has turned into one of the most prosperous nations in Asia. It is also seen as an embodiment of the ‘knowledge for development’ thinking and a model country for future knowledge economies and societies. The country has been very successful in making the transition from low wage industrial production to a high tech economy.

It has done so under tight controls on public speech and political activity. And maybe thanks to this tight control it has been able to emulate western models and mould them into a Singaporean version of the knowledge society. However, also the Singaporean government recognises that this has its limits. In a 2003 article in TIME Asia it was already stated that:

Singapore’s “nanny-state” technocrats recognize that imposing a Silicon Valley-like mind-set on the population through social engineering won’t be easy. “We cannot create entrepreneurs,” says Lee, Singapore’s founding father. “We can only facilitate their emergence.”

The article then points to some examples where the government is creating ‘little Bohemias’ and is experimenting with relaxing rules in relation to artistic expressions, alternative lifestyles and homosexuality. Two years further however, artistic and political expression seems to be still under attack. This becomes clear in the case of the investigation of Singaporean film maker Martyn See for a political documentary called ‘Singapore Rebel’. Would Martyn See agree that a culture which encourages risk-taking and tolerance is critical to innovation?

The bigger question here is whether it will also be economically necessary for the Singaporean government to relax its rules vis-à-vis political activity and social criticism. In other words: to what extent is a critical attitude in society – and also in academia – a necessary precondition for what we call a knowledge society? No entrepolis without the cosmopolis?    

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