HAVE YOU EVER gazed at a distant star at night and find that when you focus on it, it disappears? That’s because when you look directly at it rather than askance, the dim light falls on the cone cells in the centre of your retina which are not as sensitive to light as the rod cells on the periphery.

I’m not about to take detour into the realm of biology. I cite this phenomenon only because there is a striking similarity to the PAP’s effort to kindle productivity and innovation on this island.

In its typically dogmatic approach, the government ring-fences the problem and proceeds to throw money at it, not realising that – going back to my celestial analogy – it is making the error of staring directly at the star; no matter how long and hard it stares, it is not going to see Little Twinkle.

Productivity and innovation are products of a mindset – and not just the mindset of a few individuals but that of the larger society. In other words, culture.

This is why initiatives like the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme that gave companies money to purchase gadgettes and gizmos to help boost productivity failed. Its cousin, the SkillsFuture which gives money to individuals to upgrade their skills will meet a similar fate.

It is not that such measures are intrinsically unhelpful. It is that absent an environment (think: rod cells) that conduces to the cultivation of innovative attitudes and mindsets, our society will remain staid.

So what constitutes such an environment? History (and not a few experts) tells us that an open society that not only allows, but actually encourages, people to question established hierarchy, to not confuse received opinion with authoritative truth, and to not feel fear or even unease in challenging political power are all part of a cultural firmament upon which creativity thrives.

This, of course, is what is not taking place in Singapore.

But our rulers, if nothing else, know all the appropriate sounds to make. Listen to the Economic Review Committee’s (ERC’s) enlightened words in 2003: “We must upgrade ourselves and make Singapore a knowledge economy powered by innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.”

Seventeen years later, we’re still trying to nail the jello to the wall. And no wonder. The government and its stable of commercial enterprises have not walked the talk. As the Financial Times explains: “Creativity and entrepreneurship have been buzzwords in Singapore’s business circle for years. But little has been done to achieve them.”

This is because the PAP refuses to make the one most important change necessary for the development of an innovative environment: reform the political system. This includes repealing the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, a piece of legislation long used to quash press freedom.

A knowledge economy needs, well, knowledge. And knowledge comes about through the free flow of information and open debate, not selective dissemination of news from government ministries.

Media control has resulted, for instance, in prime-time fare on MediaCorp channels comprising almost entirely gameshows, sitcoms, and TV dramas. The few current affairs programmes on offer are effectively government infomercials.

Thankfully, the print media is better, but only just. Views that stray from the PAP orthodoxy seldom see print. The pieces that I have sent to the Straits Times for consideration – and there have been more than a dozen of them over the last couple of years – invariable meet with a standard one-line “thank you but we will not be publishing it” reply from its Opinion Editor.

Our universities, once vibrant venues for intense debates, have become intellectual kindergartens where nary a political event takes place without official sanction. Even Yale-NUS, the supposed hotbed for liberal arts is, with the political noose predictably tightening around its neck, fast becoming a glamourised vocational institute in Singapore.

Events which provide the Singaporean public the intellectual stimulation that it so desperately needs are rarer then wind on the moon. Public debates that push social and political boundaries, eg the Oxford Union forums in the UK and the IQSquared debates in the US, cannot happen here without attracting state censure.

Decades of censorship and strict administration of Lee-ism have made Singapore virgin territory as far as critical thinking goes. It should be unneeded to point out that the dumbing down of society kneecaps our quest to transform our economy.

Unfortunately, the PAP doesn’t get it. Or refuses to. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam lectured from his perch in Parliament this week that “We need a workplace culture where employees’ views and contributions are valued”. Correction: We need a political culture where citizens’ views and contributions are valued.

To end as I began, like peering at a distant star, the more diligently we zero in on extracting productivity and innovation from our people without making concomitant changes in our politics, the harder it will be for us to find that shiny goal.

The big worry is that unlike astral-gazing, bringing about economic transformation is not an activity that we can pursue at leisure.

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