The fearsome four letter f-word

No. Not that one that ends with “k”. The word is… dare I say it… “FEAR”. There I have said it.

Singaporeans are almost phobic of that word. It seems ingrained in our cultural DNA that we MUST NOT fail at anything, at any time. Whatever we do, we MUST succeed.

But the truth is, unless Singaporeans start to fail more, Singapore will fail. Yes. You read it right. What do I mean? Let’s first look at Singapore’s economy.

It seems that Singapore’s economy is set for more gloomy times. Singapore’s factory output has fallen for the eighth straight month. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) released its monetary policy statement that also pointed to sluggish economic growth, with “risks tilted towards the downside” (which probably means we are in for a bumpy ride…).

Against such a backdrop, the government has formed the Future Economy Committee, chaired by Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat. It aims to look at five futures: of jobs, companies, resources, technology and markets. It will try to recommend necessary changes to the economy to prepare for the changes in these five changes.

Beyond this ostensibly high level government committee trying to figure out what the government can do to keep Singapore’s economy going strong, I think we need to realise that there is only so much that the government can do. As ST’s Editor-at-Large, Han Fook Kwang, pointed out in a recent op-ed piece in ST, whatever the government tries to do will only lead to marginal gains. This is because the Singapore government has already successfully played its key role of  creating the conditions necessary for free enterprise to work – the rule of law, infrastructure, education and skills training.

Mr Han cautions that the Future Economy Committee should avoid coming up with ill-conceived schemes that achieve questionable outcomes. He suggests that the keys to preparing Singapore’s economy for the future lies in changing the education system and our culture. The education system need to move further beyond producing exam-smart students to nurturing people who are innovative and creative, with the skills needed to do well in the economy of the future. The culture needs to change to one that encourages independent thinking, creativity and risk-taking and which isn’t afraid of failure.

I agree with Mr Han completely.

In a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), Singapore can only be successful if Singaporeans are willing to take risks, come up with and try crazy ideas, reach for audacious goals. But this will only happen if Singaporeans are willing to embrace failure.

Every single groundbreaking innovation involves a process of trial and error. That’s right. Making mistakes, getting things wrong is part of the process of innovation. And even with many iterations of trial and error, there is still a very significant chance of failing. In order to truly innovate, one must be willing to accept that there is a great risk of failing. So unless we can overcome that phobia of failure, we will not even start to try to innovate. If we don’t even start to try to innovate, how can we possibly be innovative?

But Singaporeans hate to make mistakes. Our education system has drilled into us an obsession of getting things right, of finding the right answers. Never mind if we are finding the right answers to the wrong questions. Just colour within the lines, follow the curriculum, do the standard set of questions, find out the rubrics on how you are graded and you will do well. Do not attempt to stray away from the rubrics. Otherwise you will do badly. How does such a system encourage innovation and risk taking?

The Singaporean system is fantastically rigorous. It builds a strong foundation in literacy, numeracy and (to some extent) scientific ability. And while the system is still changing, our schools are still very much like factories. Students are still very much treated as if they are products to be finished. Just do things in a particular way. Don’t deviate from that way otherwise you will do badly. Don’t understand why a certain math problem is solved in a certain way? Never mind. Just do it that way and you will get the question right. Don’t understand a particular science concept? It’s ok. Memorise the formula and apply. Want to write your essay in a different way? NO! Don’t write about ghosts or time travel in PSLE English, or you will fail.

In such a system, where our students’ time is almost entirely filled with a set of very well-defined tasks with very well-defined rubrics to “measure” if they have “done well”, how can Singaporeans not end up being only willing to colour within the lines? Yet, this is something which even DPM Tharman has cautioned against.

At the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School’s 50th anniversary gala dinner on 28 Oct, DPM Tharman emphasised that giving children the space and freedom for their minds to “wander” in their growing up years is important in Singapore’s efforts to create a social culture that encourages intellectual diversity and tolerates social diversity. He added that this entails not having grading and competition “too early in the game”, or packing the curriculum for children.

DPM Tharman also goes on to highlight that as innovation and creativity are key to Singapore staying ahead of the pack, “we need, starting early in life, to breed that instinct of wanting to think … in original ways”.  He added that “We can’t overfill the curriculum for kids, we can’t keep them engaged continuously in specific tasks, we’ve got to have enough space for diverse experiences, for their minds to wander, and we’ve to provide that space as kids grow up.” To illustrate his point, DPM Tharman uses himself as an example. “I never regretted the fact that I did a lot of daydreaming when I was young because it turns out to have been very useful,” he quipped.

Some of the more cynical people would say that of course DPM Tharman had the luxury of daydreaming when he was young. His father is, after all, what many would consider a legendary figure in Singapore’s medical field. The cynics say that with such a father, it is not surprising that DPM Tharman is naturally smart to begin with. With a naturally higher intelligence, of course he can afford to daydream. Not only that, with well-to-do parents, DPM Tharman is naturally exposed to more diverse experiences, the cynics say. The cynics also would have us believe that with more financial resources, DPM Tharman could naturally afford to try different things without worrying about whether he can pay for them.

If the cynics are right, then it would mean that only people who are naturally smart or rich can afford to take risks. People who are not naturally smart or rich cannot afford take any risks that might result in failure because the price of failure is too high. And so people who are not naturally smart or rich should just follow the rules and colour within the lines.

I don’t think that is true. There are many ways for all children to wander and wonder, take risks, try different things. Brenda Tan of The Middle Ground has a wonderful article that suggests five ways to help kids wonder and wander. But more importantly, it seems that letting students flail and fail really helps students learn better. This is, at least, according to the research of Dr Manu Kapur, who is head of the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore.

Dr Manu has devised a method of teaching Maths called productive failure. It is a method where students are left to flounder and struggle with unfamiliar concepts first. It turns out that students who go through that method outperform those who are taught using the traditional form of instruction. Dr Manu believes that this is because struggling activates a part of the brain that triggers deeper learning.

I hope that our government will really take the risk and create more space for students to wander and wonder, to take risks, try audacious things, to fail. More importantly, I hope that teachers and principals will dare to do that.

Beyond the education system, the wider Singaporean community should be more accepting of failure. In fact, I wish that the Singaporean society will actually celebrate failures. Or at least people who have learnt interesting and meaningful lessons from monumental failures.

Things are moving in that direction. We have events like the Fxxkup Nights where people share business failures. But I think we need more.

In order to encourage people to take risks, I think the government would need to start taking risks first. The grants that the government gives that try to encourage people to be entrepreneurs demand too much of would-be entrepreneurs. So much that it actually turns many of them away. Instead of encouraging risk taking, the grants force would-be entrepreneurs to play it safe.

I suggest that the government deliberately gives money to people who have crazy audacious ideas that are more likely to fail than to succeed. That person doesn’t need to have a plan at all to qualify for that grant. He shouldn’t need to convince any one that he has what it takes to succeed. He would just need to have an audacious and innovative idea, a very rough sense of how that idea can be turned into reality, a total dedication to working on that idea, and be willing to share his experience and lessons he picked up on his journey, whether he succeeds or not, with others who come after him. Now I believe that that would truly encourage people to take risks.

Will the government put their money where their mouths are when it comes to risk taking? Will the government take the risk and radically revamp our education system? I don’t know. I hope so.

But rather than wait for the government, let’s do whatever we can. If you are a parent, let your kid wander and wonder. Let him falter and fall. Let him be banged up and bruised. Let him flail and fail. At least once in a while. It’s ok. He won’t die from it. In fact, he will be much stronger and fitter to survive in the future economy because of it. Go on. Give it a shot. Take the risk. It will be alright.

[Featured Image: ST photo by Alphonsus Chern]


3 thoughts on “The fearsome four letter f-word

  1. If we are not willing to take risks and make mistakes, we cannot move on to the next level. We need to start with the people in power. Unless they acknowledge that our present systems and controls are loosened, we will be stuck in the past. I will just mention two areas where we need to move – our fear of alternative views when they differ from the government’s view. Two, the control of the media – in today’s world, information is available 24/7. A newspaper like the ST is a disgrace to 50 years of nation building; so, we need to trust that Singaporeans are sensible people who can handle all sources of information. We don’t need self censorship.

    Liked by 1 person

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