Singapore needs confidence and consensus to attain big achievements

IN the 1970s, when the International Air Transport Association regime required airlines to charge for food and beverages, one upstart broke the rules.

It was a bold and daring move which defied conventional wisdom. But breaking the mould and re-inventing itself on many other fronts worked for the young Singapore Airlines, which went on to become one of the top-rated carriers in the world.

The 1970s was an era of big ideas and bold initiatives not just for SIA, but also for the country it originated. It was big ideas and bold thinking that enabled Lee Kuan Yew and his team to chart young Singapore's transformation from a regional entrepot to a First World city state.

The redevelopment of the Jurong swamplands; the massive land reclamation projects; the opening of the economy to foreign companies; and ambitious public housing, education and healthcare projects were audacious measures adopted by a young nation determined to establish its place in the sun. In later years, the big ideas and bold initiatives were focussed on urban and infrastructure renewal projects such as cleaning up the Singapore River, establishing the Changi airhub and re-inventing the Marina Bay area.

Big ideas and bold moves were also behind the invention of new products and services: the ubiquitous ThumbDrive, the Flucard and even the keycards were invented here.

In his classic book, The Magic Of Thinking Big, written six decades ago, the late David Joseph Schwartz wrote: "Believe big. The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success."

It was thinking big that has enabled Singapore to make the remarkable achievements that are admired worldwide. For half-a-century, this was a nation that believed in itself - and was confident it could achieve big things. But this self-belief is now being challenged.

In an era of social media, fake news and disruptions, failures have been magnified and successes dismissed. The result can be a toxic concoction of self-doubt and an erosion of national consensus.

A constant stream of negative news about MRT breakdowns, challenges on the diplomatic front, a family fight over an Oxley Road house, a controversial presidential transition and even worries over the costs of living seem to be sapping the nation's energy and optimism. Some Singaporeans have started questioning its resilience, leadership and direction. Many express a sense of insecurity, foreboding and doubt. They seem more afraid of the future now than they were a decade ago. Such self-doubts can have a debilitating impact on Singapore's ability to think big and act boldly.

The Singapore story is still a work in progress. But national confidence and consensus must be in place for big and bold achievements. Yes, the operating circumstances have changed. Challenges abound. Disruption is a constant. Old formulas need to be re-examined and new solutions found. There has to be a new social compact between the government and the governed. The government needs to move away from old scripts and think anew.

It can start by sharing a new vision. But the governed must be given a good reason to be positive and to be engaged to buy into it.

Optimism can be infectious. Singapore needs a huge dose of it at the moment. Just look at what desert cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have managed to achieve. The irony is they did it by taking a leaf out of Singapore's playbook.