If Singapore Can . . . Why Can’t We?

By: Phil Gibbs, Principal, The Disruption Lab


Some reading this may remember the NBC White Paper titled, “If Japan Can . . . Why Can’t We?”, that focused on Japan’s dominance in productivity improvement and quality. After spending over a week studying innovation in Singapore, the same question seems appropriate about Singapore. Except today, the issues are innovation and disruption and the country is Singapore. Below are twenty-one takeaways from The Disruption Lab’s Executive Innovation Program in Singapore. If I appear overly enthusiastic, maybe I don’t get out much or just maybe something special is happening in Singapore.

Yes, The Changi Airport is a Tourist Destination

If you believe in primacy and recency in persuasion theory, you know first and last impressions are the most important. So what is the first and last place most visitors experience in a city like Singapore? While most cities view an airport simply as a necessity for transportation, Singapore’s Changi Airport has been named the world’s best airport seven years in a row–it is a destination within itself. Things to do at Changi include two movie theaters–one an IMAX; a Butterfly Garden; four indoor playgrounds; a four-story slide; a Cactus Garden; a Sunflower Garden; and of course an Orchid Garden and Koi Pond; a Kinetic Rain exhibit; a multi-story shopping mall; and extensive choices of local and international cuisine.

And what airport would be complete without a rain forest and the tallest indoor waterfall in the world! Learn about Jewel, the airport’s $1.3B Lifestyle Hub that opened in April, in this brief video. One of our presenters pointed out that Singapore is the only nation that buses people to the airport. And yes, it is true that the first picture my wife took upon arrival in Singapore was of the women’s restroom–now that is a first impression!

A City in a Garden is No Exaggeration

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While Singapore is located in the tropics, a city of 5.6 million can easily become an urban jungle. But Singapore is an urban garden, not by chance but by design. There are large curated gardens like the National Orchid Garden pictured at the right.

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And greenery and vegetation are important features of every street and most modern buildings, with some having extensive vegetation growing on the exterior as seen on the building close to our hotel pictured here.

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And even on the 51st floor of this public housing complex, you find yourself walking in a garden. Growing up on a farm, I know that weeds grow naturally, but gardens, especially in the sky, require intentionality, attention to detail, and execution. It is the little things that offer real insight into a city and a culture.

Jaw-Dropping Architectural Marvels Around Every Corner

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Every global city is at least to some extent vertical and has sky scrapers covering the landscape. But there are skyscrapers and then there skyscrapers that are architectural marvels. In Singapore, they seem to pop up around every corner, like the cluster of soaring buildings that suddenly came into view as we were traveling to one of our site visits. This is Reflections at Keppel Bay, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, who created the masterplan for the World Trade Center Memorial in New York.

And then there was the view outside of the The Carvery restaurant on level 7 of the Park Hotel, where we had lunch on Thursday. Beyond the infinity pool is a building that looks like stacks of Legos and is another architectural marvel.

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When scenes like this are around every corner, you know there is sophisticated planning. Even in this digital age, there is a physical model of the city where every building is to scale and citizens have an opportunity to have input into the planning.
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But Singapore is not all new. There is an intentional effort to preserve the cultural, ethnic and religious heritage reflected in architecture in places like the Malays and Arab districts and Chinatown and Little India.

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No Traffic, No Graffiti, No Trash, No Above Ground Utilities, No Homelessness and No Crime

If you live in Singapore, you might say there are traffic jams, but over the course of a week, we never experienced any serious traffic problems. And yes, it is by design. The number of cars on the streets is limited and owning a car is very expensive. There is an automated system that charges variable rates for driving on certain roads. Incentives work in managing traffic in this city. And of course there is excellent public transportation.

There also is no graffiti by design. The design involves severe punishment for graffiti–enough said.

The streets are clean and garbage trucks are not clogging the streets. Garbage is sucked underground through a pneumatic system. And all other utilities also are underground.

Eighty percent of people in Singapore live in government subsidized housing. It is not by any means low income housing, but subsidized housing. There is a system for applying for housing when residents reach a certain age and of course there is still private housing. The system that is in place assures that everyone has housing.

It is too much to say there is no crime, but Singapore is certainly a safe place. We were perfectly comfortable walking around the streets and did not worry about things being stolen. It appears that a system of strong punishment works in Singapore.

From traffic, to graffiti, to garbage, to utilities, to housing, to crime, government plays an important role in the lives in Singapore citizens. With so much government involvement, it is natural to question how innovation can thrive. But it does.

And No Natural Resources

Singapore is a small island nation with no natural resources. Location is perhaps an advantage in terms of trade and commerce. And as one of our presenters said, the only resource is us. And again by design, Singapore has done well with this resource. One of our presenters pointed out that at age 15, Singapore children rank number 1 in education in the world, and that two of the top 15 universities in the world are located in Singapore. Singapore has a proven track record of educating and innovating with limited resources.

A Shared Tragic Experience

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On Saturday after the formal end of our program, Karen and I did some additional exploring, including a cable car ride to Sentosa Island which features many attractions, beaches, and Fort Siloso. The fort is a restored WWII museum where we watched a brief film about the brutal occupation of Singapore by the Japanese. It had an emotional impact on me as it told the story of the shared tragedy experienced by the Singapore people. Some of the things we had observed during the week that I could not make sense of began to come into focus. The very survival of this diverse group of people was dependent on coming together, working together, and trusting in a government that would provide support and resources. While not many residents today personally were there, this shared experience must have played an import role in shaping the culture that is Singapore.

Ethnic and Religious Co-Living

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Singapore is an ethnically and religiously diverse population that lives and works together, again by design. In the past there were race riots but the leaders came together and developed solutions for living together.

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Today, housing is assigned to assure diversity in housing and with diversity in housing there is diversity in education. As our guide, Lawrence, explained, they live together and eat each others food and learn to get along.

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Deep Cultural Roots and Diverse Culinary Experiences

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Even though the people live together, there is an intentional effort to preserve the cultural heritage of the different groups. And there is a diversity of culinary experiences available throughout the city, with Hawker Centers providing good and affordable options, some with a Michelin star–yes, a food stand with a Michelin star. No food experience is better than when the street is shut down and the featured food is Satay.

A Smart Nation Run Like a Tech Company

Quek Sin Kwok, Senior Director of the National Digital Identity Program within GovTech, pointed out that they are becoming like a tech company. They have hired a lot of engineers and young people, totally rebuilding the culture from scratch and experimenting with new ways of running projects. The National Digital Identity Program is part of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative started in 2014. The goal is “a nation where people lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, enabled seamlessly by technology, offering exciting opportunities for all.” The vision is invisible government.

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And there is a tremendous emphasis in Singapore on transformation. As a small nation, they have been a global trading hub for the last 50 years based on a strong vision from the founding Prime Minister. The emphasis has been on world-class facilities, educated people and a strong financial system. As a trading hub, the emphasis was on moving physical goods, while today the focus has shifted to moving data and continuing to be relevant to the region and the rest of the world.

Budget Surpluses and Global Investments

For those of us unfamiliar with the term, budget surpluses occur when the government takes in more than it spends. Singapore has been doing well with its focus on a strong financial system, with the government running a surplus and doing global investments. Obviously to achieve these results, taxes must be high, right? Actually no. Tax rates tend to be low, with a progressive personal tax structure with the highest rate being 22% and no capital gains or inheritance tax. For corporations the rate is 17%. One of our VC presenters, John Sharp, talked about paying absolutely nothing on exiting companies–a pretty strong incentive for making investments. OK, now I am really confused. How do they do it?

Ecosystems of Innovation Ecosystems

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It should not be surprising that entrepreneurship and innovation are emerging in Singapore. We heard directly from many startups, including TransferFi, Biorithm, Red Dot Drone, and Bot MD. We started with IPI who provided an overview of the Singapore innovation ecosystem that includes startups. We also visited organizations that support startups including the JTC Launchpad at Jurong Innovation District (JID), which provides affordable startup space and test bedding grounds for startups in a live/work/play environment. They provide enablers that accelerate growth and increase the probability of success for startups as well as corporations that provide market access. And they promote interactions through community platforms. There is also is another large Launchpad located at one-north. They operate under the Ministry of Trade. ACE (Action Community for Entrepreneurship) is another group supported by the government that enables the startup ecosystem. And Innosparks is an incubator that provides engineering and other support to accelerate the startup process. As noted, there are multiple ecosystems that are driving entrepreneurship in Singapore.

Deep Grounding in Improvement Processes

Dr. Stephen Chan is providing leadership in the areas of innovation and information for the launch of The Woodlands Health Campus, a new 1800 bed integrated health campus that is being developed and will feature many innovative approaches to care delivery. Twice in our discussion with Dr. Chan, he used the phrase, “The hypothesis is . . .” which reflected a deep grounding in improvement and innovation. Most of us tend to say, “Our approach to that . . .” or “Our solution for that is . . .” Experienced innovators start with a hypothesis, not a solution. It requires an understanding of process improvement, the PDSA experimentation methodology, the work of W. Edwards Deming, Lean, and other foundations of innovation, as Dr. Chan confirmed when questioned about his use of the phrase. At the Ng Teng Fong Center for Healthcare Innovation (CHI), their Innovation Cycle involves three steps: Care and Process Design; Automation, IT, Robotic Innovation; and Job Redesign, all built on the foundation of the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle introduced by Deming, again reflecting a grounding in process improvement. This foundation in improvement methods and process provides many advantages for entrepreneurs and companies in Singapore as they pursue innovation.

Opportunities to Co-Learn and Co-Innovate in Healthcare

There are great opportunities for us to co-learn and co-innovate with Singapore, particularly with its leading healthcare providers. We are working on many of the same issues and can learn and transform our care delivery systems faster and more affordably working together. The Woodlands Health Campus is an ideal test bed for innovations in care delivery and health. The mission and approach of the Center for Healthcare Innovation is aligned with the mission and approach of our LAB|2025. The initial opportunity may be for CHI to participate in a LAB|2025 Academy cohort, creating the foundation for further collaboration.

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Practice, Practice, Practice . . . Execution

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Singapore’s grounding in quality and improvement was reflected in how they approached the National Day of Celebration, which is coming up on August the 9th, celebrating the country’s 54th birthday. The celebration includes a parachute team jump; a fly over of military jets; a fly over of helicopters with a large Singapore flag suspended from a Chinook; a military parade including tanks and virtually every type of military equipment; hundreds if not thousands of people in bright costumes marching; fireworks; and more.

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We were there standing on the side of the street for a practice run on Saturday evening. While the parade and other activities were impressive, the really impressive thing to me was that they practiced for a month. What we saw was a full dress preview. Nothing was left to chance. There was practice and more practice, and then execution. Sounds like a pattern for the way the country functions–by design.

A Trust Relationship with Government

There is a trust level between the people and government that is foreign to us as US citizens. Obviously the majority of the people are dependent on the government for things like housing subsidizes. And government seems to work in other areas of their lives like education, traffic and sanitation. And the economy is strong, producing a surplus. Cab drivers are of course a great source for research, and a couple of drivers mentioned that government officials make a lot of money, but they were OK with it. When one was asked about all the money spent on practicing for the National Day of Celebration, his response was that they have the money. Another gentleman who stood by me as we watched the Celebration practice talked about when he was a school boy he marched in the parade. He was photographing the ceremony with both his cell phone and a camera. The relationship for him appeared to go beyond trust to pride.

Vision and Leadership

If there was anything that we heard during the week that there seemed to be a consensus on, it was attributing the success Singapore has experienced to the vision and leadership of the first prime minister, who served in the role for thirty years. The sentiment was shared by our guide, Lawrence, a cab driver, and a highly educated government official. It reinforces what we already know–without strong leadership, there is no vision. Without a vision, there is no plan. And without a plan, there is no innovation. Leadership and vision are the foundation of transformation.

Thirty Year Planning Cycle with Ten Year Updates

A great vision and leadership without continual planning will fail. Singapore operates on a thirty year planning cycle with ten year updates. That means there is time to prepare for what is on the horizon, time to practice, and time to iterate and sometimes pivot. As noted above, the emphasis has been on world-class facilities, educated people and a strong financial system. Based on our observation, each of these has been accomplished with amazing success. But pivots are required. As a trading hub, the emphasis was on moving physical goods, while today the focus has shifted to moving data and continuing to be relevant to the region and the rest of the world.

Purposeful Transformation and Innovation

The Singapore we saw and experienced is no accident. As is often quoted in quality improvement, every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. And Singapore is getting the results you can expect to get when for 50 years you focus on world-class facilities, educated people and a strong financial system. It is no accident that we marveled at the architecture. Or that at age 15 students rank number 1 in the world and 2 of the top 15 universities can be found in Singapore. Or that the government runs a surplus and invests globally. It is by design.

And Yes, There Are Rich Asians

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If you have seen the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, and are wondering if it accurately depicts life in Singapore, I can’t answer that question. I can tell you that there are a lot of very wealthy people in Singapore.

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An apartment building with glass enclosed elevators for taking your car up to your apartment could be a pretty strong indicator. Observing some well dressed families in our hotel lobby could be another. Seeing the luxury shopping areas might be a sign. And trying to keep up with the super luxury sports cars passing in front of us as we watched the National Day of Celebration could be the closing argument. There is really no question about rich. I am not sure about crazy.

No, We Cannot Become Singapore

The US will never be Singapore and should not try. We have a different culture, different resources, and different shared history. But we can learn from Singapore and others who are pursuing innovation and transformation, and they can learn from us. We must co-learn and co-innovate. And just as was asked, during the productivity and quality era, related to Japan, we should be asking, if Singapore can . . . why can’t we?

Yes, We Can and We Must Improve and Innovate

After a deep dive into the Singapore experience, one emotion I felt was anger. When you realize that many of our cities, many companies, and many government organizations do not have to be in the shape they are in, it makes me angry. There are no good excuses. Of course, the only appropriate response is to direct that emotion to a commitment to improvement and innovation in all of our systems.

There is Always an Asterisk*

*As an experienced consultant, I recognize that no matter how good things look on the surface, there are always problems. Even world-class organizations can be a mess when you dig into what is really going on. While we were very impressed by what we saw and experienced, Singapore certainly is not perfect. One of the current challenges is the treatment of low wage workers from other countries and immigration. What is encouraging is that Singapore has a history of effectively addressing these types of issues, and has the improvement and innovation tools to move forward with transformation.


Phil is the founding Principal of The Disruption Lab, where he focuses on disruptive innovation and corporate growth. For over a decade, he led Executive Learning, one of the country’s leading firms supporting continual improvement (sustaining and efficiency innovation), particularly in healthcare, and including work with industry leader HCA and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI).

His entrepreneurial experience includes co-founding multiple companies, including E|SPACES and LifeFilez. In addition to his startup experience, Phil has served as a principal in an early-stage investment firm and worked in/consulted with multiple large organizations, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory early in his career. His interest in innovation began with his doctoral research at The Ohio State University focused on understanding how organizations achieve both high productivity and high innovation.

You can connect with or ask Phil a question through The Disruption Lab community at https://thedisruptionlab.community/.

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