Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Special Column: I will always be 'Made in Singapore'




I was invited to write this special column in the Straits Times for National Day in Singapore.



I HAVE been living in California for the past 10 years. Years of living away from Singapore has given me a much deeper appreciation of my own heritage.

Like every good Singaporean boy, I was Made in Singapore (just check the label on my back, I often quipped).

I grew up watching SBC and, like every kid in my class, knew what the letters stood for in Hokkien (something about a lack of fragrance in the air). I went to school and college in Singapore (Catholic High School, Hwa Chong JC, and Nanyang Technological University). I spoke fluent Singlish.

And when I grew up, I had a nice Singaporean job, married a nice Singaporean girl, settled in a nicely expensive government apartment, and moved ourselves from point A to point B in a small overpriced car. And everybody lived happily ever after.

Except I didn't entirely live happily ever after.

See, I wasn't entirely a good Singaporean boy. I was a bit of an iconoclast (still am, but don't tell my daughter).

I appreciated humour in a way slightly different from that of people in authority. When I was a kid, I would often make a funny remark in response to something a teacher said, except that unlike the kids, the teacher seldom found it very funny. ('Are you trying to be funny, boy?' 'Yes, Sir.')

I delighted in creativity and idealism, and I often felt tied down. I didn't fit entirely into this society, and I didn't feel I had the right opportunities to fulfil my full potential.

I made the final decision to go abroad on the morning of Jan 3, 1997, right after the General Election.

I figured it was time I lived and studied outside of Singapore for a few years to expand my intellectual and experiential horizons, before I became too old and collected too much inertia.

So I began the painful process of applying to graduate school and, in August 1998, found myself on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, attending graduate school in the Club Med-like campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where the weather is perfect, and my engineering lab was right across the street from the beach.

One thing led to another and, soon, I was beginning what would become a very successful career in this small Silicon Valley company with a funny name, Google. (That company didn't stay small for very long, by the way.) Sometimes, I think my life is very funny.

Many things about Americans fascinated me, especially when seen close-up.

I was struck most by their entrepreneurial energy and optimism. I kept running into serial entrepreneurs here. Two recent ones I've met are an audio/visual guy starting a solar business, and a bus driver starting an information business. I see entrepreneurial people, they're everywhere, they walk among us, they don't know they're amazing.

As a society, Americans are very open to experimentation. They are willing to fail and accept the failure. They like to have fun. They have a very healthy disregard for authority.

In my opinion, these cultural strengths are major ingredients of America's success in science, technology and entrepreneurship.

To create a scientific breakthrough, for example, one often has to demonstrate that something everybody else believed in was wrong in some major way.

To bring something innovative to market, one must be willing to fail miserably. And to sustain a start-up through its initial struggles, founders and initial employees often need to have fun with each other. Americans as a society do these so well because of their cultural strengths.

These are some important things we can learn from our American friends.

I didn't have trouble adjusting to American culture. I was already creative, iconoclastic and funny, and I already drank Coke and watched Friends. I fit right in, like an old cliche involving duck and water.

Over time, however, my experience studying and working in America gave me a deepening appreciation of my own Singaporean heritage. I realised that being 'Made in Singapore' prepared me for success in many important ways.

Singaporeans are blessed with many advantages.

The most obvious is the quality and rigour of our education, especially in maths and science. Our maths syllabus for primary school, for example, is widely reputed to be the best in the world. In addition, we all studied hard as kids, because we did not want to end up cleaning longkangs (drains) when we grew up. That's why we grew up with very solid academic foundations.

I realised that many cultural values I picked up as a Singaporean also prepared me for success.

The obvious ones are thrift, diligence and the willingness to make sacrifices for the future.

In addition to all those, I grew up observing how careful my elders were with nuances involving words and subtle social gestures when interacting with each other.

It used to annoy me a little, but once I started living in a foreign land, I realised that underlying all that was a very healthy respect for inter-personal relationships, and that respect has unconsciously been passed on to me.

One reason I'm successful is my ability to build solid relationships, and my heritage provided the foundation.

Finally, being fluent in an Asian language is a boon, not just because it gave me access to Asian markets that monolingual Americans find less accessible, but also because it gave me familiarity with powerful ways of thinking, such as the philosophies of Lao Zi and Sun Zi, that are different from but complementary to Western systems of thought.

As I spend more time outside Singapore, I increasingly appreciate how much it had nurtured me in my youth.

In a way, Singapore is like Mum. No matter what you have achieved in life, a lot of it goes back to what Mum gave you and taught you. At the end of the day, wherever in the world I am, I will always be Made in Singapore.

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