Ageing, “Innovation” and the Environment

There are a few policy issues that will become more visible in the subsequent years, and they are pretty obvious. Singapore’s ability to flourish will depend on how we will address and reframe the issues before us. Instead of seeing them solely as “problems to be addressed and mitigated”, I just want to highlight the additional perspectives — that some of these issues are also, “opportunities to be seized”. I look at three domains that will have long-term impact, but also domains in which some reframing and re-imagining might be useful.


The ageing issue will be pressing because of its many implications. An ageing population just means that the average age of the population will increase, albeit dramatically. I don’t want to downplay the urgency of this issue, but I also don’t want to just add to the chorus of how damaging this might be to the government budget.

I do want to highlight efforts like Lien Foundation’s Genki Kaki, that seeks to explore the ageing population issues with new lenses, and to begin seeing them as opportunities for policy entrepreneurship. We will have to find new approaches to handle ageing well as a country, and as the sum of our institutions. How we handle ageing is an opportunity, because there is the possibility that the approaches developed here could be exported to other countries in the region. This is a little-known fact, but the rest of Southeast Asia is ageing as well. Check out this UNESCAP paper, or this ADB paper.

Among other things, there will be difficult conversations on the prospect of retirement — what does that mean, what are people actually doing, what the new journey of life might look like. Then, there will be the politically difficult conversation on what people will be allowed to do about their CPF — it’s just going to get harder. Then there are other more abstract conversations about living and dying, and accompanying that, the need to provide for more age-appropriate housing, and palliative care. And we must not neglect quality of life — how we create and maintain communities — both peer-wise and inter-generational ones, so that everyone — people of different ages, can live well.

And nope, don’t wait for the government to start all these with a big bang. Already there are many efforts to do this, and we will just need more.


I put innovation in quotation marks, because it is too over-used a word that has come to stand for many things. Innovation at its core, is the process for creating value that meets needs — and they can be real needs, or invented ones. Innovation is just that — and it is not always about technology or research, although they are certainly important pathways for creating innovation.

When viewed in this broader sense, we can look at the issues for Singapore’s innovativeness by asking, what does the world need? What do people in other countries need? What can you (in Singapore) do that will meet those needs better than what other people will do? And then, how can we do precisely that?

Framed in this sense, cultural literacy becomes as important as technological literacy. We have to find out more about the histories and cultures and the social contexts of the societies around us in the Southeast Asia and East Asia region. We should also find out more about the societies we know less about, further in India/South Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, East Africa, Southern Africa, Latin America, and others.

Of course we need still need technological literacy — the ability to engage with technology in meaningful ways — to become expert users, and to find out the source code of how things work. We also have to know some basic engineering principles, and look at needs — old ones and new ones with fresh eyes. It is not that we need more engineers, but we need more people to understand the technical aspects of things, and understand the tradeoffs that come from different technical designs and solutions.

While we can always have more students receiving engineering training, the issue lies as much with retaining them in the technical industries. The inability for companies and organisations to retain technical talent is an issue to work on, one for which having more engineers is just not the option. One aspect lies with the notion that banks and consulting companies will be able to pay for more people who are trained in these technical fields. If that will be the case for a long time, technical organisations have to think very hard about how to retain the people they have and reduce the flow of people to non-technical areas.

There are other possible areas of change, such as restructuring how National Service is done, so that students practice the skills they learnt in polytechnic or in the universities. In Israel, people serve in the military after their university education, and people want to serve in the elite units, from where many businesses and start-ups are formed. The military can provide a catalytic role in some economic areas, though that will mean a major reform in the conduct and role of National Service.

Climate and Environment

Singapore will get warmer, and yet at the same time, rainfall could also increase. This will require a great deal of technical imagination, about what to do, as Singapore becomes more built-up, and the absorptive capacity for rain becomes more limited. Then there is the issue of sea-level as well. We might have to find some way to live with floods — how our daily lives can go on even with the flooding. It may be that we will be living with boats to get from point to point, as extreme as it might sound. Water management will be an ongoing struggle, which will intensify in the future to come.

There is a lot more that can be done in our culture relating to wider environmental issues. There remains an opportunity to do something about plastics and to gradually do away with disposable cutleries and packaging, or to use biodegradable plastics. We will also need to have a stronger recycling culture, beyond throwing everything down a single chute. This requires both technical imagination and a cultural imagination.

Just a start

These are just three areas which I think are usually thought of as fixtures in policy thinking, that require both a longer-term horizon (10–15 years), as well as the immediate actions. I think reframing them as opportunities is necessary — otherwise our imaginations will just be cramped into thinking about mitigations. There are certainly other domains that require more imagination, but for now, these will do for now.

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