The sinking of NOL and its lessons for Singapore

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By: Dr Chee Soon Juan

“NOL did not adapt fast enough, says CEO”. This was the chilling headlines that appeared in Thursday’s Straits Times. “The world has changed,” its chief executive Ng Yat Chung explained, adding that NOL (Neptune Orient Lines) was “a bit slow and reluctant to change”.

As a result, Singapore’s home-grown marine carrier and the one-time giant in international shipping sank. Mired in losses – $1.5 billion in the last four years to be exact – the company is set to be sold to one of its competitors, France’s CMA CGM.

Change or die. This was what happened to NOL and it was what I iterated in one of my rally speeches in the by-election.

Change, if it needs to be pointed out, is taking place at break-neck speed across the world. Hi-tech companies are already working on new sight- and voice-activated technology that will make our smartphones obsolete. Brain waves are being harnessed to remotely control robotics and interface with computers. Research on renewables is taking such huge strides that clean energy will make our dependence on oil a thing of the past.

How is Singapore adapting to all this change? I’m not talking about purchasing the latest technology, coining terms like ‘A Smart Nation’ for it, and passing that off as change. That’s easy to do. I’m talking about the conception of ideas and the creation of new technology that the world will want and that will (hopefully) change humanity for the better. That’s hard.

The latter will enable us to stay relevant in tomorrow’s world, the former just means we are consigned to adopting foreign inventions and, together with it, foreign brains.

The one crucial factor that determines if we are able to stay ahead of the change-curve or get steamrolled by it is the political system. A country’s politics dictates whether its citizens are free and bold to experiment, take risks, and question – indeed, challenge – authority. These are ingredients of an open, democratic and pluralistic culture, and it is such a culture that fosters creativity and innovation.

There is a reason why the Elon Musks and the J K Rowlings of the world don’t hail from Pyongyang. It is the same reason that while South Korea has Samsung, LG and Hyundai; Japan boasts of Sony and Isse Miyage; and Taiwan produces Acer and (Nobel Laureate) Lee Yuan Tseh, Singapore has precious little to offer the world.

What we have is a government bent on keeping the system closed and static. Sure, it regularly comes up with concepts like ‘A Knowledge-Based Economy’, ‘An Intelligent Nation’ and, the latest, ‘A Smart Nation’. But there is a difference between seductively named initiatives that do little more than paper over an ailing system and one that breathes life into a society that genuinely prizes knowledge and intelligence.

Already, signs of our slide to bleakness are unmistakable: Our exports have contracted for 11 straight months, productivity levels remain stunted, we are evermore reliant on foreigners for our survival, retail stores are heading for the exit with more doing the same in the months to come, workers don’t just have longer working hours but also longer working lives – all just to keep their heads above choppy financial waters, and an increasing number of Singaporeans are opting to live north of the border where the cost of living is drastically lower.

Despite all this, however, Singaporeans are still afraid of change. The past couple of elections testify to this. They are fearful because the PAP – through the manipulation of the political system and censorship – has inculcated this fear and preys unrelentingly on it. The ruling elite continues to rely on the media that it controls to propagate falsehoods about the opposition during elections, the Elections Department selectively targets pro-democracy forces for punitive action, and bloggers remain in the legal system’s cross-hairs.

Undoubtedly these measures keep the PAP firmly in power. But they also chain the populace to a state diametrically opposed to one that is savvy, fearless and progressive. They do nothing to prepare Singapore for a rapidly changing world.

Lee Hsien Loong asserts in a recent speech that, “Looking ahead, we should aim to be an outstanding city in the world.” Reality points to a rather different outcome for we have laid the foundation for a future that is anything but bright.

Ng Yat Chung is closer to the truth when he says: “It wasn’t easy because the business model has worked for us so far. There were arguments that when the cycle turns, things will be okay. Unfortunately, this time round, the down-cycle is probably as deep and as long as anyone can remember.”

Ng was giving the autopsy report of NOL and the type of thinking that led to its death. Frighteningly, he could very well be describing our country’s future.


Republished from Dr Chee Soon Juan’s blog. Dr Chee is the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party.