And there it was, Singapore was listed in the Bloomberg Innovation Index (BII) as the 6th most innovative country in the world behind only South Korea, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Finland – countries that produced Samsung, Ikea, BMW, Rolex and Nokia.
We even bested the United States who gave humanity 363 Nobel laureates. (If you think the comparison is unfair, then take Denmark which ranked 8th in the Index but produced 13 Nobel prize winners with a population size similar to ours.)
As one might expect, the story needed a not insignificant amount of qualification: the Index measured the resources that went into prepping an economy for innovation, not the output from innovation.
By BII's measure, Singapore impressed. We scored well in 'tertiary efficiency' (percentage of population enrolled in tertiary education – never mind the quality of that education), 'value-added manufacturing' (proportion of manufacturing output as a share of GDP) and 'R&D concentration' (percentage of researchers to population).
But another index, the Global Innovation Index, revealed a more complete picture. According to this study, while Singapore was again top drawer out of 128 economies in terms of Innovation Input (measured by expenditure in institutions, human capital, infrastructure, etc), we ranked only 25th in Innovation Output and 33rd in Creativity Output (actual evidence of products borne out of knowledge and technology).
In terms of Innovation Efficiency, that is, ratio of the Output index over the Input index, we came in at a shocking 110th position in 2014, climbing up slightly to 78th in 2016. In other words, we spend a lot of money trying to raise productivity and innovation (hence the high rankings) but get very little bang for the buck.
Indeed, we spent more than $20 billion over the years on various productivity and innovation schemes with, in the words of Straits Times' editor Han Fook Kwang's words, “little progress to show”. Despite all this, observers point out that Singapore has yet to produce a truly innovative startup.
In fact, much of the commercial activity in Singapore that passes for innovation is often disguised efficiency drives. A study in 2005 found that nearly 90 percent of the “innovation activity” in businesses here were actually efforts in improving quality or reducing cost.
Moreover, more than half of these firms managed “innovation” in a top-down manner. “This is in line with the 'command-and-control' culture within Singapore organisations,” notes entrepreneur Angela Koch, “which runs counter to the more 'entrepreneurial culture' required for innovation.”
If we've been spending all this money and coming up zip, it might be a good idea to change the approach. Yet, the government is due to present another directive, this time from the Committee for Future Economy which few predict will be very different from previous ones (Economic Review Committee in 2003 and Economic Strategies Committee in 2010).
As I noted here and here, as long as the fundamentals of our economic structure, socio-political culture and education system are not put right, an innovative society is going to elude us no matter how much money we throw at the problem. (Read also Sudhir Vadaketh's in-depth discussion on this topic here.)
The fact that Singapore is the only polity among the top 20 positions in the Bloomberg survey that is a one-party system with a state-controlled media should tell us something.
But that something is hard to hear when we keep reading headlines like 'Singapore is one of the most innovative economies in the world'.