Human-free space as proof of creative cultural development



Sometimes a post you see on Facebook is not the latest news. You’re momentarily fooled by it and you can embarrass yourself by reacting as if it was the latest happening. But that’s the beauty of the internet too. Nothing is forgotten. Gems from the past resurface. What you didn’t know before you know now.

And so it was with a Wall Street Journal blog titled Wozniak: Apple couldn’t emerge in Singapore. It was only after I had finished reading it, just as I was about to click away, that I noticed it was dated 15 December 2011. But no matter. What Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak had to say is still very relevant.

“Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behavior is not tolerated [and] you are extremely punished” Mr. Wozniak said in a recent interview with the BBC. “Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great writers?”


Speaking specifically about Singapore, he said that though many people are educated with well-paid jobs and nice cars, “creative elements” in society seem to have disappeared.

Go read it and listen to the BBC interview

In the audio of the interview, Wozniak said innovative change happens when “big guys” are challenged. He spoke about the importance of “liberal counterculture thinking” and how “big guys that just want to crank the wheels and keep things running” must be contested by new ideas. Alluding to Singapore, he described a society where people are “taught this nationalism… not to think what’s right and wrong, but to take a side at an early age. That’s not lined up with creativity.”

“Thinking for yourself is creativity.”

In hallowed journalism style, reporters Shibani Mahtani and Sam Holmes included a response by Singapore officials to Wozniak’s comment.

Speaking about Internet innovation, Jayson Goh, Executive Director for Infocomms & Media at Singapore’s Economic Development Board, said he was happy that “many innovative Internet companies” had chosen Singapore as the focal point for their investment in Southeast Asia, specifically naming Google, Yahoo, PayPal and Facebook.

“We will continue to work…to enhance the infrastructure to create a conducive environment for enterprises to provide innovative solutions,” Mr. Goh said.

Singapore actively encourages startups and entrepreneurship in the city-state. According to government statistics,  29,798 companies were formed in Singapore in 2010 across all sectors, a 13% increase from the previous year.

You can’t help but see Jayson Goh speaking from a (poorly-prepared) script. To start with, why give a number of new companies “across all sectors”? How many of these sell cupcakes, Hello Kitty cellphone jackets, or provide foot reflexology? There’s an awfully large number of such enterprises around town.

Secondly, how does the statistic of new companies incorporated address the question of culture and human talent (including artists and writers) that Wozniak was speaking about?

Thirdly and likewise, how does name-dropping big American companies as investors (“Google, Yahoo, PayPal and Facebook”) address the same question? The reflexive reliance on inward investment by foreign companies only serves to indicate that we are still stuck in the Texas Instruments days — that’s 1969, when a huge song and dance was staged after this American company set up an electronics assembly plant in Singapore (Bendemeer Road, if I remember correctly) employing several hundred young adults (mostly women) doing repetitive menial work. Texas Instruments was high-tech in its day. But rolling out the red carpet for a high-tech investor is not the same thing as having your own citizens be the inventors and creators of original art and science.

More specifically, the WSJ blog mentions a particular investment by Google, positioned to sound like a rebuttal of Wozniak’s point. Whether it was Jayson Goh or some other source that pointed WSJ to this I cannot say (but knowing how these media responses work, you can probably allow that Jayson or another source from the Economic Development Board would have mentioned it as part of their comment). That investment was of a US$120 million data center.

Those two words ‘data center’ were what triggered this post. I had a vague idea what such a thing was. I promptly did a websearch and it more or less confirmed my mental picture of one. It’s typically a huge facility housing numerous servers and switches, backed up by reliable power supply and environmental systems. The top picture is of a data center by They are the workhorses of the internet age, the warehouses of the information goods that our age produces. They are not places where new information is made. Humans don’t figure very strongly in them, let alone innovative creative types.

How does Google building a data center in Singapore disproof Wozniak’s criticism? It does not. It is monumentally embarrassing that we can’t even provide intelligent responses. We read off a script that relies on an audience’s ignorance, conflating one with another: companies registered (cupcakes included) in answer to a question about brilliant inventors nurtured; human-free data centers in answer to a question about artists.

Worse yet, the pride we take in being able to attract foreigners and their money tells us we’re stuck in a groove. We can’t conceive of development any way other than having capitalist juggernauts roll over us.


8 Responses to “Human-free space as proof of creative cultural development”

  1. 1 slychiu 19 May 2015 at 20:42

    “We will continue to work…to enhance the infrastructure to create a conducive environment for enterprises to provide innovative solutions,”

    Doesn’t the treatment of Dr Ting by Mindef give the lie to such motherhood statements?

  2. 2 yuen 19 May 2015 at 21:09

    not just Singapore; the model has not worked in most countries, or even in other parts of USA, despite claims of MIT, NY Silicon Alley, Rayleigh NC etc; Israel, for its size, produced a lot of tech entrepreneurs, but usually they relocate to San Francisco as soon as they got something promising; I doubt you can blame their political system of all those locations for their failures

    more relevantly, there used to be some sort of competition between SG and the supposedly more liberal HK and more democratic Taiwan; so what analysis would you like to give about the result?

  3. 3 Alex ph 19 May 2015 at 23:31

    Thinking for yourself certainly is important to creativity. However, I strongly doubt that is the overriding factor in how the USA is able to produce companies like Apple. The unbridled capitalist system that is unique to the Americans plays a major role. I work in science and technology, and I meet lots of smart folks from Europe and the USA. The Europeans are just as smart and innovative, but they don’t have companies like Apple or Google or Microsoft because the appetite for risk simply isn’t there. And the Europeans are no slouch when it comes to the creative arts. There is something more than just the ability to challenge authority – there is also the entreprising spirit that seems lacking in many advanced economies (comparative to the USA), and Singapore is deep in this category.

  4. 4 Anon kHgw 20 May 2015 at 08:11

    “Italy under the Borgias had murder, wars, terror and mayhem but it produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. Switzerland had 500 years of peace and brotherly love and they produced the cuckoo clock” (Orson Welles).

    This says it better.

  5. 5 GS 20 May 2015 at 09:48

    Another way of putting it is this: Singapore continues to grow economically only in terms of hardware (infrastructure oriented), rather than software or even ‘heartware’. The quoted example of Google data centre confirms this (as opposed to headline like “Google sets up new development centre in Singapore”). This is what it will have to suffer for the many years to come, as a consequence of PAP’s decade-old economic recipe solely based on cost rather than new value *creation*. Not only that, the influx of (cheap) foreign labour has to continue in order to sustain the current model/rigid, structured society, creating pressure in society and hence xenophobia and disillusionment.

  6. 6 coqdorysme 20 May 2015 at 13:54

    The correct spelling is “disprove”.
    I think it’s really sad that an official rebuttal (Jayson’s above) contains hardly any real content and only a bunch of buzzwords. Who isn’t tired of “innovative solutions” already?

  7. 7 Jake 20 May 2015 at 18:06

    The economic strategy of this govt is one that continually chases downstream economic activities (where there is no IP generation involved). Forever relying on MNCs to pour in capital investments perpetuates this.

    Even if they want to base more upstream activities over here (like R&D), you wonder how many jobs this generates for citizens – we should be happy with a even 10% rate.

    Meanwhile, state-owned enterprises squat in monopolistic (public transport which are in fact route monopolies) or oligopolistic (telcos, property, etc) sections of the economy. These are uncompetitive in the way they operate (always looking upon favourable state intervention). They are also downstream economic activities as they generate no IP.

  8. 8 joker 21 May 2015 at 03:39

    Well, Alex your forget about the new company AIM in addition to the cupcakes once which was set up to drive creativity in political sabotage

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