Mess of pioneers

Pioneering work is messy and not as glamorous as one might have thought. The first Prime Minister of independent Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was personally extremely concerned with the cleaning up of Singapore River because there was such a stench surrounding it that he personally supervised some of the clean-up. The clean-up later extended to other water bodies which eventually provided some degree of water catchment even in urban areas, securing more water supply for our island nation.

Yet caring about the dirty stuff, and doing the things that may not have been popular nor attractive was absolutely critical to pioneering work. Devoting oneself singularly to some vision of the future and bashing ahead without being entangled by the nitty gritty concerns of the smaller goals along the way is what makes one pioneering. In the passage to reaching the lofty goals, there would be a wake of destruction. Managing that destruction can be part of pioneering work but often it is left to someone else.

Typically it is long after the lofty goals have been achieved that we can sit down and try to clear up the destruction, or compensate those who have really suffered along the way. Such reorganisation of the society and markets comes by after a system perpetuated over decades accumulate lots of errors and they threaten to undermine the system itself. The Singapore River delivered a great deal of prosperity to Singapore and was providing opportunities to a great number of people, families and small businesses. It takes courage, vision and faith in an alternate reality to disrupt those activities and try to transform the Singapore River to what it is today.

The question is as we celebrate our 57th year of nationhood, are we prepared to recognise the areas where we truly need to rework and transform, then bite the bullet to do it?