~by: Eric Tan Heng Chong~
I had the rare privilege of meeting and speaking with Steve Jobs back in 1984 when he addressed my MBA class at the University of Michigan. Steve was touring American top business schools to promote his latest product at the time- the portable Apple Macintosh 128, which offered word processing, spreadsheets and graphics, and designed to fit into your student backpack. This grandfather of the modern laptop was revolutionary for its day.
His strategy was to break the corporate world’s reliance on IBM machines by impressing upon America’s future business leaders the superiority of Apple products when they used these products as students, in the hope of influencing their future procurement decisions.
Straying from his sales pitch, Steve took the opportunity to exhort his mainly-American audience to persevere and “revive” local American manufacturing and innovation in the face of intense Japanese competition. 1980s America was in the throes of recession. American companies were threatened by a flood of cheaper and better-designed goods from the likes of Sony, Toyota and Canon. Many American companies were going under or being taken over by their Japanese rivals. It was a time of grave pessimism for corporate America and Steve was- in his own way- trying to rally America’s executives to believe in themselves and never give up.
(Of course, the irony of Steve’s message was that Apple’s success in recent years was partly built on outsourced manufacturing in China. Genius though Steve was, even he could not resist the tide of economic history.) Still, and more significantly, what struck me most from our conversations that day was his intense patriotism and belief in the ability of individual Americans to look within for solutions to reinvent themselves and bounce back from the malaise, which they eventually did in the 90s.
As Singapore stands at the crossroads of its development as a nation and society, tired and cynical and unsure of the right path forward, perhaps we should take Steve’s decades-old message to our hearts. Yes, we have made mistakes along the way and life seems to be getting harder for us all. But we cannot rely on the government to fix all our problems. Nor can we rely on quick fixes like the casinos, cheap foreign labour and unchecked capital inflows that tear at our social fabric.
The solutions must come from within ourselves. We must rise above our cynicism and have the confidence to articulate our vision for the Singapore that we want- even when this vision conflicts with the powers-that-be. In the true spirit of the i-products, we individuals can all be leaders who care and contribute to society in our own way. Like America and Apple, Singapore too can reinvent itself as long as we are willing to take an active role in shaping our future.
The Apple Macintosh eventually failed in its original version and Steve was forced out of Apple soon after I returned to Singapore. Bill Gates assumed the leadership of the IT world and Steve roamed the edges of the IT wilderness for the next two decades. I was thrilled in 1997 when Steve returned to the helm of the company he founded. The rest, as they say, is history- a history Steve personally crafted. We too can craft the next chapter of Singapore’s history.