Creative founder Sim Wong Hoo famously said S’pore suffered from ‘NUTS’. What did he mean?

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In the early 2000s, Sim Wong Hoo was somewhat of a local legend.

His famous rags-to-riches story (or Bukit Panjang-to-Bukit Timah story, to be more precise) held Singapore spellbound. In 1992, he led Creative Technology to become the first Singapore company listed on Nasdaq; in 2000, at age 45, he became Singapore’s youngest billionaire.

His passing on Jan. 5 spurred a series of tributes and comments waxing nostalgia about his legacy.

From his iconic Sound Blaster audio processing card, to his legendary David-meets-Goliath legal spat with Apple over Creative’s music player patent (from which he emerged with a S$100 million settlement) — Sim’s impact as one of Singapore’s pioneer technopreneurs is undeniable.

The other 2000s epidemic

His impact was not limited to the tech sphere, however. Sim also famously coined the term, “No U-Turn Syndrome” (NUTS), which eventually made its mark as an indelible part of the Singaporean vocabulary.

It’s a term you’d probably have heard of, if you were plugged into the local media landscape of the early 2000s.

But if not, here’s a short explanation, as laid out in an excerpt from Sim’s 1999 book, Chaotic Thoughts from the Old Millennium:

 “NUTS is when you want to do something and you seek approval of a higher authority. When there is no rule saying that you can do such a thing, then the standard answer is NO…

In the US, when there is no sign on the road, it means that you can make a U-turn. When the authority do not want people to make U-turns, they will put up signs to tell you not to make U-turns.

In Singapore, it is the reverse. When there is no sign on the road, you are not allowed to make U-turns. When the authority allow you to make U-turns, then they will put up signs to give you that right.”

This no U-turn culture, Sim argued, has permeated every level of the Singaporean mindset, creating “a way of life that is based on rules.”

“When there is no rule, we cannot do anything,” Sim wrote. “We become paralysed.”

The rule-based system, initially conceptualised for a fledgling nation hoping to draw investments from overseas corporations, did exactly what it intended.

Multinational corporations promised a fleet of reliable workers got what they wanted; a newly independent Singapore, emerging from the chaos of war, shepherded into prosperity by a no-nonsense, ruthlessly efficient civil service.

But in a fast-changing, globalised world, the system had now become obsolete, Sim said.

“To meet the challenge of the new world, to meet the challenge of rising to a knowledge-based economy, we have to innovate like mad.

[But] innovate means to create things out of nothing, it means moving into uncharted territories where there are no rules.

How can you innovate when you have to get approval of somebody who looks at a rule-book first?”

In essence, from a system that brought Singapore wealth, NUTS had become a roadblock: to innovation, to creativity, to advancement.

NUTS in public conversation

The term took off.

It soon became a fixture in public conversation, targeted at everything from entrepreneurship to education. In particular, it was used as ammo against a civil service plagued with red tape.

NUTS even made its way into parliament. “Suddenly MPs going nuts over ‘chaotic’ wisdom of Mr Creative,” one headline in The Straits Times proclaimed, after Members of Parliament (MPs) alluded to NUTS during a 2003 Budget debate.

One MP, Chew Heng Ching, cited NUTS in his argument about the inadequacy of the Budget’s initiatives to promote entrepreneurship.

“Civil servants must not assume that the businessmen are out to cheat the system and exploit loopholes,” he said.

“There is a need for a comprehensive review of internal policies that stymie business and entrepreneurs, so that the spirit of free enterprise can be enabled.”

Another MP, Leong Horn Kee, put it more bluntly. “Our people and our children are too used to being led, guided and spoon-fed by the  government,”  he said in a call to boost entrepreneurship in Singapore.

“We have to break out of the old mould…I believe the government, being a caring parent, must learn how to ‘let go’.”

Separately, a 2007 ST forum letter blamed NUTS when local students lost a school debate to their international counterparts from the United World College.

“Sim Wong Hoo’s theory of NUTS may be food for thought for our Ministry of Education officials as our schoolkids and civil servants have grown used to the entrenched culture of NUTS,” the letter-writer asserted, criticising Singaporeans for their “unquestioning conformity to higher authorities”.

The term even made its way into the Malaysian press.

Chaotic thoughts

In the decade since, Sim’s public profile has largely faded, along with his once-pervasive acronym.

But it remains firmly entrenched in the Singaporean vocabulary, occasionally making a reappearance in the odd LinkedIn post or social commentary.

And the spirit of Sim’s sage advice remains just as incisive today as it was in 1999 — whether in arguments concerning the abolition of exams, or the deferment of National Service (NS).

As Sim himself put it in Chaotic Thoughts:

“We are moving faster and faster into many uncharted territories, where there are no rules.

We do not want to be paralysed by waiting for the rule to be formulated before moving — it will be too late. We have to discard our NUTS mentality and learn to live in a new world where there are no clear rules.

Not that it will be a cowboy lawless land. There will be broad guiding principles such as common goals, objectives and basic integrity to follow.

The rest, we have to look at the big picture and decide what is the best way to do a job, to achieve our goals.”

Top image via Amazon and Zaobao.sg video