I started writing the following comment to Shefali Rekhi’s article More innovation from Asia on The Straits Times today.

She started off with this interesting premise: “ASIAN culture could have something to do with curbing creativity. And it could be why geniuses, born here, flock to the Land of Liberty to prosper.”

And finished with the great questions “Maybe Asia can change that situation? Does it have the potential? And are we willing to encourage creativity?”

This is what I believe. The biggest missing link to spark more creativity in Asia is Tolerance. The Talent and Technology is here without a doubt.

Without a tolerance for and the celebration of differences and diversity, new thoughts contrary to the status quo will be quickly shut down or self-censored before they could see the light of day.

If most people in a society are afraid to ask questions or think differently, there won't be any ideas to play with. Fear always kills creativity. Is it any surprise that Asian creativity – Hotmail inventor Sabeer Bhatia, and Yahoo! creator Jerry Yang – only finds true expression in more tolerant and inclusive Western societies.

Take Singapore for example. For a city of 4+million, there is incredible conformity across all aspects of society.

Local television programs tend to revolve around a handful of safe topics - food, school, soapies, talent/reality shows. The city is uniformly clean, well maintained and beautiful – but lacks any creative enclaves or alternative "arty" districts. The same shops in the same shopping malls sell the same range of goods, island-wide.

Asian cultures generally tend to be relatively more conservative than the West. Conformance to "social norms" is a big deal. There is a strong entrenched fear of being seen to be outside the mainstream. Individualism is often secondary to collectivism.

An individual can pay a huge price for being different. The recent planned takeover of the local womens group AWARE by a group of fundamentalist so-called Christians has stirred up much public homophobia. Comments such as those on this Straits Times article clearly show the current level of intolerance, ignorance and irrational fear of difference that is still out there. If being born a homosexual can draw this level of hatred, why would anyone want to voluntarily express any alternative thoughts and ideas on anything vaguely controversial?

There are creative people and great ideas within Singapore, that I have no doubt. But such creativity can only be expressed within the acceptable confines of "social norms". Censorship may keep the short term peace, but it is not the path to fostering significant innovation.

The culture here acts to keep creativity contained and limited.

Does Asia have the potential to be super creative? Absolutely. If the appropriate cultural changes can be put in place. Increasing tolerance comes with its own costs of course, especially in the short term. I can totally appreciate how a nation like Singapore can be afraid to encourage open discussions about topics that could potentially lead to any sort of social unrest. The risk of upsetting or breaking the status quo can become a risk to the stability of the entire country. This is potentially too high a price to pay.

But how long can Singapore afford to hold back creativity? How willing are Asian nations to make the changes necessary to encourage creativity? How much is the status quo worth versus the opportunity cost of not fostering radical innovation?

Fear is contagious.

As an expat living in Singapore, am I going to get into trouble for saying these things? Am I being too open? I was going to simply post this comment on the Straits Times’ site, but after some mulling, I finally decided against that, and to post it here instead. What does that say?