Almost every adult living in a city has watched a TED Talk. But back in the late 2000s, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were each a few years old. And Dave Lim was one of a few Singaporeans avidly following TED’s online trail, certain that this was a new and revolutionary way of spreading bold ideas to the world.
In 2009, TED announced that it was starting TEDx, an offshoot that allows anyone in the world to start his or her own non-profit mini-version of TED Talks. In less than a day after TEDx was launched, Mr Lim bagged the rights to organise TEDxSingapore. It didn’t matter that he or anyone involved in TEDx is strictly prohibited from making money or drawing a salary from it, Mr Lim simply believed that it was a force for good.
In the decade since, TEDxSingapore has featured over 200 speakers and talents in 45 events, the oldest being then 113-year-old social worker Teresa Hsu sharing her wisdom, and the youngest being then 6-year-old Mirella Ang talking about kindness. TEDxSingapore has grown its following to a whopping 150,000 people, accruing on average 15,000 new followers every year.
The 52-year-old Mr Lim – who previously worked as an economist and venture capitalist – was appointed a global TEDxAmbassador in 2013. To celebrate Singapore’s Bicentennial and the 10th anniversary of TEDx and TEDxSingapore, Mr Lim and his team are curating an upcoming series of salon community events to bring together Singapore participants and previous TED and TEDx speakers to discuss ideas concerning Singapore’s future, beginning with the topic of happiness.
You applied for permission to start TEDxSingapore within 24 hours of TEDx launch in 2009. What made you believe so much in the cause, at a time when very few people had heard of TED?
I started my career as a developmental economist at the Monetary Authority of Singapore. It always seemed to me back then that Singapore was always waiting for people to tell us what to build with our hands. We went from plastic toys and dishes to TVs and hard drives. But you can see that that era is over. Things have gone from the hands to the head. The future of Singapore depends on good ideas. So the motivation for me in 2009 was to help Singapore become more of an ideas-driven society. If we value ideas, we must talk about them. I wanted to make the practice of sharing ideas go mainstream… I’ve always been attracted to ideas from across the spectrum of the sciences and arts. My father was an engineer and my mother taught English literature, so I’ve always been comfortable drawing ideas from an array of disciplines. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and we design all our events to be multidisciplinary.
What were the first TED Talks that struck you and made you an early fan?
The TED talks online started in 2006 and it didn’t have that very many talks in those days. But there were some that were incredible, like the one by British educator Ken Robinson whose TED Talk has been viewed over 50 million times. In it, he asked if schools actually educate the creativity out of you. And because I was then and still am very concerned about how Singapore can be more ideas-driven, that struck a chord with me. Likewise, I was very impressed by the Swedish doctor and statistician Hans Rosling who talked about economic development and birth rates. But instead of delivering a standard facts-and-figures talk, he presents his counter-intuitive arguments very compellingly using visuals and graphics. Those two talks really made people – including me – fall off their chairs. These were important messages delivered in ways no one had seen before.
When you look at Singapore and the ideas that pervade our society, and then you look at TED which often presents brilliant if sometimes radical ideas, do you think that we as a society are shortchanging ourselves by not looking at these ideas seriously?
I don’t really take that view because, in a sense, we have TEDx everywhere, including in Iraq and Mozambique. So we all exist in our own communities and we’re all at different states of development. So I don’t really look at the rest of the world and benchmark their achievements against ours…. For TEDxSingapore, what makes something attractive to us is when we come across something we haven’t encountered, a hidden idea ready to emerge, or a new perspective on an existing idea that’s worth considering – barring religious and political issues, of course, which TED steers clear of. We don’t platform celebrities just because they’re famous. If it’s something that is already well-known and safe, we are not interested. The quality of the idea is the first thing we look at, and after that, we try to curate speakers of different ages, genders, ethnicity and fields, so we ensure a diversity of perspectives.
Across these 10 years, what have been TEDxSingapore’s most memorable contributions?
It’s really hard to pick favourites out of a buffet. But the standouts definitely include the one by Bob Lee, a former Lianhe Zaobao photographer who spent time teaching the blind how to take photographs. Everything about that statement makes you sit up and go: What? How? Why? But I don’t want to spoil it for you. You should see it yourself. It’s what I consider a quintessential TED Talk, because it completely challenges your assumptions. Another speaker you must check out is Randolf Arriola, a former semiconductor engineer who switched to music and became one of the world’s top live loopers. Not many Singaporeans are aware that there’s this extraordinary musician living among them. One of our most popular videos is by Teresa Hsu who was Singapore’s oldest person before she passed in 2011 at the age of 113. She devoted her life to helping the destitute and her TEDx Talk has garnered almost 200,000 views.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.