Sunday, December 24, 2006

Who Really Made Singapore?

I've been looking through my friend, Simpleman's post on the 'Elite in Singapore' and through reading the various postings, I started to think about - Who really made Singapore? It's an important question to ask because I believe that if we can answer the question on who we were, it will enable us to answer the question of how we are going to get ahead. The future as they say is often in the past.

Lee Kuan Yew will undoubtedly get the prize as the individual who did the most to make modern Singapore. Our first Prime Minister was a masterful politician and nobody should be in any doubt of his intelligence, tennacity and integrity. The man was educated in the best of Victorian Britain's traditions and the Victorian Values, which later became repackaged as Asian Values, have helped Singapore create a culture where hard work, education and honesty are rewarded. Even if I think MM Lee's position on affairs in the Middle East will be dangerous for Singapore, I admire the fact that even in his mid-eighties the man's mind remains sharp as a razor.  

On the whole, Singapore has also been blessed with good government. Say what you like about government officials in Singapore being obnoxious, Singapore's civil servants are intelligent, hard working and most importantly honest with the best intentions at heart. The government has been by and large very effective at delivering the goods that government should provide like water, urban planning and a clean and safe environment.

However, while good government, lead by competent people has played an important role in Singapore's success, the real success of Singapore lies in the hands of Singaporeans themselves.

Yes, the government provided an education system but it was up to Singaporeans to make use of it. Yes, the government provided a police force but it was up to Singaporeans to respect the laws of the land. Technocratic competence in the civil service has given us a world-class government but that technocratic competence would mean very little if people were not willing or able to execute beautifully laid out plans.

Singapore's economy is in actual fact built by small-time entrepreneurs from China and India and other parts of the world. More often than not, these were men who were barely litterate but had a good nose for opportunity, a head for figures and a ruthless drive to make a better life for themselves. The drive and hunger provided by these men is what has built Singapore. It was these men who understood that their children could achieve a better life through the things that the government was providing and they helped the government to provide things by funding complementary institutions like private schools and so on.

Perhaps I'm getting a tad cynical in my old age but I think Singaporeans have underestimated their own contributions to the nation. We've become so in awe of the government that we seek every solution to our problem in the government and we become unable to find our own drive and hunger.

This is seen in the continuing awe that we hold government schoolars in. Somehow we see them as being central to our success. To be fair, the government schoolarship system has helped nuture a cadre of competent people to run the show. To be fair, most government schoolars are from humble origins and have risen by merit. However, should we, the general population hold them in such awe? Should we be so enamoured of "White Horses" that we grant them special privilleges that they are embarrased by?

The answer is NO. Government schoolars are good at keeping the system running but that does not make them necessarily good at creating new value. Take the army for example. The SAF scholarship is one of the most presitious scholarships available in Singapore. Thanks to this system, our officers are highly educated people. I was exceedingly privilleged to be lead by men who were good leaders who happened to be SAF scholars. I think of Colonel Toh Boh Kwee my former Commanding Officer. I think he was an Oxford Graduate but he was more importantly a commander who lead by example and was dedicated to bringing out the best in his men. I think of LTC Tan Chong Lee, my former Battery Commander (BC), a Cambridge Graduate who was married to his job. Most of all, I think of LTC Lam Sheau Kai another former BC, from the LSE, who made it a point to go to his men and talk to them in Hokkien so that he could communicate effectively.

Do I think the SAF Scholarship system automatically secures the best man for the job? I don't. It was my provillege tobe lead by men who were leaders first and SAF scholars second. Quite a few people I knew were less fortunate. They were lead by SAF Scholars first and leaders second. When you provide a secure and guarenteed path for people, there is a risk that they become more interested in reaching the end goal rather than the job at hand. Why strive so hard as a platoon commander when you know that as long as you follow the script given to you, you'll be the GM of a Temasek Listed company before your 40th birthday?

And even when the SAF schoolar is genuinely dedicated to the job at hand, he's not given enough time to make a difference. Commanding Officers come and go. Likewise for battery and company commanders. They stay in their post for a year and before you know it they're gone. I say this with some pride but at one stage in the artillery formation, all the active battalions were run by men who were 23SA Battery Commanders. Why? The reason was the fact that 23SA officers served tours of 2-years rather than 1 as was the norm. As such they could grow into the job and show real results of their leadership. - Football teams have a similar situation, Man U does well because Sir Alex Ferguson has been in the job for 20-years. How good can our leadership actually be if people in varoius jobs are not given the opportunity to develop in their jobs?

Finally, I'm reminded of what Uncle Andy said: "You know the army is going downhill when so much attention and training is lavished on the officer corp at the expense of the NCO corp." Officers are planning people. Smart people can come up with all the plans but if their not executed properly, they are useless. NCO's or Specialist in the SAF are the people who get things done. They are the people who get things done because they are close to the men and they have grown into their jobs. CO's may come and go but an Regimental Quartermaster (RQ) Sargent may stay in the same job for a decade or so. A good RQ ensures that the battalions logistics are in order, without him the battalion is useless.

Can society continue in its current mode when everything is focused on the planning people (officers) while ignoring the doing people (specialist)? How can we compete against the masses of China and India with a government staffed by clever technocratic people but while the masses or the people who get things done have not been as well developed?  

A while back, an emminent academic pointed out that the future of Singapore will be in the hands of the SME's. Small time entrepreneurs with a good a idea and the guts to try things our despite established norms. Where will these entrepreneurs come from? Alot of them will come from ambitious foreign talents, mostly from developing nations like China, India, Nepal and even neighbouring Malaysia. A good many more should come from the rank and file of ordinary Singaporeans who may not fit into the established pattern of government schoolarships but are celever enough at varoius things.

These people need to nutured. Their hunger is what will drive Singapore. It was what drove Singapore in the past and it will do so in the future. Super government can help but it's not necessary or useless if the average member of the population does not have hunger. Look at the way in which Hong Kong has succeeded with a hungry population but very ambivalent government. It's time Singaporeans lost their awe (This does not mean we lost our respect of good government or appreciate the value it brings) of the government and political leadership and start valuing their own strengths and weaknesses instead.


Anonymous said...

So, it was nothing to do with foreign direct investment from US, UK and other European countries? Most countries in the world work as hard if not harder than Singaporeans and they have not ended up with the same level of GDP as in Singapore. There is no way that with the low level of common sense and complete illogical nature of a people that Singapore could have reached the economical strength it has. I mean the average Singaporean isn't even aware enough to know that they are well off compared to the rest of the world and have an even greater potential for wealth. They have no knowledge of the hardships other countries have suffered and still suffer, despite an extremely strong and relentless work ethic. It takes a lot more than just hard work to put yourself in a position of economic strength. It takes common sense, creative thinking and the ability to converse in business with those outside of your borders. None of these the average Singaporean has. In fact they are uniquely devoid of all of these qualities. It also takes strength and back bone, again, qualities a Singaporean does not possess. In fact, I would go as far to say that Singaporeans are the most positively aggravating, non-appreciative and selfish people I have ever come across and I have lived in 11 counties across 4 continents and speak 4 I believe my opinion of the comparative world we live in should hold some value.

The fact that Singapore is cushioned between Indonesia and Malaysia, both strong Muslim countries. Also the fact that SE Asia has had a turbulent history, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar. Indonesia and north east Malaysia. Thailand acting for many years in silo. Then looking at Australasia on it's own to the south of the ever increasingly populated and historically unstable country of Indonesia. All this coupled by the fact that Singapore offers a stepping stone in to the rest of Asia for any western power and with a long established trading infrastructure.

Basically, I am stating that Singapore was never going to be allowed to fail. It has been supported by the West since and before the Second World War and will continue to be. For without Singapore, there is NO other country for the west to secure the rest of the region and do business from.The success of Singapore was not built by Singaporeans, and it is ridiculous to suggest so. Singaporeans are about the least equipped people to construct anything by themselves. It it an insult to hard working people across the globe to suggest otherwise.

I would like to finish by saying that Singaporeans don't deserve their wealth. What's more, it is annoying to hear them complain and not appreciate what they have got. Constantly hearing their disgruntlement at the number of foreigners here, when these are the very people who have given them their wealth and imparted their knowledge and skills sets.

If the average Singaporean were to actually travel and when they do, actually explore, then they would realize that in cities like London, there are over 120 languages spoken. Spoken by people of the world who built a country and now live in it. Being indigenously from London, I hold no grudge against those people, I am thankful for their contribution and also understand that the migration of people and crossing of borders is occurring and has occurred and will continue to occur for all time to come all over the world. it happens between different African countries, European countries, all through south and north America and yes, also in Asia. People migrate everywhere.This is nothing new.

Anonymous said...

Have I been able to afford to buy a property in London? No, of course not and nor can most 'English' people. For we compete with other wealthy economies......Russians, counties of the Middle East etc who out-priced us years ago. Now actually there is a substantial influx of Singaporean dollars going in to London property. Again, what the average English person can't afford. This is the nature of the world. So what I did is thankfully took my English pound and went elsewhere, just as I would urge the average Singaporean to do...especially those who now own a property. Most of them have somehow ended up millionaires!

Continued.....One last point, I was brought up in a so called 'middle class' family in the UK. I got my first job at 13 years old and had to work at least 2 days a week, if I was going to afford any of the niceties a young Singaporean has today. I worked all through my teens and have done all kinds of labour, from cleaning toilets in hospitals, working in restaurants, bars, on farms a d construction sites and have worked for many months at a time a '7 day week'. So please don't talk about hardship have really had it very very easy.........and your spoilt nature of today is just not....very nice.