Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Few Cultural Observations

It's been a fairly interesting week for the nation. First we had the news that Mr Charles "Chip" Goodyear would not be taking over the reigns of the National Holding Company-Temasek Holdings Pte Ltd, as was previously planned. Instead of starting a new era under the former CEO of BHP Billaton, Temasek's investments will remain under the watchful eye of it's current CEO, Madam Ho Ching, wife of our Prime Minister.

A few days later, we had the news that Professor Thio Li-Ann would not be taking up a position at New York University's (NYU) law department to lecture on human rights in Asia. Professor Thio is a former Nominated Member of Parliament and like her mother (Professor Thio Su-Mien) is one of Singapore's leading advocates against allowing homosexuals more rights. News of professor Thio's appointment was greeted with howls of protest from the gay and lesbian community at Temasek.

While the news of Mr Goodyear's non-appointment at Temasek and Professor Thio's non-appointment at NYU may have nothing in common, I believe that both events do underline something very fundimental - namely the fact that Singapore's culture is such that we've become a wee bit too insular for our own good. Culture is often looked on as an airy fairy word with not much use in the corporate context, particularly when you consider nice solid things like number. But as Jack Welsh, former CEO of GE noted - Most mergers and aquisitions fail even though the numbers make sense because nobody looks at the culture of the two companies.

In Mr Goodyear's case, he had "Differences in Strategic Vision" with the board at Temasek. The local media delightfuly reported that the foreign media reported that Mr Goodyear did things like fine people for being late and did not allow fiddling with the Blackberry in meetings. More importantly, Mr Goodyear had ideas about changing senior management. In short, Mr Goodyear, a man with a reputation of delivering business results wanted to run Temasek like a normal corporation. He failed to take into account that Temasek is not a normal corporation and the culture of a results driven coporation does not easily translate into the culture of an investment club of a select group.

On paper Mr Goodyear was not only the first foreigner to head an SWF but he would have been the most qualified, if one were to judge by his record at places like BHP Billaton. It's good business sense to instil certain disciplines. It's good to have the most qualified people to do the job. More importantly, when you run a listed company you are legally obliged to expose your financial results on a quarterly basis. Shareholders are more often than not demanding and if they have to sustain losses, they have a way of calling for blood of the person in charge. A CEO of a listed company is not only a business manager but a manager of expectations.

The qualities that make a good CEO in a listed company don't necessarily translate well into running what is essentially a government department, however much the Singapore government would claim otherwise. You can't just sack senior management for non-performance without other considerations. You protect certain people and in turn you are protected from the masses.

Nobody should doubt Professor Thio's qualifications. Profesor Thio has recieved law degrees from the most prestigious universities in the English-speaking world. However, Professor Thio has one vulnerability - her views on homosexuals. While Professor Thio is untitiled to speak her views and should be entitled to express her views, the good professor has never had to face angry protestors, from people like students.

At best, Professor Thio claims to have faced "Death-Threats" from millitant homosexuals who are against her views. She also has argued against debaters like Siew Kum Hong. Yet despite all of this, Professor Thio has remained relatively protected by her title of Professor and in Asian or at least Singapore culture, people like professors remain insulated from intellectual challenges.

Professor Thio has never had to face intellectual challenges to her arguments in Singapore or at least people who would have tried to. Common sense will tell you that her speeches on the repeling of 377A contained not a single logical train of thought. She argued on the emotional and carried the day. How did she do that? This is Singapore and I believe that allot of people are willing to allow a learned professor to use whatever argument she choses without placing her under scrutiny.

It's a shame that Professor Thio didn't take up her appointment at NYU. Dealing with protestors would have earned her respect even from people who are opposed to her views. She may even have found a legal basis and a logical argument for a views, thus justifying her reputation as a brilliant legal mind. Instead she ran away.

I'm actually proud of being Singaporean. I have served national service in a combat unit. However, it dissapoints me when a culture of protecting an elite few is stronger than the desire to do great things. Mr Goodyear's appointment could have placed Temasek in a very unique position - that of a SWF that believes in delivering value so much that it looks to real talent no matter it's nationality. It sounded good on paper but when the bugger wanted to shake things up he was frustrated. Likewise with Professor Thio - a supposedly intelligent but contraversial woman teaching at a world-class institution, could have made a mark for Singapore but instead, she couldn't take public opposition.

A week ago, I remember Kamal Nath, India's transport minister cracking jokes about our electoral system. He pointed to an unamed Singapore counterpart who only campaigned at night and his campaigning involved going up and down a lift. By comparison, the Indian state that Mr Nath represent has a consituency of 1,800,000 people (nearly half of the total population of Singapore)

So there it is. Its good that people do good things for Singapore but let's put things into context. Running a small red dot where you are sheltered is not the same as doing things on the global scale. You need competition to know you are really good. People who have every resource at their disposal and no competition cannot claim to be great at anything.


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