There have a few letters in Singapore's Today newspaper talking about our education system. The debate has centred around the fact that despite all the praise that has been heaped on Singapore's achievements in education, we have produced virtually no leaders of global corporations.
This is a rather timely debate. Despite being an economic miracle, Singapore's policy makers are worried. The question amongst a few members of the 'chattering' classes is what exactly is "next" for Singapore? To prepare for what comes next, one has to look at the schools.
Singapore's school system is pretty darn good. We inherited the old British colonial system and instead of making it "wis hy-washy" as the British did in the 60s (the year they invented the comprehensive system), we decided to make ours a little harsher and til this day, we are not making any apologies for it.
On the surface of things, there's no reason for it. Singapore kicks arse in things like global competitive scores for mathematics and science. We have gone from a barely literate population from my grandparents day to total literacy in mine. We are especially good when it comes to exams. Go to any overseas varsity and you'll find that Singaporeans usually top the class - simple, our training gets us geared up for exams in a way that Western schools don't.
In terms of economics, the system has also served us well. Foreign investors do pump in big money into Singapore mainly because we have a pool of highly skilled workers. Both 3M and Alcon built factories in Singapore rather than in cheaper locations around the region because we had a pool of skilled workers that our neighbours did not have.
So, why on earth are we wringing our hands over education? Well, the answer is this simple. Despite all our achievements in education we have produced NO Nobel Prize winners. There is no such thing as a globally renown artist who was educated in the Singapore system. It's not just the multinationals that are run by foreigners. To get ahead in government service, you need to spend a stint of your education elsewhere. All three of our Prime Ministers have had to study elsewhere for a period of time. When Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's closest thing to an intellectual, encouraged Singaporeans to send their kids to our wonderfully good local universities, someone asked him where his daughters were studying. Mr Mahbubani suddenly became very silent on the topic.
A friend of mine said it best - "Every year so many jobs are created. We are told we need so many foreigners are needed to do those jobs. Then you ask, why can't the locals do them. Then, if the locals are not qualified, you have to look at what the locals have in common."
So, here's the question - why isn't the education system producing leaders and why is it even a worry.
As with most things in Singapore, the question lies with basic economics and politics. Back in the early days of independence there was a need to build the country as quickly as possible. The answer in those days was to go against the grain of what post colonial societies were doing and welcome Western and Japanese multinationals to hire people and build the economy. To bring in the multinationals in those days, you simply needed to be cheaper than the home nation. Our secret was to produce an educated and compliant workforce.
Hey presto, we gave the MNCs a pool of workers who were qualified to the do the work and didn't get into the nasty habit of going on strike. Lee Kuan Yew would make darn sure that no interest group could do to him what the miner's did to Ted Heath in the UK. He dealt with trouble makers ruthlessly and rewarded compliance.
Unfortunately times have changed. The rest of Asia has become a reasonable place to deal with and they're advantages in size are starting to count. Put it simply, Singapore will NEVER make things more cheaply than China or Vietnam and they will never service as cheaply as India or the Philippines - and that remains the case even if you were to get every Singaporean worker to work for a token sum instead of a living wage.
Singapore has played up its advantages of being a safe haven. So the multinationals may do their business elsewhere but chances are the headquarters will be in Singapore. Ask any expatriate why they're in Singapore and they'll tell you that life is comfortable - often far more so than in their home country.
However, that still does not make the Singaporean any better off. Yes, we have lots of expats living here and they're spending money on high priced booze. But that doesn't exactly generate a good living for Singaporeans. We, as a population remain in the sandwiched class between expats on top and labourers at the bottom. To make matters more comfortable, the government has been on a drive to reduce our dependency on "foreign labour" at the bottom of the ladder. The top remains stubournely foreign.
In the last decade of living in Singapore, it remains rare to find a Singaporean running the Singapore operations of a multinational. David Tang of DDB remains the only Singaporean running the Singapore office of a multinational. Ed Ng, formerly regional CEO of GE Commercial Finance South East Asia was a unique species who had an American reporting to him. Outside these two, the Singaporean bosses have all been entrepreneurs - Palani Pillai and Lim Sau Hong come to mind.
Part of the reason is cultural. To climb in a multinational, you need to have overseas experience. A good deal of Singaporeans don't like to travel simply because you never know when you get to see family. Both Eddie Khoo, now head of consumer banking for United Overseas Bank and Edmund Koh, President of UBS Singapore, were ex-Citibankers who moved to smaller banks (admittedly in higher positions) for the very simple reason - they climbed as high as they could in Citi Singapore and any higher would have meant relocating elsewhere.
Westerners and now the Indian Expatriates don't have such qualms about moving around. As such, these groups find it easier to move up the international corporate ladder. UL's head in Asia-Pacific is from Kerela and there's Deepak Sharma, Chairman of Citi Private Bank who was an Indian Citizen who now happily resides in Singapore.
However, the desire not to travel isn't the only reason why Singaporeans don't fly high. The sad truth happens to be the fact that Singaporeans simply don't match up for many of the top jobs.
Our system has produced good workers, people who can do the job as well as anyone in the world. However, this is only just one quality required in today's multinational. I think of my ex-boss Monical Alsagoff who would tell us,"It's not the best person for the job who gets the job. It's the person who sells him or herself best who gets the job." Neil French, the former WPP Global Creative Head used to pride himself in his ability to sell himself.
Singaporeans are notoriously bad at self-promotion. You could argue that we are a naturally modest people. However, that's not exactly true either. We are competitive - the local word that comes to mind is Kiasu, Hokkien for scared to lose. We are one of the few places on earth where I know of, where students will deliberately hide reference books in the library to ensure no one else can get that elusive "a"grade. We simply don't like to stand out because our system usually slaps down the chap who tries to stand out. I remember the phrase, "Why you so special," used more than once when I was in National Service. In other places, being "special" is something to be proud of. In Singapore it is to mark yourself out for trouble.
We fear getting into trouble far more than we like success. Yes, it's always good to be careful. Better use a condom before sleeping with that sexy hunk/chick giving you the eye. However, fear of failure tends to breed something rather more worrying than caution - a lack of a sense of ownership.
Think back to Mas Selamat's escape from Whitley Prison. The Home Affairs Minister spent an unhealthy amount of time explaining why it wasn't his fault that a limping man escaped a highly secured facility instead on focusing on a solution. I think back to my National Service days when I stupidly did not check ammunition when taking over the guard room and got slapped by the Battalion Orderly Sergeant for it. The RP Sergeant told me later on, "Too bad you already signed the take over slip, otherwise you could have blamed it on your men."
Somewhere, somehow we are taught that responsibility equals trouble. Best to avoid responsbility and therefore trouble. Til this day, I would not have blamed the men under my command for a mistake I made but I guess that makes me a nut job of sorts.
Being on top means you have to take responsibility for issues that crop up. The rewards are of course greater when you reach the top but so are the risk. America does produce the people who climb to the top because they're willing to answer with their jobs. It doesn't happen in Singapore. Far better to blame foreigners than take the burden of blame onto yourself.
I think of a venture I'm trying to kick start with a friend of mine who is a chef. I believe there's room for him to do some catering on the side. I've unlisted the help of another friend to do up the promotional materials. Her contribution to this venture has been to tell me to seek an older person's instructions on how to do things step-by-step.
It worries me that this is the mentality of a young Singaporean. Yes, the venture has a risk to it. It may not start let alone succeed or fail. It's an idea that I think is worth pursuing and its worth working at. Yes, failure is likely but you never know until you try.
I take the view that you can minimise failure by consulting those who have been down the road before you. However, one has to take ultimate responsibility for ones own actions.
The idea of going into business with someone telling you how to do it step-by-step is a sign that one should not even be in private enterprise. It shows that you have the need to pass the responsbility onto someone else. -It shows that you want to say at the end of the day is "It wasn't me."
Once again, let's compare Wong Kan Seng and the Singapore Government's reaction to Mas Selmat's escape to John McCain's reaction to his election defeat. Who would you follow? Who would you trust. The man who insist on being paid millions and yet denies all responsibility for things that happen. Or would you trust the man who admits to his mistakes and says sorry?
I remember The Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who drinks during the day in Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek saying,"Of course you don't apologise - that's how you keep your job."
Well, the problem is, jobs can be outsourced to someone cheaper or a technology can make what you do obsolete. You either find a way of being responsible for yourself and creating something for yourself or you die waiting for the government to give you things.
Something needs to be done and the right place to start is at home and at school. Children need to be taught that its good to be responsible for your actions. That's how you get better.
The Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek always tells me that we must salute to the "superior culture" of the West. I ask, why do we need to salute a "superior culture" where we can create one that's as good if not better for ourselves. I think that's a question the super geniouses in government should ponder upon