Saturday, November 10, 2012


I had the privilege of attending the “Third China-India-Singapore Dialogue on Higher Education” on the 8th of November, 2012. The event involved leading academics and administrators from China, India and Singapore discussing what they saw as the future of higher education in Singapore.

The star at the event was Mr Ngiam Tong Dow one of Singapore’s most prominent former civil servants. 

You could say that Mr Ngiam was in the thick of things during the creation of the Singapore Miracle. He was Permanent Secretary in the key ministries of Finance and Trade as well as in the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr Ngiam was also the Chairman of the Economic Development Board - thus making him the chief salesman for Singapore to multinationals.

What makes Mr Ngiam is a rare creature in Singapore – he’s an intelligent and credible critic. Mr Ngiam utilizes public forums to criticize many government policies without saying anything critical about particular members of the establishment. Unlike the ‘rabid dogs’ on blogosphere, Mr Ngiam does not make it a point to attack the government for the sake of it – you will, for example, never find Mr Ngiam kissing trees in public or hurling vulgarities at people.

So, when you take all these facts about Mr Ngiam into consideration, you have to take what he says rather seriously. One of Mr Ngiam’s pet peeves is the fact that he believes that our economic planners haven’t done enough to encourage Singaporeans to use their brains. In yesterday’s forum, Mr Ngiam declared that he did not like casinos because they only provided ‘second tier’ jobs and Singapore, he argued, was selling itself short.

I’m glad he said what he did at the forum. Singapore talks a lot about how we only have “human resources” and we brag about how much we’ve developed it. Yet, despite all the rhetoric, Singapore claims that it has very little talent to get things done – hence the need to import talent. Why is that so?

The main culprit here has to be government policy and the inability of the establishment to accept that the successful game plan of the 1960s may not necessarily work in the current century. Despite investing heavily in education, Singaporeans remain shockingly clueless about many things. My favourite example is the way many Singaporeans think Sikh’s come from Bengal as well as believing that Saudi Arabia is a part of Dubai. You might argue that this is a small matter but it’s not. These basic facts don’t require a college degree. One merely has to look at a map to realize that there’s a distance between Punjab and Bengal or that Saudi Arabia is many times larger than Dubai.

I think of former Bloomberg Columnist, Any Mukherjee, who once lectured a group of journalism students. His only remark about the students after the fact was that they were “Curiously uncurious.” Like Mr Mukherjee, the government should be curious as to how it could educate a population into not being bothered to glance at a map before dealing with people from elsewhere.

Instead, the government seems content to produce people like The Young Muslim Politician Who Drinks During a Ramadan Day from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek. This young clown is currently very upset because I’ve told him that he has to compete for good jobs with people like a client of mine, who happens to be an Indian National. He’s asking me what this client of mine can do that an NUS Graduate can’t do. Well, unfortunately if you take The Young Muslim Politician Who Drinks Alcohol during a Ramadan Day from Paris Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek as an example, the answer is simple. The Indian National can think.

To be fair to Singapore’s established universities they have NOT admitted the Young Muslim Politician who Drinks Alcohol during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek (apparently he’s at some Singapore based Monash campus) and they’re recognizing the need to teach subjects that train the mind. One of the professors from the National University of Singapore (NUS) proudly told the audience that NUS is ramping up its teaching of liberal arts, humanities and social sciences. They’ve found that while employers haven’t specifically asked for liberal arts graduates, they’re asking for people with the skills that liberal arts training provides – critical thinking.

This is a rather belated but welcome move. Simply put, in the 1960s people were told to send their best and brightest to work for the government or a multinational. In these organisations things were simple. The civil service was led by a handful of bright thinkers (educated elsewhere) who controlled the drones (educated at home). In the multinationals, the head of would always be some barrow boy from elsewhere.

Well, this economic model is becoming less relevant. The multinationals now have a choice when operating in Asia. The hot markets these days are China and India and they have alternative gateways to Singapore. So, we need a new game plan and people trained in the old ways of doing things need to reinvent and readjust their thinking.

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be don’t always seem to get it. Singapore has been trying to reinvent itself as a Monaco of sorts – the rich of the world are invited to Singapore to have fun and the population is supposed to make do as service providers to the entertain the rich and famous.

This strategy has a slight flaw – the rich can always bugger off to elsewhere when they’re bored. Your indigenous population has a habit of getting uppity when house prices go up. How do you figure things out?
I’m with Ngiam when he argues that we need to look at developing brains. 

Singapore is small and it lacks the muscle of China, India or even neighbouring Malaysia. The only thing we have going for us is our brains.

There’s some hope here. We managed to produce Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology – the man who gave us the sound blaster and allowed Steve Jobs to plagerise his technology into the iTune. We've borrowed Olivia Lum from Malaysia and she’s reinvented water.

Unfortunately, both Mr Sim and Ms Lum seem to be the exception rather than the rule. What can be done? Well, it’s encouraging to hear people at NUS like Professor Lilly Kong, Vice President of University and Global Relations at NUS talk about encouraging creativity and critical thinking.

However, training alone is not enough. Having a brain has to be lucrative. Singapore has wonderful intellectual protection laws. However, there’s very little market for intellectual property. In the media industry there are only two established media houses that regard publishing anyone not on their payroll as a favour to that person. In the R&D sector, there are wonderful government funded research labs…..unfortunately the government holds owns you and therefore your intellectual property. Hence you have very little commercialization of R&D

This has to change. Civil Servants need to lose the fear of letting go. Entrepreneurs should be allowed to look for innovations that could produce things that can be commercialized. The economy should welcome invented in Singapore as much as professes to accept made Singapore.
Mr Ngiam is right and he needs to go further to encourage greater competition for products of innovation. It’s all very well teaching people how to think but they also need to get paid to think.   


Anonymous said...

Wasn't the very successful Sim Wong Hoo considered somewhat "uneducated" by our government? And when he was doing his best to make Creative the number one soundcard manufacturer in the world, our local stock exchange shunned him; while Nasdaq warmly welcomed him.

If this is how we treat our brightest talents, shame on us.

sgcynic said...

This is how SIngapore recognises its talents - we recognise them only when others have recognised them (pun intended). Short-sighted, or that's how some people befriends others - when the latter become rich and successful...