Thanks for stopping by! Hi, I’m Kevin, with a dream to empower our generation to create a future for themselves and the world. I do this through my day job as an Energy Transition Consultant at Enea Consulting, my social media content curation (instagram), creation (blog), and my career coaching practice. I’ve a background in education and infrastructure industry, both in the public and private sector, which informs my writing and coaching practice significantly.
When businesses think there is a shortage of good employees, it is high time to consider if the issue could be that there’s a shortage of good employers. While the government thinks about building up good manpower and talents for the companies they want to attract; they also need to consider the quality of employers and jobs created in Singapore. One of the reasons for Singapore’s success is the constant fine-tuning of this.
Our government agencies through design and by policy have a deep understanding of the two-sided nature of the labour market. And there’s recognition that in order for there to be employment, have to balance the demand and supply for labour delicately. This means that having some kind of liberal immigration regime is important, so that gaps in our domestic workforce can be closed.
Nevertheless, over periods of very serious dislocations of the skills demanded and supplied by our domestic workforce, there can be problems of foreign labour being demanded more than domestic labour; and with a huge pool of companies based here but unable to find suitable staff. Restructuring the economy is painful business and it is hard to tell whether the situation is temporary or permanent. Being able to continue dreaming about what is the future economy and suite of jobs made available in the economy for Singaporeans is important.
I spent some time listening to what George Yeo had to say about Singapore and his conception of cities. I found his insights incisive and pretty valuable for Singaporeans who are serious about creating a future for our nation. It’s great that we do have people like him, Ho Kwon Ping, Han Fook Kwang, who are providing valuable thoughts to challenge our country to do better and to consider our circumstances with new perspective. I’m thankful also for the presence of Institute of Policy Studies and the work they do in creating such open conversation.
Whilst I had the fortune of spending a few years in Chinese High where such open dialogues about the policies and approaches in school were welcomed, even embraced, I also went through a period where the administration became defensive, practiced “open conversations” merely in name. Town halls that I experienced in my subsequent work life mirrors those assemblies that I had in school. I don’t know how much of my generation was brought up to think and question status quo in these ways, and I fear that as a consequence, such open, public dialogues and airing of intellectual views are going to be limited.
My generation have gotten used to the notion of “open dialogues” or town halls being peddled around as part of our cultural value but what is truly expressed tends to be the suppression of dissent, and questioning of people’s motives for genuine questions asked. I wonder, how many more loving critics (as Prof Tommy Koh would put it) have the courage to emerge as the baton of our country’s leadership gets passed on to the new generation.
Coal is still responsible for 40% of the world’s electricity generated. And Oil was still responsible for 30% of the world’s energy consumption. Meanwhile we think that the world is making big strides towards decarbonisation. Yes it probably is now, and it seems to be so more than ever but the truth is, the world, several decades earlier, had less carbon in the atmosphere, was consuming less energy and certainly not emitting as much carbon dioxide.
The issue is that solar plants, wind turbines, offshore wind are all very visible. Even when they generate not that much power. A single coal fired power plant complex can generate way more power but is typically tucked away somewhere, by some coast where there’s some small jetty ferrying coal from some mines elsewhere.
Electric vehicles, EV chargers, though somewhat uncommon in Asia Pacific for now, are still considerably visible. So are apps showing you where chargers are once they become prevalent. It would seem everyone is trying to do their part for the world. But the ocean liners are hidden out of plain sight. Together with all those bulk carrier vessels ferrying coal from the countries of origin to where the coal power plants are, the container vessels are powered by dirty marine fuels which are typically from oil. Not the nice flowing gasoline or petroleum that runs our cars, not even slightly yucky diesel but much heavier, long carbon-chain fuels which emit more carbon dioxide.
And oh, the trucks moving long distances and carrying the containers which were lifted off those ships, they are also running on fossil fuel. The stuff which a slightly less visible, that the bulk of the real economy runs on, is still pumping so much carbon into our atmosphere. So if we restrict our thinking about energy transition just to electrification and renewable energy, we are seriously losing a lot of the big picture.
How many students are an average teacher in Singapore responsible for? How many teachers have responsibility for a single student over the course of his/her education in that single academic year? Over the years, there’s always questions raised in Parliament (or more recently here) and even internally within MOE about class sizes in Singapore. The answer has always been around considering resourcing for the students, more activities, more inputs, better quality, etc. And the conclusion, explicit or implied, is that we are progressing, improving and please don’t distract us from doing the good job we’re trying to do.
Maybe it’s time to stop giving non-answers? Maybe it’s time to say, look, our teachers are pretty burnt out, we’re making them responsible for too many things and parents are having higher and higher expectations on the schools without playing a stronger part in raising their kids themselves! So what if you send them for classes, or give them expensive toys that stimulates them, or expose them to different summer camps and experiences and so on. What are you teaching them? What are the values you seek to impart and how much time are you spending on that? How much of you; your attention, your capacity, your life are you giving your children? And how much are you outsourcing?
The most important human resource in the society that is responsible for moulding the future is not our teachers but our parents. In allowing the social narrative to load the responsibility on teachers, we are short-changing our children and our future generation. MOE should perhaps start education for parents, training them at parenting and stop shedding their responsibilities for their children to the system. Because that is the most important capability development that our society might need to help our next generation.
It’s 2007, Bear Sterns was suffering from the failure of their subprime funds and there were initial signs of warning on Lehman Brothers. My classmates and I at Hwa Chong were preparing for the A Levels. There was homework and mostly, a completed copy of mine was being passed around to be copied. “Please copy with understanding”, I reminded everyone.
There were two types of people in my class who were copying my homework. There were the ones who thought, “if I was doing the same things as everyone else, then if we are all wrong together, I’m ok”. There were, of course, those who actually copied with understanding, could catch my mistakes and then made their answers better. Some were kind enough to tell me and help me do better though others were more competitive and preferred to get ahead of me in grades.
Are you chasing deniability or chasing excellence? And when chasing excellence, do you think of it only in terms of outcome-based performance, or socio-moral performance?
When I was in kindergarten, we had play time when you get to “drive” around a little plastic car. And there were limited number of those toys so I had to wait for my turn. You don’t actually drive them around, it was basically a chair on wheels with a box around it and a steering wheel that directed the wheels on the chair and you had to move it with your legs. You get to ‘drive’ around the little yard in school for a while before you let someone else do it.
Limited number of ‘cars’, limited yard space, lots of kids, so we got to ration, wait for our turn to play. As we grow up, we are told companies have limited resources, there’s limited manpower and attention, so you get your turn to drive some projects, when it comes. And you wait, to be chosen to drive, to steer the things towards a direction you believe in (or maybe not), forgetting that it was going to be you powering the whole thing to begin with.
Seth Godin have written and spoke extensively about how everyone in the industrial system has been conditioned to be waiting to be picked, to be chosen, rather than to take action. Because we want to fit in, we don’t want to disrupt the system.
Most of us in corporate jobs are doing that basically, waiting for our chance to make a difference rather than just making a living, to be called to take the lead in changing the culture, to be given a title so we could influence others. All the while, we forget that when we do get there, it’ll be our own energies powering it after all. So why don’t we start now?
When I was thinking of leaving government, I was confronted with a dilemma. There was the 13th month Annual Wage Supplement (or whatever else they may call it); if I tender before January, then I would sacrifice that.
But then if I had stayed on for another month, it’ll be only 3 months before I get my annual bonus. That’s a big one, it could be worth 3 months salary, which means basically every month I stayed on, I’m getting paid twice my salary.
Then I thought, if I had stayed till April, I’d be just 2-3 months away from the mid-year bonus. It might not be so high given Covid and all, but maybe it’d be 1-month worth. That means every additional month I stay is worth ~1.5-month salary. And so on, and so forth.
If I practice that sort of marginal thinking, I would almost never leave my job. That sort of financial manipulation to “manage talent” may be smart, but it wins no one’s hearts.
In some sense, value of your labour withheld from you, again and again – then used to manipulate the staff in favour of the service. Because look, you had worked the entire year, but yet you don’t get the annual bonus until April next year when you had worked another quarter. And if you leave any time before that, you lose the ‘bonus’ entirely.
Of course, if your values align well with the organization, all of those considerations are really completely moot. So such a system does not help to ‘retain’ those who would have stayed anyways. Question is, why are we trying to ‘retain’ those who would be staying just for that sort of manipulation? Is it good for the service?
On the other hand, there can be entirely good reasons for such a system of bonuses. It allows the government at the end of the day to decide to pay out more if the economy is doing well and to reduce it when it isn’t. This allows the bonuses to be a very strong valve for them to steer the labour cost of the public service budget. After all, it seem to have had worked well in the past; the tricky thing is whether the new generation will buy it.
Being different matters. Differentiation matters to those who care about the differentiation. So while you try to differentiate your product, service or yourself, think about who are you doing it to, and what you are doing it for.
Take for example a food product. The farmer may care about the sourcing of that ingredients: is it fresh, how was it transported, where was it grown and with what? The TCM doctor may care about whether it is heaty or cooling, whether it is suitable for the old or young. The parent may be concerned if it’s good for the teeth of their child. The foodie may care abouts its taste. The food critic about the variety of textures. And the list goes on. Who are you selling the food to? And that will define what distinguishes you.
The same can be applied even to a Renewable Energy project. The impact investor may care about how much local labour was used to do the project. The sustainability investor would be concerned if the environment, social and governance matters were properly dealt with. The bankers will be concerned about the numbers. An engineer may want to know whether you used micro-inverters. Equipment manufacturers may ask what is the brand of the solar panels or wind turbine.
For most other people, they are just wondering if the lights can remain on when they switch to renewable energy. Especially if they don’t care about climate change.
In Clayton Christensen’s “How will you measure your life”, he keeps his final idea about life to a warning about marginal thinking. It was surprising because he was a business school professor and trained in Economics. One of the gifts of the subject of Economics is actually the ability to think in terms of marginal costs. And this marginal thinking allows us to achieve great optimisation.
The warning that Clayton was sounding is really about over-optimisation in a context and environment that is ever changing. And because the context and actions of others are going to change and influence your flow of cost and benefits, thinking marginally can cause you to miss the big picture and fail to take the right pre-emptive actions. You will fail to realise the cost of not investing in something new and disruptive.
His application to life is equally surprising. It was to issues of moral and integrity. And I think his idea is important because so many of us have begin to think of cost-benefit analysis exactly in the marginal way prescribed by economics textbooks that we no longer leave room for discussion of values and morals. The economic principle of marginal thinking assumes that the costs and benefits assessed are independent of the context and unlike to change any of the future costs and benefits. Either that, or the dynamic element of time do not exist in the decision-making framework here.
Clayton encourages us to understand the full costs of our seemingly one-off deviations from our values and principles. Because when we perform cost-benefit analysis and think that the once off deviance would be worthwhile, we do not realise how the deviation changes us as a person, our identity and relationship to our principles.
Sharing some common phenomena at workplaces to help you put words to your angst:
- The boss want us to solve all kinds of problems instead of the problems we’re supposed to deal with!
- The team/colleague is nice. They just disappear when work needs to be done.
- One of the job requirements is mind-reading.
- There are too many managers and no one to manage!
- None of the managers want to roll up their sleeves and do the work
- Colleagues are too competitive; most of them specialise in humble bragging.
Sharing some ways to think about seeking new opportunities and change. They are not necessarily direct quotes but lines adapted from some people who articulated them so I attributed them here.
- Why make a living when you can make a difference? (Seth Godin)
- Are you working hard to avoid mistakes or to achieve something? (Angela Duckworth)
- Whether you’re important or not does not matter as much as whether you’re working on something important.
- If the work is going to be uncomfortable, then at least work for an outcome you can be comfortable with.
- What are you contributing – your labour or your work?