Developing Human Capital


The human resource infrastructure in Singapore is creaking. And it’s because we have not institutionalise or captured the genius of our great founding fathers. Kishore Mahbubani’s recent column article about them really intends for readers to strike a comparison – but going beyond that, I want to think we have not missed the opportunity. But huge overhauls will be required. It is often harder to overturn legacy than to start afresh – we risk being trapped that way as a nation. Being small and nimble, I hope we’ll be able to.

Some of the qualities of our people really defines the trajectory of the nation; and these qualities are nurtured through education, corporate life, society. Are we then shaping our next generation to have the same kind of qualities as those needed? Time and again I see in education that cradling of fixed mindsets; I see in corporate life the resistance towards building up capabilities – choosing to dwell on opportunistic means of making profit and survive rather than thrive. I wonder how Kishore Mahbubani’s listing of the 3 attributes that our founding fathers – Incessant curiosity, ruthless realism and pragmatism – holds up with our current generation against the backdrop of institutions and structures well established.

Incessant curiosity. Do we encourage people to ask questions? Before that, we have to ask ourselves do we like questions? Do we care more about getting the right answers or getting the right questions? I had a new colleague recently and was called upon to mentor her. One of the first things I told her was that in order to pick things up really quick, you have to be able to work out what to pick up first. And you do so by training your mind to seek out right questions to ask. Never mind about the answers yet; you worry about whether answers are right or wrong only after you gain mastery of what to look out for. And that’s precisely a challenge for our education system. Throughout our traditional Primary and Secondary education, students are given a syllabus and just loads of content. To an ordinary Singaporean student, a subject is defined more by the content of its syllabus than the questions it poses to the world.

Ruthless realism. How realistic are we? We tell our children to go and study law, medicine, accountancy and engineering because those provides them with secure and stable jobs? Whilst that may sound realistic to you, it’s not at all. If money, security are the only attributes that you care about in the world then it distorts your reality. Ruthless realism is about focusing on attributes of reality that matters and identifying what are the trade-offs involved. Knowing these ‘hard truths’ prepares us to take on the real world much better. Do our children know the kind of work involved in the disciplines they undertake? How are we preparing them for disruption and new frontiers?

Pragmatism. I’m actually not sure how many people know the difference between pragmatism and realism. Pragmatism, in the Singaporean sense refers more to the notion that we are not rooted to any particular ideology; practical application of ideologies and whatever suits us best is adopted. However, that description is more of an outcome than the spirit of pragmatism. The spirit behind pragmatism is actually the methodology of refining ideologies and theories based on what we expect or experience in practice. In dwelling on the outcome of our founding fathers’ pragmatism, we overlook the sort of process and methodology that underlies those decisions and lend weight to the mistaken notion that pragmatism is the same as ‘whatever works for you/us’ kind of laissez faire approach.

Building up our infrastructure to nurture human capital and capture the gains we’ve lost through the last decade or so will require a mix of radicalism and incrementalism. And I propose the following moves in response to the comment above:

  1. Clarify ‘pragmatism’ and teach the practise of it
  2. Stop insulating our people from ‘hard truths’
  3. Encourage asking of the right questions rather than seeking ‘right answers’

Starting from our education system, this 3 moves can be practised most immediately by encouraging behavioural changes by teachers in class. This can only be carried out through content reduction, and shifting more discretion to teachers in terms of evaluating students’ abilities based on wholistic assessment (rather than just exams). Next, at government level, communications with citizens, treatment of all public service clientele needs to drive that 3 thrust. The thinking process which leads to pragmatic outcomes needs to be properly crafted and communicated – however politically incorrect they may be. Finally, I think corporates can start looking at the 3 thrust as tools for employee development and engagement to raise the standards of the way the deal with people. This will help them to nurture the next generation to be better managers and decision-makers.