The former China CEO of McDonald’s Kenneth Chan penned a recent opinion piece in Channel News Asia about Singaporeans not taking on leaderships in global companies. It was written in the “practical” Singaporean way that focused on the steps towards being ‘next-level’ and being ‘bold’ to be a leader. He described personal insecurities and his experiences on the ground to rise up.
Personally, I’ve had a host of regional experience within China, South Asia and Southeast Asia during my time with the Singapore government. At International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore, now Enterprise Singapore), I had the chance to work with Singapore companies on their internationalisation plans and follow them to markets you would not even think about as a man-on-the-street. Subsequently, I was in the pioneer team of Infrastructure Asia, engaging regional government bodies on infrastructure projects. That gives me the exposure, the open-mind and also the skills to communicate and manage cross-culturally.
As a Manager at the Sydney office of Blunomy today, I am leading teams of consultants across our Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne offices. I often have to facilitate exchanges with our European offices as well. Insecurities or perceived inadequacies may hold me back but ultimately, it cannot be the fear of me losing my edge or competitiveness that drives me forward.
And that’s the issue I have with the way the article was framed. The opinions expressed in the article reeks of the same old fear-mongering about Singaporeans being comfortable and losing out. I’m not sure if this works for the new generations of Singaporeans nor if that is the right motivation to begin with. The challenge for Singaporeans is not so much the desire for comfort but the lack of worthwhile aspirations. It used to be that rising up to be a ‘GM’ or a ‘CEO’ was something worth aspiring towards. But that simply isn’t the case today with the new generation.
The ‘boomer’ aspirations are simply not worth fighting for. It is in dealing with the ‘why’ that we find our fuel to move forward. “Success” as is constructed in past generations might not work anymore. Instead of aspiring towards “senior leadership” of global corporations, Singaporeans should be desiring to lead the charge of changing the world. Leading global organisations are means to do this. And then it is no longer about remuneration and the practical barriers of relocation and incentives. Monetary incentives should not be the reason for taking up these positions because they are challenging, stressful and hard. There is only so much money can drive that sort of sacrifice. It is the inspiration and influence that counts.
Think about Kenneth Chan leading McDonald’s – you’ve the chance to change the diets of millions of people by making decisions on the menus of your outlets. By thinking more deeply about the toys and promotions on Happy Meal, you get to reshape the aspirations and fancies of a generation of children. That is why it is worth being the leader of a global company – not because of the recognition or being labeled a ‘talent’.
Likewise, if you’re heading up a technology company, it shouldn’t be about maximising shareholder value or aiming to enable investors to make more money. Those elements are important only to the extent they allow businesses to continue making a difference. It is the ability for the technology to grow, benefit people and shape the future into one that we want their children to be part of. That can tip the scale of our motivation no monetary incentives can.
Are we equipping Singaporeans with the right aspirations? It’s not about skills and all that jazz about leadership. Those are important. And yes, government incentives with relocation or settling back in Singapore after stints overseas can help. But what is it that is worth Singaporeans developing that leadership for? That’s what we should be developing.