Having been from Hwa Chong, I’ve heard of stories of how his time in Hwa Chong gave inspiration for his early teenage novels. While I never had a chance to watch the films or read the book, I could guess from reading Adrian’s writing that his quintessential wacky Singaporean humour would have been extremely entertaining. Yet he grasped the value of entertainment in the manner it could inform and influence – and he used it for the benefit of Singaporeans through his massively accessible musings on Linkedin.
57 years is far too few years for a man in Singapore to live. Yet in those years he gave much to the legal profession, and Singapore’s art and literary scene. He certainly made me proud to be a Singaporean. Goodbye Adrian.
There was an age when we needed mass education to get everyone up to speed on some basic things. Civics, some basic sense of rules, laws as well as literacy to be able to perform functions as a citizen, be it to serve in the community, read public notices or just the wisdom to spot a scam. Mass education helps when the parents at home don’t have that education background or ability to inculcate all that into their children. It enable very quick uplift of a generation of people. And of course, we designed credentials, qualifications and all that to go with the mass education to certify the skills and abilities, and to use educational qualities as a means to filter people.
More importantly, those were times when knowledge and information was scarce. And schools became essentially the distribution centers of such products. Teachers were facilitators of this transfer and distribution of both explicit knowledge as well as tacit knowledge about civic behaviour, values and character. This is why the problems and tests in exams are more about what and why; less about the how though there’s attempts at getting students to ‘solve problems’. But the application of knowledge was something taken to be done later in life through work and other contexts, not really at school – unless it is a vocational institute. In any case, most of the problems defined are pretty closed ended – with right answers or model answers.
Today, learning can be done through very different channels. Self-learning through the internet is pretty straight-forward. The core skills that is required in school becomes more about developing wisdom and discernment in the information received; the taxonomy around what constitutes more close-end problems vs open-ended problems where solutions can be more multi-faceted. And because this is the case, we need to reconsider how we value the old school certs and qualifications and find new ways to test and identify the talents in our midst, as well as the fit for various different work.
Gone are the days where we can easily get people to fit into the work and job roles designed within a company. We may have to start finding the right talents to deal with the crucial problems we want to solve and then leave the rest to be outsourced or dealt with by technology. At the same time, the ability to self-learn becomes so much more important. Not only should we start giving employees time to self-learn, we need to invest into structures, environment and coaching that enables that.
There are imposters around us; they pretend to be doing their work but are actually creating problems for their coworkers to solve. They are starting fires around workplaces that we all have to put out. The only issue is that companies are trying to get people to practise teamwork and they are not trying to sniff out imposters who are just pretending to be teammates. Unless you start playing office politics and all that.
What this means is that if you have been doing well, and keep doing well even though you didn’t seem to have previous experience or built any credentials around it, you’ve already proven yourself. What this means is that if you have some suspicion about yourself as an imposter, consider your intentions rather than your qualifications. What makes you an imposter is when you have drastically different intentions from the rest of the team.
It’s not just your qualifications that gets you there. It’s your intentions as well.
Our convenience in this day and age is built upon waste. Lots of it. When we order delivery, we compel an additional person in the society to actually go to the shop to fetch the food for us, bringing it to us before going about his or her way. This creates 3-4 journeys instead of two. It generates more packaging waste and potentially more transactions: between you and the platform, the platform and the deliveryman as well as the platform and the food outlet.
Yet our economy is built upon such foundations, that we generate more activities, monetise and measure it, and consider that an uptick in our growth and economy. Sure, maybe the ability to pay for the service and choice to take it up means you are able to spend that time more productively, at something where you can make a higher level of contribution to society. Indeed, if that is the case and the basic parameter of decision-making, then the economy and society becomes more efficient, not more wasteful. But that is unlikely to be a real decision parameter.
Convenience is something more about psychology, behaviours and motivation than with the cold-calculus of cost and benefits. Besides, the weighting of cost-benefit across time is not as simple as imputing an interest rate or discount factor the way we analyse it in economics. The discount factor adjusts due to the manner our psyche responds to context and situations.
The question then is whether we want to make that short term gain in our economy, giving in to our impulses or to generate the long term sustainability in our world and fulfill a greater meaning for our lives on earth?
As organisations grow, there’s inevitably a lot of time caught up in meetings and processes to keep people informed, to synchronise and align things. During my time in government I probably spend more than 40% of my week in large team meetings that quickly consume 5-8 man-hours just trying to coordinate activities or update bosses.
I experience that process of bloating as I journey with growing organisations I’ve been with. And I often feel helpless about it. It seemed to me as though the bureaucracy inevitably comes no matter how much we are able to delay it. Technology tools can help to a certain extent but it also creates the convenience and reduce the excuse of coordinating more frequently.
In my perspective, there is this continued struggle between coordination, management and actually getting things done. The bigger and more complex a project is, the more time and resources gets devoted to such work. The question is, what are big projects and such grand scale for? Why do we always focus on scale economies without recognising the downside it has on productivity of our people? Is scale really to capture economies or to feed egos.
What do you view your salary as? Is that a measure of your earning power? Or the return on your education and preparation? The cashflow returns on the asset of your human capital (there’s further capital accumulation through learning on the job). Is it always about trying to increase this return? Or is there anything about getting more days of leave each year? And more benefits?
And do you think you can ask for more? Who is in the market for your labour? And who are you competing? If you consider that your employer is merely paying an ongoing subscription on your full time services as an employee, would that help you think about how much you’re going to ask for?
Why does it seem that the work you do to earn that salary also matters a lot? What actually drives that perception? If you earn $6000-$8000 a month as a construction worker, would you take it up? Assuming you’d be trained from scratch. What kind of work gives you the sense of balance between your salary and the output being produced? How are they shaped by your own thoughts and the people around you?
Many questions and it takes a lot of adulting to answer them. Some of us might never even come to arrive at the answers despite a lifetime of work.
Do you think that Singapore is governed mainly by fear of sticks and people drawn by carrots? That we have a pragmatic society that is often about dollars and cents? And people are following rules because they are induced by incentives and pushed away by disincentives?
If you look at videos of Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches in the past they were fiery but also inspirational. He does not try to push actions or responsibility on people without giving them a destination that is worth their while. We tend to forget this in public communications.
We tend to tell people that they can’t do this or that because if everyone does it, there will be chaos. Instead, they should be saying that when we disallow people from doing this or that, it makes for a more orderly system or design. And it allows everyone to enjoy the environment better.
Instilling inspiration can be more rewarding than trying to great fear. But we are all too anxious for success, too impatient to do that. We prefer to think the energy to wield a whip is less than providing a carrot. That may not always be true.
Professional services are inherently somewhat personal kind of service that depends a lot on the team delivering the service – not just because of the expertise required and involved but also the extent the team actually understands and care about the problem that clients have.
When one enters a professional service environment, it becomes easy to sniff out industrialism when you note that the bosses are just acting as managers, thinking about how they can increase more sales, upsell customers and mainly care about the metrics involved for sales but not delivery. And then when it comes to delivery, the culture is about doing the minimum, leveraging irrelevant previous work, failing to live up to promises.
We have all seen the big consultancies deliver such stuff. Perhaps especially the big four. Mariana Mazzucato talks about it in the Big Con. Workers need to sniff out industrialism in this sector and learn to opt out of it – by leaving or changing the way they serve. Clients need to sniff that out by walking away. The reason why such industrialism perpetuates is because clients sign up for them – they put procurement departments, try to boil everything down to basic metrics and uni-dimensional issues, and negotiate lower prices, driving vendors to cut back on service.
We’ve had decades of doing more, extracting more productivity out of our assets, workers and even vendors. Like the big fossil, you might think you’re winning, until you realise you’ve just driven the world to its end.
There was a time when I gave very indirect feedback. Especially when it comes to negative feedback. It was probably an artifact of my work in the government where people are just way too afraid to offend. And often, the boss could be the one making a mistake and no one wants to embarrass him/her. So it was perhaps a big change for me when I joined a French firm. The french were known to disagree passionately about things; and also give pretty direct negative feedback.
Fast forward 2.5 years at the firm. I got feedback from fellow countrymen that I was too direct in giving negative feedback. Upon reflecting and scrutinising the way I gave feedback, I think it wasn’t so much an issue with the directness but how far I was criticising the work rather than the worker. I might not have been delicate enough to recognise this. Going forward, I’d have to pay more attention to structuring these feedback. And there’s a model I came up with which I’d like to share. It follows this framework:
Start by discussing expectations and standards
Then bring up observations on the work done. Note, it is the work and not the ‘performance’ of the individual
Get the individual to compare and share what they think are the gaps
Discuss how you can help them with the gap
It is not easy to follow this framework. Because we are quick to start sharing our observations and how things can be better. What is missing is the point about standards and expectations. Even if those are implied and not made explicit, there has to be some way of aligning it.
I’ve been based out of Australia for almost three months now. The transition was smoother than I had expected and as a Singaporean who have studied abroad both in the US and UK, Australia is an easy environment to fit into.
Yet there is one cultural element in Australia that makes it so radically different from most of the other places I’ve been and lived in. It is the respect and remuneration that is given to heart and hand labour. Vocational skills, trade skills are properly valued. Plumbers, technicians, work men are well respected and rather well compensated. It is a place where I have seen the most female construction workers at work sites. The work environment for these people labouring with their hands are generally good.
Same goes for heart labour. The caregivers; the nurses, those social workers. They are given great deal of respect and these jobs are not looked down upon. It is markedly different from Singapore in that sense. Last year in Singapore, Lawrence Wong made a speech about valuing heart and hand labour more in Singapore. The government was concerned about pay gap and inequalities but as a culture, there is a lot to learn from Australia when it comes to respecting the trade skills.
One could argue the prices would rise; food in Singapore may no longer be cheap. And it might cost way more to get someone to deliver goods or to fix stuff around the house. Well, we do pay a lot more to our corporate workers, and we do pay a lot for tuition teachers – why should head labour necessarily earn more? The government could lead the way by setting higher standards when it comes to some of these trade work. They can also pay more for the services they procure in the heart and hand sectors.