Social Narratives

I was reading this interesting take on the woke meritocracy by Blake Smith. The similarities to Singapore is uncanny not least because we have similarly competitive systems that have evolved to take into consideration academic grades and a myraid of criteria for university admissions.

What is more similar, despite cultural differences in our preferred kind of leadership, is the narratives expected of our elites and accordingly engineered into the social consciousness. The point has become to narrate one’s background in such a way as to simultaneously acknowledge the existence of inequality but to subtly suggests the system of meritocracy is still being able to pull up able members of those seemingly disenfranchised groups.

The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.

Blake Smith

These stories are no doubt powerful and casting skepticism do not help with building up the social fabric. But what I want to point to is the fact that we ought to have a more objective view of the meritocratic system and be more aggressive in combating the downside of the system.

One of the key assumption of the system is that merit as defined by the prevailing narrative and system is independent of your access to resources and opportunities. That is just patently untrue. If the inequalities are actually perpetuating structural inferiority amongst the disenfranchised, then how are we dealing with that?

Financial Burdens and reference groups

As we step into adulthood, we begin to realise how financial burdens starts to weigh on us just at a point when there’s supposed to be more financial capacity and independence. You look around you and see what you have been working for: being in a good job, wearing the nice suit or dress, driving the car you always wanted, even living in an apartment location in the neighbourhood you want to be associated with.

Yet at the same time, there are concerns about the future: retirement, rising cost of living, cost of raising children if we ever have them, ageing parents who would be faced with high healthcare costs while not having been insured. These concerns will weigh on this ‘freedom’ we believe we have.

The reality is that the modern society we live in have hone its ability to generate wants and demand for goods and services. And that is causing the anxieties. What Juliet wrote in The Overspent America applies as much in Singapore: we live in societies where we are comparing ourselves within reference groups. If our classes were seggregated, the society will be even more divided but our social mixing can impose a huge cost on the mental health of the society as well.

And here is how: in every product we own, we probably have a clear sense of what is the product that is just a little better, faster, classier that we can pay a little more for. When we are in the same schools, camp, office as the people who are of higher income groups, we take reference off their consumption habits as well. We desire to go to the same restaurants, send our kids to the same schools, ensure our kids have the same branded stationery as their classmates.

That is where inequality can hurt our society more than we traditionally think. The middle class who are mixing with the upper clsss, able to get themselves into debt to match the consumption patterns of those in their reference groups suffers the most. So when we think about the issues of inequality, it is not just about the ones at the lower end of the spectrum suffering. Even the ones in upper classes are trying to catch up and move further up the ladder.

We need to sharpen our thinking about the true cost of inequality and the design of our societies, having already did such a terrific job designing the physical space of our country.

Dyad of boss and bossed

Seth Godin have been talking about the concept of enrollment and deepening it for years. Which is why some of his thoughts are really worth looking into, dissecting and pondering over. His influence is really at the level of marketing so to speak- he gives you the incentives that appeals to being human to act in alignment with the ideas he discovers.

Anyways, I want to talk about the concept of the dyad of bosses and bossed which he mentioned really briefly in that brilliant blog post.

Sometimes, this evolves into a mutually beneficial entanglement between the boss and the bossed. The enrollment turns into a desire to please, a figurehead-focused loyalty and dedication that often ends poorly because there’s nothing beyond the dyad. Without external signposts, solipsism and dittoheads result.

Seth Godin

The idea of external signposts point is interesting because most of such pairings he mentioned continues to operate and do not “end” per se as the boss tends to have certain requirements to continue perpetuating. Either because bosses needs to please their bosses and the top is looking at the stock market (which serves as an external signpost) or that they are indeed looking at some external signals.

The “dyad” tends to result more perhaps in a situation where organisations have less resource limitations (eg. Huge MNCs, public organisations, well-resourced donor-funded organisations). Those are situations when the bosses can truly relish so much in being pleased that she/he allows that mutual entanglement to take place.

The issue is how far removed those external signposts are for each one in the organisation. If only the boss cares, then clearly, solipsism and dittoheads will still result. Some people do prefer to be in those context either due to cultural conditioning or just plainly inertia.

But once you are aware of that, the question is whether you want to see that change.

Moulding the Future

To what extent are our educators encouraging students to discover their interests and passions, and embracing them? How much time is spent discovering the potential of our youths and giving them guidance on achieving them?

You can fail at what you don’t love, so you might as well fail at what you love.

Jim Carrey

The precious lessons on failure aside, I think that once we have attained a basic level of our needs, our life satisfaction can come from taking appropriate risks – often not so that we get the success society confers upon us but that we had a shot at things we love. Jim Carey said the above because of his father who gave up a music career he loved for accounting to “feed” his family but became bitter when he lost the job in 51.

The thought that you compromised for the society’s narrative of success and then did not get what you were “promised” is so real especially in the world today where jobs are no longer stable and there really isn’t a real “career” with a single company.

How is our education system preparing our students for such a market? And how are we not setting our students for such failure of expectations?

Underinvestment in capital

Singapore is a small island state. We have no natural resources besides our strategic geographical location, as well as our manpower. And therefore, most of the value that we can try to create comes from being able to drive productivity growth from our manpower. And productivity growth cannot be seen as isolated within industries or sectors, but rather, integrated as a cluster of activities.

The mistake of looking at construction sector, or cleaning sector and say that productivity growth is lagging behind that of financial sector is the fact that investment trends in these sectors are different and quality of labour may not be evenly distributed. More significantly, as a result of those conditions, the bargaining power of labour vis-a-vis capital is also much more imbalanced. This sort of productivity slowdown cannot be easily dealt with through skills training.

Think about the incentives from the capital-side of the equation. With little competition from international capital to compete in the domestic sector (due perhaps to limited size and scale of the market), the businesses will tend to use labour as a means to put off capital investment as that helps improve returns on existing capital stock at the expense of labour productivity. Once you factor the uncertainties around return on capital, that will start to appear as a sensible move.

If this is the case of underinvestment in capital, then how would skills training improve the situation? What is being encountered is a labour force that might be worn out from poor quality capital being deployed (poorly maintained machinery, version 1.0 of an equipment for which version 10 is already available, etc).

Then moving on to my point about productivity cluster. Should the cleaners of a bank earn more than the cleaners at the construction site? With outsourcing, competition being encouraged at every segment of the value chain, this probably would not happen anymore. But is this really a good outcome? Because there will always be industries that are growing faster and extracting more profits from their activities, the supporting activities should also be entitled to a share of that windfall. This helps to speed up the expansion of growing sectors in an economy. This sort of cluster helps facilitate more real trickle-down effects.

Spectrum of intelligence

I was having a conversation with a middle aged man. He was in his late forties and having been a salaryman all his life, he was happy and satisfied with his work. He thought about some of those who went farther and higher in the organisation and said ‘they were really good’. I interpreted that to mean ‘they had what it takes’. I responded to say, ‘it’s also a lifestyle choice’.

The society has its way of determing what constitutes merit. And it’s often a mad rush in those dimensions in order to prove you’re up to par. Whether it is certificates, points, grades, licenses, we are all sucked into some of these common denominators of comparison. We want to find out the rules of the game everyone is playing and then play to win it. And be ‘really good’ – and if others win, we consider them ‘really good’, implying also that they are ‘better than us’ (though only in that single, narrow dimension).

The greatest gift as a parent that you can give to a child is to show them – that despite the education syste, despite what the society and people around you keep trying to tell you about studying hard, getting good grades, gaining CCA points, being able to rattle off lists of achievements, that there is a spectrum of different intelligence. And you may be intelligent in some form, others may be intelligent in other forms. There is no single overall type of intelligence. In a PR firm, intelligent may be about EQ, language skills; whereas in academia, intelligent may be about intellectual rigour. The context matter and of course in the context of school, there is certain definition of merit but that is not the definitive kind of merit in life.

The next great gift to your child is to encourage them to get out of basing solely on the paper chase, and find a domain of intelligence that allows them to flex their potential more than any others. Cultivate and develop that, and keep at it even as they try to meet the basic standards on other areas. Then they will come to appreciate others’ as ‘really good in such-and-such’, ‘better than me in so-and-so’.

Having Guts

Suffice to say most “talented” Singaporeans who did well in school would play it safe and choose the traditionally popular jobs that pays decently at the start and have clear trajectory in career development. They would switch from being grade-maximisers to be career-maximisers. They would continue to hunger for recognition from a system, to have the right boxes checked off, to get the right set of papers.

Do we have the guts to send a message that contradicts the idea that school prepares you for life? The mainstream education is great for preparing you to be in civil service, to make friends and solve intellectual problems together, but it is not building the skills you need for actual success in the marketplace. So it becomes terribly important that you do not optimise for grades; but rather, you optimise for life skills. Actually, to segregate “life skills” from school is already a big warning sign. The desire to measure and find common denominators to compare students against each other is natural. As a student, it is important to run from these.

For example, what does school teach you and train you about taking risks? Do you have the guts to decline a scholarship so you could pursue what you want rather than what they ask you to? Do you have the guts to take on unconventional subject knowing full well you don’t have the support of your teachers in mainstream education?

And that is not foolhardy recklessness; it is about trying to create something new. To take the risk for the country because we need all the people to pursue the different paths needed to show their fellow countrymen alternative ways of succeeding, to release new ideas and challenge what we take for granted. Only then we can be assured of continued success and breakthroughs as a country.

Rewarding Contribution

“Kevin, you know you don’t just instant-message a director to ask her something right? And you address them by their appointments, not their first name okay? That’s the way we do things around here.”

So this did not happen to me, it happened to a friend who was in public service and I am appreciative of the very progressive work environments I’ve been in my career thus far. But the truth is, workplaces generally reward compliance before contribution. I’ve previously wrote something similar about the education system that we’ve been subject to and hence the behaviour of the workforce we have trained. Because ‘That’s the way we do things around here’ is more important in the day-to-day moments than ‘How do we make the things we do better?’

But here is an encouragement for everyone who agrees with that previous blog post of mine, and who wants to contribute and not just comply. And here’s for those who despise those who think ‘Doing less means less mistakes; doing nothing means no mistakes (少做少错,不做没错)’. When you are able to first comply, then demonstrate contribution, you can get rewarded with concession to not comply.

What am I talking about? Non-compliance? Not deviating from hard rules that are laid down, but from cultural norms that stops us from contributing. Once you’re accepted as a contributor, as someone concerned about making things better rather than just upholding legacy, you’ll find yourself being able to bend norms a little more. People would give you more lattitude to rearrange things a little and see how they like it.

So don’t be discouraged when you’re different, when you want to do the real work and get hammered down. And don’t lose that sense that you want to contribute and yet is unable because of the culture of conformity. If you can be rewarded in that way for your initial contributions, then you can start making a difference to the organisation you’re in.

Keep growing, and may your adventures ahead match your ambitions.

Value for Money

What do you mean when the product you got is value-for-money? How does that compare to the idea that a product is cheap? Cheap is a comment about the price you pay, nothing necessarily to do with the value you get for your what you pay. Value-for-money is probably what we are thinking of when we hope to get a ‘cheap product’ – because it implies that for the value you’re getting, the price is great! The value is a lot more.

Now in Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects in infrastructure, there is the idea of a Value-for-Money (VfM) analysis. The idea is really to compare the PPP mode of procurement against that of traditional public sector procurement. In other words, it is taken that the government will need or want to implement the project, just a matter of how the project would be implemented. And in that spirit, PPP is not so much an enabler of projects than just a mere enhancement option that may make the project more efficient/effective, having already established the need for it.

I think too often, we get a little confused about VfM assessments and use it to evaluate if a project should go ahead or not. The Cost-Benefit Analysis that is used to establish the case for the project should be done even before the VfM – and at times, the VfM might be able to take advantage of that work to ensure that the private financing can result in a more efficient outcome. It is important that we see PPP as a mere enhancement rather than a panacea.

A lot of narratives about using private financing to alleviate state budget strains have been overly generalised and becomes simply untrue – because the state might be able to obtain financing at a lower cost and then deploy those funds into projects. So the private sector participation must contribute a lot more than that – and be able to articulate to the governments and help them echo those deeper advantages to the people. And for public sector contracting agencies, there are going to be private sector players coming along to promise lower cost of capital – but someone has to pay for it and you will have to consider whether you’re comparing quality like-for-like and if the output really is going to be as desired. The challenge of outsourcing is that responsibility to deliver projects is still that of the governments’.

For those looking into a career in infrastructure, or seeking coaching for career pivots into infrastructure, please do sign up for my mailing list, and also check out my coaching services.

Human ‘Resource’ – Part 2

So how do we change ‘human resources’ or the HR department? What is the story we want to tell ourselves about work of the future? What do we want to tell each other about the relationship between staff, management, and organisation that is authentic and sustainable? How do we develop trust when individual ambitions and desires for work somehow might conflict with the interests of the manager and organisation?

I don’t have all the answers but I asked those questions not so I can give you the answers. I ask them because they are worth thinking about. And one starting point, is to consider why we need workers and what do we want from them; as well as what do they want from us?

The brilliant thing about the knowledge-based economy is that it has made work more tightly woven into the fabric of our identity and life. In the past, earlier generations might see work as an enabler for a better life, to raise children so they can go to school, to get a bigger house so there’s room for the parents and children, to buy the things they want. Work also didn’t take up as much time in their life; and definitely not as much mindspace. Yet work in those days gave a special kind of security (in terms of financial aspiration and stability) that was unprecedented compared to the pre-industrised societies.

The disconnect now is that work is giving less of that security while demanding more of the lives of workers. It doesn’t square up; and Human Resource departments have to recognise that. They have to start seeing themselves as stalwarts of the company, safeguarding and keeping the most valuable asset of the company – it’s people. And when HR begin to see that they are not filling empty seats but caring for their staff (as an asset manager of a building would care for the development), they’ll begin to see the physical and mental health aspects of the work, they would go beyond developing the staff with just skills they define as useful for work, they’ll go beyond just ensuring a competitive paycheck.

The story we must keep telling ourselves is not that we are just replaceable cogs of the machine; because we are not. It is to be constantly clear about what we bring to the table for this organisation. And never to lose that confidence in one’s plasticity in terms of picking up new skills and retraining/retooling in order to stay relevant, not based on what the companies say they want, but based on the ability to produce what is valuable in the marketplace.

HR can start with that kind of staff empowerment; and the cultural change it produces, and the impact it makes will start snowballing. Your organisation will mature, grow and be more successful as a result of that.