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.

Human ‘Resource’ – Part 1

Ever wonder whether the Human Resources department are advocating on behalf of the staff or that of the bosses? Well, the bosses are paying them their salary so of course they work for the bosses? Wait, but didn’t the boss hire them so that they can bring in good people and shouldn’t they be continuously advocating for the staff so that they can continue to bring good staff in? So what exactly then, is the role and objective of HR?

I think we have to go back to the time where industrialisation was at its peak in the global economy and realise that human resources is about bringing in the manpower to be working alongside capital/machines in order to produce output. Every human was supposed to be easily replaceable on the factory floor and the HR or manpower department was just making sure they have people filling up ‘vacancies’ – which were really empty spaces and seats on the factory floor.

Fast forward to today, we might not be working in factories but those who are schooled in scientific management continues to think so and manage organisations in the same way. They treat job positions as ‘vacancies’ to be filled and hence expects HR to perform their job that way: what it takes to fill the position, and to fill it ‘to spec’ according to some Job Description or criteria. Well in a post-Covid world, we might not have cubicles or desks to fill anymore because people are working from home; or we might not even have a physical office (which really was just a convenient substitution of the factory floor); why are we still stuck with HR trying to just merely fill in spaces?

Because management still thinks human are just resources; and these resources costs salary. They still think that every human is just rather replaceable like the standardised parts of a machine or just a piece of equipment along the assembly line. It is only during appraisals that they start thinking about how the individual have contributed, grown, and consider their aspirations. The rest of the time, it’s just back to the factory grind.

Time, I think, for a change.

Long Term Investments

Part of why it matters for governments to invest heavily into infrastructure is not just about the public good nature of it allowing those investment to uplift the poor, or to increase the economies’ capacity. Infrastructure is long term, sized for the future demand, and takes time and effort to put together. These long term investments reflects a government and a community’s confidence in the future, as well as commitment to work towards that future together.

Infrastructure involves massive coordination and while the market is a greater coordinator, the market failure in the inability to provide the public good means that government will always have to somehow lend a hand into the project. They would not be able to take off by themselves even if there might be some kind of business case involved because the government may have to enforce some kind of monopoly and provide regulatory safeguards to prevent fly-by-night operations taking demand away from the main project. For example, investment into a new water supply network where the operator earns water tariffs from supplying the local populace may require the government to temporarily regulate the bottled water industry locally to facilitate adoption and make the supply network commercially viable.

Certain seemingly draconian actions might be necessary to make the infrastructure to be invested in some local monopoly, thereby enhancing its commercial case to attract the much needed financing. We previously thought about digital monopolies somehow taking and of course making money out of it by supplying digital products and solutions. Here’s another industry where you have to create a monopoly at some level to make it work out.

Purposely one

When I was young, and we play in the school playground, there will be fights around me; sometimes they involved me. And when asked why the fight started, the aggressive kid would say “he did this to me”. Then the other guy would say “accidentally” – and then the comeback from the aggressive kid, “no, he purposely one” (pardon the Singlish). So apparently, ‘accidentally’ is an excuse and ‘purposely’ is the retort to suggest intentionality of the perpetrator and hence justification for reaction.

So ‘purposely’ seems like one of the early English word we learnt as kids in Singapore – and whose meaning we know. But maybe, it was also used largely in a negative context and hence it seemed to me that we subsequently live our lives less ‘purposely’. Maybe, like the kid who ‘sparked’ the fight, we prefer to live ‘accidentally’, so that when bad things happens, no one can blame us. We can finger-point to our lack of intentionality, and just wriggle away.

Maybe, our culture has driven us to be more afraid of mistakes and failures, than our desire to discover our purpose. But the question, as we go through this slog in life is: are you working hard to avoid failures or working hard to achieve what you want?

So perhaps it’s time to teach your kids to say ‘No, I did that accidentally at first; but I did retaliate on purpose because this aggressive guy decided to start a fight. I’m sorry for being part of this mess’. Teach your children to own their mistakes and express their intentions. Stop them from hiding under ‘accidents’. And how do you start? By being purposeful and intentional yourself. Because, your children probably picked that cowardice up from you, purposely.

This article is being read and recorded for readers here to increase accessibility of my writings and also to prepare myself to start a podcast that is currently in the works. Note that the written article is not an exact transcript to the reading.

Audio Article: Purposely