Coffee stories

When I was doing my masters in New York, I was drinking about five cups of coffee a day. On occasion, it could be five cups of double shot. I had this coffee subcription app that allowed me to order unlimited normal brews at $45/mth and those specialty coffees at $85/mth from a base of nice cafes around New York city.

I came from a coffee drinking culture in Singapore. I’d order my Kopi C each morning with breakfast and in those days, these drinks were less than $1.50 (USD) a cup, unlike the >$5 barista coffees in New York city. But strangely, I consumed more coffee than I ever did in Singapore because of the business model.

Business models are interesting and in some ways, they hack our demand curves, taste and preferences by targeting aspects of our preferences that the economists were not able to incorporate into broad demand analyses. And there are entrepreneurs, marketters who thrive on coming up with such hacks.

The issue about hacks and short term profits is that they accomplish little worthwhile in the longer term. And there are far too many short term studies in the social sciences that gives us a lot of “scientific results” which may be spurious correlations or short term correlations which do not persists. We need to engage our talents is more long term thinking and challenge them to deal with the longer term problems of our economy and societies.

Banking relations

Banking business is about trust and a lot of traditional trust is based upon relationship. And so it is not surprise that old institutions are tied in deep and strong relationships that we may not always be particular conscious of in trying to create a future for our economy and our world.

In this funny video, we are reminded of the bits of the iceberg we don’t see in all public communications of people, companies and governments. And in our bid to drive change, such exposure continuously played out, spoken of, reminding the public, every staff of financial institutions and workers of oil companies ought to put some tension for greater change.

Whatever happened to the coolies of Singapore, generations later?

Most of the Chinese migrants who came to Singapore and whose descendents now form the majority of the population here were ‘coolies’ or manual labourers who came to Singapore to seek out employment opportunities and a better life. The mindset really was to find a boss to serve, and gain a good life through that loyalty. Life was basic and more about survival than really thriving. In fact, the term ‘coolie’ still mean ‘employee’ colloquially amongst the older folks.

Generations later, the bar for living standards have gone up, and so have expectations of how much you achieve and how much you need to live on. But has that coolie mindset changed? Are we still just trying to follow directions to a better life? Are we thinking independently and by ourselves? Are we looking to continue to use resources at our disposal just for ourselves or to make the future a better place?

We have been successful as a society that follows order to fulfill a clear-cut, straight-forward vision. For the longest time, it was almost a matter of survival that we fulfill the vision. Mediocrity was simply not an option and there was no worthwhile status quo to hang on to. Our forefathers worked hard to set up a path towards “better life”. And we’ve reached this stage of being a metropolis.

Question is where do we go from here? Given the chance to develop our own path and vision forward, do we take that chance? The ability to think independently does not have to be political, and it involves the smallest things such as identifying opportunities in the market where people see none. To architect a vision and actually commit to pursue it requires resilience that is based on a sense of purpose. How do you cultivate that? It is unlikely for the child of a soccer Mum, going through various enrichment and supplementary activities and busy with getting good grades in school to develop that. To the coolie, busyness might seem like excellence, but for a leader, it shouldn’t be.

As the next generation of Singaporeans to helm the leading positions of various parts of society, we will have to leave the inherited narratives of our parents and the boomers, to write our own story instead. The chance to do so comes at the point when we recognise that the hard work put in by our coolie forefathers was for us to break out of this. If we don’t know how to manage this kind of freedom of the mind, and mature, the social freedoms that are being fought for will not be able to serve the society well.

Meanwhile, you might like to check out some really amazing recoloured photos of historical Singaporeans here. Get a sense of the hardship they went through and what life really means for them.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. An older version of this article was originally published at on January 5, 2021.

Are we operating in toxic workplaces fuelled by complacency culture?

In today’s work life, too much thought goes into how to do the work rather than the culture and enabling environment that surrounds the work. There are countless anecdotes about people at their deathbed would not wish they had more days to work; or stories of the employee who passed away and the company was just busy trying to find someone to replace him/her, whilst complaining about the hassle and delays caused by his/her death. All of these tries to discourage people from pouring out way too much of themselves into work even as our society as a whole is actually increasingly consumed by work.

What I don’t understand is that for almost all of our work in life, there are ways of making it more fun, conducive to put effort into, and to stress us positively. Yet we don’t do that, nor explore ways of doing that. Good culture that enables rather than disable is a luxury, people say. And they see it being at odds with generating value and profit, as though precious resources are either committed to employee well-being or shareholder returns. This is just lack of imagination and the inability to think dynamically and across time.

For some reason, a 2015 article from INSEAD appeared on 2 separate of my social media platform news feed, shared by different people and with different commentary. It was about the fall of Nokia; and yet as I was reading through it, I am struck by how applicable those lessons are today. And how important it is that we invest into reworking our culture.

I shuddered at several parts of the article that describes behaviours no different from what I’ve observed in large, important institutions and business organisations that I’ve had experience with. Allow me to quote 3 portions of the article that really stood out for me:

Although they realised that Nokia needed a better operating system for its phones to match Apple’s iOS, they knew it would take several years to develop, but were afraid to publicly acknowledge the inferiority of Symbian, their operating system at the time, for fear of appearing defeatist to external investors, suppliers, and customers and thus losing them quickly. “It takes years to make a new operating system. That’s why we had to keep the faith with Symbian,” said one top manager. Nobody wanted to be the bearer of bad news.

Hiding bad news is a result of the lack of an open communicative culture resulting from poor responses to ‘bad news’. It will be reinforced by a sense of helplessness about the communication; either by the belief that management will not believe it, or will not respond to it. Such erosion of trust does not bode well.

Fearing the reactions of top managers, middle managers remained silent or provided optimistic, filtered information. One middle manager told us “the information did not flow upwards. Top management was directly lied to…I remember examples when you had a chart and the supervisor told you to move the data points to the right [to give a better impression]. Then your supervisor went to present it to the higher-level executives.

Encouraging miscommunication, whether intentional or not, will only lead to organisational decline. This is especially if the flow of information about reality or truth is obscured, and top management makes decision on the basis of such flawed or misconstrued information. This is the issue when there’s too much emotion caught up in reporting. Reporting should ideally be unemotional, clinical and rational.

[T]op managers also applied pressure for faster performance in personnel selection. They later admitted to us that they favoured new blood who displayed a “can do” attitude.

This led middle managers to over-promise and under-deliver. One middle manager told us that “you can get resources by promising something earlier, or promising a lot. It’s sales work.” This was made worse by the lack of technical competence among top managers, which influenced how they could assess technological limitations during goal setting.

Misalignment of incentives that drives unhelpful behaviours throughout the organisation. So to that extent, being able to create a culture that implicitly rewards honest behaviours through praise and recognition; punishing or frowning upon over-promising, and inaccurate reporting, sows the seeds for success of an organisation. There will naturally be a tension between behaviours which promotes the interest of the organisation and the need to ‘perform’ at an individual level. The ability of the organisation culture to protect behaviours that promotes the sustainability and long-term interest of the organisation is so vitally important.

Yet in most of today’s organisation, we have not invested sufficient thought into the culture; focusing instead to utilise our resources to drive work performance, measured mostly by short-term metrics. A good place to start is really by reworking the prevailing narrative, especially rewiring the mindset obsessed with linear, unidimensional growth. Caring for the mental health and well-being of employees at the level of supporting them to deconflict those tensions mentioned above will go a long way.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back.

Should our education system pool or separate people?

So over the past 2–3 weeks, I’ve been pondering over our education system. It all started with that chat I had with my friends, and then the article I wrote, and then more thinking. I even thought at one point I want to start a podcast about education and go around interviewing people about how they want to change it. The truth is the majority of us have brushes with it and experiences with it — pleasant or not. And those were worthwhile voicing out, to augment and improve the system. You don’t need to be an educator or professional to do it. I was not just thinking about the system in Singapore but this whole industry of education, testing, whether it is about building up or just sieving out; whether it is implicitly defining merit rather than bringing up people to merit.

Now the recurring question I had in mind was whether education, which is supposed to be the great leveller, should be ‘sorting’ people with its system of testing and exams or ‘lifting’ people up to a certain level. To put it at another layer, it is also about whether education should be tuned to provide signals about a particular person or be tuned to develop a person. What underlies this difference is implicitly the ‘fixed mindset’ vis-à-vis the ‘growth mindset’ that the one tuning the system has about people, and the potential of the society at large.

Signalling Function: Separating or Pooling

Now the title of the article references this feature of systems that are set up to create signals. It assumes there are different ‘types’ in the environment and the system design can result in everyone signalling the same (ie. pooling) or signalling differently (ie. separating). In general, examinations are designed to create separating equilibria. We are taught to think that a test that results in everyone scoring A is pointless because exams are to help us differentiate the best from the rest. Or is it? Shouldn’t an exam or test be used to measure students/learners against a benchmark you want to train them up to?

So shouldn’t we be keeping the testing constant and adjusting the teaching and content to ensure we can ‘lift up’ everyone rather than ‘sort them out’. Because when we design exams to generate a ‘normal distribution’ outcome, then we are implicitly saying someone in the room deserves to be the last when it is just a natural outcome of a relative system. We can no longer trace ‘culpability’ back to the students’commitment and efforts because someone has got to be last in class — someone has got to be in the lower tail of that normal distribution. What a depressing way to think about education outcomes.

Therefore, this signalling function of education runs against the grain of all the effort, sense of purpose that we are imbued with as we try to develop our students into people worthy of our society, yet that is the way we design our assessment, which nowadays seem more like the end of school rather than just an instrument that the schools used to provide a means for students to check themselves against some kind of standards.

Competing with yourself

Now the way our assessments are designed also means that you are creating competition amongst students. Because results are somewhat relative, you can do better when your classmates do worse. At national level or in moderated standardised testing which is really used to perform ‘sorting’ at cohort population level, the result gives you your relative position within the society rather than your absolute standards.Well, people will say, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Life is a competition and it’s about getting ahead of others.

As I mentioned previously, this is a recipe for a society-wide mental health disaster; especially if job options are strongly correlated with academic performance subsequently. Worst, the parents and society shares the idea that only jobs requiring those qualifications are worthwhile going for. In reality, the most important competition in your life is with yourself and it is important for you to be able to track your progress, to know you’re growing. Take for example when you measure the height of a child to see he is growing; you might look at the height percentile chart at any one point to say, oh he is 40th percentile, below average for his age, but we know he used to be 136 cm but now he is 140 cm, he is definitely growing. You don’t get worried that he used to be 55th percentile when he was a year younger but now at the 40thpercentile in height.

You might say because relative height don’t matter as much as academic achievement in life. But the same principle remains that having an objective way of tracking your progress of growth helps give you the encouragement to keep going. Our school testing and exam systems do not help us achieve that. They do not allow students to compete with themselves; at every test, they are just taking the same cohort, sorting them into grades/scores again and again with different combinations of topics and subjects. How this really helps the growth and development of a single child is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t matter so much when your parents, society at large and teachers focus on your attitude, your character and values more than exam results. But I have a feeling that we naturally gravitate more towards what is measurable and allow that to become the dominant yardstick.

By ‘pooling’ students into just a few ‘prestigious subjects’ (eg. the sciences) and ‘separating’ them into grades within these disciplines, we risk funnelling them further and deeper into intense competitions when we should be training them to find niches for themselves to escape competition. In business or society, when you encounter a red ocean (full of sharks, ie. competition), you run, and you try to define your own market, a blue ocean you can swim in. Yet in schools we don’t prepare students for a life that involves seeking blue oceans, we try to force everyone to swim in the bloody waters and create artificial bloodbaths.

An alternative: Sorting by strengths, Lifting up everyone

I thought long and hard about what the education system should really be separating and pooling instead of the traditional model. And I have an alternative to suggest. It will be aligned with the ideas I proposed previously. To prepare students truly for society, the system should be sorting students into various areas of strength/practice/disciplines that they are to be nurtured for rather than choosing a fixed set of disciplines and then sorting students according to their abilities in those disciplines. And be serious about nurturing them in the areas they are sorted into. Expose students to more things whilst they are young instead of specifying subjects and saying they ought to have headstart in those areas and drill them with content. Sort people horizontally across a spectrum of different areas rather than vertically along a spectrum of ‘abilities’ — help students develop their strengths and hone their craft.

A well-functioning society requires a good spread of people with head, heart and hands. You may say that we are exposed to the competition of the global market but price need not be the only signals we heed, quality matters, identity as fellow citizens matters. And these are values that we can cultivate when we sort people not by their ‘abilities’ in narrow areas of human endeavour, but by sorting them in a way where they see the value they can contribute to the society.

Why this is so important is because so much of Singaporean’s students’ lives are squandered meandering around the system designed to not so much to genuinely develop every student but to sieve out the top academics/intellectuals. Imagine you are cluelessabout your strengths but you know you’re not a study-type. And each year you try hard but you’re consistently sorted into the tail end of the distribution, for every single subject where there’s a test/exam. You score A for arts and you are told you draw well but none of those are reflected or considered when you have to select which school to go into. You’re continually told you’re underperforming, ‘doing badly’ — of course you try to deal with the feelings of inadequacy and being judged harshly by ‘rebeling’ against the system. And then the system tells you that you’re doing badly precisely because you’re behaving badly.

If we had an alternative system, I believe Jerome Yap’s story would have turned out differently. Of course, if I were him now, I wouldn’t want it to be any different because the adversity I went through mademe who I am. But under the different system, he would be ‘discovered’ at an earlier age, and his talents will be nurtured by his parents and teachers (who do not have to seem like they are working against the system); he might have already started his own successful design business by the age of 28 — with a degree or not. In fact, the degree won’t be what we are celebrating, it would be the fact that we have such talent from this small city state.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back.

Time for millennials to get out of the boomers story and write their own

Rice Media’s Ivan takes on what he calls The Boomer’s Mentality on ‘Hard Work’ in Singapore was a refreshing characterisation of the workplace issues faced by the millennials of this island state. I previously wrote about how the boomers taking ‘motivation’ for granted is a big problem for the younger ones. And I shared mostly about the factors that were driving the kind of narrative that we have for our lives and future in Singapore; the fact that our forefathers were driven by a vision of the future that consisted of lifestyle-deltas they could aspire towards but for Singaporeans today, to coax them into adopting that sort of aspiration would almost be demeaning to them. A new sense of purpose must be imbued in them — and it’s not longer about winning the race to be the top <fill in the blank> hub.

And while we did top the Smart City ranking for the second year running, it’s not about chasing league tables. We need to remind ourselves that indicators are by products that are correlated with desired outcomes but not outcomes we are gunning in and of themselves. Our forefathers did not set out to outrank other cities in ‘Smart City ranking’ — they had simple goals of improve water supply, sanitation, access to electricity, greater convenience in banking, access to government services, payments and so on. The question is, what are our simple goals now? What should the millennials aspire to, for their nation if not for themselves? How are we going to improve over the great achievements that our forefathers have scored for us and the successive generations?

I think we are running into what Clayton Christensen calls the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’ if we are joining big firms, following our forefathers’ models of management and “innovation”, and walking the proven path. In fact, our newer generation of leaders are faced with this challenge. If we have the pressure of being mocked for taking actions that are not ‘needle-moving’, then we risk forgoing potentially disruptive actions with significant impacts that have yet to to be ‘proven’. And this, is where I think millennials will start to play an increasingly important role.

Our role is not to inherit the burden of a legacy or be benchmarked against our forefathers in our level of ‘hunger’ or ‘hard-working-ness’. In fact, I once saw Angela Duckworth post this quote when she was promoting a particular episode of ‘No Stupid questions’:

“Are you working hard to achieve your goals or are you working hard to avoid failure?”

Angela Duckworth (here)

Boom. Mind-blown. The latter point does describe me sometimes in my workplace! And that reveals to me that finding the right motivation and the right sense of purpose is so important. As each successive generation inherits the legacy of the previous, wildly-successful generation, a bit of their ‘working hard’ inevitably become just a matter of trying ‘not to be <fill in this blank>’ rather than ‘to be something’. Because we may have perfectly managed to capture their systems, processes and all manner of operating procedures but their intents, purpose, motivations are often lost with them. We need to find our own versions, and we have to craft our own story.

For me, it means being more selective about the purposes by which you devote your mental and physical resources and talents; and no longer subscribing to the traditional views of what constitutes merit. Perhaps we need to start creating our own industries domestically that creates the kinds of jobs that we want rather than to wait out for the government to draw the MNC investments, or for their direction on what is the next big thing. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the initial product we built is not global or doesn’t scale. How many decades did it take before Laksa was packaged and exported as a product and enjoyed by the west? Did it diminish the economic opportunity or our ability to capture its value? Get informed of our greater economic challenges, and opportunities and craft our lives around it so that we contribute to the narrative of our future rather than being just a passive recipients of circumstances.

The sense of ‘entitlement’ is sometimes a manifestation of high standards millennials have come to expect of others — turn it into a positive by applying that to oneself and to learn to be able to serve others with the standards you expect of others. Use your creativity, exposure to huge amounts of connections in the online world and digital-savviness to create and participate in new things. And I think our narrative is about dethroning the mindset of an ever-growing economic pie, or the anxiety associated with lack of economic growth. Our narrative should be about creating a more helpful, united society that shares with one another, that learnt to shed the neoclassical economic burden, to be a better version of Singaporeans than our forefathers have been, having forged ahead largely for themselves and their family in mind. Now we want to have more of our community in mind, more of even our environment and nature in mind.

We also want to rethink the role of the government; after all, they have actually accomplished quite a fair bit of what they’ve been trying to do by way of improving the livelihoods of general populace. Maybe they can shed some bureaucracy and release more talents into the economy to invigorate it with greater entrepreneurism? Beyond risk-sharing and incentivising entrepreneurship, maybe there’s some rewriting of the social compact where the extreme inequality generated by risks in the marketplace is being mitigated by risk-sharing across cohorts of entrepreneurs? This could be just about successful entrepreneurs hiring the ones who may not have done so well (a la Andrew Yang).

I think more importantly, we want to confess the failings of meritocracy even as we trumpet its successes. And we want to be more conscious as a generation to deal with the negative consequences of ‘meritocracy’ especially the psychological ones. As we de-stigmatise psychological and mental issues, we also want to recognise that building up mental strength of the society overall is as important as building up the physical fitness of the populace.

So let us build not just a smart city of the future; but one that is secure, and confident, not about chasing league tables, KPIs, or GDP, but about genuine well-being of our people. Walk the unproven path, because we need to disrupt ourselves to move on to our next S-curve as a society.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back.

What did you expect my motivation to be?

What motivates you at your job? What gets you out of bed every weekday and makes you pounce on the challenges in the workplace, gets you to talk to people who may be unpleasant and gives you strength to overcome late nights? What are you working for?

I’m thinking of asking these questions to my bosses the next time I meet them 1–1; or at least just to pick their brains on this question because it is not so often that as staff, we get to that level of what really makes the boss tick. It is mostly inferred through actions, but getting an explicit answer may help to get them thinking. The reason is that for most of the millennials today, we are sometimes disgruntled by perhaps our bosses’ expectations that we’ll be naturally motivated to do the work that we are supposed to do.

To be fair, I started writing this article a bit longer ago than when Delane Lim put up his Facebook post. Beyond the foreign-local debate, I think there’s something about the narrative for young Singaporeans that have changed quite a bit. And this is important in determining motivation; I’d also criticise how much that expectation of motivation from younger generations of Singaporeans is really self-defeating. I will probably write a little bit more on the narrative that younger generations of Singaporeans live through in the future but this will likely be my seminal piece about it.

Having gone from Third World to First within two generations, we have had for a really long time, this great sense of optimism about the future and being able to obtain the fruits of our labour. Frankly, our forefathers who were in their twenties and thirties during the time when our nation got its independence, life wasn’t expected to transform radically, nor necessarily better. They didn’t live in a wretched existence, and, of course, there was some degree of inequality; but the society was not only much more equal, other kinds of differences (speaking different languages, or dialects, being in different clans, or being of different races) were more stark than differences between classes. Because people tasted some fruits of their labour, even if it was just a bit of it, in the form of more materials, more comfortable living, more convenient lives, there was clear motivation in trying to achieve the lifestyle deltas.

Consumer credit was scarce, which meant that the only way to access the lifestyle deltas was to work hard, and hence there’s that ‘hunger’ to move forward, and to forge ahead. Collectively as a society, the government, our institution had a good sense of the investments needed: in terms of education, in terms of infrastructure. The wage improvements were substantial when you move from A Level to a Diploma, not to mention a Degree — in the days when only less than 5% of the working population actually had degrees. The narrative was that working hard, being hungry pays off for real. The improvements in terms of social systems that provided housing, retirement savings, education for one’s children and so on, provides the predictability that takes off some of the salarymen’s stress and allow them to concentrate on climbing that corporate ladder, bring the dough home and please their families.

That narrative maintained its clout for two generations, and it was natural because the kind of improvements was somewhat similar and consistent. Of course, the second generation inherited some kind of social hierarchy from the first generation but then in an industrialising economy, low-skills are still important and the wage gap wasn’t as significant at a time when the labour force of populous economies of India and China was released to compete in the global economy. Then when the third generation came in, there was increasing pressure from global competition but Singapore occupied a good position in the skills ladder of the world at that time and would also have one of the best-educated workforce, as had been planned by the government right from the start. But optimism may have shrunk as we knew that we inevitably have to move towards a genuine knowledge-based economy. Yet our management philosophy and social structures were still largely industrial; it was critical that this generation started changing their thinking about motivations of workers and the future of work, but they didn’t because they might have felt like they held up their side of the bargain with the preceding generation so things should not be any different with the succeeding ones. In any case, they continue to enjoy rises in living standards, buoyed by wider availability of credit and various schemes to keep pockets of cost of living under control.

Alas, the narrative for millennials took a sharp change as the lifestyle deltas were no longer that apparent through ‘hunger’. One thing for sure is that consumer credit means now you’re not working for something you don’t yet have so that you’ll find yourself with the day when you enjoy the sweet fruits of your labour. You are probably working for something whose sweetness has long worn off while the bitterness of its instalments or interest payments still kept you working. It makes for a completely different dynamic and narrative about life.

Just think about the motivation of a 30-year-old man in the 1970s who just got his first public rental flat with a young family. He knows he has to keep up the rental payments so there’s shelter for his family and he works hard, also trying to set aside funds for the future education of the child, and even maybe eventually to buy over the rental flat from the government one day. The ratio of House prices to the Annual Median Gross Household Income was definitely much lower than as well.

Today, if you turned 30 and just bought a resale flat in a more upscale area to move in with your spouse; chances are that you were able to avoid only on the basis of double income, and you’re paying your mortgage through CPF, which you don’t see much of but you realised you’ll need to hold on to your job to keep the payments going. You might not have kids yet and you could quite easily afford good food and other luxuries through our globalised economy and e-commerce. You are already living the life! What kind of lifestyle delta are you expecting by working hard at your job? In fact, the additional hours you put in is decreasing the quality of your life, you’d reason. And you like job stability, because life is good now — it is acceptable to say the least, with little prospect of improvement. After all, what are you trying to afford with more money?

And so yes, what the boomers expect as motivation from the millennials? It will have to go beyond the material; the sense of purpose cannot be assumed — it can only be imbued.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be.

What made colonial Singapore a thriving port city and what does that mean for you?

In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. 2 years later, in 1821, the population rose to 5000 mostly as a result of the establishment of the port, providing ready access to population from other centers.

By 1860, however, the resident population ballooned to around 80,800 comprising mainly of “temporary” immigrants coming from India, China as well as from the surrounding islands. In the 1870s, Singapore became the main hub for sorting and export of rubber, a major commodity for global economic development.

By the close of 19th Century, Singapore was a thriving hub in the region. The economy grew eightfold between 1873 and 1913. Before there was the Singapore we know today, the port city was already a major trading hub. This wasn’t purely luck nor a matter of domestic economic policy. So what happened through these years?

Reducing Piracy

Just 5 years after the establishment of Singapore as a free port under British rule, in 1824, the English and the Dutch brokered a deal to exchange Bencoolen (or Bengkulu in Sumatra) for Malacca. This was particularly important; the other port that was controlled by the British in the region was Penang, which the English established since 1790; the location was not that popular since ships from the east will still have to pass through the Straits of Malacca before reaching Penang.

With Penang and Singapore under the control of the British, the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the region meant that Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through possession of Malacca was a significant bottleneck. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 resolved the rivalry (somewhat) by allocating spheres of influence, opening up the entire chain of territories — Penang, Malacca and Singapore to British control and thus greater incentive for the Royal Navy to maintain the safety of the trading ships passing through the Straits of Malacca.

The Dutch Navy was implicitly given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. In fact, the Dutch greatly expanded their presence in the straits. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. The informal security coordination in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.

Injection of Human Capital

By 1825, the population of Singapore went past the 10,000 mark. And in 1826, the British East India Company officially took on Singapore as a colony of the British Empire after John Crawfurd signed a second treaty with the Sultan of Johor and the Temenggong, which extended British control of Singapore over to the entire island instead of just the port.

The formation of the Straits Settlement consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore happened in the same year with Penang designated as the capital. In 1830, the capital was shifted to Singapore, further entrenching the important institutions of British governance in Singapore.

The decisions made by British to build up and enhance the value of Singapore and the injection of top civil servants and managerial talents into Singapore due to its designation as capital of the Straits Settlements (and subsequent establishment of the Straits Settlements as a crown colony in 1867) played an extremely important role in shaping the economic, political and administrative environment which proved extremely favourable to Singapore.

Why is this important to us as an individual?

At an individual level, this holds 2 key lessons for us in terms of thinking about jobs and careers:

  1. You want to be very selective in the environment that you subject yourself to if you have enough choice and control. Put yourself in a safe environment where you surround yourself with a friendly support network.
  2. You want to build up your capabilities and be proactive in growing your knowledge and skills relevant to the network you have built up.

Where you find yourself in a hostile or personally unfavourable environment, have no qualms about withdrawing yourself from it. There is no point in spending time and efforts fending off criticisms and attacks with limited resources you have. Better to find a new environment and context where you can be nurtured and grow. Success often begets success as the initial value you develop attracts others to contribute to your development. Just make sure you don’t get so addicted to it that you begin to fear failure.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back focusing only on the economic history aspects.

Small market II

Exploring transitions of market sizes is something I’m keen to examine a bit more. The richness of capitalist market economy comes not so much from the price competition but competition along other dimensions. That actually is not that amenable to economic analysis despite all the support that traditional economic analysis had given weight to the beauty of the market economy and its efficiencies.

The innovations of the market economy actually requires dynamism rather than static equilibrium. And over the course of the so-called dynamic equilibria, there is actually some degree of disequilibria. More of our experiences are with the changing patterns such as prices, proliferation of new products and shifts in market messaging than with having clear repetitive routines.

There is to some extent a predictability around the fact that people will be fed and services will be provided without central coordination but these are just scarffolding of a much richer and vibrant structure.

So small markets becomes larger by growing in the demand base or demand groups, or when they merge into other broader base markets. These shifts reflect that even the basic fundamentals around our traditional analysis of markets should be oriented not necessarily based on demographics, a need or particular behaviours. The boundaries between markets are more fluid than we think. It takes broader thinking to be able to conquer markets from the perspective of business and to analyse them through the changing times.

Transition as an opportunity

I work with businesses daily and when we speak of transiting to the low-carbon economy, moving away from Oil & Gas assets, to new businesses that would accelerate the transition, the conversation could go both ways: (1) Show me the money; (2) There is no other way.

The motivation for green is hard to be sustained by pure profit motive because that tends to be more short term whereas longer term motivation is driven more by fundamentals.

If there isn’t money right now or that money doesn’t come, then those who claim that they are in green for the money won’t be able to stay on. Even if you have conviction that the money would come, it is almost certainly driven by a longer term, fundamental thesis. And this fundamental thesis, tends towards the “there is no other way”.

A balanced, and pragmatic view of this landscape requires us to recognise that the old incentives and structures need to be dismantled to push for the new but at the same time, we need to keep proving that the new works. After all, the oil & gas industry and technology had decades to build up to the scale they have today.