Culture of Competition

These are some thoughts on a taxi ride recently. Meritocracy, competition, hardwork are cornerstones of our economic development in Singapore. But this are also the 3 attributes that are poorly defined and whose implied definitions will need to be reviewed through the stage of our economic development.

Early Stage
At an early stage of a post-war economy, where most people are pretty much starting off the same starting line, meritocracy in the plainest sense of the word is good. It builds upon common understanding of fairness, encourages hardwork. As long as the framework in place builds up trust through punitive punishments on cheating, a positive, self-reinforcing cycle develops. Competition is largely friendly, all for the sake of building each other up and getting everyone on to the growth path. Most forms of hardwork is by itself a virtue at this stage; there’s no sense of ‘overworking’ because there isn’t sufficient to go around more often than not – there is still quite some way to desirable levels of comfort. But there is joy in the process when trust is in place.

Growth
When the economy begins to grow, the shaping of culture and values becomes incredibly important. Meritocracy is constantly reviewed and refined by the leadership; and they have to be benign to those who might not necessarily possess the skills/merits that they value. And this valuation is often subjective – extremely dependent on the foresight and vision of the leaders. At this point, there will always be trade-offs, some ‘merits’ are more valued than others and the kind of growth attained depends on careful selection of what constitute merits. Competition then rallies around attaining this sort of merits. Hard work becomes less generic and certain kind of working hard becomes frown upon.

Those who gets slightly ahead may then look down on those working hard the wrong way or having the wrong kinds of ‘merit’. This is the point where a culture of charity has to be promotion, where people well-endowed need to be open to the idea of sharing and caring with their endowment. Meritocracy now cuts both ways; it can serve good but have potential to be abused as an excuse to withhold charity.

Sustaining Growth
As growth is sustained, the top leadership is convinced that the set of valued traits and ‘merits’ truly delivers value and thus constitute merit. They also take the appropriate action to cultivate the next generation to achieve the same sort of merit. These actions in the form of more sophisticated and enhanced policy measures elicit different sort of response from different groups. Those who respond poorly may risk marginalisation; the rest may coast along but an elite class gradually forms. The elite class tend to follow the ‘tried and tested’ model and abides by the key values laid down previously, supporting the superstructure that has helped them succeed in the first place.

This is the stage where sustained growth is secured through the social contract that was forged in the earlier stage of economic development. But it is also the window of opportunity to leverage on the immense wealth created to help those who may have been marginalised. The notion of meritocracy needs to be weakened with measures designed to support these people through promotion of things such as culture/music/literature that has more of a bearing on the long term economic development. People in society needs alternative ways to ‘succeed’ and to learn to ‘work hard’ in those areas that truly exploits their God-given talents. Merit needs to be radically and continuously redefined.

The other direction leaders could go is to ditch those who are marginalised, continue adding weight on to the existing notions of success and hard work. Then, finding that they may not have sufficient numbers in the local populace to continue their formula, start bringing in foreign population to attempt to ‘entrench’ the success. Competition steps up; now between new migrants and the local population – all driving forward the more traditional notions of ‘success’, ‘merit’, in name of Meritocracy.

Maturity
In longer term, as the economy truly hits maturity – that is, the soft and hard frameworks of the society are more or less settled, the (local) population profile highly aged – the potential for smooth and impactful change lessens. To start thinking about welfare, softening of the culture of meritocracy, and steering the culture of competition for good at this point will require the ability to disrupt and upset the superstructure.

I would think that we have come a really long way, and while we do try our best to stay on a more balanced path, natural human pride, tendency, and biasedness have driven us to favour the somewhat culturally unsustainable path – even if it may be economically sustainable.

Perhaps only after I am done with this ideas that I noticed how Marxist in character they seem to be. Of course, I did offer prescription for conscious intervention rather than come to the conclusion that chaos is the only means out.

Reflections from Work

worklife

It’s been a long time since I had actually got down to writing something I had in my mind. I finished my first year of work earlier this year and concluded an additional month recently. Besides my service in the military, this is the longest I have ever worked in a single organisation. I must say that work hasn’t been easy but there is really lots to take away from work and the exposure has been invaluable.

A few big things I learnt from a full year of work – when turned into advice:

  1. Identify pockets of interest and build up incredible amount of expertise
  2. Consign all showy things to those who practise showmanship
  3. Challenge yourself not with load but with difficulty

There is the usual drag of work; I remind myself that work is cursed, but it is not a curse. We were made for work, designed to serve the Lord, as stewards of creation – and in work, we learn to give ourselves though the world tries to convince us to do so for selfish reasons. Prayers at work, and for work, for the people around involved in work is profoundly helpful. It brings us back into the Godly reality where we learn to rest in Him rather than our own strengths.

Cost Management

This random musing came about because of a recent incident involving my girlfriend having to leave her harddisk containing research data with her Oxford department and not being able to return to Oxford to retrieve it because we were going back to Singapore from London. Eventually, the department generously sent out the harddisk by first class mail to London so that we could pick it up just before we returned to Singapore. The postage was paid for entirely by the department since it was work-related; no questions asked.

It made me reflect on our Singapore’s system of cost management principle and so-called ‘prudence’. I realised how we are often seen as ‘stingy’ even though we are trying to exercise or practice the principle of prudence and how this ‘stinginess’ permeates down all the way through organisations particularly government departments. I think one of the problems is that we think of cost management as almost an individual responsibility and that ‘stinginess = prudence’. In fact, if we were asked to prescribed practices  to ensure adherence to policies worded the 2 different ways, chances are that they will be more or less similar. In most Western economies and organisations, cost management is the responsibility of the management setting down the policies and guidelines; control should be really questioning on the basis of principles of expenditure rather than checking line transactions based on operations – essentially, leaving the accounting of operations to those who know best.

At the end of the day, it is a matter of how much the finance needs to dive into the companies’ operations in order to check through, process, and account for the costs incurred. It wouldn’t make sense for them to dive so deep as to disrupt the course of business operations or to set down control measures that end up hindering actual operations. Yet it is important for finance to know the operations deep enough to perform their role well. Thinking deep into the principles and then accepting a range of practical expenditure outcomes is vitally important nevertheless. Cost management must not get too far down the chain affecting the functioning of the working level.

We need to equip our ‘government’ workforce with the right approach towards cost management to help them understand that prudence is neither penny-pinching nor making sure ground staff write comprehensive reports justifying transactions. It is setting up a good set of principles by which budgets are justified by and then leaving the ground level to make use of the budget as they deem fit.

Economic Maturity

economics

Had the chance for a break back ‘home’ to UK and spent some time thinking about the economy back home in Singapore – the apparent lack of ‘growth drivers’, the preliminary attempts to ride on waves in the world made by China and the current short term lifting done by the US economy for our tiny island-state one. We are in the midst of shifting steady states or rather the movement from one potential steady state to another. There are some thoughts i had about our economy, about the economic system, where we are and some of the key things we need to set our sights on for the next couple of decaes – where we might have done right and where we may have gone quite wrong.

Current Status 

In short run, our economy is still well-positioned to capture growth coming in from established institutions based on prevailing ‘world order’ but as the transition starts taking more form, we are left wondering if we should have thought about transformation earlier. The truth is we did but no one really had answers yet. There is an anxious scramble to get into ‘position’ but we really need to consider more deeply what this positioning is about and how we need to make use of the earlier generation’s thought-followership success and move towards genuine thought-leadership in economic development.

External vs Internal Positioning

There are 2 dimensions one could think about businesses, economies, or just plain economic entities – one is external positioning, and the other is internal organisation. External positioning is important because the place you are at would determine the universal set of opportunities available for grabs. Whether those opportunities can be well-exploited will depending on your internal organisation. There are lots of economic entities that have great internal orgnisation and I’m thinking about much of the Western European economies. But they might not be in a good external position. Perhaps it’s because of the demographics of the country, the circumstances, the industrial mix. But all these are ‘external’ to the extent they can be seen. When I refer to ‘internal organisation’, I’m thinking about the rules, the institution created in the economy. And institutions have the tendcy to be multi-equilibria systems. Which is to say that you can end up being very stable in a not-so-good institutional set-up and have absolutely no impetus or path of low-resistance towards the better, known institutional artrangement. So this is actually much harder to get right than external positioning.

Consider the Chinese businessmen who built his initial empire up through opportunistic entry into basic cornerstone sectors at the points when China moved towards a market economy. His external positioning is excellent and he might be able to milk it for a while but if he does not take that opportunity to clean up matters relating to corporate governance, improve internal structures and framework that allows the organisation to continue humming without his personal relationships or connections then the viability of the business empire beyond his time is in question and so is the economy of the village he resides in. Singapore can be detroit during an auto-boom, but the wealth generated must be used to buffer and strengthen its internal structures such that it relies on more than just the auto-boom for growth. In the earlier stages of growth, the economy can rely on the government to build frameworks and structures to help the economy ‘lean’ on something like an auto-boom. But in the long run, the government will have to hand this back to the market economy to make a choice on which sector to develop and grow. In other words, the extrnal positioning, the easier part of the job needs to be handed over. The government then must launch itself to deal with the issues of internal organisation relentlessly.

The Right Stuff

That is where our recent attention towards productivity and manpower development becomes so important and right. We definitely need to raise productivity. This is can only be done through a mixture of soft incentivisation for greater adoption of machines and equipment that reduces the need for unskilled labour as well as to create hard structures that are tied to these  actual technological products in order to curb the use of such labour. In other words, work permits that are made available to companies must be tied to demonstration that the company has seeked out other ways of accomplishing the required tasks without labour but failed. A formula or way of valuing the labour vis-a-vis the capital has to be worked out so that companies unable to demonstrate reliably that they are using the overall more efficient approach willl have to be disallowed from hiring more unskilled workers.

The question of manpower development is more tricky as it has more to do with manpower that are local Singaporeans than foreigners in the country. Our manpower quality has been suffering and I should caveat this statement with the fact that I did not conduct any research relating to this other than speaking to a handful of business owners and I think (again, speculatively), that this is largely a combination of increasing emigration as well as the change in structure of economy resulting in the irelevance of some of the skills of our older workers. The overall gene pool of workers with positive working attitudes is further eroded by a corporate culture that emphasize KPIs over individual workers’ well-being, often to the extent that well-being has to be measureable before it is something to be worked upon. This sort of evidence-based resource allocation optimisation, while beautiful in theory and on paper, generates immense dissatisfaction at working level. Again, I caution that I’m overgeneralising and potentially exaggerating the degree the problem manifests in reality.

Skills upgrading has been peddled around for decades but have not been ramped up as much as recently. But even then, I believe the existing measures are a little too broad and not targeted enough.  The soft skills of Singaporeans are more lacking than hardskills. And I’d go further to argue that good work ethic makes up for more than lack of skills. The willingness to learn, to advance in the work without necessarily having to go through n’certification’ and arbitrary ‘courses’

The Not-so-Right Bits

Here’s when merely working on building skills without improving attitudes and work ethics cannot go very far in developing our local manpower. The injection of competition through bringing in ‘foreign talents’ can continue but needs to be tempered with a proper mechanism that allows our local workforce to gradually phase those ‘foreign talents’ out. The more I work with MNCs, the more I realise how bringing in talents from their home country or countries they already operate in is indeed much easier than trying to hire locally. A mechanism that allows the local talent pool to be tapped and then freeing the the local talents to go into the private sector and ‘do their own things’ needs to be  created. We are doing a lot of startup-mentor matching and that is a great move.

Corporate culture and governance is something we tend to overlook when assisting local industries. I don’t know how we can assist in this aspect especially since junior Stat Board account managers don’t often have the insights into organisational behaviour the way bosses of bigger corporations do. The question is whether we can do something that provides cross-pollination opportunities with the end goal of improving the gene pool of the labour force.. This would likely be done by bringing people people with experience in places with great corporate culture into ‘poorer’ places and lead a transformation.

Summary

The above discourse is meant to kickstart some more thoughts in this area of economic development of Singapore towards a true first world stage, where the quality of our workforce is truly comparable with countries of the first world and definitely with productivities that are comensurate. To a certain degree, I have let out the underlying variable I hope Singapore can start developing as a unit of driver for our internal organisation that will enable our market economy to better settle the issue of ‘external positioning’ – improving corporate cultures and building genuine first-world enterprises.

Project Work Guidebook 2016

So after fumbling about for a while and a bit of a hiatus from writing I finally got down to completing the latest edition of our Project Work Guidebook. A while back this was supposed to be the combined effort of my cousin, Kimberly, and I. It didn’t work. Apparently, her student life at Raffles Junior College was busier than my life at NYU as a masters’ student. This time, with already the previous edition as a strong foundation to work on, I expanded the chapter relating to research – adding materials on research methodology and approaches.

More importantly, acknowledging that time is a struggle for most of the students doing PW; I’ve added an appendix to provide some guidance about how to manage the team’s time. It is important to set customized milestones according to what is to be included in your project and these targets should be refined as one gets more information while also closer to the deadlines.

So boys and girls who are entering JC or simply still confused about this Project Work thing – hope this will be a good and useful read for you!

Entrepreneurship in Singapore

Brought on a little tour of Block 71 today. It’s a wonderful little place for entrepreneurs and business-starter wannabes to try and work on their ideas or start work on their ideas without too much capital nor too much expense. Rental is mostly free, particularly in the co-working space; power is free too so you can be your first employee at a desk and get free power, sometimes with free coffee and potentially free events to attend. Life probably has never been so good for an entrepreneur.

Of course, the costs associated with failure is significant given the opportunity costs. Most of these kids can command pretty decent amount of pay in the existing tight labour market; but I think that place offers a kind of co-working experience, ideas-exchange and tinkering culture that would prove valuable for these entrepreneur wannabes.

What I am concerned about is that this sort of spirit remains only within the tech sector without spewing into the more traditional sort of engineering-based industries. The real economy is still stubbornly reliant on manufacturing to grow. The rise of services is simply an accounting illusion; manufacturing increasingly outsource some of their process design and engineering to third party ‘consulting firms’ which are services. Therefore, value that was previously treated as being generated from manufacturing now becomes re-classified as services. The economic activities taking place is still the same. The bulk of these ‘new services’ are just repackaging and most of the staff or ‘entrepreneurs’ are merely ex-employees who have started these new businesses to capture the benefits of increasing outsourcing.

Yet in order for things to be changed, there has to be more cross-pollination. By far, there is no evidence that the consulting services yielded more engineering innovation in their respective spheres. If anything, the increase in competition only serves to drive improvement in slightly more superficial things such as more user-friendly 3D modelling graphics or better visuals that have little impact on the actual carrying out of the projects. In other words, the kind of market competition we have been generating may not actually be good. This is something for our economic ministries to ponder over…

Training Philosophy

I believe in learning. And behind all that slogging for grades, what I really see is development of ability, and acquisition of skills. Grades and scores may be performance/progress indicators or checkpoints for me to assess my development, but in no way defining me.

When it comes to work, I absolutely believe that training is necessary – not so much developing our skills from scratch. No one can reverse all the bad habits of speech (eg. fillers, pet words, etc.) within a day or even a week but such training sessions serves to consolidate what we already know into one place and focus our application in various areas, often in a more disciplined manner. So many people I’ve come across in life have so much potential but the environment does not encourage them to shoot for the longer term goals of self-improvement, only the short-term objectives of completing the work on-hand.

At any workplace, there are only 2 kinds of things that you can take with you when you leave. One is your track record (project references, achievements) and the other is your skills. In every project, we should seek to emerge from each one more capable and being able to deliver more or better in the next one. We should never be falling back on something we have already done. In other words, the only way to avoid becoming too comfortable with one’s position is to keep focusing on potential. And that means, while there is the 2 kinds of takeaways – what we should be putting our attention on is our skills.

Therefore, hurry to brush up skills and pull up socks, not to meet deadlines (though that eventually must be met anyways).