Room for charity

I love this recent article by Toh Yan Yun in Rice Media, it makes an important point about Singaporean’s perspective on inequality and also our perceived sense that our meritocratic system will continue to serve us well. I frequently question this point about how well our meritocratic system is working; but more than that, whether our overemphasis on the workings of the meritocratic system we have is squeezing out room for charity. So much so that government needs to use tax deductions as a means to further incentivize donations. Question then, is whether the tax department is the one being generous or the philanthropist?

In believing that we are entitled to the successes and achievements we receive, and seeing that as a system that works, we are also thinking that those who are down and out deserves to be so. Like what Yan Yun says in the article; the belief implies “So long as you play your cards right, your big break lies around the corner.”

Those who have been in reality will certainly respond, ‘Yea, right’. A society that does not see luck and chance playing a part becomes less forgiving for people’s mistakes and even for failures. And this has become so serious in Singapore that people are struggling even with being average. There is some obvious implication for mental health and our functioning as a society.

Do we want to start caring? Do we deserve it?

Heart and hand labour

I’ve been based out of Australia for almost three months now. The transition was smoother than I had expected and as a Singaporean who have studied abroad both in the US and UK, Australia is an easy environment to fit into.

Yet there is one cultural element in Australia that makes it so radically different from most of the other places I’ve been and lived in. It is the respect and remuneration that is given to heart and hand labour. Vocational skills, trade skills are properly valued. Plumbers, technicians, work men are well respected and rather well compensated. It is a place where I have seen the most female construction workers at work sites. The work environment for these people labouring with their hands are generally good.

Same goes for heart labour. The caregivers; the nurses, those social workers. They are given great deal of respect and these jobs are not looked down upon. It is markedly different from Singapore in that sense. Last year in Singapore, Lawrence Wong made a speech about valuing heart and hand labour more in Singapore. The government was concerned about pay gap and inequalities but as a culture, there is a lot to learn from Australia when it comes to respecting the trade skills.

One could argue the prices would rise; food in Singapore may no longer be cheap. And it might cost way more to get someone to deliver goods or to fix stuff around the house. Well, we do pay a lot more to our corporate workers, and we do pay a lot for tuition teachers – why should head labour necessarily earn more? The government could lead the way by setting higher standards when it comes to some of these trade work. They can also pay more for the services they procure in the heart and hand sectors.

Valuing art

It is interesting how just a year or so ago, people were speculating on NFTs (well, now we can be sure it is speculation though it was to some investing); and then today, people are using generative AI to generate tonnes of images and becoming artists themselves. So then, what is art and how do we value them when the computers with the right algorithms can churn out lots of different interesting nice-looking graphics and respond to prompts with interesting and surprising twists?

Art, ultimately is about the impact on others and the manner by which the message or the intent of the artist gets conveyed or put on the audience through the art work. Ultimately, the tangible art piece or the experience (visual, sound, feel, taste, smell) of it is just a manifestation of the ideas that are being expressed by the artist. It always had a value that wasn’t about money but about influence and ideas.

If we are caught up with the prices of art pieces, or the seeming worthlessness of them, then we are probably missing the point. It is also why people find it hard to accept their children embarking on the starving artist journey. And my most artistic friends are often actually teachers or trainers trying to help amateurs or lay person appreciate art. Connecting to the meaning of things in the world where we’ve allowed meaning to be squeezed out of us must continue to be something affordable for all of us. And we all can consider making that connection and contributing something to the ones who continue to help us make sense and meaning of the world.

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.

What would a net zero agrifood business look like?

Talking about creating net-zero businesses reminds me of the time when I wrote about zero-based thinking about the education system. Only by reconstructing what we want to achieve from scratch, can we try to uncover new innovations and ideas that we have been missing out to think about problems we have.

The agrifood industry supposedly produces about one-third of all the carbon emissions that humans are responsible for these days. We can try to think about where to cut emissions or we can consider how to overhaul things. One of the chief challenge of the world today is that we have been taking the theory of comparative advantage and trade too far, forgetting in part the risk of concentration, and the issues around carbon emissions of the logistics and supply chain. Once we start factoring in carbon costs, we can start considering more about growing and consuming local more because it might actually be worth the while.

Overspecialisation in the agrifood sector may bring about economic efficiencies at the expense of carbon emissions and food security. A long time ago, there were stories about fish being sent from the Nordic seas to China to be fillet only to be sold back in the Nordic states. It is a reflection of how capitalism have morphed our appreciation of craftsmanship, and our values around environmental stewardship.

So a net-zero agrifood business quite likely will have start from considering crop cycles, relevant crops to be growing for the local taste and preferences, and the techniques for cultivation, processing, and marketing these products. It will have to reduce distribution or tap on synergies with other nearby industries for distribution. It should concern itself with strong focus on quality and selection of robust crops.

Of course, it will also concern itself with minimizing packaging, pioneering newer retail approaches; once again leveraging more on synergies with surrounding industries. Of course, there is still room for trade and exporting but it might be harder especially if the produce is perishable. Nevertheless, the idea is no longer to use economies of scale and efficiency to sell to the mass market and allow the whole capitalist-industrial complex to be built upon heaps of waste and trash.

Story of consumption

What are you telling yourself when you consume something? Or when you withhold a consumption? The difficulty with saving the world is that we actually need to consume less and not more. Yet we need to get the markets to continue doing the work of delivering what we need. How can we know that the economic system already delivered what it needs to and perhaps a different machinery will be needed.

When you try to consume less, you retain the purchasing power to be tempted again and again towards consumption. And that is why it has been difficult to encourage people to save if they can maintain access to their savings – you need to force people to lock up their money for long times.

And maybe better to work on the path of culture; to develop the right storylines to consume less. It can be about degradation of the environment; or it can be about products that does less to the environment (ie. Consuming 1 instead of 3 alternatives). Or it can be about an identity that people should be aspiring towards.

Talking to bosses

In my career-coaching, I often encounter cases of communication challenges from employees or staff especially in conveying messages or ideas to the bosses. Part of the problem is probably culture and the strange imbalance of power with bosses, particularly in larger organisations. There is a lot more filtering of information with complex intentions:

  • Staff might be trying to simplify things for bosses in order to get information across fast but end up obscuring some information
  • Staff may also be trying to manage their bosses’ perception of them and hence try to be focused on delivering more good news than bad
  • Information might be mixed with remarks incorporated for bootlicking purposes

All of these we learnt through a combination of poor workplace culture, bad upbringing with parents hiding lots of different things here and there. There are much better ways to be able to bring truth to the table without having to flinch at the expected responses.

  1. Highlight the context and the objectives of the company or project, and gain affirmation first
  2. Bring up how the objectives are not being met
  3. Define the problem clearly and how it connects to the objectives not being met
  4. Provide some options; each of which justified either by expert or external opinions, past experience from the team and other parties
  5. Request for a decision to be made

If the boss sits on the decision and don’t make it; you may need to be more persistent in highlighting the issue. Then you can start bringing the consequences and laying alongside the costs of the options so that doing nothing would clearly be more costly.

This approach is also useful for sales but perhaps that’s for another day.

Culture & Phones

Indian Torch

Trapped on our little island of Singapore, we hardly wonder what our handphones are capable of; here in Singapore we typically use it to text, call, surf, as a phone book to retrieve contact details of people, a personal organizer and even a camera. Singaporeans makes extensive use of their phones and our preferences are varied, a reflection of our melting pot of diversity. And as the briefing in the latest issue of The Economist shows, mobile phones are indeed a great reflection of the culture of the people using them.

The article mentioned a couple of interesting quirks about people using mobile phones around the world:

Japanese use their phones to text and surf intensively because using phones to make or receive calls on board trains and some other public places are thought to be extremely rude.

Spaniards reject voicemail because they think it’s rude not to receive calls from others when they call, even when the receiver is busy with matters.

Chinese will interrupt conversations to receive calls because they are afraid to that they’d miss a business deal; at the same time they use knock-offs handphones that often have extensive functions, even capable of using two SIM cards.

Americans are willing to endure limited cellular coverage; perhaps fearing the hassle involved in changing operators.

Italians, Greeks and Finns would switch operators if they find their coverage limited and yet are fearful of the effects of electro-magnetic radiation, which probably is more ubiquitous than in America.

Indians use mobile phones as torchlights.

Africans usually use ‘beeping’ (ie. give the person a ring) to contact people and signal them to call back when they’re low on pre-paid credits.

Indeed, mobile phones are changing everyone’s lives everywhere; one just needs to know the name given to these devices in different societies and cultures to understand their importance. In fact, Iraqis thought more highly of the proliferation of mobile phones as a result of the American invasion than their supposed liberation.