Training programmes

During my time in public service, I’ve attended lots of different training programmes. There were a lot of training on writing minutes, professional reports and trip reports, as well as some on professional etiquette in a wide range of situations including during presentations, business meetings, business meals, cross-cultural interactions and so on. I won’t say all of them stuck with me and in fact, the elements that stuck were the ones I found useful on the spot and decided to make it a point to adopt. If they didn’t stand out when I first received them, the chance of them being useful to me was really low.

So the notes I took during those courses were at best museum artifacts of professional training I had received. The greater learning was done actually observing how my seniors, my managers and bosses behaved in those various settings, what they deemed important and asked questions about in reports and minutes. Those standards and disciplines were cultivated in that manner rather than through a couple of hours of training. In fact even days of training won’t cut it.

So is training a good way to enforce standards and uplift them across the people in an organisation? I think it can be if it aligns well with what is being practised and expected in an organisation to such a level that the senior management is practising them already. As David Maister rightly pointed out, training doesn’t work if it’s designed to change the juniors or frontline staff while the senior management or middle management is allowed to be set in their old ways.

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.

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.