Singaporean aspirations

The former China CEO of McDonald’s Kenneth Chan penned a recent opinion piece in Channel News Asia about Singaporeans not taking on leaderships in global companies. It was written in the “practical” Singaporean way that focused on the steps towards being ‘next-level’ and being ‘bold’ to be a leader. He described personal insecurities and his experiences on the ground to rise up.

Personally, I’ve had a host of regional experience within China, South Asia and Southeast Asia during my time with the Singapore government. At International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore, now Enterprise Singapore), I had the chance to work with Singapore companies on their internationalisation plans and follow them to markets you would not even think about as a man-on-the-street. Subsequently, I was in the pioneer team of Infrastructure Asia, engaging regional government bodies on infrastructure projects. That gives me the exposure, the open-mind and also the skills to communicate and manage cross-culturally.

As a Manager at the Sydney office of Blunomy today, I am leading teams of consultants across our Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne offices. I often have to facilitate exchanges with our European offices as well. Insecurities or perceived inadequacies may hold me back but ultimately, it cannot be the fear of me losing my edge or competitiveness that drives me forward.

And that’s the issue I have with the way the article was framed. The opinions expressed in the article reeks of the same old fear-mongering about Singaporeans being comfortable and losing out. I’m not sure if this works for the new generations of Singaporeans nor if that is the right motivation to begin with. The challenge for Singaporeans is not so much the desire for comfort but the lack of worthwhile aspirations. It used to be that rising up to be a ‘GM’ or a ‘CEO’ was something worth aspiring towards. But that simply isn’t the case today with the new generation.

The ‘boomer’ aspirations are simply not worth fighting for. It is in dealing with the ‘why’ that we find our fuel to move forward. “Success” as is constructed in past generations might not work anymore. Instead of aspiring towards “senior leadership” of global corporations, Singaporeans should be desiring to lead the charge of changing the world. Leading global organisations are means to do this. And then it is no longer about remuneration and the practical barriers of relocation and incentives. Monetary incentives should not be the reason for taking up these positions because they are challenging, stressful and hard. There is only so much money can drive that sort of sacrifice. It is the inspiration and influence that counts.

Think about Kenneth Chan leading McDonald’s – you’ve the chance to change the diets of millions of people by making decisions on the menus of your outlets. By thinking more deeply about the toys and promotions on Happy Meal, you get to reshape the aspirations and fancies of a generation of children. That is why it is worth being the leader of a global company – not because of the recognition or being labeled a ‘talent’.

Likewise, if you’re heading up a technology company, it shouldn’t be about maximising shareholder value or aiming to enable investors to make more money. Those elements are important only to the extent they allow businesses to continue making a difference. It is the ability for the technology to grow, benefit people and shape the future into one that we want their children to be part of. That can tip the scale of our motivation no monetary incentives can.

Are we equipping Singaporeans with the right aspirations? It’s not about skills and all that jazz about leadership. Those are important. And yes, government incentives with relocation or settling back in Singapore after stints overseas can help. But what is it that is worth Singaporeans developing that leadership for? That’s what we should be developing.

Conflicts of interest in professional services

One of the interesting arguments coming out of Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con is that because consulting firms are reliant on a continued stream of business from their clients, there is a conflict of interest as they would not be interested to help clients build the capability to solve problems by themselves.

I’m concerned about this argument because that argument can be made in many other situation such as a lawyer not wanting to help client get out of legal trouble or doctor not desiring his patients to recover, etc. It opens a whole can of worms and at the end of the day, boils down to a matter of professional ethics and the standards we need to uphold within the industry and sector.

I’ve an episode in Mondo Gondo about the financial advisory industry’s conflict of interest. Interestingly, Christopher Tan from Providend revisited this topic again recently. This matter of commission-induced conflict of interest underlies his motivation in founding of his firm. Yet he still struggles with the inherent tension across:

  • the need to make money,
  • the need to motivate and retain his good employees as well as
  • to uphold the interest of his client base.

There may be inherently some industries that are better off for the customers if they were not subject to complete free market type conditions.

Perhaps consulting firms should all continue to stay in the form of partnerships and not allowed to get too big. Likewise, financial advisory might be better off as an industry of freelancing individuals. They can be subject to strict industry and professional body standards rather than be firms operating with huge overheads.

Hydrogen ecosystem

Industries in an economy do not stand alone. This was an idea long appreciated by the Singapore government and that was how they continually managed one of the most successful continuous investment attraction programme. Of course it was dynamic and evolved with times and development of technology. The Economic Development Board of Singapore was relentless, and they did a great deal of work mapping industries and value chains, understanding how they connected with each other, working out how they work, and collecting feedback non-stop from their consistent interaction with the industry.

With the energy transition, a lot of government wants to attract and drive more renewable energy investments in their countries. Southeast Asian governments look with interest as Vietnam ran one of the more “intense” feed-in-tariff programme that propelled them into the top solar power generation market in the region. Taiwan had a successful programme as well, and led some of the North Asia Pacific economies in driving development of their offshore wind sector.

Yet we are probably hitting diminishing marginal returns with such policies thinking that the market can do wonders. For one, solar panels are almost pure capital goods, the cashflow profiles are very predictable and easy to model – especially when you have a long term power purchasing agreement. Capital investors can understand such projects more easily and willing to put funds into projects directly. Newer technologies and the next frontiers of the energy transition won’t be so simple.

Battery storage systems and green hydrogen production will require more policy tweaks and efforts from the governments. Battery energy storage systems do not have very established business models around them. Users can use them for energy arbitrage – that is, to buy electricity from the market when prices are low and sell them when it’s high; or to provide ancillary services to the market such as various reserves or supporting frequency and voltage regulation. Or the users benefit from reliability guarantees coming from the batteries. Green hydrogen on the other hand, has so many different applications and potential offtaker but is difficult to transport and store.

These means that the new technologies require a lot more new infrastructure investments or definition of regulations and policies to stabilise their markets and be de-risked enough for investors to come into the community and start their businesses.

Making excuses for yourself

Barely 10 hours before we were slated to meet for a trek, they messaged, “Had a late night today and just got home so we’ll sleep in and skip the trek tomorrow”. We learnt from young to steer our lives using excuses in order to align it with our periodic whims and fancies, but also to ensure we stay on course in our long-term goals when we find ourselves inconsistent. So they are a double-edged sword depending on how you wield it.

Using excuses that comes out of trying to steer towards long-term goals such as having a policy of sleeping 7.5 hours each night, not signing petitions, eating low-carb, etc can be great. And at times, you might just need to give yourself some wriggle room from low-stake commitments.

But the kind of excuses you need to catch yourself on, is when you’re bailing yourself out of the future you were committing to create for yourself or others. Especially so out of whims and fancies. When you make excuses not to do the work, or to deplete the trust people have in you, or to belittle the cultivation of small positive habits.

Remembering Stuff

If only its that simple...
If only it's that simple...

It’s been a long time since the previous entry; ERPZ have been very active with posts in the month of November generally but kind of stalled this moment. I’ve not written about studying techniques for a while now and I’m hoping to revisit it. Today’s topic is somewhat related to memorizing stuff, something I almost never dwell on because I believe that when you understand something, you won’t have to memorize it to remember it; the associations made in your brains when things you already know would help you anchor new concepts firmly in your mind. These associations can only be made because you understand the concepts.

The reality is that there might be many things that are not about understanding but pure memory. Alternatively, understanding may only come with exposure to an unrealistic amount of facts that would have to be remembered anyways. When that happens, we have to resort to ‘memorizing’; a process we normally understand as ‘getting stuff into the brain’. The question is how things normally enter our minds. The mind is a closed system which receives information only through the neurons and these cells in turn, receive the information they’re transmitting through the sensory organs. In other words, our senses are the ultimate gateway to the mind and thus our memory.

Yet when we study, we often overtax our visual sense as we task it to commit things we read into memory. For some audio learners, reading out chunks of text may help but people rarely attempt to go beyond the visual-audio means of learning. There’s more to our senses than our eyes and ears; our skin, our muscles can all work in sync with our eyes and ears help us to remember things. There is a reason why big events tend to stick to our minds more than small events – those events are big because they arouse more of our senses, we see, smell, hear, anticipate, feel through our skin and react to them through our muscles and thoughts. That’s why it’s so hard to remember a chunk of exchanges perhaps in Macbeth if one don’t feel for the characters or comprehend the context of the story in the first place (insufficient arousal to our senses). The principle of having more information to anchor new ideas works the same – understanding the circumstances where a poem was written and the background of a poet naturally helps you remember the poem better (not to mention the rhymes and choice of words which are designed to introduce patterns that our minds can recognise more easily and thus recall).

Thus, to help yourself memorize stuff, pick up things that help arouse more of your senses: read aloud as you look through your notes, process them in your mind and write them in more concise or condensed forms on a piece of paper all at the same time. This way, you remember the words you read, the things your hear, the different reactions your mind produce to the things you read and the muscle actions involved in penning down the concise form of the things you’re trying to remember. You may not progress as fast in terms of covering content when you do this compared to just plain reading, but the effect of memory is so significant you will soon realize that multiple reading of the same material is no longer justified with such intense ‘memorizing’. In tech speak, the amount of bandwidth each senses can offer as a gateway to the mind is limited and to expand this bandwidth and thus increase retention in our mind, there’s a need to use other channels, other senses.

To reinforce the stuff ‘memorized’, one could use mindmaps to surface connections between the things read and absorb after the studying process I prescribed above. The mindmap is to help you see more clearly the big picture of the disparate information you’ve been trying to take in. It reviews things you’ve learnt and bring to your attention some stuff you might have missed out and have to relook. The mindmap can be tossed aside after use (I recommend just trashing it) since its use is limited once it’s satisfactorily formed.

This article might be a little too late considering people are almost done with O Levels and A Levels now but hopefully, students who are still studying and moving on to higher level educations would find this useful.

Inner Economist

Carrot or Sticks?
Carrot or Sticks?

I have seen this book around for a while but didn’t bother to pick it up to read since it didn’t quite seem to be as interesting as the other popular economics books that was published during those times. I decided to borrow it from the library having discovered that I’ve more or less finished the other the popular economics books (though the most recent SuperFreakonomics is out of my reach at the moment). Interestingly, I didn’t realise “Discover Your Inner Economist” is written by Tyler Cowen until I got home and took a good look at the cover page. It was definitely a familiar name since I visited Marginal Revolution before and seen the name lingering around the title of almost all the entries there.

I didn’t jump right into reading the book this time; instead, I went on to read a book review of “Discover Your Inner Economist” before heading to reading. I’ve become more conscious about devoting my time to reading books that wouldn’t contribute much to my intellectual development. In addition, I was exploring exactly how professionals write book reviews (something I’ve been doing and very keen on improving). And to my surprise, Tyler Cowen was trying to make recommendations for people to do efficient reading (or rather maximize gains from reading):

The best sections of the book concern tactics for maximizing one’s cultural consumption, or what amounts to imitating Cowen. He lists eight strategies for taking control of one’s reading, which include ruthless skipping around, following one character while ignoring others, and even going directly to the last chapter. Your eighth-grade English teacher would faint.

Not that I’ve tried that on Tyler Cowen’s book. His book focuses on stuff that makes your life better that have little to do with money or material gains for that matter. Tyler writes as if he is speaking and Inner Economist have been an easy read for me although I have to admit Tyler strays into topics so far from traditional economics that I get lost in his narration about appreciation of culture and the human psyche. It makes me wonder if I might have enjoyed the book better with the rampant skipping about chapters and reading just here and there as he advised since I’d be equally lost anyways.

Did I mention that his last strategy for maximizing cultural consumption is to “Give Up”? I did consider that at some point of time but since I had more time and attention to spare than Professor Tyler I decided not to. Discover Your Inner Economist is very much more about looking at reality from the lens of an inner self who have better grasp of reality and more objectivity than the ‘you’ who participates in this reality. So if you’ve time to spare, do give Tyler a chance.

New Mail

More Boxes!
More Boxes!

This week’s package of video, audio and reads is a little more on the lighter side, starting with a short 3-minute talk by Dr Laura Trice about asking for praise. After that you might like to listen to Dan Ariely‘s talk on our buggy moral code, a topic I’ve always been interested in.

In news, you might be encouraged to understand that Genius and talent is overrated and social forces can manipulate the motivations to create genius sheerly through encouragement as argued by Steven Levitt in SuperFreakonomics.

I’ll like to take the chance to introduce Knowledge@Wharton, which offers high quality content as well as podcast on economics and business issues of the day. You might like to listen about questions posed on Net Neutrality.

Once again, enjoy your weekends!