Sunday, March 25, 2012

Major Wrongs

One of the nicest things about living in Singapore is that you always have to have faith in the system to inspire you. Just when I thought I was running out of things to blog about, along comes the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who proudly eats pork aka Thambi Pundek to remind me what’s wrong with Singapore – thus giving me something to blog about.

For some reason he decided to tell me about his national service in the air conditioned office. It seems that a few days ago there was a major who decided to drive through camp gates without going through the proper security channels. To stop the major, the Regimental Policeman (RP) on duty ended up pointing his riffle at the man’s car (as he is expected to under the rules).

Upon seeing a gun pointed at him, the major stepped out of his car, walked up to the RP – grabbed him by the neck and apparently said, “You dare to treat me like a terrorist – it’s you Muslims who are the bloody terrorist.” To his credit, the RP didn’t flinch and called the man a “Chinese Cunt.” The enraged major took this issue up with the camp’s management and the RP has been duly charged and sentenced to do time in the Detention Barracks (DB) – thus prolonging his National Service and probably earned him a criminal record using his gun.

I got upset when he told me this story and I think there were several times when I was ready to throw my cup at him. I pray that this story is not true and he’s fabricating it. However, since I actually served National Service (combat role and combat unit), I believe that this story is plausible and illustrates one of the greatest wrongs with Singapore today –namely, we have now become two societies with two different rules and we have revolting people like the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Paris Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek, who instead of fighting to make the system better, fight to enforce the status quo.

Guard Duty is one of the most important duties of a junior commander. When you are on duty, you are responsible for the security of the camp. You have to ensure that people entering the camp are the people who should be entering the camp and you have to see that those people who say they’ll leave the camp at a certain time actually do so.

To do this job, guard commanders and the RPs are given certain powers. They can and should stop everyone driving into camp and check that they have the necessary IDs. Both guards and regimental police have the right to search vehicles regardless of who is driving the car. The Guards and RPs have the right to order people out of their cars – at gun point if deemed necessary. Both Camp Guards and RPs are within their rights to shoot a person who does not halt when they are told to do so (theoretically you are supposed to give three warnings and fire a warning shot before you shoot the bugger).

This is generally how things are supposed to be run. In practice, we do give a bit of leeway when executing our duties. For example, many of us tend to be less stringent when checking people from our own unit – ie we know the people who should be coming in and out of the camp. The rule book does say that nobody books into camp from 0000-to-0630. It also does say that the guard commander should be flexible when it comes to anyone with a rank of major and above. The rules about checking ID still apply. In Khatib Camp, where I was stationed, the one person whom you didn’t need to check with the Chief of Artillery whose car was the most recognizable in the camp. When he drove by, you just saluted.

From experiences, the top people (major and above) were usually very nice. I remember stopping the Head Logistics of HQ SA. When he pointed out that his car had a camp pass, I pointed out that the sticker on the car only permitted the car to enter the camp – not the driver. This was a man with class. He looked at me and said, “keep up the good work – you are doing an important job and you should do it by the rules.” What I found to be true in my military experiences, I’ve found to be true in my civilian experiences. The high level people that I now deal with (CEOs, MDs, GMs, MPs, and Ministers etc.) tend to be pleasant and very reasonable.

The shit heads belong to middle management. In the army, this usually means senior members of the Warrant Officer and Specialist Corps and junior officers (usually captains) are the ones who give you the most problems. These are the ones who throw tantrums and threaten you for doing your job. It’s as if they expect you to create a special exemption for them just because they are senior to you. The best way to handle this lot is to your job because … well the rules are on your side.

Being a power drunk shit is not limited to Singapore. I remember reading about a Sergeant-Major in the US military who once was responsible for enforcing speed limits in camp. He points out that there were colonels who would remind him that they outranked him several times. His standard reply was, “I appreciate the fact that you outrank me Sir, but you should also be aware that because you outrank me several times over, you should be even more embarrassed to be in this situation, Sir.”

I’ve not experienced a junior commander in this Singapore military having this much confidence in dealing with their superiors. However, many of us eventually learn to be firm and diplomatic as we mature through our service period. If I look back at my previous experiences, I wish I had been more firm on certain occasions because, well, I never realized my Duty Officers were quite supportive.

My national service period was in the pre-September 11, 2001 period. The military, like organizations took security seriously but not fanatically. These days, things are officially different. Security measures have been stepped up since my day. So you would imagine that people would have become more cooperative when it comes to enforcing basic security measures inside a military camp.

Judging by the way the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek tells this story, I can’t help but feel that a major wrong has taken place and it shows me that there’s something drastically wrong in the way the system is applied.

Let’s start with the fact that the major did not do through the check points he was supposed to go through. By definition he has already broken the rules.

Then let’s go to the fact that the RP pointed a rifle at his car. Does this action sound drastic? Yes, it does. I don’t recall being in a situation where I had to point a rifle at anyone and I don’t think I’m alone in this. I mean there were times when I was tempted to but it never seemed worth it. Having said all of that, times have changed. This is the post September 9, 2001 world where the mantra is – you can never be too prepared when it comes to enforcing security measures. Let’s add to the fact that as the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek says, “The RP was acting as directed by Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).” To me, the RP’s actions sounded a little drastic but he was well within his obligations to do what he did.

Let’s look at the Major’s reaction. Yes, it’s not nice to have a gun pointed at you. However, as a senior officer, this particular Major could have addressed the issue calmly and firmly. Instead, he reacted angrily and grabs the RP by the neck. By any military and civil definition, this is assault, which is a felony. I would argue that the RP’s mistake was not to promise to shoot the major for approaching him in what I could only imagine to be an agitated manor.

I look back at my senior officers and I feel I lived in a different era. I remember then Major (now full colonel) Tan Chong Boon, the former CO of 21 SA telling the unit Physical Training Instructor (PTI) that he expected him to be firm in conducting IPPT for officers ie he was not to be intimidated by his superiors into letting them pass with an easier standard. This is leadership – to give your subordinates confidence to do their jobs without being bullied.

Like I said, I hope this is just the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek being silly. It shocks me that when it comes to this incident, a young full time National Serviceman’s life is going to be ruined just because he did his job according to the letter of the rules.

The Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek proceeded to argue with me. His point was, the RP should have known that you can never win a fight with ones superiors and he should have let the major carry on. His point was simple – serve your national service and don’t rock the boat.

May be he has a point. Why rock the boat? However, if you apply his thought process to this incident and see how it applies to how he views the rest of his life, you can’t help but shudder. This Young Thing is actively endorsing the idea of – One Rule for Some and One Rule for Another.

I can’t fathom it? The RP was punished for doing his job and the major gets off with not so much as a slap on the wrist when he was nearly wrong at every turn. Yes, rank rules in the military. This isn't’t unique to Singapore. However, those with rank are expected to play by the rules and to uphold the rules. They are NOT supposed to break the rules and to endorse rule breaking by punishing those who enforce the rules when they actually do their jobs.

Seriously, how can we call ourselves a “non-corrupt” society when we tolerate these things happening? A major wrong has been committed by anybody’s definition.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

All at School

There have a few letters in Singapore's Today newspaper talking about our education system. The debate has centred around the fact that despite all the praise that has been heaped on Singapore's achievements in education, we have produced virtually no leaders of global corporations.

This is a rather timely debate. Despite being an economic miracle, Singapore's policy makers are worried. The question amongst a few members of the 'chattering' classes is what exactly is "next" for Singapore? To prepare for what comes next, one has to look at the schools.

Singapore's school system is pretty darn good. We inherited the old British colonial system and instead of making it "wis hy-washy" as the British did in the 60s (the year they invented the comprehensive system), we decided to make ours a little harsher and til this day, we are not making any apologies for it.

On the surface of things, there's no reason for it. Singapore kicks arse in things like global competitive scores for mathematics and science. We have gone from a barely literate population from my grandparents day to total literacy in mine. We are especially good when it comes to exams. Go to any overseas varsity and you'll find that Singaporeans usually top the class - simple, our training gets us geared up for exams in a way that Western schools don't.

In terms of economics, the system has also served us well. Foreign investors do pump in big money into Singapore mainly because we have a pool of highly skilled workers. Both 3M and Alcon built factories in Singapore rather than in cheaper locations around the region because we had a pool of skilled workers that our neighbours did not have.

So, why on earth are we wringing our hands over education? Well, the answer is this simple. Despite all our achievements in education we have produced NO Nobel Prize winners. There is no such thing as a globally renown artist who was educated in the Singapore system. It's not just the multinationals that are run by foreigners. To get ahead in government service, you need to spend a stint of your education elsewhere. All three of our Prime Ministers have had to study elsewhere for a period of time. When Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's closest thing to an intellectual, encouraged Singaporeans to send their kids to our wonderfully good local universities, someone asked him where his daughters were studying. Mr Mahbubani suddenly became very silent on the topic.

A friend of mine said it best - "Every year so many jobs are created. We are told we need so many foreigners are needed to do those jobs. Then you ask, why can't the locals do them. Then, if the locals are not qualified, you have to look at what the locals have in common."

So, here's the question - why isn't the education system producing leaders and why is it even a worry.

As with most things in Singapore, the question lies with basic economics and politics. Back in the early days of independence there was a need to build the country as quickly as possible. The answer in those days was to go against the grain of what post colonial societies were doing and welcome Western and Japanese multinationals to hire people and build the economy. To bring in the multinationals in those days, you simply needed to be cheaper than the home nation. Our secret was to produce an educated and compliant workforce.

Hey presto, we gave the MNCs a pool of workers who were qualified to the do the work and didn't get into the nasty habit of going on strike. Lee Kuan Yew would make darn sure that no interest group could do to him what the miner's did to Ted Heath in the UK. He dealt with trouble makers ruthlessly and rewarded compliance.

Unfortunately times have changed. The rest of Asia has become a reasonable place to deal with and they're advantages in size are starting to count. Put it simply, Singapore will NEVER make things more cheaply than China or Vietnam and they will never service as cheaply as India or the Philippines - and that remains the case even if you were to get every Singaporean worker to work for a token sum instead of a living wage.

Singapore has played up its advantages of being a safe haven. So the multinationals may do their business elsewhere but chances are the headquarters will be in Singapore. Ask any expatriate why they're in Singapore and they'll tell you that life is comfortable - often far more so than in their home country.

However, that still does not make the Singaporean any better off. Yes, we have lots of expats living here and they're spending money on high priced booze. But that doesn't exactly generate a good living for Singaporeans. We, as a population remain in the sandwiched class between expats on top and labourers at the bottom. To make matters more comfortable, the government has been on a drive to reduce our dependency on "foreign labour" at the bottom of the ladder. The top remains stubournely foreign.

In the last decade of living in Singapore, it remains rare to find a Singaporean running the Singapore operations of a multinational. David Tang of DDB remains the only Singaporean running the Singapore office of a multinational. Ed Ng, formerly regional CEO of GE Commercial Finance South East Asia was a unique species who had an American reporting to him. Outside these two, the Singaporean bosses have all been entrepreneurs - Palani Pillai and Lim Sau Hong come to mind.

Part of the reason is cultural. To climb in a multinational, you need to have overseas experience. A good deal of Singaporeans don't like to travel simply because you never know when you get to see family. Both Eddie Khoo, now head of consumer banking for United Overseas Bank and Edmund Koh, President of UBS Singapore, were ex-Citibankers who moved to smaller banks (admittedly in higher positions) for the very simple reason - they climbed as high as they could in Citi Singapore and any higher would have meant relocating elsewhere.

Westerners and now the Indian Expatriates don't have such qualms about moving around. As such, these groups find it easier to move up the international corporate ladder. UL's head in Asia-Pacific is from Kerela and there's Deepak Sharma, Chairman of Citi Private Bank who was an Indian Citizen who now happily resides in Singapore.

However, the desire not to travel isn't the only reason why Singaporeans don't fly high. The sad truth happens to be the fact that Singaporeans simply don't match up for many of the top jobs.

Our system has produced good workers, people who can do the job as well as anyone in the world. However, this is only just one quality required in today's multinational. I think of my ex-boss Monical Alsagoff who would tell us,"It's not the best person for the job who gets the job. It's the person who sells him or herself best who gets the job." Neil French, the former WPP Global Creative Head used to pride himself in his ability to sell himself.

Singaporeans are notoriously bad at self-promotion. You could argue that we are a naturally modest people. However, that's not exactly true either. We are competitive - the local word that comes to mind is Kiasu, Hokkien for scared to lose. We are one of the few places on earth where I know of, where students will deliberately hide reference books in the library to ensure no one else can get that elusive "a"grade. We simply don't like to stand out because our system usually slaps down the chap who tries to stand out. I remember the phrase, "Why you so special," used more than once when I was in National Service. In other places, being "special" is something to be proud of. In Singapore it is to mark yourself out for trouble.

We fear getting into trouble far more than we like success. Yes, it's always good to be careful. Better use a condom before sleeping with that sexy hunk/chick giving you the eye. However, fear of failure tends to breed something rather more worrying than caution - a lack of a sense of ownership.

Think back to Mas Selamat's escape from Whitley Prison. The Home Affairs Minister spent an unhealthy amount of time explaining why it wasn't his fault that a limping man escaped a highly secured facility instead on focusing on a solution. I think back to my National Service days when I stupidly did not check ammunition when taking over the guard room and got slapped by the Battalion Orderly Sergeant for it. The RP Sergeant told me later on, "Too bad you already signed the take over slip, otherwise you could have blamed it on your men."

Somewhere, somehow we are taught that responsibility equals trouble. Best to avoid responsbility and therefore trouble. Til this day, I would not have blamed the men under my command for a mistake I made but I guess that makes me a nut job of sorts.

Being on top means you have to take responsibility for issues that crop up. The rewards are of course greater when you reach the top but so are the risk. America does produce the people who climb to the top because they're willing to answer with their jobs. It doesn't happen in Singapore. Far better to blame foreigners than take the burden of blame onto yourself.

I think of a venture I'm trying to kick start with a friend of mine who is a chef. I believe there's room for him to do some catering on the side. I've unlisted the help of another friend to do up the promotional materials. Her contribution to this venture has been to tell me to seek an older person's instructions on how to do things step-by-step.

It worries me that this is the mentality of a young Singaporean. Yes, the venture has a risk to it. It may not start let alone succeed or fail. It's an idea that I think is worth pursuing and its worth working at. Yes, failure is likely but you never know until you try.

I take the view that you can minimise failure by consulting those who have been down the road before you. However, one has to take ultimate responsibility for ones own actions.

The idea of going into business with someone telling you how to do it step-by-step is a sign that one should not even be in private enterprise. It shows that you have the need to pass the responsbility onto someone else. -It shows that you want to say at the end of the day is "It wasn't me."

Once again, let's compare Wong Kan Seng and the Singapore Government's reaction to Mas Selmat's escape to John McCain's reaction to his election defeat. Who would you follow? Who would you trust. The man who insist on being paid millions and yet denies all responsibility for things that happen. Or would you trust the man who admits to his mistakes and says sorry?

I remember The Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who drinks during the day in Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek saying,"Of course you don't apologise - that's how you keep your job."

Well, the problem is, jobs can be outsourced to someone cheaper or a technology can make what you do obsolete. You either find a way of being responsible for yourself and creating something for yourself or you die waiting for the government to give you things.

Something needs to be done and the right place to start is at home and at school. Children need to be taught that its good to be responsible for your actions. That's how you get better.

The Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek always tells me that we must salute to the "superior culture" of the West. I ask, why do we need to salute a "superior culture" where we can create one that's as good if not better for ourselves. I think that's a question the super geniouses in government should ponder upon

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Last Days of Innocence

March 8 2012 was a pretty amazing day. I was on a bus when I bumped into a chap that I hadn't seen since my days as a military recruit. It was quite funny. I sat in my seat, looked at the chap sitting across me and suddenly asked him where he did his basic military training. Then it dawned upon us, we knew each other and we proceeded to talk rot about old times. He couldn't remember my name but he remembered me.

Anyway, it turned out that we live near each other and so we ended up having tea together. I said to him, "BMT was full of shit," and he replied," Be at least we were in the shit together." He was right.

Military training, as anyone who has been through it, is a very demanding excercise. Basic military training in particular is tough because you're moving from the basic life of a civilian to that of a solider. The body has to go through something of a major metamorphosis. For those of us who are used to doing things like waking up at noon, army life starts out as something as a shock when you have to wake up at 0545 and are expected to be bright and energetic.

For me, this was an especially tough time. My body was used to regular bouts of beer and Hagan Daz ice cream. It never occured to me that it was necessary to do things like walk more than ten minutes let alone go for a run at 0600.

For many of us "middle class" boys, the army is also something of a social shock. In Singapore everything depends on your academic qualifications. During the last year of the A-level examinations, parents will do EVERYTHING to spare their children of distractions form getting the all important A-grades. No expense is spared into making sure that the kids have all the time they need to focus on exams. It's not just material needs that are provided for. Parents struggle and sell their souls to ensure that the kids will mix with like minded kids from similar backgrounds - kids who will be focused on their studies.

This is a world away from what basic military training is. Nice middle class kids who have never heard a swear word in their life are suddenly addressed as "chee bye" (Hokkien dialect for cunt) and the funny thing is that is usually meant as a term of affection.

If you're from a particularly religious family, life in the army can be particularly shocking. Imagine moving from an environment where the regular discussions are on Biblical meanings to one where you discuss getting Biblical knowledge of the street hookers in Geylang Lorong whatever? Sensitive souls do have it rough in the initial days of basic military training.

Having said all of that, Basic Military Training was probably my last days of innoncence. For all the "horrible" culture shocks that made the army, this was the one period in my life where the people I met and mixed with were out to help each other.

I remember being physically weak. The physical training was a bitch and part of military idea of training is to pick on the weakest guy. The idea being the others will make life miserable for you and you have every incentive to find the physical strength that you never thought you had.

Funily enough, my platoon mates never allowed me to feel like shit. Each and everyone I knew encouraged me when I was feeling rough. I was one of the few people who lived in a place that didn't start with "Blk xx" and yet I never felt resentment for being the "rich" kid who needed to be taken down a peg or two.

I look back at my experiences during BMT as happy ones because of the people I was with. It's the experience that allows me to have faith in Singaporeans no matter how awful I find many of the local attitudes may be. Somehow, I have faith that young Singaporeans have some genuine goodness somewhere in there.

Ironically, I'm saying all of this on March 9, 2012, the 15th year that has passed since the disaster in New Zealand that killed Ronnie and Yin Tit. Swift Lion was what you'd call one of those defining moments. Attending the funerals of these two kind hearted young men with so much potential whoes lives had been cut short so brutally, brought home the message that we were doing had a consequence. It was heart breaking and til this day I cannot get over the fact that despite the loss of human life, nobody in an official position took responsibility for what happened.

Yet, I can also accept that this was the last moment of innocence that we enjoyed. Army life is funny in that everything is dependent on rank. When you're a recruit, you are basically the shit that people scrape off the bottom of your shoe. When you have rank, people have to be nice to you. However, while privillege comes with rank, you suddenly discover the ugly side of things. The army, whatever anyone tells you is filled with politics and those with a bit of rank and power spend a good portion of their time trying to score points against each other. In short, the army is like nearly every work place -it's a snake pit.

I think by the time Swift Lion took place, I had been acustomed to life in the unit. The political games were part of daily life. Suddenly the accident happened and the reality that we could have been next shocked the living daylights out of us. We, for once, acted as if we were a unit.

It's now 15-years since I've left the army. Life as a one-man show in an industry dominated by big multinationals is tough and you often get to see the nasty side of people and organisations. I remember joking with Zen in her pre-Aric days that we were similar, we got fucked for a living.

I'm admitedly a lot more comfortable now than I was back in the army, but talking about those days gives me some comfort. It reminds me of my lost days of innocence when all I really worried about was doing push ups and having a laugh with friends who didn't care about your background but accepted you for being you.