Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Can Singapore Produce a Home Grown Leader?

Although my fellow bloggers would stone me for saying it, there are journalist from the main stream media who have been writing some pretty good stuff. One of those journalist who has been writing “explosive” commentaries is Han Fook Kwang, the current managing editor of the Straits Times. Mr Han has developed a habit of spelling out home truths. Despite his senior position in the Straits Times, Mr Han has gone as far to describe the relationship between transport regulators and operators as being “cozy” and suggested that Singapore’s public transport system needed a good dose of competition. By the more cautious standards of Singapore journalism – this is explosive stuff.

Mr Han’s latest article that has caused a bit of a stir was published on July 1, 2013. The article had a simple headline – “Do S'porean workers deserve their wages?” The answer to this headline was a tragic no. His argument was simple – Singaporean workers are not as analytical, articulate, creative, innovative and productive as their Asian counterparts, let alone the workers from Switzerland or Germany.

Unfortunately, during the last decade, I’ve seen plenty examples that prove Mr Han to be correct. Just look at Singapore’s economic landscape. The top jobs are more often than not filled by someone from elsewhere. In the old days it meant Caucasian expatriates from the West. People accepted this as part of the natural order of things. After all, the multinationals were inevitably based out of places like New York or London.
However, the top jobs are also going to people from India and other parts of the world. Not only do you have Indian expatriates running Indian companies but they are playing senior roles in Western ones and even in Singapore government owned companies.

Unfortunately, the Indians are not hired because they are significantly cheaper than the local Singaporeans. Piyush Gupta, the CEO of DBS made a good nine million dollars last year. While not every Indian expatriate makes what Mr Gupta makes, a good portion of them make enough to live quite comfortably.

It’s quite hard for your average Singaporean to get his head and heart around the situation. It was one thing when the boss was a white man. It’s quite different when the bosses come from the parts of Asia that we were conditioned to think of as third-world backwaters that our ancestors were fortunate to run away from.
So what’s going on? How is that Singapore, for all its advances in education and development, been so bad at producing the people that we need to run today’s companies? Think about it, not only are the guys running are economy from elsewhere, the guys running the government are trained elsewhere?

The question has to be asked – can we produce a “home grown” leader? The answer to this question is going to be increasingly important in that Singapore needs leaders who understand local situations and are able to develop solutions rather than those import someone else’s model.

Singapore’s education system usually comes under attack whenever this question is debated. The most prominent point here is that while the system produces people who can read and write, it’s failed to produce people who can think. Despite out small population, we have an increasing number of universities. Yet despite the high ratio of universities per person, we have produced no Nobel Prize contenders let alone Nobel Prize winners and I can’t think of a local business school graduate who has gone onto run a Western Multinational. By contrast, India has very few institutions per person and yet we have Indra Nooyi running Pepsico and Ajay Banga running Master Card.

To be fair to the Singapore’s authorities, they seem to recognize that there is an issue here. Moves are being made to make the education system less “exam” focused. The world knows that we “kick Arse” when it comes to taking exams but beyond that we don’t seem able to do much. In his article, Mr Han gave examples of graduates who couldn’t string a sentence together and yet expected to become marketing managers in multinationals. In any other country, people would question how an articulate chap could become a graduate. In Singapore we know – the guy couldn’t speak but he was an ace at exams. This has got to change and thankfully there’s some recognition of the issue from the powers-that-be.

While I applaud the education authorities for recognizing that something needs to be done, I think the main issue facing Singapore is deeper. The system has become such that the best and the brightest do not face competition.

Let’s face it, leaders and leadership material is developed when it is placed under challenging situations. For example, military commanders develop their skills from combat experience and leading men under combat situations. Military academies like West Point or Sandhurst can only teach one so much. The real learning is out in the field. The American and British armies are highly regarded because their senior leaders have seen some form of action sometime during their careers.

By contrast, the Singapore military favours book learning over actual combat experience. Yes, unlike the American and British armies we don’t go to war but we are also a nation that is obsessed with defense. We spend the largest percentage of our GDP in this region on defense. We do send people to UN Peace Keeping missions to give them a bit of exposure (technically peace keeping and war are two different things). You would imagine that we’d want our Generals to be a bit more seasoned rather than text-book soldiers. Unfortunately we don’t. When we had a general who acquired the closest thing to combat experience and was praised by the international community for his leadership, we demoted him and pushed him into retirement as fast we could. We promoted younger, less experienced but more book smart people over him.

There seems to be a cultural aversion to exposing bright people to challenges. Instead of testing out people under stress, the system seems to allow the chosen to avoid it and it gives them power over those who don’t have the luxury of avoiding hardship. Should it surprise anyone that Singapore fails to produce people with leadership qualities?

Just American soldiers are expected to face war before reaching the general ranks, American workers are judged on their current performance rather than on what their careers are meant to be as decided by some bureaucrat. The former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welsh had a policy of firing the bottom ten percent of performers – regardless of their qualifications. What mattered is the here and now rather than the glorious past of the university fields. GE has remained one of the biggest companies in the world for over a century.

Something needs to be done. 

Singapore should probably start by removing government support from businesses and deregulate more aggressively. Our workers will develop the necessary skills more quickly if they face greater competition.