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Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

The Lion City needs more pride

Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)
Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

By Elaine Ee

I don’t mean pride in a great airport, getting good maths scores or in super trees.

I mean pride in what you do, taking responsibility, having integrity.

Singapore produces great results. Our government has operated with a budget surplus for years, we have a brand new downtown in Marina Bay, our students consistently produce top grades internationally; our list of achievements goes on — and you would assume that behind this stellar score sheet is a mass of high-performance workers leading us down this path of success.

Yet productivity in Singapore is lower than is should be, and lags behind other high-performing Asian countries like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. This issue came up again at the Forbes CEO Global Conference held at Shangri-la Hotel in late October, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about various ways to increase productivity here. A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute also spoke of the need for ASEAN economies to double their productivity by 2030 to sustain economic growth.

I assume that this comment about productivity is meant for different industries, not just manufacturing or construction, and refers to not only volume of output but also quality and added value of what’s being produced.

A range of measures to raise productivity were suggested — increasing wages, using better technology, improving infrastructure, providing training and evolving businesses — all of which are relevant, of course. But there are some things that a training course cannot deliver and money cannot buy; and these are values.

Pride and integrity motivate one to do a good job and step up, not because your boss is looking over your shoulder or because you have a KPI to meet, but simply because it matters, to you. And here is where Singapore falls short.

Our culture places a lot of emphasis on what’s on paper, often much more than on what’s really happening, what’s authentic and true. Our kids are taught this in school from the start. Scoring well in exams matters more than understanding, questioning and creating. Mock tests are relied on heavily, along with answer sheets and ‘model answers’ that tell kids there is only one right answer, when in many cases there clearly isn't.

There is more drill than discussion. It doesn't matter if you don’t fully understand what you’re being taught as long as you can handle the exam.

If a student came up with a good answer that was not on the answer sheet, they would probably get zero marks for it instead of being given credit for having initiative, being original or daring to take a risk. Stick to the ‘right’ answer, they will be told. And if a teacher did try to open this up for discussion, they would probably not be given credit for that either and be told to stick to the syllabus. From an early age, we become overly attached to ticking all the boxes instead of exploring, thinking and making sure there is integrity in what we do.

This mentality then carries through to the workforce, especially in large Singapore organizations. Too many workers wait to be told what to do and then do only that. It keeps them in line with their bosses and covers their behinds. It keeps them free from blame. People shy away from stepping up, from taking ownership of what’s in front of them. People look to their bosses to provide, like their teachers did, the answers and the instructions, and stick to that. Because from day one, we’ve been sent the message that it’s just not worth it to do more.

This diminishes jobs and roles, and people. When hiring, and this happens more at junior and mid level, instead of looking for people who can come up with their own ideas, contribute, take things to the next level, employers end up with yes men, administrators, hacks — deliverers rather than owners. Sometimes it’s the employers’ own doing because they are too top down in the way they manage people. Sometimes employees don’t step up even when given a chance because they are just not culturally conditioned to do so.

singapore workersTop down management does not inspire employees to take responsibility for their work. The idea of being ‘top down’ is not a positive one, and most managers would prefer not to see themselves that way. Yet managers who purport to want workers who are independent, able to think laterally and come up with their own ideas — because that is the way good managers are supposed to think — too often really don’t.

They are really micro-managers, not trusting of their staff and feel the need to see everything, because that is how they themselves have been managed; it’s culturally ingrained. Again, stepping up is not rewarded. The result? Workers are obedient, but make less effort, get frustrated, feel unappreciated and produce work that is pedestrian.

So, many people end up bored or unfulfilled in their jobs. And what happens when people are bored or unfulfilled? They waste time, they work less — even if they stay cooped up in their work place for long hours.

Every society glorifies certain professions, while eschewing others, although in some societies the range of admired professions is wider than in others. In our society, the highest status is accorded to best scholars, senior government officials, senior executives, the wealthy, certain high-status professions; and this gives rise to a rather narrow path of aspirations. Everyone wants to be a banker, lawyer, accountant, engineer, civil servant. Or at least, everyone’s parents want that.

While these are great professions, this blinkered view of ‘success’ erodes the status of a lot of other work, with varying degrees of ‘highness’ or ‘lowness’ attached to different types of work. The pride that we would help get the ‘lower’ status jobs done well doesn't exist much here. A plumber in Singapore is low-paid and semi-skilled, for instance; while a plumber in Australia or the United States can make decent money and commands a degree of respect.

But occasionally you see flashes of this pride. I used to take my dry cleaning to a launderer run by a middle-aged Filipino gentleman. It was a hole-in-the-wall place, filled mainly with laundry on clothes rails, with only a small counter for him. He had so much pride in his work; he was cheerful, took his job seriously and tried hard to help his customers. It was like he owned the business; except he didn’t. If there was a stain on one of my clothes, he would say ‘we should be able to do get it out, no problem’, rather than be dour and say ‘I’ll just put your clothes through our cleaning process, if the stain doesn't comes out don’t blame me’ — which unfortunately is the attitude we see too much of.

I also met two tow truck drivers when my car broke down on the ECP. One was from Myanmar and the other Malaysian. Both of them were exceedingly nice and helpful, and towed my car to a place where I could get it fixed. Far from viewing their job as lowly, they spoke about how they felt it was a good one. You could see the pride in their faces and body language; they were capable men handling a heavy, complex machine, not mere drivers.

And I know a Singaporean hawker who runs a zhi char stall in Tanjong Pagar Market. I once complimented him on how fresh and well made his food always is. Beaming with pride, he started talking about how he makes every dish himself, his food often sells out at lunchtime and that his har cheong kai is just the best. Listening to him, it was obvious that he cared immensely about what he did.

This is what we need more of. Workers with more pride in what they do, employers who value their workers stepping up, so that both sides will want to give a little more and everyone becomes more productive.