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Traits developed in Singapore’s young that are going to be our demise

by Chris Kuan

Touche, Dr. Linda Lim, Professor of Strategy at the University of Michigan. The last bit of her address to Methodist Girls’ School (MGS). Conformity, myopia, inflexibility, inadaptability, risk aversion, too ingrained (or too comfortable) with existing orthodoxies – I can relate to these – forget about just educating our young, these traits are gonna be our demise.

“Fifth, in facing these challenges of the future, diversity is an asset and empathy a necessity as we work and play among people who are very different from us, and encourage rather than suppress the differences among ourselves. One of Singaporeans’ disadvantages in our own labor market was articulated by one of my American MBA former students who worked here in a senior position in two global banks for ten years. He said, “Singaporeans all think alike, that’s why we need to hire foreigners, and why we expats have job security.”

Singaporeans’ inclination toward conformity has also been noted by other Asians who have lived here. In a recent collection of SMU seniors’ essays, an Indonesian who studied here since age 15 notes “The Singapore journey to meaning is one of a clear path—defined by good grades, good schools and eventually, a good job,” resulting in a society that he found “myopic”, “monotonic” and “monochromatic” compared with his home, which he acknowledged was chaotic but also colorful, exciting, stimulating—and much more entrepreneurial.

Along the same lines, one of my many Indian MBA students at Michigan who studied and worked here for as many as 12 years, and is now a McKinsey consultant in Chicago said, “I always knew that I couldn’t stay in Singapore for the long term. Had I stayed any longer I would have become very inflexible and unable to adapt to other locations.” A woman MBA student who grew up in communist China, then worked here as a semiconductor engineer and is now at a Silicon valley tech company said, “Singaporeans have a predominantly strict attitude to life, marked by clear authority structures and distinct social status lines…..Singapore government managed so well that the local people are very lawful, strict and structural. Sometimes, I needed a breath though.” Another Indian student used the word “claustrophobic”.

This is not how I would describe the Singapore or the MGS of my youth. If indeed that is what we have become on our climb up the economic development ladder, we need to pause and take a look back. As for looking ahead, let me quote (as I often have) a senior executive from a Chinese state-owned bank, who at the wrap-up of an executive program I was directing said this, “I agree 100% with everything you have said. But you left out the most important thing. We must be brave enough to challenge authority. I would add to this, challenging ourselves, and challenging all the orthodoxies which govern our lives and work, which is required to spur the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that Singapore needs in the decades ahead. I wish you the best in this endeavor.”

Dr Lim’s speech resonated with me. I remember all those years sitting across from numerous Singaporean candidates for positions in my division whether London or Tokyo. Sometimes I was trying to help especially in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis.

Invariably there was too much of what Dr Lim described as “The Singapore journey to meaning is one of a clear path—defined by good grades, good schools and eventually, a good job,” It engendered a no u-turn, no risk, forever upwards in pay and career so much so the only criteria seems to be what am I going to get paid compared to what I am getting today. There was little appreciation for taking risks with one’s career, taking oneself out of one’s comfort zone, going into something unfamiliar that can bode very well for one’s future trajectory. Needless to say completely no appreciation for taking one retrograde step backwards to set the stage for leaping several steps forward. Often I get the impression they think they were doing me a favour. Those who took up the challenge were invariably the non-conformist sort, usually not been to university or studied overseas and frankly I want diversity, not conformity.

As for me, I got asked quite often whether I would have been financially better off if I had stayed in Singapore as if the same journey is the universal criteria for success. My answer is always I don’t know and it does not matter. And if you think maybe just maybe that mentality I described above has changed especially after the last few years, don’t bet on it. I know of people who returned to Singapore into senior position determined to fly the Singapore flag when it comes to hiring, only to find reality is the graveyard of good intentions. So if Johnny Angmoh said “Singaporeans all think alike, that’s why we need to hire foreigners, and why we expats have job security.” (Dr. Lim’s anecdote of a former MBA student who worked here) – don’t be sensitive to a typical angmo in your face manner of speaking. There is truth in it, however uncomfortable it may be.

The above article was first published on Chris Kuan’s Facebook page