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“That is life”, Mr Khaw Boon Wan is right after all

by Lee Siew Peng (Dr)

I was surprised that Mr Desmond Kuek took so long to say the recent SMRT troubles were due to ‘culture’.

If you look at the newspapers in the UK, you will notice how ‘culture’ is never an issue until something goes wrong, and then some senior person will be trotted out to point an accusing finger at this esoteric culprit called ‘culture’.

Culture is about life: social life in all its multi-faceted glory which encompasses beliefs, the way we work, the way we eat and sleep, the invisible factors that guide the way we choose life-partners, get married, stay married (or not) and have children. Scholars of culture try to understand how people-groups continue to behave in a certain manner: how society is reproduced.

If culture be the problem, then c'est la vie’ (that is life), Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan was right.

Never the twain/train

While teaching at National University of Singapore (NUS) many years ago, all engineering students had to attend sociology classes to learn how people behave. They hated it. (“Must I really deal with real people?”)

These were engineering students because they excelled in maths and physics, and dealing with inanimate objects and systems. Making them study how and why social phenomena could be understood through the eyes of Marx, Durkheim and Weber was equivalent to making me do calculus.

I love generating and analysing statistics, but calculus is a foreign country: l find it hard to integrate!

People matter

When engineers design roads, bridges and trains, they need an understanding of how people will use these to ensure the highest level of safety, comfort and purposefulness. Physical design can affect behaviour.

Some Ukrainian students I taught in Kiev explained how their universities had ‘designed out’ large spaces so that students could not meet in big groups, to reduce the threat of a popular uprising. (Just think of all those ‘squares’ in which millions have demonstrated their discontent.)

The ‘press here to continue’ button is normally on the bottom right-hand of a web page because we read English from left to right, top to bottom, and there’s where the eye comes to a rest. Culture encompasses language.

Even if engineers were to design only robots, the end-users are still human beings who must work and live with these robots!

That’s life

All work environments are imbued with culture and it is thus critical that CEOs comprehend the culture in their companies. Business management scholars might call these ‘organization studies’, but they, too, know that it is not the nuts and bolts but how people use, mis-use and ab-use the nuts and bolts that matter.

I’ve worked with a management consultant company where new hires and clients very quickly sensed the ‘company culture’: the way we dress, the way we speak, the way we approach a task with the determination to get it right the first time, with an eye on the bottom-line, noting efficiencies and client satisfaction, the long, long hours … and not an ex-military in sight!

Culture is not like a disease that is only understood by medics after they have studied the diagnostics (X-rays, scans, bloods, etc). Everyday life is visible to anyone who has the eyes to see. You don’t need specialists to put company culture (Companolobacter corporatii?) under a microscope.

Making the familiar strange

I lie.

Being a specialist helps. Social anthropologists and sociologists study society as a ‘comparative science’. We are trained to ‘make the familiar strange’. We look at the most mundane of situations, we ask the most mundane of questions, and through running these observations through the various theoretical filters of other published anthropologists, we (aspire to) arrive at the most incisive of analyses.

It’s easy for me to pontificate (speak as if from a ‘pont’, a bridge, a vantage point). I live outside Singapore. I come back for short sharp stints of intensive co-existence (‘participant observation’ in our jargon) with Singaporeans. I then go away again to mull over what I have seen and heard, smelled and touched.

Treating everything as strange, I question everything. No question is out of bounds.

Making the strange familiar

Having studied a new culture, anthropologists then ‘make the strange familiar’: write up these findings in a way that is comprehensible by the non-specialists. Applied anthropologists might then attempt to make recommendations for change if change is desired.

This is where things might get unstuck.

Some anthropologists are better than others at recommending solutions and how best to implement such. It often comes down to experience. (Such is life.) The good and honest ones will tell you that they are not experts at everything and do not have all the solutions to every problem.

Do not touch with a barge pole a consultant or expert who promises to give you all the answers and solutions, unless this consultant’s alias is ‘God’.

Who then are the experts?

Anthropologists learn about new cultures by asking the real experts in the ‘field’. In management consulting we call them ‘subject matter experts’: the staff in the company. By so doing we learn how systems work, how and why they might go wrong, the strengths and weaknesses of the staff and management. Mapping the overall organization goal onto this scenario, we use the expertise that these employees already have in abundance to transform the organization.

Culture – except perhaps a culture of fear – cannot be imposed from above and in an instant. You cannot, overnight, transform a society that places no emphasis whatsoever on sport in schools to become one that wins multiple Olympic medals.

Habits die hard

In 2012 I explained at a Paris conference why it was difficult to stop ‘health tourism’ in Britain. Foreigners fly into Heathrow and head straight to the nearest hospital for expensive ‘emergency’ treatments, running up costs of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and then leave the country without paying. (example)

For more than 60 years it had been drummed into NHS (National Health Service) staff that medical care should be provided free of charge to those who need it at the point of need. This notion is so ingrained that there is an ethical (cultural?) aversion to making even the wealthiest of tourists pay for their expensive treatments.

A classmate, ex-military as it happened, suffered a serious heart problem requiring urgent treatment and a hospital stay while visiting the UK. He was all ready to give the details of his insurance policy to the hospital but the hospital did not even have a protocol for collecting these details! He wondered who, eventually, paid his bills.

Well, Mr (Major? Colonel? I can’t remember) CKM, it was I who paid for your hospital treatment, through my taxes!

Paradigm shift

You cannot fault NHS staff for their passion in caring. What many do not seem to realize is that most tourists have travel insurance which covers hospital treatment (unless they are planning to be a health tourist).

A paradigm shift is needed.

NHS needs to turn this passion for caring into awareness that any money that is lost through health tourism or not recovered from tourists who are able and prepared to pay is money that cannot be used for UK citizens who do not have the choice of seeking treatment privately or abroad. Some British hospitals have now – finally – implemented procedures to recoup these costs from foreign users, but they are facing a lot of resistance (example)

So the bad news for MRT users is: culture change does not happen overnight.

I will conclude by noting that the army – a ‘total institution’ – has a culture quite opposite to that of a profit-making, client-focused, ‘leave-it-if-you-don’t-like it’ corporation.

Ah Boys to Men. Ah Men to what?