“Government scholarships in Singapore do a good job in identifying administrators, but administrators are not leaders, and should never be mistaken for leaders”, said an anonymous Singapore government scholar on Quora.
The author posted a long answer to a question on the platform which asked: Do you think an overhaul is needed in the Singapore civil service in how we select our leaders (government scholarship)?
The anonymous scholar said they attended the Integrated Programme at HCI before proceeding on an SAF scholarship to real PPE at the University of Oxford. They then completed a Masters of Philosophy in Economics at the University of Cambridge.
In answering the question, the author described how the system in Singapore great at identifying and then rewarding people who make good workers but are not necessarily good leaders.
The author starts off by describing their own academic journey, highlighting how much money was spent on their education between the age of 7 to the time they graduated from Hwa Chong Junior College.
The author wrote, “I was waited on hand and foot by at least 4 different tutors every week, usually in more than 4 separate two-hour sessions. In JC, I averaged one two-hour session a day, which cost an average of around $80 per hour. If you run the numbers, that’s $1120 a week, $4480 a month, and $53,760 a year. A lot of Singaporean households do not even earn $50,000 a year to be spent on tutors alone.”
What that resulted in, said the author, is that he never felt that he “lagged behind” and in fact felt “very much ahead” of their peers. However, the disadvantage of this type of upbringing often goes unadmitted, they said.
Good workers, not leaders
“This is the privilege I was awarded for having tiger parents, and as such, I suffer from one disadvantage that many scholars will never admit to because of their inferiority complex—I cannot deal with situations in which parameters are not explicit. In other words, I panic when it comes to dealing with atypical problems.”
The author goes on to say that the scholarship the Singapore government awards to pre-adults in Singapore are based on those who are “very consistent at achieving their annual KPIs”. The “benefits” of identifying those who perform well in clearly specified tasks, said the author, is that “you get good workers”.
The author emphasised, “The very best students in Singapore are basically very good at checking off items on a list.”
The author then explains how this is in-line with public administration, noting that it is “mostly about carrying out government services in a way that ensures the least disruption to the livelihoods of the people you serve”, adding that “when you deputize people who have been able to perform tasks with well-defined parameters to complete tasks with well-defined parameters, they do well”.
The author emphasised: “This should be the intent of government scholarships—to identify these people such that they minimize the frustrations of the public with regards to public infrastructure and services.”
The answer goes on, “What should not be the intent of government scholarships is to be of the impression that these scholars have what it takes to perform adequately as leaders in any organization. This is a flawed impression that is only getting worse from generation to generation because of the elitism that we have fostered in the civil service. The idea that scholars are the cream of the crop of every imaginable domain is poisonous, and symptoms of this hubris have started to manifest in the PAP over the past few years of leadership transition.”
“We now have textbook teacher’s pets occupying ministerial positions; I know one when I see one because I am one. Trust me, you don’t want them as your leaders.”
Talking about Lee Kuan Yew, the author explained that the qualities that made Singapore’s founding father was a good student were not always the same ones that made him a great leader.
The author asserts that great leaders are resilient, able to think up solutions to problems without knowing the parameters and have the “gumption” to get it right even in the face of multiple failures.
“Make no mistake, the one thing that defines a great leader is failure; not success. And I think we, in Singapore, chronically get this upside down,” the author said.
The answer goes on to touch on the current scholars and 4th generation leaders. The author pulled no punches when pointing out that they have all had relatively easy lives.
“Our merry band of scholars and 4th-generation leaders may be of the impression that they share the spirit of that which underpinned the transformation of our country; but the reality is none of them have faced rock bottom in their lives,” the author wrote.
“Sure, they may have botched a smattering of projects, but this is nothing compared to when your life is literally falling apart and you have to muster strength and grace in those situations in order to turn things around.”
Building up talent, not just academic skills
A comparison as then made between how universities in Singapore choose students versus universities in the US. Where in Singapore, universities “glorify” students with straight A and ignore athletes who compete every year but wins nothing, in America, “they are interested in who you are as a person, rather than just your test scores.”
The author then asks, “We keep telling ourselves that we need more talent, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves, what is talent?”
The author argues that while Singapore will always need public administrators who are good workers, what the country needs now are “architects”.
“Leaders do not have to know how to do everything. They just have to know who can. For that, you do not need someone who has all A’s, you need something that is far more precious—imagination.”
Talking about the government’s push for bringing in foreign talent, the author wrote: “Our “leadership” love to make sweeping statements that we do not have enough talent and creativity in this country; which is why we need to bring them in from abroad. I have nothing against talent from abroad. They make us stronger. But perhaps we have to ask ourselves the fundamental question—how are we suppose to find talent if we do not provide incentives for talent to manifest?”
The author goes on to say, “A good leader never becomes flustered or nervous regardless of how much unexpected and downright stupid problems exist in a project. In fact, they love when things turn completely on their heads. Do we have such people in our political leadership? Maybe.”
One person that the author identifies as having “the composure to be an excellent leader” is Senior Minister of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
The author stressed that the system in Singapore needs to change now and that parents should be told that while they can keep pushing their children academically, children should also be allowed to explore and be inventive.
The author concluded: “Once we start rewarding our kids for who they are, not what they know, we can build a country that all of us are proud of. When you create a macrocosm of the classroom where you make the teacher’s pet class monitor, you make people hate him more. Where there is hate, there is conflict; where there is conflict, there is unrest; and where there is unrest, people are going to get hurt.”