A Disreputable Son

I got to confess that I am an unsuccessful son of a very successful man. My father was at one stage, one of the top advertising film photographers in town. His success was such that it reached the stage where hiring my father was considered a higher status symbol than flying in an expatriate to do the job. I, by contrast have had a rather different checkered career path. Whereas my father went from rags to riches, I went pretty much the other way. I think of the “horny aunty” who asked if I was a reformed Yellow Ribbon Criminal because the fact that I worked as a waiter and spoke the way I did, did not quite add up. You could say that I am a “disreputable” son.

I bring this personal discussion up because it seems that I’m not the only so called “disreputable” son walking around. In the five years I’ve worked in the insolvency industry, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of them around. There are a number of boxes of documents that I’ve read through, which were once thriving enterprises that were started and built up by a tough, street wise entrepreneur, that turned south after the old man died and left things to the much better educated son. Whenever these boxes ended up on my desk, I’ve often found myself asking “what happened?” How did an enterprise go from thriving and unbeatable to a box of documents for me to go through?

Succession is what you’d call the single greatest challenges facing family businesses. How do you ensure that your good work stays and grows when the main qualification for your successors is family ties? It’s obviously succeeded as many of the greatest fortunes come from family businesses that have lasted generations. However, more often than not, a thriving enterprise ends up as a box on my desk.

With the prominence of family businesses on the global stage, it’s worth studying the things that make them tick and the things that screw them up. I live in a nation that is, in many ways, the classic family business. The current Prime Minister is the son of the Founding Prime Minister and he is also the husband of the CEO of one of our sovereign wealth funds. Our national story does offer some guidelines on what to do and what not to do.

There was never any doubt that our current Prime Minister would become Prime Minister. It was only a question of when. In fairness to the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, he generally demanded high standards of the people he chose to serve him and there are enough accounts to show that he made it a point that his family were not to cash in on his political office the way the families of his contemporaries in Malaysia and Indonesia had done. The current Prime Minister needed to have the brains to get into Cambridge (where he was regarded as a brilliant mathematician) and when he was in National Service, he did go through basic military training (BMT) and Officer Cadet School (OCS). He did not get 12-year deferments to study soil as a matter of national security.

Our Prime Minister was brought up knowing what there were expectations for him to perform. In a sense, the original Mr. Lee “trained” him up by making him go through national service, getting into Cambridge and when he entered politics, he did win his seat in a single member constituency (SMC).Before taking the top job, he did serve as his father’s successor’s deputy. In a sense, he was given time to grow into the job and we were prepared for him to take over.

The obvious comparison is Saudi Arabia, where the world knew King Salman would be the next king after his brother, King Abdullah died in 2015. What we were not prepared for was Mohammad Bin Salman, who came out from nowhere to be given a range of portfolios and before we knew it, there was a 30 plus something with no prior experience of running a fire hose, running the entire country.

However, while our current Prime Minister has been a competent enough manager, he’s been nothing. Unlike his predecessor who called for a “Kinder, gentler Singapore,” or his father who went through the independence struggle with the British and the Malayan Federation, our Prime Minister has never once articulated his vision.

At best he’s been guided by GDP growth figures in the same way that a CEO of a commercial company has been guided by sales targets. If there is a criticism to be leveled at this Prime Minister, it is that he’s been a little too preoccupied with the growth statistics than what those growth statistics mean on the ground. His signature policy of opening the floodgates on immigration was the prime example. It brought growth but it also brought a host of other issues, which Singapore is still trying to cope with.

Part of the responsibility with this, lies with the Old Patriarch. The younger Mr. Lee had to contend with the old one in his cabinet as “Minister Mentor” and somehow there was a never a chance to stamp his own mark onto the government. As is often argued, the problem with brilliant founders is that they never know when to let go.

One of the greatest causes of failure in families is the failure to let go. While Singapore has not been run to the ground and I don’t believe its in any danger of going down the tubes anytime soon, the unwillingness to let go has allowed the things that set Singapore apart to quietly vanish. Unless a new leader with a passion to set out a vision emerges, Singapore will decline.

Just as I started talking about my personal experiences, I shall end on them. I’m grateful my father allowed me to do my own things. All though I’ve not been the roaring success he was, my success and failures are mine. I was not molded to take over something that was not meant to be mine. I wonder how many family businesses might have survived if the founder had let go and allowed his successors to be their own people.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

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7 Responses to “A Disreputable Son”

  • Results vs ground sentiment:

    I wonder what does the son of the dishonorable son think about his father’s perceived insecurity despite landslide and the reluctance in democracy?

    Shame?
    No shame?

    Which is worse?

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  • Do more please:

    No matter what ,Singapore is still a success story when compare to other countries…the system left by our founding fathers has serve Singapore well.
    Stupid to dismantle it…
    Only wish the wealth created is distributed more widely and fairly.
    Wish that more could be done for the poor and needy ,especially for the elders.The social divide was too much and the quality of life for the lower 50% could have been better as these groups were rather cash poor..to cope with the high cost of living.
    Worry for Singapore as the world is a turbulent and dangerous one ahead…
    Singapore need to be united and have the best mind to steer it and make life better for Singaporean..amid a gloomy economy and much jobs loss expected.
    Vote wisely for Singapore Future…your future.

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  • 4 marks of "Hypocrisy":

    1. As he speaks he deceives.
    2. What he promises he fails to deliver.
    3. When entrusted he betrays.
    4. If he differs with you he will dispute and denigrate you.

    “Crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the Hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

    (Hannah Arendt)

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  • Scam by PAP:

    PAP must be planning to fire all their guns on the eve of Polling Day. PAP will put FEAR in Singaporeans. Dont be fooled. Vote for the Opposition confidently. Opposition needs 2 more GRCs in Parliament. Dr Chee and Dr Paul need to also win to question all the crazy policies PAP is passing in Parliament, Dont forget, no PAP MP will be our voice in Parliament becos they are merely rubber stamps for their Minister masters.

    Let’s deny PAP of another 2 GRCs. Vote for Opposition !!!

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  • Opposition WiPED OUT:

    4 marks of "Hypocrisy":
    1. As he speaks he deceives.
    2. What he promises he fails to deliver.
    3. When entrusted he betrays.
    4. If he differs with you he will dispute and denigrate you.

    “Crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the Hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

    (Hannah Arendt)

    Who is worse? Him or his Enablers the 70%?

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  • AristoCATs - "Trust Us" !:

    -
    “Blank Cheque?”
    -
    Sure!
    Mr Pink turned Indian into “Malay” Prez.
    -
    AristoCATs – Know your place !

    “Remember your place in society before you engage in political debate…
    … people should not take on those in authority as ‘equals’.”
    — Former Foreign Minister George Yeo (1994)
    -
    Remember the Ballot Box !

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  • Sojoürner:

    Imperial Rome poisoned itself with family psychodrama. We’re supposed to be better than that. PM Lee was elected thrice to run this country. A vast swath of the electorate worship them in ways that undermine and compromise our own well-being. With the “daddy issue” that a large number of voters seek a father figure to head the country. So – my guess is that – influences what we seek in a leader – and how we vote.

    Some other countries such as the largest Democracy India was ruled by the Nehru family for decades, similarly ZA Bhutto, his daughter Benazir, her husband Zardari and now Benazir’s son Bilawal in the wings. So is US, Canada with Kennedy, Bushes and Trudeau.

    As for being the dumb one of the children, I think one has to find one’s own circle of support and see the positive in not being enmeshed with one’s parents and too caught up in their expectations. It’s kind of liberating not to have that entanglement, one can just be oneself, elsewhere.

    It is the ignorance and greed that underlie our so-called meritocracy when our plutocrats are simply the inheritors of an obsolete economic system that awarded legacy scholarship and legacy power to men who simply are not up to the task of a complex and infinitely nuanced world.

    The history of the world tells us dynasties, don’t work out well, genes are over rated. The practitioners of modern day politics are so removed from their children’s lives, they may for all purposes, at any level, can be the best parent they could be. The dishonesty and corruption that is part of the makeup and requirement of all politicians today make it impossible.

    Growing up in a family where there are no politicians is a blessing.
    This is a classic example of a spoiled, unenlightened brat.

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