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Stop putting Brain in the Drain

I remember a local Tamil friend of mine was got a shock when he was asked “Are you from India,” at a corporate function. The man who at the time was head of Southeast Asia for a multinational aerospace company, was taken back because it seemed to imply that the multinational company assumed that if an Indian was qualified enough to hold a high-level job, he had to be from India. It was a bit of a shock to the man’s system to find that his employer seemed to assume that Indians from India were more qualified than the Singaporean ones.

This story is a cruel reflection on the reality of how the “big” companies that count view our much-valued human resources. Singapore tells the world that our economic miracle was due to the fact that we managed to make the maximise our “only” resource, which is the “human” one. Our line to the “foreign investors” as that while our costs are higher than our regional competitors, we offer a better-quality workforce. More importantly, we also make the point that we need the world’s highest paid ministers because we need to prevent the “top talents” from being snapped up by international organisations.

While this sounds good on paper, the reality is a little different. As at the time of writing, Singapore has with the exception of Lee Kuan Yew and perhaps Daren Tang, the head of the World Intellectual Property Office, there doesn’t seem to be a Singaporean who has gained any recognition from running anything beyond Singapore’s shores.

Sure, our international colleagues in the multinationals might say nice things about the good work we do in our domestic market but the reality is that any Singaporean would be lucky if they ever got promoted to a managerial role in the regional office (usually Southeast Asia but on accession Asia-Pacific.)

This is a sad record for a nation that makes such a song and dance about how it has maximized domestic talent. It seems that the only people who “make it” (defined as someone outside of Singapore would notice) are either politicians (Lee Kuan Yew claimed the role of single builder of modern Singapore, which helped in his post prime ministerial career as an international consultant and a writer for Forbes and his predecessors had the good fortune to be born tall so that they remained the only Asian leaders at international summits who didn’t have to look up to their Western counterparts) or civil servants (the type that coordinate international visits for foreign dignitaries)

Why is it such that we only seem to produce “leaders” in politics and how is it such that our “leaders” are never really required to shine on the international stage?

One answer might be the fact that they simply don’t have to. If you look at the scholarship system which has groomed plenty of our senior civil servants and ministers, you’ll note that they are never required to put their brain power to much use. A Ministry of Education Scholar for example will never have to teach in a school full of problematic kids and uncooperative parents. The definition of a “good” Singaporean is one who has the ability to memorise facts and to regurgitate them when required to do so. The best part about this is that they don’t even need to “find” the facts for themselves because there is inevitably an army of serfs to do the work. Scholars will inevitably be paid considerably more.

While I don’t disagree with the idea behind the scholarship system in theory (why shouldn’t smart people run the show), I disagree with the narrow definition of “good” and the way in which our scholars stop facing “challenges” the moment they leave the classroom. Unfortunately, the brain is like other muscles, you have to use it in order for it to develop.

For people outside of Singapore, the common saying is that the real learning is after you leave the classroom. While your actual degree may not be of much interest to anyone else, the skills you acquire (the ability to think) is. It’s a different story for our scholars. A degree becomes an badge of prestige that is supposed to remove the need to actually think at all. Hence while theory behind the system is sound (putting smart people in charge), the actual practice is not (ensuring that smart people don’t do smart things).

Once again, I return to the example of our military, which is a conscript force, which means that the military is effectively a microcosm of everything else. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is inevitably commanded by people with great degrees. Our current chief of defense force, Lieutenant General Melvyn Ong is a good example. He went to Anglo-Chinese School (independent), National Junior College and then it was off to the LSE. His predecessor, Lieutenant Perry Lim went to Cambridge.

While I am not belittling high academic achievement, I don’t believe that academics should be the be all and end all of ones achievements. The problem for our generals is that they lack the most crucial ingredient in judging a solider – combat experience.

In a way, it’s a “happy problem,” in as much as nobody should actually want to go to war and have to deal with the horrors associated with it. However, soldiers, especially those leading troops in a potential life and death situation should probably have more than book knowledge about how to fight a war. Why, for example, would you trust a solider to fight and sacrifice his or her life if all they’ve ever done is to watch Rambo movies on TV if you would not trust a surgeon to operate on you if that surgeon had never operated on anyone else before?

To make up for the “lack of combat” experience, we do send troops on overseas international missions (which remains not the same as actual war). However, this clearly something that the system does not value.

Take the example of Mr. Bernard Miranda, who was a navy officer who actually commanded an international task force to conduct anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Mr. Miranda was by all accounts pretty good at the job as can be seen in the report below: [LINK]

You would have imagined that success on an international level would have made Mr. Miranda a hero. Unfortunately, Mr. Miranda was the wrong colour (out of Singapore, the armed forces champion themselves as places where ethnic minorities can succeed) and more importantly not one of the chosen few.

His reward for a job well done was to be demoted (from one star admiral to colonel) and he was quickly retired. To be fair, he was given lucrative postings and will probably be remembered as a senior civil servant who got caught drunk driving.

The other example of wasted experiences is that of Tan Huck Gim, who commanded a task force in what was then called East Timor from 2002 to 2003. If there was an example of a Singapore General who did a job for Singapore, it was General Tan’s command in Timor Leste. His experiences have been turned into a case study on how little Singapore can use its troops to do something useful in the wider region: [LINK]

How did we reward General Tan for doing a good job? We demoted him, took away the extra star because the only two-star general allowed to exist in Singapore was the Chief of Army, which at that time was Major-General Ng Yat Chung, who would distinguish himself by becoming a Chief of Defense Force (CDF) that was mysteriously absent from all the events you’d expect the CDF to be at and then he would become a ‘businessman’ who would run down not just one but two public listed companies.

I remember talking to someone in the Ministry of Defense about this. It didn’t make sense that an army that had never seen an unfriendly situation in its entire history was demoting a leader who had actually dealt with unfriendly situations. The reply was “But he’s OLD WHAT.”

Thank you for being a leader on an international stage – now please give us back the rank you actually earned and p*** off into obscurity

It doesn’t make sense to demote people who have proven themselves to be capable, particularly in a society that claims to worship meritocracy. So, what is he’s old – he’s shown that he’s good?

Yet, while there may be some sense to what I’ve said, it clearly doesn’t apply. It seems that “leadership” is about looking good on paper (right school, graduate from university, preferably from a family with some money, it helps if you’re the right colour, though we may need the odd token and you got to be the right age). Unfortunately, what looks good on paper doesn’t always prove to be so.

The world is going through a rough patch. We need competent leadership and the only way we are ever going to achieve it is by promoting people who have shown themselves competent in the here and now rather than what they did in a sheltered background two decades ago. We need to stop trying to check boxes made up by bureaucrats in a cubicle and judge people by what they do on the ground. Sure, I have nothing against scholars or scholarship. However, we need to challenge our scholars – give them the shitty problems. There’s no point in putting smart people in charge of things that don’t need to be solved. Getting scholars to avoid challenges is an act of putting brain in a drain.

 

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.

 

 

yyy
READER COMMENTS BELOW

17 Responses to “Stop putting Brain in the Drain”

  • ah chik:

    Got brains ,meh?
    No brain,where got brain-drain?

    Good in studies is just that.
    It does not mean anything else.

    All holding multiple degrees but,as you can see,all chiak liao bee.

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  • Mole?:

    Waiting.

    Waiting for what?

    If this guy is not asked to enjoy an air-conned tiny space, he is a mole.

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  • MarBowling:

    Holee $moke! So they demoted General Tan and took AWAY the EXTRA STAR to put on the shoulder of LJ See-Star General Ng Jung-Un!

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  • Agreed:

    Agreed.
    True Leadership need to be tested at real crisis.
    We don’t need paper tiger.
    Many times academic qualification is not a good indicator of leadership and ability to execute or perform.

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  • Puki Mat Mina @ Jurong East:

    Spore is very preoccupied with status, face, prestige. As Brit author Enid Blyton would frown and think “SNOBS”. People ask where I stay, I say Bukit Timah. Their eyebrows rise and they look impressed. Well, I actually live in a HDB flat at Toh Yi Drive, near the smelly Bukit Timah market and hawker center.

    If I say I live in Jurong or Hougang, or Tampines. They will go “oh” and look unimpressed. Even though there are condos/landed property in those areas.

    I even hear primary school children discussing the difference between HDB and condo in grand voices. Like they already own one. Such a good exaample their elders set huh?

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  • ganeshsk:

    Mr. Tang

    Are You talking about our curent PM.

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  • John Richards:

    The colour thing is not going to go away anytime soon. Especially since the PM has reserved the PM post for a Chinese. As for scholars in the government, they have shit for brains.

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  • Harder Truths:

    This is excellent TL. Well written and true to a fault.

    Since $G has replaced local with foreign talent starting from the late 1970′s, the locals are just to make up the lower levels of workers that are needed to fill a quota to avoid being called pro-foreigner.

    The reality is this percentage of locals in the private sector job market is quickly shrinking due to a failing economy and forcing jobs to be prioritised to FT, made redundant or shifted overseas. No $G local is able to be in a leading position in any local company, let alone a multi-national.

    Indeed if any local has a job, this is considered good enough as $G locals are thinking of survival and nothing more.

    Since by the next election most locals will be unemployed, they will vote for the regime in return for chicken rice. This is why nothing will change.

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  • Puki Mat Mina @ Jurong East:

    “It doesn’t make sense to demote people who have proven themselves to be capable, particularly in a society that claims to worship meritocracy. So, what is he’s old – he’s shown that he’s good?”

    It wotld seem that one can be capable, but not to the extent that you outshine or eclipse your boss. Just remember that bosses are the best, they leaders, they are on top of things. They have to be the ones spearheading, making dcisions. They have to be the ones setting direction. Otherwise the subordinate comes across as usurper or insubordinate. Just nod and say okay if you are rank and file.

    Why do you think a lot of people don’t bother to have initiative or go the extra mile? The system don’t reward such things.

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  • Puki Mat Mina @ Jurong East:

    “Sure, our international colleagues in the multinationals might say nice things about the good work we do in our domestic market but the reality is that any Singaporean would be lucky if they ever got promoted to a managerial role in the regional office (usually Southeast Asia but on accession Asia-Pacific.)”

    Most people would feel threatened by people from legit Commonwealth universities. The truth is that they will never promote a person with aspirations to be become managers. Those at the top are holding on to their positions and will never give way. This was my experience with Spore managers. Too insecure, feel threatened easily, volatile mood swing and overbearing. Too preoccupied with people following pprocedures. Exercise authority by losing temper.

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  • Singaporeans R Free Riders:

    Harder Truths:
    No $G local is able to be in a leading position in any local company, let alone a multi-national.

    Everything blame my great PAP government.
    Did you Singaporeans look into the mirror and see how lazy, unmotivated and bo chap attitude that cause your joblessness ?

    Singaporeans only good at copy and paste and even then, they also cannot do it right… it is waste of resources hiring Singaporeans

    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.and.Huat.Again
    Majullah $PAP$ $PAP$ Huat$ Huat$ Huat$

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  • Pappy R Freeloaders:

    Buddy buddy crony capitalists gallivanting in CECA Sinchiapor

    https://m.facebook.com/100003526877073/posts/3925172964276894/?d=n

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  • Tremendous:

    The last paragraph was well written. The world is going through a rough patch. The patch will get rougher, and the village will see more turbulent issues. The village continues to uphold idiot chiefs with poor records of handling turbulence, and permitting them to be clothed in excuses when things go wrong. The village has lots of chiefs who are more concerned about looking after themselves than the people, and its significance will decline in less than 5.5 years’ time.

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  • jobless in Sinkapore:

    Brains in their arses
    That is why they fart so often through their stinking mouths.
    These jokers screw our lives bad.
    Screw them back!

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  • $Huat$ $Hut$ $Huat$:

    You know why Sporeans copy and paste? Because they memorise and regurgitate knowledge during exams. They never apply knowledge.And also, there are ten year series and model answers. All to copy and paste.

    Last time in JC, we are taught to answer essay questions like this. Start with definition, body, conclusion. We all blur sotong one. No one show us how to analyze, evaluate, discuss and reason things out. It didn’t help that we were a bunch of timid obedient scared rabbits not used to articulating in public.

    Copy and paste also cannot do properly. Haha, you are so funny…China can do much better as they actually MAKE the products.

    Singaporeans R Free Riders: Everything blame my great PAP government.
    Did you Singaporeans look into the mirror and see how lazy, unmotivated and bo chap attitude that cause your joblessness ?

    Singaporeans only good at copy and paste and even then, they also cannot do it right… it is waste of resources hiring Singaporeans

    GE2024.PAP.Guarantee.Win.and.Huat.Again
    Majullah $PAP$ $PAP$ Huat$ Huat$ Huat$

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  • Zhenzidan:

    Excuse me, Tamil is a language, not a race. You don’t say “Tamil friend”, but, “a friend who speaks Tamil”.

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  • talent is so much treasured:

    //It was a bit of a shock to the man’s system to find that his employer seemed to assume that Indians from India were more qualified than the Singaporean ones.//

    aiyoh. not surprising lar ?? in order to sell the open-leg policy, the white idiots and gang (many also ex-FTs themselves) have been overselling (emphasizing ???) the worth of FTs (indirectly underselling the worth of daft sinkies except for their own white monkey gang ??) ???

    any FTs (taking cue from the white monkey idiots) here would be surprised that their average talent is so much treasured here – thinking that all daft sinkies must be real daft and worth lesser than them ????? if the FTs (could be average ???) keeps on increasing (thanks to open-leg policy ???) and reach critical mass, then the self-fulfilling prophecy (by the white monkey gang) of sinkie land lacking local talent will one day come true (almost coming true now ???) ??

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