The problem with being successful

Everyone wants to be a success. If you look through any given book shop, you’ll find that the section on how to be a success takes up a good portion of the store. An entire industry has grown around telling people how to be successful. I remember having a former client who gave up an electronics store that had been in the family for generations so that they could move into the “Holistic Books Business.” The reason for this change was, as one of the members of this family explained – “Have you noticed that every motivational speaker is a multimillionaire?”

Having success is wonderful and that’s not just in the material sense of the word. Successful people are inevitably happy because success does bring a sense of achievement. People who are “failures” tend to be miserable because there’s sense of “screwing up.”

Having said all that, there is a caveat, which motivational speakers inevitably fail to tell you about. Success produces a unique set of problems. These problems are most visible in family businesses where a “successful” patriarch screws up by hanging onto long or failing to prepare the heirs for the reality of life. Recent history has shown that there are businesses that become so great at what they’re doing that they “own” the space they’re in and then the next day they’re gone. One only has to think of Kodak, which was the by-word for film and Nokia, which was effectively “THE TELCO.” Kodak had to reinvent itself after emerging from bankruptcy in 2013 and Nokia sold its once dominant handphone business to Microsoft for a mere five billion dollars (which was a fraction of what it was once worth). Kodak didn’t see people moving away from film to digital and Nokia didn’t think smart phones would catch on.

What is true in business also happens in politics. Long standing political parties that have become a by word for the government end have ended up losing power to “opposition” that was more in tune with what the electorate wanted. The examples that come to mind are the PRI in Mexico and the Kuomintang in Taiwan. In a way, these were the lucky parties. Defeat allowed them to reinvent themselves and make a come-back. What’s worse are the parties that have become so successful that they simply rot away internally. The most prominent example that comes to mind is the African National Congress (ANC), which came to power in 1994 as the “heroic” party of Nelson Mandela. Two presidents later, the ANC under Jacob Zuma became the party that gave us the term “state-capture.”

Like it or not, we’ve started seeing lots of “successful problems” in Singapore. In the business world, we had Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which once collected over 80 percent of all spending on advertising in Singapore, having to reinvent itself as a property company, then having to spin-off the media business into a “non-profit” chaired by a former minister and the non-media business is the subject of a potential takeover battle.

How did this happen? The answer is pretty straight forward. SPH was so comfortable in its market leading position that it assumed that people would always read the Straits Times and advertisers would never have an alternative. The heads of SPH and MediaCorp used to enjoy arguing over whether readership or viewership was more important without realizing that people were not reading the Straits Times or viewing ChannelNews Asia and the advertisers noticed.

If you look closely enough, the problems at SPH are not isolated. Fact remains, the source of our “mandate of heaven” culture – notably the PAP lead government. Whilst the PAP has not seen anything resembling the “State Capture” under the ANC lead Zuma government in South Africa, it’s been showing a certain level of “tone-deafness” to the needs to the electorate.

This is particularly strange when you consider the fact that this is a year after an election that saw the PAP lose a further four seats (one GRC). Unlike the first time it lost a GRC in the 2011 election, the government seems to be getting less responsive to what the electorate is trying to say.

Covid-19 has amplified this. First you have the constant imposing and lifting of restrictions, which hurt retailers and restaurants. Then you have the Prime Minister’s wife taking to social media to tell her husband’s employers to “quit bitching.” The only time the government seems to have acted in the decisive manner has been in the introduction of the Protection of Online False Hoods Act (POFOMA) and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA), which give the government an uncomfortable amount of power.

Then, after all that, we got the news that delegates at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum (NEF) would be allowed to dine in groups of five, whilst the rest of the nation was only allowed to dine in groups of two. [LINK]

The government said a lot about how hosting the Bloomberg NEF was a wonderful boost of confidence for Singapore’s economy. However, people thought otherwise and memes of Orwell’s Animal Farm “All Animals are Equal but Some are More Equal” started circulating. The response from the government was that the delegates of the NEF had to go through stricter testing measures than the Average Beng (Singapore’s Answer to the Average Joe.) [LINK]

Whilst that may be true, it was undoubtedly the wrong thing to say and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the electorate. If you sit in coffee shops (where most non-politicians gather) and trawl through cyberspace, there is one common complaint – namely the perception that there is a set of rules for those in power. This messaging confirmed that. I look back at an insolvency conference organized by Asian Legal Business (ALB, part of Thomson Reuters) in March of this year, when cases were significantly lower. We were not allowed to mingle between tables (which defeats the purpose of a networking event). The only difference between the ALB event in March and the upcoming NEF event is that the delegates are of a higher profile (global CEOs vs regional heads of law firms).

How tone deaf do you need to be to prove a negative perception correct? Former Worker’s Party Secretary General Low Thia Khiang once talked about having a co-driver to slap the driver when the driver sleeps. However, this is clearly a situation where the driver has been slapped but remains sleeping at the wheel. What can one do about that?


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.




13 Responses to “The problem with being successful”

  • C’est la vie:

    Success, along with meritocracy, transparency, accountability and home ownership, to name but a few key “words”, … holds an entirely skewed and screwed up meaning/definition in SG !!!

    Supporting this f**ked up scenario, … are the citizens who’ve “bought” into this “creation” of an entire SGspecific dictionary of “words” !!!

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  • Pioneer:

    As a pioneer, I feel sad that Singapore is no longer the place I used to know where the same rule of law applies to every citizen regardless of your connections or lack of it. Here now in Singapore there are two sets of rules – one for the elite, rich and connected, the other for the rest. Sad.

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  • Harder Truths:

    No – I disagree. I t makes perfect sense to me. The incompetent leading the ballsless. No matter what happens the vast majority will just quietly accept their fate.

    Why should the Regime make up convincing stories? All it needs is any old stupid excuse because it does not matter what the electorate thinks, only who they vote.

    And with the sorry state of the opposition it may be better to vote for the Regime to avoid turning $G into an LGBTQ haven or a taxation nightmare.

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  • xoxo:

    SUCCESS coming from whom?
    KIM yong-gan?
    Ong You Con?
    Even Lee Ah Long?
    Or,Heng KIA?
    3G mentoring 4G to lead sgs into the dumps!

    Many middle-income sgs have been turned into THE NEW POOR while the RICH N POWERFUL GETS RICHER?
    You call that *success*?
    From near-zero community Covid cases to near-5K cases,is that success?
    From a handful of deaths in total to the teens per day,you claim success?

    You look at the empty JEWEL at Changi n many other EMPTY *jewel$* is success?


    3G has all but ruined it for us and a 3G plus 4G cohort is going to completely turn our former success into HELL!

    When gahmen become ARROGANT,they turn FOOLISH.
    WISDOM IS NOT THE SAME AS HIGH CREDENTIALS in academics or titles.
    Even the greatest crook$ are highly titled n not a few well-educated?

    Wisdom can only come if one is willing to embrace TRUE HUMILITY.

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  • opposition dude:

    PAP isn’t in danger of either being forced into a coalition government nor losing power – yet. But all good things must come to an end and we are most definitely arriving at that point with each passing election. How else would you explain PAP losing 2 GRCs in 3 elections when they never lost a single one from 1988 to 2006?

    It’s ok if they are tone deaf and want to stick to the old ways of doing things since all this does is alienate the younger generations and will cause them to vote for opposition. It’s also fine if they want to think they are above all of us since arrogance and their sort of character is impossible to change once it becomes part of them, it will also lead to voters voting against them.

    So we just have to put up with them until they no longer call the shots. They won’t listen to whatever complaints we have since all they are concerned with is having the majority in parliament at any one time. Once they aren’t in the majority is when the real show will start.

    And we all know it’s coming too!

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  • The Pappy $yndrome:

    I visited my friend at his new house. He told me to make myself at home. So I threw him out. I hate having visitors.

    Who the bloody hell am I? Some call me pappy but I don’t give a shit.

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  • MarBowling:

    The DSon and his bunch of World Class Ministers are just following the GREAT WORDS OF WISDOM OF Lee Kayu: DO WHAT YOU THINK IS RIGHT, DON’T CARE WHAT OTHERS SAY!

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  • AristoCATs - made roolz:

    > Netizens quipped –
    “Five same family can’t dine in.
    Five from different countries can?
    How can?”
    The same reason Papaya can deem
    an Indian 2 b “Malay Prez”.

    More than 39% should try the Power of the Ballot Box !

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  • Robert:

    The problem with the PAP government is that the ministers think they are being very clever with their arguments and justifications.

    The hard reality is that perception matters and in the Bloomberg meeting, the perception is that different rules for different people exist.

    Thus Gan Kim Yong’s assertion that the Bloomberg delegates are subject to even stricter rules just does not register.

    I am quite fine with the changes in terms of rules to control the pandemic. It may be frustrating and inconvenient; just make sure these rules apply universally.

    Unfortunately, the 4G ministers are really sub-standard and that’s worrying.

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  • Success a matter of the Heart:

    On the authority of Nu’man ibn Basheer, who said:

    I heard the Messenger of God (ﷺ) say, “The things which are lawful are clear and that which is unlawful is also clear, but between these two are doubtful matters which many people do not understand. So he who avoids the doubtful matters thereby safeguards himself in regard to his religion and his honor, but he who wilfully engages in doubtful matters will eventually fall into things unlawful, like a shepherd who pastures his sheep close to a prohibited sanctuary, almost grazing into it. Truly, every king has a sanctuary, and truly God’s sanctuary are His prohibitions. Indeed, in the body resides a morsel of flesh, which if wholesome, then the body becomes wholesome, but if that organ is diseased, then the whole body is diseased. Truly, that is the Heart.”

    [recorded by Bukhari & Muslim]

    “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth. Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of values.”
    (Albert Einstein)

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    All govt LINK Corp without LEEgal CORRUPTION wil be a non-starter The Corporate Wirld…and the CEOs???…”Idiots” and you are far from WRONG n 2 Wongs will never make it RIGHT5

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  • theforgottongeneration:

    The problem with our 3G team (and likely the 4G team) is NOT that they are successful but that they THINK they are successful. They reward themselves with million$ pay BEFORE proving them, just riding on the achievements of the older generations. The author is talking about people who becomes how lian when they become successful; our current leaders are how lian because the generations before them were successful.

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  • Spineless Sinkie Syndrome:

    Even though you all know me as being highly critical of the famiLEE LEEgime, I can tell you those who think that PAPies will LOSE their next GE is still dreaming and don’t understand the Sinkie electorate at all. LOL.

    PAPies may lose 1 or 2 SRC, but overall PAPies will still hold MAJORITY seats in that ParLEEment of pariahs. LOL.

    You want to know why?
    Short Answer: Because majority of Sinkies have SSS (Spineless Sinkie Syndrome). LOL.

    Every GE is about 5 years, and if PAPies lose only 1 or 2 seats every time, then by the time PAPies finally LOSE their majority grip on ParLEEment (to anyhow rubber stamp through their ridiculous “Lau LEE – Lau Peh – Lau Bhu” laws), then your neck also wait until long long liao. LOL.

    Also, don’t forget most Sinkies are BALL-less ones (besides being Spinelesss. LOL). So even if there is some fluke result in a particular GE whereby PAPies LOSE say 1 major GRC or even even 10 SRCs; then you will see Sinkies swing back to PAPies in the NEXT GE because they scared sh*tless that they might suddenly lose their beloved gang lor. LOL.

    So, in the end, swing back & forth plus 1 or 2 seats back and forth for the next 10 GEs or more, means it will take at least 50+ years before LEEgime dynasty is done “Fwarking” Sinkies rear-end until they scream with orgasmic joy, yes? LOL.

    TRE, Come back to this topic only if and when Sinkies grow some balls to make PAPies finally LOSE majority seats in ParLEEment; otherwise don;t waste everyone’s time and give them FALSE HOPE lah. LOL

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