One of the most challenging parts of my national service was serving as a “Guard Commander,” for the camp. Technically, a Guard Commander has an obligation to check the identity of everyone entering the camp, regardless of who they are and after midnight, he (usually are) has a job to ensure nobody enters the camp. However, while that is the technicality, things are rather different in practice. For example, one tends to be a little laxer when it comes to guys from your unit (you are only guard commander for the night – you got to live with these guys for the rest of term you are serving) and certain high-ranking officers get exempted from checks (in Khatib Camp, everyone knew the Chief of Artillery).

As a rule of thumb, many of the senior officers were decent people. The head of logistics of Headquarters Singapore Artillery asked me why I stopped him when his car had a camp label. When I explained that the label only allowed the car in, he praised me for being diligent. Unfortunately, this reasonable quality was limited to those of a certain rank. In my time on the job, I encountered too many midranking officers (usually captain) who showed their obvious displeasure at being stopped. Now, I will admit that more often than not, I let them pass. The guy outranked me many times over and was actually a familiar face.

I left the army feeling that there were times where I wish I had been more assertive in my role as a guard commander. I think that had I shown a bit more spine then, I would have grown into a more “successful” person. At the time, it seemed like an unspoken rule that you give way to your superiors. The concept of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is to “Serve And F**Off, so the smart thing to do is to avoid conflicts in order to finish your term of service with minimal fuss.

It was only towards the end of my national service, when I read a book written by someone who had been “Sergeant-Major of the Army,” in the US army, when I saw how “superiors could be told to follow the rules. The author described how he was assigned by the camp commandant to issue speeding tickets on the base back when he was a mere sergeant. He described how the colonels would remind him that they outranked him by so many times and his classic reply was inevitably, “I appreciate that you outrank me, Sir. So, it’s even more embarrassing to be caught in your position, Sir.”

I think this book and those moments on guard duty, because life is essentially about management. As much as everyone talks about “Equality,” the truth is that unless you are a hermit meditating in cave in the Antarctica, all of us get stuck in a hierarchy of some sort and at any given time, there’s someone who is going to have power over you.

As an employee, you have a boss or many bosses. As an entrepreneur, you have customers. When the President enters the room, you stand at attention. When there’s an election, the president will come knocking on your door, vowing to serve you.

So, for most of us, life is inevitably about managing through the various hierarchies that we run into in our daily lives and human nature being what it is, an industry on telling you how to mange has developed. Everyone is a management guru. Unfortunately, all the management gurus in the world are only focused in one direction – namely downwards. There is no shortage of wisdom as to how you should manage people below you.

Nobody it seems, wants to discuss how to manage the guy above you. The conventional wisdom, particularly in hierarchical Asian societies, is that the guy on top is inevitably right because he or she got there because they are smarter, more experienced and wiser than you. The guy at the top inevitably drives something better than you and lives in a bigger house, so he or she must be right.

This thinking prevails in professional services, where more often than not, the service provider ends up bending over backwards to “please” the client and the client is always right Is being right so important that you end up not getting paid?

Well, the sad truth is that “superiors” might have more power than you but they are not always right and as a good subordinate, you actually have an obligation of sorts to tell them when they are being a d***.

In professional services, its as simple as, although the client is the ultimate decision maker, clients, like superiors don’t often adhere to a “my decision – my responsibility” way of thinking. The client’s back up is “I hired you because you are the expert – why didn’t you advise me,” which in turn leads to the possibility of not getting paid. Too many people talk about sacrificing “integrity” if it may interfere with your getting paid. While that is true of low-level peons, the people who get ahead understand that integrity is vital for business, especially if your business is essentially selling advice The client pays you for your expertise and he or she will only believe in your expertise if you are willing to sacrifice the pay to stand your advice.

Being able to manage the people with power over you is never taught and needs to be learnt on the job. I think of my times as guard commander in the army and how I failed. Had the find the courage to stand by what I was talking about. It was not easy. I recently had to manage a young man who was drunk and thought it was acceptable to try and get frisky with two young women and rude to the two Indian guys helping them do their job. His reply was “I work for a respectable law firm.” I had to tell him that who he worked for didn’t excuse his behaviour and if he didn’t behave, the venue would remove him in a not so pleasant manner. He eventually got the message.

There are a good many people, who actually believe that their situation in life makes them immune from the norms of social behaviour. It can be “I am your boss,” or “I work in a profession,” or “I am related to so and so.” In a way, you can’t blame people for letting certain perks get to the head. I’ve mentioned that it takes a certain level of strength of character for expatriates to remain decent people because when you have people throwing the good things at you, temptation does have a way of spoiling you.

So, you need to remind people in a position above you that “superiority” means “superior” responsibilities as well as “superior” behaviour. Unless the “superior” does not have these two things, they are not superior people, just people with more money and power. Sure, there will be some who don’t understand this and there’s very little one can do about them. However, these are the ones who eventually fade into bankruptcy and obscurity. The ones who understand that people are only “superior” because of their responsibilities and behaviour, these are the ones that endure.


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.




8 Responses to “Outranked”

  • Ang moh rank:

    For bananas, such as Banana King and no lj, ang moh rank is the highest.

    GD Star Rating
  • xoxo:

    Outranked indeed!
    XO-GENERAL$,not any ordinary general.
    You be content with GST VOUCHERS or you get zilch!
    $600 was already too much,you want your $23.5K?
    Food Panda-ing and Grabbing are already *rainbows*,you want to clean toilets?

    Just listen n shut up.

    GD Star Rating
  • the General:

    TL, too bad you were not a General then, otherwise you will now be a somebody perhaps CEO in one of the GLCs!!

    GD Star Rating
  • con u wake up from grave:

    LHL is no exception at pulling rank. He is somewhat like Putin, have no regards for the local born Singaporeans. His only concern is to have a TOTAL HOLD of power for him and his party. HE sweet talks and his words and action has no relations.
    LHL has polices that are NOT IN FAVOUR FOR THE LOCAL BORN. He brings in ship load of foreigners and let them STEAL OUR LUNCH. He scolds locals as FREE RIDERS, AND
    LOCAL ARE COMMITING MORE CRIME THAN HIS DARLING FT. He hijacks parliament and makes FAMILY ISSUES NATIONAL ISSUES in regards to 38 Oxley Road. He LIED TO THE NATION that his party had been preparing for COVID since SARS. He so full of LIES..
    The men under him think that they are GODs and Singaporeans own them a living. Like UMBERAGE NG. This FAT PIG NG should have been shown the door when he SANK NOL.UMBERAGE NG even has the GALL to TAKE UMBERAGE at a reporter after sinking NOL and SPH.
    This is like Putin sending in more troops into Ukrain after his army is being defeated. LHL INSTEAD OF SACKING UMBERAGE NG sends him from NOL to SPH to sink one after another. The best part is the citizen’s tax is used to keep SPH AFLOT.

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  • Reality:

    Reality is the most bosses is no different from you.
    Just their lucky star to be at the right time and the right place.
    Also born in right family.
    No need to worship them.

    GD Star Rating
  • Singaporean R Free Rider:

    He described how the colonels would remind him that they outranked him by so many times and his classic reply was inevitably, “I appreciate that you outrank me, Sir. So, it’s even more embarrassing to be caught in your position, Sir.”
    Well said.

    At my previous workplace I had this Confucius muddle head senior who always like to tell me how to this and that.

    I told him, you said/talk so much but I did not see you do what you preach.

    He lan lan and diam diam diam….fcuk all the so called religious people ..

    GD Star Rating
  • Temusik Patriot:

    The rule of LEEgality is do what you are told not do what you think is RIGHT…”I will make Joshua crawl” Joshua STOOD TALL and was destroyed LEEgaly

    GD Star Rating
  • No longer a SGporen core:

    Im sure most of us had already came across recent local media (and foreign)
    articles stating that SG is now the 5th richest city in the world…with 250,000 millionaires.
    Probably half of them belong to the PAP, families and kakis.
    No ordinary SGporen has much reason to rejoice at this news!
    All of us walking around with working brain cells will know and see why!

    GD Star Rating

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