Thursday, July 28, 2005

Three pairs of ambivalent feelings

Absence and Fondness
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but only up to a certain point. Further absence will result in erosion of good feelings - ending up in neutral feelings. The more neutral something is originally, the more likely it will withstand the "test of time" (and the converse is true). There is another kind of absence - known as eternal absence - which is the saddest of all; for you will no longer meet the person whom you miss so much again in your lifetime.

Time and Weariness
Time appears to heals all wounds, but sometimes only 99% of the wounds. It tends to be the case that people get weary of feeling that hurtful feeling. So it is the weariness that heals, rather than time per se. And it is in the very quiet moments of the night, that the lingering hurt of that wound creeps back, reminding you that you are only 99% healed, not 100%. That 1% hurt will always disturb you in the night, like a hairline crack in your bone.

Worry and Helplessness
Why worry when you are helpless? They say Fate will decide. But what if the punishment that Fate is planning for you is something that would be far too much for you to take - emotionally, financially, and in all other ways. How do you prepare yourself for this? You can't. And no one can help you. That is the extreme kind of helplessness, the extremely unfortunate kind of circumstances, that you can only prepare for by worrying excessively in advance.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Why should primary schools matter so much?

I find it rather strange when parents place so much emphasis on the selection of primary schools. Personally, I do not think that the choice of schools matter at all at the primary level!

Let me state this simply: I think that primary schools are all about the same. There may be one or two that are particularly famous, such as Rosyth, but the fame of the school does not translate into better education for the students - in other words, I still think there is very little substantive difference between Rosyth and another 'average' school. I'm not saying that the famous primary schools do not provide good education; instead, my point is that all primary schools can provide rather good education for your children.

So what differentiates the so-called 'top' primary schools from those that are not so prestigious? I think the only difference is the climate of competition: top primary schools are probably more competitive. My personal preference is to send my children to less competitive schools, because I do not see the point of forcing them to cross swords with the smartest kids when they are so young. As far as primary education is concerned, I would rather see them develop at their own pace, and build up the self-esteem and confidence that I regard as much more important than results per se.

In fact, I also do not think that secondary schools matter much. I know that many people will disagree with this view, but that's alright, because that's what the 'comments function' on this blog is for! :) Basically, I tend to think that there must be a 'fit' between the individual and the school itself - in terms of affinity for competition/tolerance for a kiasu culture, English- versus Mandarin-speaking orientation, and social class of the majority of the students (e.g. some schools are full of rich kids, and a child from a poorer family may not fit in so well). Thus, schools like Raffles Institution may not provide the best environment for the academic development of every student, contrary to what many parents think. For some students, even if they can make it to the top schools, they might be better off studying in an average secondary school. The above argument applies to junior colleges too.

I have seen many people who had been star performers at one or more of the three levels (primary, secondary, and JC). But they failed to shine when it came to university, for some reason. Conversely, there are many who did not shine at all, or 'fumbled' at one or more of the three levels, but performed brilliantly at university. The moral of the story is this: every stage of education is a new game.

Hence, this is my central argument: that primary schools really do not matter. A weaker version of this argument will apply to secondary schools: that is, secondary schools may not matter as much as parents think (although they may matter as far as the 'disciplinary culture' of the schools are concerned). An even weaker version of this argument will apply to JCs: that is, JCs may not matter that much, unless parents want their kids to aim for the various competitive scholarships. At all three levels, it is the 'fit' between the student and the school that is important, which means that a student may well find that school X, which is ranked somewhere in the middle, is best for his or her personal and academic development, given his or her academic power, personality, and social background.

So parents, please relax, don't be so kan-cheong....! :) It's definitely not the end of the world if your child cannot or chooses not to enter a top primary school, secondary school, or junior college!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Reflections on salted peanuts: The NKF saga, public outcry, and flawed reasoning supporting astronomical salaries

I have always been fascinated with peanuts and those interesting views about peanuts. This post is thus dedicated to the analysis of these lovely nuts...

First, there is an influential school of thought that says that CEOs of all multi-million dollar organizations should be paid lots and lots of money. Proponents of this school of thought often attempt to boost their arguments in two steps. Firstly, they will assume that all organizations involve a similar degree of managerial complexity simply because they all involve 'multi-million dollars'. Secondly, they will assume that pay packages come in two and only two discrete quantities - that is, one either gets paid the package with peanuts, or you get paid that package with gold bars. With this reasoning, they then claim that we cannot pay talented people peanuts (which I do agree) and so we need to pay them gold bars (which I do not agree). Thus they present this seemingly convincing argument by comparing two opposite extremes, saying that if one extreme position is untenable, then it automatically means that the other extreme position is good. This argument is fallacious, and ignores the fact that there can be different pay scales which can be finely calibrated to strike a balance between a range of priorities. In the following paragraphs, I will proceed to further challenge this influential school of thought.

On the issue of managerial complexity, proponents of the above school of thought usually invoke two examples: one from politics and the other from the business world. The political example says that CEOs of charity organizations are not very different from government Ministers, and since Ministers are highly paid, therefore CEOs of charity organizations should similarly be highly paid. I find this example to be inadequate, mainly because I feel that a Minister's job is so much more difficult than the job of a CEO of a charity organization - the responsibilities are much greater, and the entire nation's well-being is at stake.

The business example says that CEOs of top MNCs are paid the same amount or more, so CEOs of charity organizations should be paid similarly. Again, this example is not adequate because it treats the environment surrounding the two kinds of organizations as roughly the same. I feel that the environment surrounding a business organization is very different from the environment surrounding a charity organization. Firstly, a business environment is so much more volatile, risky, and competitive; a non-profit environment is just the reverse. Secondly, in order to survive, business organizations need to provide goods or services which people will need or want, and then persuade people to pay for them; and that persuasion is not easy. Charity organizations, on the other hand, obtain money through a rather different logic: they appeal to the kindness and goodwill of members of the public. And this is much easier, I think, because Singaporeans are quite compassionate. :) Business organizations, operating in a hypercompetitive and volatile environment, have a more difficult time since they have to constantly innovate and keep up with their powerful competitors and come up with new products that people will want to pay for. This imposes challenges on the managerial teams that are far greater than those faced by their counterparts at the charity organizations operating in relatively more stable environment.

Thus, I feel that the argument that bosses and managers of business organizations deserve their extremely high salaries is a strong one, while the argument that bosses and managers at charity organizations deserve extremely high salaries is a weak one, even though these two arguments look very similar on the surface. I think for charity organizations, reasonably high salaries are acceptable but astronomical salaries are not. My conclusion stems partly from my personal view that charity organizations are guardians and aggregators of the public's money, which means that what is needed is not extraordinary talent but only ordinary competence and honesty. I am not saying that NKF is not honest; it is, but what I'm saying is that there is no need to hire an extraordinary supertalent to manage NKF. Someone who is ordinarily competent and honest would do (for example, Heavenly Sword...hehe, just kidding) :) I think as long as Singapore remains a compassionate society, the charity organizations will continue to receive the inflow of cash (although I'm not sure what's going to happen to NKF from now onwards). My impression is that the source of the cash inflow lies not so much in the extraordinary talent of the CEOs, but in the compassion of the societies that they are appealing to. This also means that the view that the CEO somehow magically and single-handedly 'made' a particular charity organization a multi-million dollar organization is flawed.

Finally, I would highlight some interesting observations that I have noticed. Many people have cancelled their monthly donations to NKF, and many more are thinking of doing so. Just within my social circle, at least 5 people have cancelled or are going to do so. I personally feel that they should not cancel, but then, hey, this is their hard-earned money, so who am I to say anything? They feel that if $600K is peanuts, then what they are donating must be even more insignificant than peanuts - very much like the salt on the peanuts! And since the amount is going to be insignificant for NKF anyway but nonetheless significant for themselves and their families, they might as well keep the money. I can fully understand this feeling: it's like a friend coming to borrow or rather, ask for money from you when you are already struggling to make ends meet. You help him out of compassion because he tells you that every dollar counts, and then one day you find out that his living standard is actually much higher than yours. How would you feel?

At this point, I do not know how to end this post for once - because on this occasion my emotions are involved. In fact, there would be nothing worth discussing if this issue were only a matter of business or economic analysis (contra Mr Brown, Oikono, and a few others). It is precisely because this issue involves multiple dimensions that the discussions became so extensive. The quick dismissal of that 'focus on the high pay' issue (saying that this is not the main issue or a big issue) is far too hasty, in my opinion. It should be a big issue in this case, and while it may not be the main issue, I certainly feel that it is one of the main issues. Lastly, I think that this issue can be made bigger or smaller by the people, so the assumption that its bigness or smallness is an inherent quality of it is wrong. If the public makes it a big issue, there must be a reason - a reason involving what is morally ideal or not ideal, rather than what is legally allowed or not allowed, or what is informed or not informed by business logic.


(1) Other related articles not already linked: Diverse opinions accessible from Check out also the interesting article on 'charitable gamblers' at Ivan's Chimera, the thought-provoking post at A Life Uncommon, and MercerMachine's funny cartoons.

(2) Host of NKF Cancer Shows, Mr Cao Qi Tai, annoyed quite a number of people with his closing remark made in the final show - something along the lines of "You can forget the donation hotline number after tonight, but I won't" (in Mandarin/my translation & interpretation; 14th July 2005).

(3) I salute Ms Susan Long, the great journalist from The Straits Times, for her professionalism. Well done! And I think that SPH has been fair and comprehensive in its reporting of this event - especially the ST articles on 14th & 15th July.

(4) Excellent quote 1: "You need to know whom you're donating to, how this money is going to be used, and have the assurance that the money will be put to a good and appropriate use." - Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth & Sports (ST, 15th July)

(5) Excellent quote 2: "NKF is an organization that has been built with public donations. In a way, therefore, the public are the moral owners of NKF...So the public have expectations on transparency and how things should be done." - Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Senior Minister of State for Health (ST, 15th July)

(6) Excellent quotes 1 and 2 show that some bloggers' attempts to 'play devil's advocate' are misguided (re Mr Brown, Oikono, and others who invoke what I would call the 'business school argument').

Monday, July 11, 2005

Singapore's system of talent production (SSTP) Part II

My earlier article had one central aim, which was to describe the central paradox of Singapore's meritocratic system. It did not take on the difficult task of elaborating on the meaning of true talent, apart from highlighting that there is a difference between extraordinary supertalent and ordinary competence. It was also not a critique of the scholarship system per se (contra Elia Diodati's interpretation), even though this system is part of the meritocratic system.

The word 'system' as used in the earlier article refers to all those institutions responsible for producing as well as sorting out talent in Singapore, as well as three other aspects of society that contribute to the proper functioning of the meritocratic system as it currently stands - namely, culture, ideologies, and the system of rewards (i.e. institutions responsible for rewarding talent) - all of which interact and produce through their complex interactions the paradox that I have described. The earlier article focused on the culture and the ideologies which sustain this meritocratic System (with a capital 'S'); the system of rewards (including the scholarship system) was not discussed, since extensive discussions have already been presented at Singapore Angle, Commentary Singapore, and Random Thoughts on Public Policies.

This article will discuss just one issue - how should we adjust the Meritocratic System (henceforth 'MS') so that it can:

  • (1) allow young potential supertalent to realize their fullest potential and support them as they struggle to do so, and
  • (2) achieve (1) with high morale across the whole society.

Full potential of young potential supertalent
Imagine that a person is a young potential supertalent in two fields, X and Y, but only these two fields. He is mediocre or even terrible at everything else, but he displays an unsual flair in certain areas and is deeply passionate about them. Alternatively, we can imagine him to be an extremely intelligent person with nearly perfect IQ scores who realized that his real passion lies somewhere else after trying out a particular field for a few years - such a person is also likely to excel in the field that he decides to venture into subsequently, since he definitely has the intellectual abilities. At this point, I will clarify what I mean by a supertalent: he is someone who can go far in a particular field; in other words, a supertalent is either (a) a gifted person with nearly-perfect IQ scores who can excel at almost anything if he has passion in it, or (b) a supertalent for a particular field who might not be a super-jack-of-all-trades with straight A's throughout secondary school, JC, and university as well as outstanding extracurricular records. In fact, (b) is likely to be the more common type. But regardless of whether the young potential supertalent belongs to type (a) or type (b), it is crucial that he displays immense passion in his desired field, because that is the fuel that will take him far for the next two or three decades...

Unfortunately, a type (b) young potential supertalent is rather unlikely to shine in the current Meritocratic System. He may be a not-so-well-rounded bookworm who is supremely gifted in only one subject (e.g. economics or literature). Or he might be someone who scored mediocre grades for his A-level subjects, only to emerge with a stronger determination to excel at university, thus topping the university with first class honours and a few prizes; this person, again, is viewed (wrongly) as 'not-really-that-impressive' in Singapore compared to scholars with straight A's for O- and A-levels and 2nd class upper honours degrees.

Type (b) supertalent might emerge out of the Meritocratic System feeling great resentment. Also, he will almost certainly fail at any attempts to get any sort of scholarships to pursue his chosen field, for which he has passion. This would be a great problem if he does not come from a rich family, because he has bread and butter issues to worry about. Paradoxically, it is precisely because he is so passionate about his field that he might feel that Singapore is not the place for him if he wants to persist in his chosen field. If he were less passionate and take things easy, he might have felt a lot better. So the greater the intensity of his passion, the more resentment he feels - and probably, the more he feels like going to a place that is willing to give him a second chance, and/or a place where he can hear or read nicer things about what he does from the newspapers, his peers/relatives, and other sources of representation. Let's face it, the kinds of things you hear or read, really do affect how you feel. Talented people are human beings with emotions too, are they not?

What Singapore can do is to offer a system of loans to people who really want to pursue their ambitions through further studies (e.g. Ph.D., M.Mus./D.Mus, M.F.A (master of fine art), etc). These need not come from the government; they can come from the commerical banks. Scholarships and bursaries would be nice too. Loans, scholarships, and bursaries would have two functions of (a) preventing resentment from arising (and maybe even cultivating gratitude), and (b) allowing young potential supertalent to go for the necessary training in their chosen fields. Function (b) will usefully provide a second chance to those who have not been able to shine at O- and A-levels. Excellence at O- and A- levels is an indicator of potential genius, but it is definitely not the only indicator. The view that says "but we want consistency!" is flawed in so far as it assumes that a person who has suffered setbacks before is never going to be better than one who has had a smooth journey throughout his life.

High morale across the whole of society
I will move on to my next point, which concerns morale. Who says morale is not important? As every general in the past or present will know, morale can determine the victory or defeat of an army. I sometimes hear Singaporeans say, "Keep quiet, don't complain!" whenever they hear something vaguely critical of anything about Singapore - anything at all, even if all I'm saying is that the public toilets here are not clean enough, or that the char kway teows are not tasty enough, or that the customer service in the country is not good enough in general.

This is a very wrong way of thinking which should be abandoned in the knowledge economy. In this knowledge economy, it is new knowledge, ideas, and suggestions that are crucial for moving society forward. It is only with civilized discussions between citizens that we can derive novel understandings and interesting perspectives on certain issues or policy problems. New knowledge cannot emerge when there is 'groupthink' on a societal scale, with self-appointed moral guardians labelling people with their unique views as overly critical or whining deviants who need to be told off. This is a sure way to dampen people's morale. Even if things in the country are generally okay, there is no reason why discussions cannot aim for further refinement of various aspects of society. So this is what I recommend - a change of mindset so that people will be welcoming of discussions, as long as these are delivered in a polite manner and originate out of the desire to improve the country.

Secondly, as several readers pointed out in the comments section of my earlier article, what the government says often has immense influence on people's decisions about what to study, which career to pursue, and so on. This is not entirely the government's fault; in fact, one can argue quite convincingly that it isn't government's fault at all, since it is merely doing what is right when it encourages people to go into the fields that will reap the most benefits for the country in the long run. What should we do, then? I suspect that we need to point the fingers at ourselves instead, for not following our hearts' desires! Parents, too, being the closest advisors to their children, should also encourage their children to pursue what they like, or at least lay out the options clearly on the table for them to see, so that they do not grow up thinking that they are doomed just because they did not study medicine, law, accountancy, finance, engineering, computer science, or biomedical science.

Having said that, one might argue that many people only realize what they are truly interested in (a) halfway through their undergraduate studies, (b) right after they have graduated, or (c) a few years after they have entered the profession that they thought they liked. These three scenarios are common enough, and it is not really their fault if any of the scenarios transpire. This leads me to propose the third solution - which is described in detail in an earlier article, Tried and Tested Routes, which focuses on the employers. This also leads me to think that more scholarships should in fact be given for postgraduate studies, rather than for undergraduate studies. And for postgraduate studies, it is doctoral studies that produce new knowledge and train new producers of knowledge, although in some fields, a Masters would be sufficient (e.g. L.L.M. for law, M.F.A. for fine art, etc).

I have thus presented my views on Singapore's system of talent production (or SSTP) in two parts. This system, as readers will know by now, needs to place great importance on morale, emotions, and passions, which are all affected by culture, ideologies, and system of rewards.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Singapore's system of talent production: the paradox of success

In Singapore, uniquely talented persons often find themselves in a very strange situation due to the success of the meritocratic system here. In this entry, I am not suggesting that Singapore does not value 'talent'; it certainly does and in fact puts in great effort to cultivate talent....

But in my view, the 'system' in Singapore has been too successful in churning out 'talent'. Everywhere we go, we hear about Singaporeans with a string of A's under their belts or high scores for standardized tests. The paradoxical effect of our success is that individual 'young and uniquely' talented persons are often not considered to be unique, for they are now hidden within the talent-crowd comprising talent of varying degrees of excellence, passion, and dispensibility. As a result, a prodigy-in-the-making with great passion in his chosen field may very well be treated as any 'ordinarily talented' person.

So, while I agree that 'talent' in the collective sense is valued, I feel that individual young and uniquely talented persons (henceforth called 'young potential supertalent') may not be so valued, and what I mean is this: instead of being singled out and groomed further to realize their fullest potential in their chosen field, quite often, these people with potential to go far in their fields are overlooked. (Old, established, and proven 'supertalent' such as Nobel Prize winners of course need not worry, since risk-averse Singaporean bosses are always reassured by tried and tested products.)

Consider the common view in Singapore that there is a replacement for anybody no matter how outstanding he appears. Consider also the unfazed reaction when many bosses and managers in many Singapore organizations encounter outstanding young individuals - there is often no outward expression of being impressed at all. The nonchalant or even occasionally aloof treatment comes across as a non-verbal message to the young potential supertalent, hinting to him that all his achievements are 'not a big deal' at all; and thus he feels slighted. The impression that bosses and managers have is that there are numerous Singaporean first class honours or summa cum laude graduates, masters degree holders, PhDs, artists, writers, academics, and other professionals around....Surely one less wouldn't make a difference? And furthermore, if the person later became a globally recognized figure in his field, we can always reclaim him as a 'prodigal son', can't we?

This is a kind of culture in Singapore, which may have a negative effect of creating disillusionment in the young potential supertalent who perceive the system as one that fails to recognize their great potential to go far in their fields - their uniqueness. Flooded with hordes of straight-A's graduates, quite a lot of organizations in Singapore have lost their ability to identify the young potential supertalent and differentiate them from those who are merely ordinarily good. This does not mean that they do not wish to be able to do so, but merely that they find it increasingly difficult or even impossible to do so because on the surface, everybody looks quite talented!

Some may feel that as long as these young potential supertalent still live on and pursue their trades, who cares if they are disillusioned? They may further reason that even if we lose one outstanding local talent, we can always seek a foreign replacement. I think that sometimes there is no replacement if the talented local person is a 'one of its kind' (sui generis). After all, history has shown that there is only one Chopin, one Michaelangelo, and one Einstein. I also suspect that there is a consolatory kind of thinking that even if a young potential super-talent is disenchanted and upset, then maybe he can do better work because of his frustration! After all, many geniuses were very depressed and disillusioned people. So the impression is that depression might bring about excellent work: correlation is thus confused with causation.

In every field, if we fail to cherish, promote and support the next generation of Singaporean 'young potential supertalent' now, they will be hindered from reaching their fullest potential, and their path to global fame will be greatly slowed down. Singapore has done a good job of supporting some important fields, such as life sciences, engineering, computer science and so on, but I feel that it can do a bit more in certain other fields...

One might argue that if the flower is of a particular species, it will look beautiful no matter what, and hence there is no need for extensive support. But this argument fails to recognize that there is a subtle but significant difference between a wilting flower that still manages to look nice in the normal way, and a fully blossomed flower that looks spectacularly captivating because of special nurturing. A painful process of struggle does not create talent; many people succeed not because of the lack of support for what they do (financially, emotionally, institutionally, etc), but in spite of it. Bread and butter issues do distract people, as one episode of the Chinese television series 'Zheng Ban Qiao' (the Artist) shows. Some struggle is fine, but too much struggle wastes the precious time of the talented person who could have started contributing to his chosen field much earlier.

At this point, one might ask this question, 'How do we identify the young potential supertalent then?' Unfortunately, this is not always easy. But it is precisely because of this difficulty of identifying them in advance that Singapore needs to view every person who is 'quite talented' as an individual with potentially great contributions to make in his field - that is, with due respect despite his youth, and with the working assumption that he may one day go really far indeed....

In an era when Singapore has successfully churned out so many people with good grades and apparent flair in various fields, the task of identifying and nurturing the young potential supertalent is made much more challenging. The success of the meritocratic system in producing students with many A's has made the task of identifying those who can go really far in their fields much trickier. And it is precisely because of this reason that we must not end up thinking that people in our talent pool are all 'talented in the same ways', as though they are interchangeable and easily replaceable commodities. If we end up doing so, we would have failed to understand what the psychologist Dean Keith Simonton calls 'the origins of genius'.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Boosting the prestige of local universities

Local universities are gaining prestige. I must say that the ST articles on 4th & 5th July made me quite happy indeed. Minister Mentor Lee suggested that more top students should be sent to the local universities for their studies, and this, to me, is truly a step in the right direction!

Such a move will boost the prestige of local universities and will thus help in Singapore's quest to become a higher education hub of Asia. In fact, I would propose one additional strategy that will take Singapore's universities to the next level, which is the following...

The top scholars should not only pursue their undergraduate studies in Singapore, but also their postgraduate studies here, especially doctoral studies. This is because two important criteria for judging the international excellence of a university are firstly, the size, the student composition (e.g. whether there are many from other countries), and the quality of students in the graduate programmes, and secondly, whether the PhD graduates can get hired at reputable universities elsewhere. Thus, if one day it becomes widely known that the PhD graduates from Singapore's universities can secure academic jobs at reputable universities in foreign countries, then that would really be the pinnacle of success. This kind of success is obviously not built overnight, but I suggest that this is something that Singapore can and should aim for as a long-term goal.

To help to achieve the above, some of the top scholars who did their bachelor's degrees overseas should in fact be encouraged to pursue their masters and doctoral degrees in Singapore. In other words, what I suggest is a 'foreign-then-local' sequence to complement but not replace the 'local-then-foreign' strategy, which is also necessary. I would be very proud as a Singaporean if I can one day tell a foreign friend, "This researcher who won a Nobel Prize is a Singaporean who did his PhD (and maybe bachelor's degree as well) in NUS/NTU/SMU! He did his research training here!"

So this is my heartfelt wish for Singapore...

Friday, July 01, 2005

Literature/philosophy quiz....

Greetings!! I could not resist the temptation and came back to blog! I have thought of some questions to keep my blog readers and 'fans' occupied over the week when I shall be very busy...... ;)

Whoever knows who said the following, shall get a prize! (You have to get all 3 correct) Here they are....

1) "The man I am, looks mournfully at the man I could have been....."

2) "The well-trained soldier, may do what courage would have demanded in a particular situation...not because he is courageous, but because he is well-trained....."

3) "A woman may very well form a friendship with a man, but for this to endure, it must be assisted by a little physical antipathy....."

Hope you'll like the little quiz that I have devised for you all! See you next week! :)