Monday, May 29, 2006

Can entrepreneurship be taught??

Blogger BL at Singapore Entrepreneurs once wrote a great essay entitled ‘Can entrepreneurship be taught?’, in which he argued that there are some things about entrepreneurship that cannot be taught. Being rather uncreative, Heavenly Sword decided to write a post on this topic as well and with the same title, except that in my title I've inserted one more question mark than BL. :) Anyway, over at Mr Wang’s immensely popular blog, a certain reader called Hinly hinted that entrepreneurship education is essentially rubbish, because ‘we can only read about success stories, and we cannot account for the failures’… Mr Wang modified that argument and created a more acceptable variant, which says that ‘entrepreneurship cannot be learned in a school environment.’ Other blog readers, including Wayne, linked the lack of an entrepreneurial activities in Singapore to the ‘culture of control’ here, thus adding a ‘political’ dimension to the issue. I shall tackle the above issues one by one....

My view is that the ‘nuts and bolts’ subjects required of an aspiring entrepreneur can and should be taught. For example, modules like financial accounting, cost/management accounting, taxation, & business/company law can and should be taught. Other potentially useful modules include business plan writing, business strategy, operations management, human resource management, marketing, and international accounting (if the person is thinking of venturing abroad). Thus in terms of content, at least the basics of the business world can and should be taught. This actually has a minor positive side-effect in terms of networking with fellow business associates. Sure, you may not need to bring out your ‘Porter’s five forces of industrial competition’ as you speak to your business associates, but the more things you know in your head, the more you can speak to them about, even if the jargon is not mobilized in your attempt to impress…

There is also another important point about entrepreneurship courses, which is that they don't merely aim to teach aspiring entrepreneurs what to do (the so-called 'success stories'), but also what not to do (that is, the stories of failure). The 'what to do' portion has no boundaries: nobody can really list out all the possible business strategies for an aspiring entrepreneur; creativity is needed and several permutations are possible in complex business situations…. But the 'what not to do' portion can be illustrated using case studies of what has failed despite using apparently sound strategies. Business education is more about learning what NOT to do. After all, why waste time (and money) making all the same mistakes that others had made before? That's why business schools like Harvard and Wharton use the 'case method' to teach business courses, including entrepreneurship courses. And in those courses, questions of 'what went wrong with a company's apparently brilliant business strategy?' always pop up. And this ability to not be blinded by superb-sounding strategies is a skill that can come about with practice, even if that practice is based on simulation on paper. (A disclaimer should be put in place here, though, for I do not think that everything should be taught by the formal education system: things like sex education should probably not have existed at all…) :)

Adding to the confusion in the discussions of entrepreneurship education is the unfortunate conflation of two things: the types of ‘entrepreneurship-related knowledge’ that I have discussed above, with a more elusive ‘entrepreneurial spirit’, which results in people talking past one another. I used to think that this elusive spirit simply cannot be taught, and so in a way I was supporting the ‘you either have it or you don’t’ argument. But I’m now more inclined to think that even that entrepreneurial spirit can be taught. As the philosopher Alastair MacIntyre wrote eloquently in After Virtue, ‘the well-trained soldier….may do what courage would have required of him in a particular situation, not because he is courageous, but because he is well-trained.’ So things like ‘spirit’ can indeed be cultivated through training, precisely because the human mind is flexible, capable of learning (as Mr Wang has wisely pointed out), and respond excellently to ego-boosters. That training could well have an important motivational effect, turning a previous timid person into one who is more self-assured, and more ready to take the steps needed to start a business. I believe that an appropriately motivationally-charged person will have that necessary burst of energy that an entrepreneur requires especially in the initial phase of his operations….

The last point of my essay is that entrepreneurship is a distinctly business-focused activity, de-linked from the sphere of the political. If one wants to be an entrepreneur, does he or she stop short at becoming one because there is a ‘culture of control’ that supposedly ‘stifles creativity’? A relative of mine is a winner of the Cultural Medallion, who did think that Singapore is kinda strict when it came to modes of expression, but nonetheless went on to produce many internationally-acclaimed creative works. My view is that if one really wants to do something, it’s surely possible. So even if that culture of control is really there, one should probably bash through it….Unfortunately, the situation now, which stifles entrepreneurship, is not one in which there are numerous young people thinking ‘wah I really want to start a business but cannot la, got culture of control here!’, it is in fact due to some other reasons that steer capable young people towards other areas or organizations - a phenomenon that I shall write about at a later date…

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Concentric model of obligations / the social versus the political

Confucius has this cute little concentric model of obligations, which goes like this: xiu shen (first cultivate the self), qi jia (then start a good family), zhi guo (then help with national affairs), ping tian xia (and finally think of more universal problems). However, Confucius spoke about this in an era that is very different from the current one, so would this concentric model still apply?

I suspect that Singaporeans are roughly split into two groups: the first group focuses on the first two tasks, namely, the cultivation of self and management of the nuclear family. The second group focuses on the third and fourth tasks, which concern national politics and ‘global’ issues such as poverty in developing countries, ‘human rights’ issues, and so on… The problem in Singapore is that there is a fundamental incommensurability between the world views of these two groups. The ‘self/family-focused’ Singaporeans feel that their priorities should be to take care of themselves and their immediate family members. They are more concerned with day-to-day problems in their work and family lives, with ‘the bills’, and their free moments are usually spent on things which do not require much thought, such as watching TV, shopping, and basically indulging in the pleasures of consumer culture. Life for them is best expressed with the help of a Singlish term as the following sentence will show - ‘Singapore ok wat, see, the shopping is so good, food is sooo nice...’ (Xenoboy once wrote an essay focusing on the ‘Singapore ok lah/Singapore ok lor’ mentality). This group is viewed by the ‘politics/society/global-issues-focused’ group as being too ‘apathetic’. The latter group thinks that everybody should be concerned about and interested in politics and society. The failure to see what’s the big deal is common in Singapore, unfortunately.

In a sense, it’s true that if one is ‘ni pusa guo jiang, zi shen nan bao’ (Buddha made of mud crossing river, can't even help himself), one should not even think of other things. This idea is expressed as a piece of advice which says that unless one is truly well-established and pretty successful in his or her career and have a blemish-free record, one should not even think about entering politics. Other views supporting the supposed ‘apathy’ of this camp would include: (a) the view that we can safely ‘leave everything to the experts’, (b) the related view that being able to wash one’s hands off national affairs is a luxury indeed, thanks to party X which has ‘done such a gooood job’ (sounds familiar?) :), (c) the view that one can be concerned about ‘society’ without being ‘political’, for example, by being a social worker, a grassroots volunteer, or just by excelling in one’s profession….

The first view is premised upon the saying that ‘too many cooks will spoil the broth’. If one simply does not have the expertise in a certain policy area, participation in it might make things worse, so the argument goes. In fact there is a ‘law’ called the Gresham’s Law, which, when applied to what we're dealing with here, would suggest that ‘the average’ will always have more influence that ‘the best’, and that the preferences of the majority may not translate into an optimal decision. The second view reflects the ‘sit back and relax’ mentality of many Singaporeans. It assumes that a ‘good job’, once done, is there to stay. But this line of thinking is flawed because even if a good job has indeed been done, there is always much more to do. There are always little things that can be done to improve policies, living environments, strategies, culture, and so on… And finally, the third view is that one should not conflate the social with the political, and that although politics includes societal affairs, being concerned about societal affairs does not mean that one needs to be political (for example, by joining a political party or being a ‘die-hard’ supporter of certain parties). And blogger Gayle at I-Speak says that blogging is itself a meaningful form of participation in society, which I do agree, but only to a certain extent…

Blogging is limited in its power to influence society because of the inherent nature of this technology, which shapes the way users (bloggers, blog readers) respond or do not respond to it. Blogging is temporal in nature too: readers will only keep a blogger on their ‘blogrolls’ if he or she blogs constantly and with at least a fortnightly frequency (who still remembers or reads ‘Rebrab Moor’ these days?). Articles written by various bloggers only have a fleeting, momentary influence. The newer articles will be the foci of the day, while the older articles slowly disappear into a cyberspace blackhole and forgotten by everybody. So it’s a bit like ‘fashion’, which comes and goes quickly. Analytical essays (including those covering the elections) are read only by a minority of Singaporeans. You could almost say that bloggers at most form a ‘subculture’ in Singapore. In fact, bloggers who write about social and political issues may very well be viewed as ‘a handful of trouble-makers'. Most people still read blogs of a small circle of people whom they personally know; many others read but do not comment. On the whole, I think that blogging as a form of social participation doesn’t involve a sufficiently large portion of society to make a difference yet. Even if an online essay does get readers’ attention, the virtual crossfire in the comments section usually reinforces their preconceived beliefs, leaving those who are in favour of a position and those who are against it more divided than ever, for this ‘divide’ now consists of not merely differences in viewpoints, but also a memory of quarrel which will be remembered bitterly and carried over to future interactions. So unless Singaporeans really try to be civilized and gentlemanly to one another, and try to have a real dialogue despite their political differences, cyberspace 'discussions’ will always turn out to be divisive, which is quite a bad thing if you ask me….

Anyway, to reiterate my earlier point which is the central theme of this essay, I think that there is a fundamental incommensurability between the worldviews of people, who could be roughly grouped into two camps. The purpose of this essay is merely to map out their positions and to show that both sides do have valid reasons for thinking and behaving as they do. (a) The self/family focused Singaporeans are not necessarily unconcerned about national affairs; they might be, but they may (i) want to focus on improving their individual or family lives first before moving on to larger things (based on the concentric model of obligations), or they may (ii) prefer to focus on social rather than political issues, for to them the ‘political’ may well be too political for their liking. Some of these people who do not actually step forward to join political parties may prefer to contribute anonymously and independently as bloggers. However, their influence shall by default be fleeting and negligible. (b) The politics/society/globally focused group has lofty ideals, and they should not be discouraged, viewed as idealistic, or dismissed. This incommensurability is not something that any person can resolve, because the problem resides in the very nature of any society that is not made up of clones, and no amount of eloquence by any blogger or politician can reason away this contradiction with the power of words alone…

Friday, May 19, 2006

Power over the body

This essay is about the immense power of the State over every male citizen’s ‘body’ in Singapore. It is prompted by this new controversy that is building up in cyberspace, which revolves around the issue of whether a certain gifted Singaporean violinist should be granted deferment of his mandatory military service. Despite the heartfelt and forceful rhetorical attempts by concerned citizens to help the gifted violinist to plead with Singapore’s defence ministry, I fear that all these voices are not going to make any impact at all at the executive level of the ministry, and of the government in general.

In the first place, the actions of the well-meaning Singaporeans who write in to help the gifted violinist are based on the assumption that the defence ministry has a heart. But it doesn’t! It’s a bureaucratic machine and a machine is just that – a ‘thing’ or ‘network of paperworks’ which does only what it was designed to do originally, with no other purpose. Since it does not have a heart (literally and metaphorically speaking) and has instead a singular focus (to force everybody to serve NS), all the letters that appeal to emotions (e.g. feelings of 'ah what a pity') will simply be deflected like bullets hitting a massive rock, even if individual decision-makers reading them do in some way sympathize with the poor gifted violinist...

As for letters appealing to rational reasoning, they will also fail to convince the bureaucrats, for the ministry will 'reason' that (a) if he's really that good, he will get into the same or another top music school after his NS, and (b) his skills won't weaken during NS (and if it does, then he isn't that good). In any case, MINDEF will be able to retort by saying, in a somewhat circular way, that "if you can't achieve your own professional goals despite the NS hurdle, then you aren't really that good, which then means that MINDEF was right after all to refuse to grant you the deferment in the first place". And through this episode, MINDEF achieves a scarier goal: it once again reminds people of its immense power, which manifests most clearly when it rejects, for the sake of macro-level interests, requests that actually seem reasonable at the individual or micro level.

In any case, the poor gifted violinist would most probably have to accept his fate or karma. It is intersubjectively understood as part of Singapore’s social contract that to be a citizen of this country you have to agree to let your ‘body’ be fully taken over by the State, via MINDEF and through the Enlistment Act. So first you have to let it be consigned to a powerful regime of two years, known as NS (2-1/2 years in my time). Then you have an immensely long period of reservist activity. So this regime operates at two levels which are very creatively known as ‘National Service (full-time)’, and ‘National Service’. The latter term, which is an extremely creative variation of the former, essentially refers to the seemingly endless military regime that continues to bring Singaporean men immense stress, physical ‘torture’ (not literally, obviously), and inconvenient disruptions to their otherwise peaceful and focused working life. A more pervasive pair of ‘sub-regimes’ would be the IPPT physical fitness regime and its associated ‘remedial training’ regime, which strikes fear into the hearts of many Singaporean men over the age of 30 (young men under the age of 30, you won’t understand, so you can stop reading this essay from this point onwards…) :)

One might say ‘oh come on’ and say proudly that HE thinks IPPT is easy, personally, but it’s true that it can be a great hurdle for many people. The remedial training of 8 weeks is simply ridiculous from the individual’s point of view, although the ridiculous nature of the experience is translated from a seemingly non-ridiculous organizational logic (which is to get people to pass the test). At a more fundamental level, one could also ask why there is this necessity to run at such a fast pace for such a great distance? ‘National defence, of course!’ comes the rapid answer. But in this technological era characterized by terrorism and unconventional warfare, I do not believe that the 'bricks and mortar' way of preparing for a war makes much sense. It’s more important to train people how to cope with unexpected attacks (e.g. bioterrorism) and know some basic civil defence skills. Honestly, why waste the precious time of busy professionals who are fighting for their careers and looking after their kids by calling them up so frequently for mobilization exercises, in-camp trainings, 2-1/2 weeks guard duties (euphemistically called ‘protection of installation’ exercises), and even telemarketing-like duties such as ‘detachment IC’ duties, where reservists need to take a list and perform the role of telephone operators, calling up fellow reservists for some ‘secretive’ reasons that cannot be revealed...

I've meditated on the above issues for a long time. I still feel great unhappiness each time I have to drag my feet to run (I hate running, by the way, even though when I was younger I didn't mind it so much.) And I have come to the following conclusion: I think that this regime is actually put in place by the defence ministry for two unarticulated purposes: the first of which is to create an impression that the defence force is always ready to fight. And because the metaphor in use is precisely that – to ‘fight’ (as though it involves guys delivering punches at one another) – IPPT fits well as a complementary regime and a ‘wayang’ show to tell potential foreign attackers that ‘hey don’t pray pray with Singapore okay, our soldiers do IPPT one okay….they do reservist 40 days a year and get mobilized all the time okay….’ The second reason is slightly more hilarious: it is to remind you that your body is actually theirs, and thereby gain an opportunity to reassert and consolidate their identity as an organization and social institution of ultimate power - power over your consciousness (‘how not to think about NS since the letters come at regular intervals each year, ‘reminding’ you of your obligations to Singapore’), and power over every muscle in your body. This is, I guess, legitimate power - one that is legitimized by the 'national security/national duty' argument and supported by many Singaporeans, ladies especially :) So remember that with ‘every step you take, every breath you take’, you are under its total control: ‘Move on, you insignificant hamster! Unless you want to go for RT and have less time for your little hamsters at home and for your hamster job.’ (Don't you think running on the treadmill makes us look a bit like hamsters?) :)

But being a rather optimistic person, I will try to look at the bright side of things. Perhaps this IPPT regime is actually GOOD for Singaporeans because it forces them to exercise. But then if it is indeed so good, my suggestion would be that the age limit be extended to 60 years old, or more (say, 90?). After all, who says that we cannot run when we are in our fifties or older? We can!! And if it’s for national defence, we will do it! And in fact because of its natural goodness, perhaps ladies should do IPPT every year too – all the way until age 60 as well. That would be my prescription for a healthy and secure Singapore which is strongly defended by people of all ages and sexes who can RUN and do chin-ups, even if they have zero knowledge about how to react when there is a simple terrorist or bioterrorist attack. Yes, running is the priority in a war, especially if you are on the losing side. :)