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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why Singapore Produces Few CEOs

Leadership requires a superior intellect and practised social skills.

In Singapore, we put all our children of superior intellect together into top schools. These little seeds of high IQ are sown on a crowded seedling tray of superior soil and receive different sorts of stimulating  fertiliser pellets to bring out the best in them. The gardeners who give them attention may even have PhDs. This is done because the nation has not enough resources to afford superior soil in every tray, and superior gardeners for every tray.

In the top schools, there are top classes. In the top classes, there are top pupils. The 10 top pupils in the top class out of an entire school of potential leaders are the only ones who FEEL like leaders at all. Leading is a habit born of long years of practice. You develop an unconscious FEEL for it. You learn to lead, through the years, in the presence of followers. In preschool, you figure out ways to get your classmates to do what you want. In primary school, you figure out more ways to influence your peers. In secondary school, you initiate projects and get people to do meaningful things. If you're clever, you FEEL it out and THINK it through. Only the 10 top students in the top class of an entire school of potential leaders develop the unconscious habit of leadership... every other potential leader gets practice in followership instead.

What would happen if some of these potential leaders had been planted into a school where there was a ready pool of followers to practise with... to develop the FEEL of leadership with... people with lesser IQ, who need the guidance provided by another who can think better and faster. These potential leaders would come into their own no?

Every CEO of note in Singapore is drawn from a pool of foreign talent. It cannot be that we are of poor genetic stock to begin with... and thus are incapable of producing CEOs. I offer thus this explanation. We've trained all but the top 10 students in every cohort to be followers, and have thus shortchanged ourselves.

Just because a system feature has been in place since the days of Goh Keng Swee, does not mean that it is robust and good. Education needs 20 years to show results. We should be looking at some of these historical features and question whether they have ever made sense... or whether they still make sense in the current world.


Anonymous said...

excellent comments! we could do with "training" some leaders in this country!

Rachel Tan said...

Singapore schools have huge class sizes. The Gifted kids and top Sec Sch kids may have it slightly better, but for the majority, it's 40 kids in a class.

Even if I were a teacher with the best of all intentions, is it humanly possible to nurture leaders and thinkers in a class of 40? Does it come as a surprise that order and compliance are the rule of the day? I have a set of syllabus to complete - I need compliant, unquestioning, obedient children to complete the syllabus.

Another scenario. I have only 2 children, and thus can afford to spend time to understand each child more deeply, and to tailor my words and actions and to shape my interactions with each child. If I gave birth to a set of septulets, I suspect I will be running the household like a military :)

It is easier to produce a cohort of highly analytical and hardworking individuals. And I think the education system has done quite well in this regard. But err, the leaders, the thinkers, the bold, daring, expressive, broad-minded and imaginative. Our system is not cut out to nurture these traits, as yet.

petunialee said...

Rachel - I didn't think of this... thank you for adding your 2 cents. It shed a bit more light on the issue.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

i've been mulling over this question too. 'cos india's education system isn't unlike ours, but they churn alot of CEOs out, who are sitting in the top Fortune 100 companies.

why india and not us?

petunialee said...

Fry - India is big. There is no way to concentrate all the best brains together and make them fight for leadership positions which then automatically relegates other potential leaders to followership habituation.

Next, India's opportunities are based on connections. The best connected may not be the smartest. In fact, in that system, true leaders emerge because they learn to get around many many things. Indians are very resourceful. We are much less. When Singaporeans are told cannot. They believe cannot.

Unless you're a bit of bitch like I am, who will ask. Why cannot?

petunialee said...

People said "You cannot learn Chinese by memorising". I asked why cannot, and then we did it.

People said "You can't finish Onsponge 5 in one week". I asked why cannot and then we did it.

People said "You can't have high ceilings because cannot change light bulb". I asked why cannot and have no problems changing light bulb. Just have to find a way around it.

People said "Residential house should not have factory roof". I asked why cannot and now everyone thinks it's a cool roof.

People said bedrooms must have parquet. I asked why must and now I have no problems maintaining bedroom floor. No need to varnish and polish and what not.

People said bathroom window cannot be big. I asked why cannot and found ways to ensure privacy.

Singaporeans dunno how to ask WHY CANNOT. We don't insist. We don't give shit. Indians do that all the time.

petunialee said...

The CEO is at the forefront of the organisation. He leads where no one has gone before. He must know how to ask Why Cannot!

petunialee said...

It's quite awful that when you talk to senior people in MOE and all they can say is "We have no resources to do it."

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...



Rachel Tan said...

Hi Fresh Fry,

With over a billion people, there will be sizable number of natural leaders who will emerge, regardless the system. With a large population, the opportunities for business, as with leadership are immense.

Petunia's hypothesis is that there are structural factors in Singapore that impede the development of leaders. And I agree.

There are probably some cultural elements too. Caucasians are generally more encouraging in their demeanour and value independent thinking, whereas Asian (parents and teachers)tend to be more authoritarian and value obedience and conformity.

We need to provoke and challenge ourselves constructively, to improve. If we are always happy with the status quo, we will not seek to better things. In times of war, necessity is the mother of invention. During peace time, scientists, inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, - they all have a hypothesis to challenge and prove. Their new discoveries and modus operandi are probably what we describe as innovation.

Expending tons of resources on a problem doesn't necessarily solve it. You can throw billions worth of food aid, and it never reaches those in need. We can up the budget of every school, yet the monies may not be constructively spent.

There is a need to ensure that our resources are well-spent.
Singapore is a developed country and given how much of our budget goes to education, the need is even more exigent. Some resources should be channelled to examining the system holistically. Whether the cohorts as a whole are possessing the basic skills of reading, writing and quantative reasoning.

Though the IPSA tests seem to suggest that Singapore students are faring well, there are some unhealthy trends going on. First, the proliferation of tuition and enrichment centres. Almost overwhelming. I am not sure where else in the world do we witness this phenomenon on such a scale. Is education in Singapore really vosting parents just $10 a month in fees? The economic worth of after and beyond school enrichment activities is bewildering.

Second, what is the quality of the end products? We have few CEOs, as this blog piece points out. Somehow somewhere, we probably have stifled them. Petunia asked a whole long list of why cannots - I suspect if she were to do it in a classroom setting, I'm not sure how her teachers would have taken it. I personally can recall many a times when I have been told to shut up :) Well not just leaders and thinkers, many employers will tell you that poly and even varsity graduates nowadays do not seem to be able to write and communicate well. In the yesteryears, clerks with 'O' levels can draft minutes, write letters and reports. Today, many of our tertiary graduates, having gone through at least 15 years of education in Singapore, truly find writing a difficult task.

These are some random observations.

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

Hi Rachel,

tuition/enrichment centres that a aplenty can be found in taiwan, china and korea, and i tink japan too, if i'm not wrong.

these exist in asian societies where much emphasis rest on academic performances.

however, the conformist trend exist not only in s'pore, the rest of the asian countries value conformity too.

though the rest of the asian countries are really entrepreneurial (and not us), which maybe we can pin this spirit on the population critical mass that can support a variety of businesses = people look at the vast opportunities of chance.

for communication issues, i'd like to point it to our widespread communication style these days.

we sms/msn/blog/twitter/facebook in such tattered sentences, tat with such long term practising, any proper language training will go to waste. tis is sad but something most developed countries experience worldwide.

i don't understand alot of current mandarin terms from china that are invented by the youths too, despite my mandarin ability tat is considered very high by s'pore standards.

being a business owner myself, i have to credit our govt for doing very well to support every industry, not just the ones they "like". and i tink they're trying their best with our education system too.

but with our Goh Keng Swee era of education system tat brought so much success to s'pore for the last 40+ years, tweaking it may seem difficult. the elephant has grown too big for its own good, i tink.

Rachel Tan said...

Hi FreshFry,

Thanks for your comments. I am sure there are tuition/enrichment centres in other Asian countries too, but I wonder if the prevalence is as widespread as in Singapore. Every few HDB void decks, every single shopping centre regardless new or old, large or small, almost every commercial building, you will find enrichment/tuition centres of sorts. If you are to survey the primary school kids in Singapore, many will have academic help outside. Visually, I do not see the enrichment infrastructure to be as overwhelming as in Singapore :)

I am sure the Govt is trying, and yes our Govt is pro-business. But in the spirit of having no stones unturned, there is still some reticence towards forsaking the old, tried and tested, for the new and novel. Not that all new things and directions are necessarily positive, but then there may be fundamental assumptions we need to revisit, because we are not living in the same world as before.

Anonymous said...

Would somebody somewhere in the world please tell me where I stored your eMail address...LOL Never mind I'll let you know here...I just received a package from Singapore...I'm excited! Opening...unrolling...looking...ahhhh it is excellent and I am so honored! Calming bamboo...simple, elegant and the paper is as lovely as the painting! Thank you so much Petunia! The frame surely must be worthy of the painting! When it's framed and hung I will post a photo and let you know where you can see your painting in its new home!

petunialee said...

Theanne - I am so glad you like it. Grandma painted it for me and she will be thrilled to know that it has found a loving home.