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Sunday July 9, 2006

Falling back on autopilot

IN a changed world that now competes on free-flowing ideas, Singapore’s tradition of choosing the best scholars to run an over-regulated nation is increasingly being questioned. 

Sceptics feel that these scholar-technocrats in Singapore, an asset in the old economy, may be short of modern requirements because many are reluctant to try out new ideas but stick to “safe” policies. 

And they are no longer just armchair critics or Internet liberals, but successful business tycoons and one of the most respected (retired) senior civil servants here. 

Quek: ‘Some of my managers involve themselves in too much detail and are afraid to make mistakes.’
Being challenged are two fundamental strategies that are still actively pursued; firstly, choosing government leaders from the brightest scholars and, secondly, an over-regulated government runs – as someone said – on autopilot mode. 

The reliance on scholars, enunciated by Lee Kuan Yew 40 years ago, is based on the assumption that academic achievement is the best criterion for good political leadership, like in imperial China.  

Lee’s rationale then – and now – remains this: Until a better system of identifying young talent surfaces, academic achievement is still the most effective. 

Get the top graduates from university, pay them premium rates, and they will deliver, Lee believes – and to an extent it had worked well in the past. 

But detractors say the world has changed and today’s Singapore cannot compete or navigate its next phase of growth by just relying on problem-solving technocrats or technically competent managers.  

One complainant is Singapore’s billionaire tycoon Quek Leng Beng, who said scholar-managers might have cost some of his companies millions in lost opportunities. 

“Some of my managers involve themselves in too much detail and are afraid to make mistakes,” he told The Business Times.  

“One guy, a scholar with an impressive list of paper qualifications, used to hand me reports of at least 10 pages on anything I wanted.  

“In turn, he demanded reports of at least 20 pages from his subordinates. So he had piles of reports on his table and when I asked him if he has time to read all these reports, he replied that he did not.  

“He was so bogged down reading reports that he had no time to deal with the real business. He did not last long. 

“There are a few more like this. All afraid to make mistakes and take risks when business is all about having a broad vision and taking risks.”  

Quek is undertaking a review of his Hong Leong group of companies with US$20bil in global assets.  

Not long ago, another successful entrepreneur, Sim Wong Hoo of Creative Technology, told Lianhe Zaobao that he was worried about Singapore’s future.  

After decades of pampered, crisis-free living, Singaporeans did not realise or admit to facing a crisis, but continued to live under a false sense of security, he said.  

Another was the state’s reliance on school grades to assess quality.  

“In the new economy, academic excellence is no longer the key to success. Only the government departments continue to place a lot of importance on (exam) results,” Sim said. 

Many scholars move into the work-life with only one skill: how to do well in exams.  

“They only know how to follow rules and suffer from the No U-turn syndrome – or NUTS,” he added. 

Sim used it to refer to the Singaporean bureaucrat’s conditioned “no” response to anything that has not been explicitly written down as acceptable.  

In such an environment, a young manager would consider it easy to tackle problems if they were given a set of rules and guidelines to work with.  

Unfortunately, the new economy is constantly evolving.  

“Being nimble is the only way to survive, but Singaporeans don’t have the ability to respond and adapt to changing situations. This is a big worry,” Sim said.  

It would be naïve just to blame the scholars for this state of affairs. The government has always depended on laws and regulations as a vital ingredient of a stable society, the new economy notwithstanding.  

It has created a national mindset of compliance and obedience, giving rise to a generation of “play safe” Singaporeans who lack initiative and enterprise.  

The environment of high government salaries and career safety discourages risk-taking initiatives. In politics, it spawned a new breed of “autopilot” technocrats who are content to follow past policies rather than risk entering visionary ventures. 

Great national leaders, it is said, are often thrown up by the chaos of history, amidst mass suffering and national dangers, not in times of wealth and peace.  

These include such historical figures as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Zedong and Winston Churchill, all of whom achieved greatness because of chaos. 

Few rich modern societies are known to have produced wise, visionary leaders, so can Singapore, operating its scholarship government system, succeed in disproving this?  

Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and other strong leaders had emerged from a Singapore in danger of collapse.  

Before he succumbed to dementia, the late S. Rajaratnam, once the People’s Action Party's top theoretician, said Singapore had matured to a point where it needed problem-solvers more than visionaries. That was, of course, before today’s global economy. 

However, one of the state’s best-known (retired) permanent secretaries here, Ngiam Tong Dow, doesn’t think too much about the PAP putting all the scholars into the civil service.  

This belief that a monopoly of talent is the way “to retain political power forever” was a short-term view, he once told a newspaper interviewer. “It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy.”  


  • Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com  

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