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The Singapore model—why it struggles to produce knowledge workers
If we accept the argument that the average Singaporean worker will, compared to his/her paper credentials, underperform in a knowledge-based role, it is worth discussing some of the environmental and institutional reasons why.
This essay points to several factors: the nature of meritocracy in Singapore, the country’s pedagogical approach, the socio-political climate, and materialism.
This section will build on an earlier chapter in this book, “Good meritocracy, bad meritocracy”, by discussing the specific challenges Singapore’s meritocracy has faced in the grooming of knowledge workers. It draws largely on the work of Stephen J. Appold, who, when at the National University of Singapore in 2001, published a paper entitled, “Is meritocracy outmoded in a knowledge-based economy?”
Appold’s main thesis now seems prescient: “I suggest that meritocratic institutions for selecting and grooming elite labor will become increasingly counter-productive. They become so by increasing labor costs and the need to import highly skilled labor. They can also encourage the emigration of some of the most highly trained members of the labor force. Further, they can decrease productivity by discouraging a large proportion of the labor force. Meritocracy may also be at least partially responsible for Singapore’s rather unique labor demography.”[i]
There are several critiques of Singapore’s meritocracy vis-à-vis knowledge work:
- Early sorting of potentially valuable workers out of the system
Singapore’s meritocracy sorts students based on relatively narrow educational criteria. As entry to one school can greatly influence admission into the next, students compete ferociously from a very young age.
Today this pre-sorting begins at the preschool level, where children from higher-income families can afford to attend premium institutions while some of those from lower-income families do not attend preschool at all. This places them at very different starting points when they enter primary school.
This pre-sorting tends to demotivate students who do not make it into the elite streams. Some who can afford to will emigrate. Late bloomers have few pathways for educational or career mobility.
“My answer is preliminary and, without additional information, highly speculative,” Mr Appold wrote in 2001. “A system of meritocratic selection has placed large numbers of capable individuals in non-promotable pools, increasing the need to import labor.”
- Meritocratic assessment not necessarily correlated with job performance
Those who finally make it may not necessarily be best suited for the job at hand—the correlation between narrow paper-based achievements and knowledge work performance is tenuous. “Although meritocracy is an achievement-based system of stratiﬁcation, the criteria for the allocation of jobs are not necessarily relevant to the performance of those positions,” says Mr Appold.
Therefore, performance in Singapore’s highly competitive educational system can be a poor predictor of eventual knowledge work quality. One could argue that this holds true for any labour market. However, Singapore society’s laser-like focus on paper achievement perhaps exacerbates the market inefficiency. Hence the argument here is not that paper achievements are irrelevant; but rather that there are many other desirable attributes that Singapore’s meritocracy does not incorporate in its selection process.
There are supply and demand elements at play here. On the labour supply side, there exists a parental and societal culture that greatly values paper achievements over other pursuits. In terms of labour demand, there are many managers in both public and private institutions that continue to place an excessive premium on educational performance from yesteryear—as opposed to current professional attributes.
In 2010, a Singaporean who now works at The Economist Group applied for a job at a Singapore ministry. As soon as this person sat down for the interview, the interviewer said, “I’m sorry, but I see you come from the wrong school.” It was perhaps said tongue-in-cheek, but it nevertheless reflects the attributes that catch government recruiters’ eyes.
- Institutionalisation of performance and hiring norms
Over time, meritocracies can breed a strict adherence amongst managers and recruits to performance and hiring norms that can seem archaic in a knowledge economy.
All the performance critiques mentioned above—less willing to challenge convention or question authority; more afraid to take risks/move out of comfort zone; and more likely to display a silo mentality with poor cross-collaboration skills—are arguably as much symptoms of labour supply issues (e.g. educational system) as they are labour demand characteristics (e.g. bosses’ wishes).
So, for instance, an average Singaporean worker may not be as willing to challenge convention or question authority partly because of that person’s development and upbringing—but also surely because that person may have, early on his/her career, worked for a Singaporean manager who discouraged those very things.
One axiom in Singapore’s labour market is that, compared to the traditional Singaporean boss, foreign bosses are often much more encouraging of reports who want to speak out, take risks and seek to expand their roles.
The behavioural characteristic that perhaps best demonstrates the tension between managers and workers is the Singaporean need for “face time” at the end of the work day. No matter how early they start work, many Singaporean workers feel the need to remain in the office well past a certain hour.
In some professional situations, workers feel they cannot leave before their boss does; in others, they feel that they have to outdo their peers. Often, no proper work is being done at these late hours—or, more likely, work is stretched out over the day in an unproductive fashion, in anticipation of the long hours.
This characteristic also again exposes the difference between the “manual work” and “knowledge work” mindsets. With manual work, there is an emphasis on “quantity”. Knowledge work, however, stresses “quality”.
Some Singaporeans in a knowledge work environment seem to believe that their performance depends more on quantity—time spent at the desk—rather than the quality of the work. Many of their bosses may feed this impression.
- Meritocracies can discourage creativity
Strict meritocracies can dull a person’s creative instincts. If educational and job assessments are based on narrowly defined criteria, there is little incentive to experiment; rather, students and workers are prone to improve themselves only along those fixed parameters.
“In a situation where promotion is diﬃcult and one is judged by immediate colleagues and superiors, it is easy to see how a meritocracy would discourage creativity,” says Appold.
Taken together, these critiques show how Singapore’s meritocracy probably has, over the years, resulted first in a sub-optimal selection of knowledge workers; and second in a professional environment where knowledge workers cannot develop fully.
There are hence several aspects of Singapore’s meritocracy that should be adjusted to enable it to better prepare Singaporeans for knowledge work.
At a macro level, Appold’s suggestions from 2001 are as relevant today. “The alternative to meritocracy is not to refrain from judgments about individuals but to delay them as long as possible, selecting on performance rather than merit. The early selection of elites through meritocratic processes serves to reduce the competition that encourages work eﬀort by discouraging the majority of the work force. Maximizing the number of people in the pool of skilled, experienced workers may increase work eﬀort and smooth labor supply bottlenecks. The alternative entails softening the boundaries of credentialing, decreasing faith in early judgements, and tying rewards and position more closely to performance than to criteria.”
These chime with many of the suggestions made in an earlier chapter of this book, “Good meritocracy, bad meritocracy”, as well as comments from some senior politicians—in September 2012, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s deputy prime minister, called on Singapore to foster a “continuous meritocracy”.
The government has made efforts to temper Singapore’s meritocracy. For instance, upgrading the standards and perceptions of vocational institutes over the past decade has partly mitigated the negative impact of early sorting on students who may have been streamed out of their desired field.
Pedagogical approach in schools
Singapore’s primary and secondary educational system is generally regarded as one of the best in the world. Singaporean students frequently score highly in international comparisons—for instance, out of the 65 countries and economies that took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009, which analyses the performance of 15-year olds, Singapore students ranked fifth in Reading, second in Mathematics and fourth in Science. The UK’s education secretary Michael Gove, among others, has repeatedly praised Singapore’s educational system.
Despite these accolades, it is apparent that Singapore’s pedagogical approach may not be preparing Singaporeans well for knowledge work. The main issue is an over-emphasis on rote learning—as opposed to process learning—coupled with insufficient attention on developing critical thinking skills.
The government has spent much time over the years analysing these pedagogical challenges and tweaking the educational system to address them. For instance, major policy initiatives include the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation effort in 1997, in a bid to foster greater creativity and innovation in students; the shift away from considering only GCSE (A) Levels for university admissions, following recommendations by The Committee on University Admission System in 1999; and the introduction of the Integrated Programme (IP) in selected schools in 2004.
Indeed, the underlying driver of many of these policies has been the need to prepare students for work in a knowledge economy. A related impetus was the sense that while Singapore’s educational system was doing an impressive job of instructing the majority of students, it was not advanced and flexible enough to accommodate students at the very top, who may have been held back in their development, particularly compared to their peers in countries such as the US.
There is certainly a sense in the labour market that these efforts have been moderately successful, with fresh Singaporean graduates perhaps more adept than previous generations at thinking critically and speaking out (notwithstanding other more general critiques of “Gen Y” globally).
Nevertheless, there is a long way to go: Singapore society—including parents, students and teachers—continues to place an excessive, unhealthy emphasis on rote learning, hampering efforts to groom knowledge workers.
There is a strong case to be made that Singapore’s brand of benevolent developmental authoritarianism was perfectly suited to the country’s early stages of development, but is completely ill-equipped to serve as a base for a knowledge economy.
There are two strands to this broad argument. The first concerns the state’s role—as an economy transitions from an industrial to a more knowledge-based one, there is arguably a need for government-linked companies to retreat to allow more space for small-and-medium enterprises to flourish.
That discussion, while valid, is beyond the scope of this essay. The focus here is on the second strand, which concerns the socio-political environment’s impact on the average worker’s psyche and behaviour.
In a conversation in 2004, Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me that a benevolent authoritarian state, supported by strong institutional pillars, allows swift decision-making, effective policy and rapid implementation, and does away with some of the time-consuming ordeals of a nascent democracy, like petty politicking and populist grandstanding.
However, Mr Porter also stressed that when a country develops into a more service-oriented and knowledge-based economy, freedom of thought and expression become crucial.
This essay argues that the system that has served Singapore so well through its early stages of development is now proving inadequate. It has failed to foster the active, engaged citizenry that is the lifeblood of a knowledge society.
The government has for long seemed to believe that Singaporeans can grow into creative workers while having narrow, closed political minds. That seems like wishful thinking. According to Waltraut Ritter, a knowledge management consultant, “Although there is no hard substantive evidence, there are signs that a completely free mind—free of fear, free to think or say anything at all—will be able to better innovate than a partially closed mind.”
A critical point here is that foreigners who perform knowledge work in Singapore are not encumbered by the same mental restrictions. They rarely read the local newspapers and are not immersed in Singaporean political affairs. For instance, a US citizen working in Singapore will probably spend a lot more time intellectually engaged with the US’s vibrant media and political scene than with, say, The Straits Times.
It is notable that all the other developed East Asian states—Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—have undergone political and social liberalisations well before Singapore, in tandem with their own respective transitions towards a knowledge-based economy.
There are, of course, many developmental experts and economists who might argue that Singapore’s current political “stability” is preferable to, say, the political paralysis one finds in Japan or the rough-and-tumble nature of Taiwanese politics.
Maybe. But it is probably no coincidence that all those countries have domestic populations that, compared to Singaporeans, are arguably more creative, dynamic and willing to take risks.
Hong Kong is a particularly relevant comparison. Hong Kong grants its citizens only limited electoral powers yet they enjoy all the traditional democratic pillars—including a free and independent press, thriving civil society and freedom of expression—one finds in liberal societies. Singapore is the inverse: its citizens have full electoral powers yet do not have access to those same institutions and freedoms.
In other words, Hong Kongers cannot really choose their rulers but, aside from that, live in a thriving democracy. Singaporeans can choose their rulers but live in a relatively listless democracy.
If we accept that Hong Kongers are more creative, dynamic and willing to take risks than Singaporeans, then an argument can be made that of the two illiberal democracies, Hong Kong’s is more favourable to the fostering of knowledge workers. That, in turn, should provide guidance to authoritarian regimes that are managing economic and democratic transitions.
It is also worth comparing Singapore to Malaysia, given the countries shared histories and cultural make-ups. A Singapore-based global product head at a US technology firm told me that the firm’s Malaysian recruits are more dynamic and entrepreneurial than its Singaporeans. Even though the Malaysians may not be as well qualified, they have more of a “can do” spirit and are more adept at their jobs. It is a view shared by several other executives from different firms.
For most of their histories, Malaysia and Singapore have seen single-party rule with relatively restrictive socio-political climates. However, one might argue that Singapore’s government—helped by the country’s small size—has been much more successful in controlling and dominating national discourse. Another reason could be that the Singapore state has been much better at providing for its citizens, breeding a greater dependence—hence, there is less need for people to act or think independently.
To surmise, the point here is to demonstrate that an authoritarian state is probably better at grooming citizens that will keep their heads down and work hard on defined tasks without asking too many questions—ideal for a “manual work” environment.
“They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass primary six knows the consequence of his choice when he answers a question viscerally, on language, culture and religion? But we knew the consequences. We would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997
By contrast, a more liberal democratic state is better at grooming citizens who will constantly challenge accepted wisdoms and can work with a lot of autonomy—ideal for a “knowledge work” environment.
What can be done to improve Singapore’s socio-political environment vis-à-vis knowledge work?
Perhaps the most desirable change is a liberalisation of Singapore’s media. Scores of senior HR and management executives have expressed the view that the government’s stranglehold over Singapore’s media is completely at odds with the desire to build a knowledge economy with workers who can think critically and discern right from wrong, truth from falsehoods.
Citizens and workers take their cue from what they see and hear around them. Until they believe that society condones open, honest criticism and questioning, they may never really feel comfortable doing the same at work.
Among other things, Singaporeans journalists have to be free to express themselves. In every other knowledge economy in the world, the best journalists shape opinion and provoke critical thinking. In Singapore, for the most part, they are news reporters.
The focus on media reform here is also because other political and social liberalisations that might help the knowledge environment—including greater political diversity, a more active civil society and greater freedom of expression—are well underway, particularly after the 2011 general elections, when the ruling PAP delivered its worst-ever electoral performance.
Another reason why Singaporeans may not be performing to the best of their abilities in a knowledge role is because their materialist instincts draw them away from their ideal vocation to the one with the highest pay.
This is undoubtedly a global phenomenon. Amidst the soul-searching in the US in the wake of the global financial crisis, there were remonstrations about Wall Street’s magnetic pull on much of the country’s graduate talent. But the effect in Singapore appears to be magnified, i.e. materialism is more intense and consequently the skills-job mismatch is heightened.
“This ‘work for pay’ phenomena is also why companies hire expatriates over Singaporeans,” says a Singaporean who worked for many years in North America as a top executive at a global consumer goods firm. “My hypothesis is that most Singaporeans do not optimise their talent because they are not working in occupations that they love or which they are good in. All the top executives I have met have developed their talent not for money but because they love what they do. The money is a by-product. So, my observation is that the culture in Singapore severely distorts the talent market. You have a bunch of natural cricket players trying to play soccer because Manchester United pays well.”
In Singapore, with limited ways to spend one’s time, and few other means of building social capital, consumerism and materialism reign. Money therefore becomes the primary objective of professional life.
In a 2007 paper, Phyllis Ghim-Lian Chew at NTU called Singapore a materialistic and capitalistic society. “There is a very significant Singaporean trait that favours pragmatic ideals of immediate functional value and an indifference to relatively abstract concepts such as “culture” and “identity”. This materialistic perspective has catapulted Singapore into the developed league of nations and resulted in a population fearful of losing its economic advantages.”ii
Therefore, perhaps more so than in many other developed democracies, Singaporeans work in order to earn money—rarely for love, passion or interest, which are important motivators for knowledge work. The spiralling cost of living in the country, particularly with house prices, has exacerbated this challenge. For instance, many peers have commented that they would love to do something else but are too heavily invested either in their current property or the one they aspire to.
A related challenge is that Singaporeans can exhibit a peculiar short-termism when it comes to financial reward. An American venture capitalist in Singapore related anecdotes about several Singaporeans in start-ups, who during hiring negotiations are much more concerned with having a guaranteed 13-month bonus than in stock options.
All that said, it is not going to be easy broadening workers’ ambitions beyond financial pursuits. It is not even clear that society believes change is needed. Indeed, a traditional labour economics viewpoint might suggest that individual workers are behaving rationally—albeit with a short-term outlook—by seeking out the highest-paying jobs.
If anything, with Singapore’s concerted efforts to attract wealthy migrants from around the world, and the consumerist temples that have inevitably followed in their trail, it would appear that the country is being infused with more materialist instincts, not less.
If this essay’s thesis—that the average Singaporean worker will underperform in a knowledge role relative to his/her own paper credentials—is true, there are several implications for Singapore’s labour market.
When analysing firm-level behaviour in Singapore, it may be the case that at any given wage, a firm is more inclined to hire a similarly-qualified foreigner than a Singaporean for a knowledge-based role, because they believe the former will be more productive.
Indeed, just three years ago—before foreign worker numbers became a big public policy issue—I met several HR consultants who admitted that they have altogether stopped looking locally for certain hires, because the search costs are too high. Meanwhile, firms that can practise wage discrimination may choose to do so, offering the perceived lower-productivity Singaporean a relatively lower wage.
Furthermore, if, as a result of foreign-worker restrictions, firms are forced to hire more Singaporeans into knowledge roles than they otherwise would, this might have an impact on the firm’s overall productivity.
On a related note, in such an environment, Singaporeans who can demonstrate knowledge-work performance at the very highest levels—i.e. positive outliers to the general Singapore trend—will be in a strong bargaining position and their wages will be bid up.
At a broad national level, in order to drive productivity gains amongst locals, Singapore will have to focus on improving some of the softer aspects of the country’s knowledge environment—including liberalising the socio-political climate—in addition to the traditional focus on harder, technical improvements.
Finally, it is worth considering why, from a developmental perspective, Singapore did not make more aggressive efforts to improve the country’s overall knowledge environment at a much earlier stage. Much of the country’s focus has been on tweaking the educational system, with little attention paid to, say, the nature of meritocracy or the socio-political climate.
There are two probable reasons. First is Singapore’s extremely open immigration policies for highly-skilled workers, which have essentially meant that for knowledge roles, Singapore-based firms have always had access to a global talent pool. Therefore, at an aggregate level, any potential deficits in the local labour market would not have been immediately apparent.
The second reason is that Singapore’s economic success, in particular the rapid transition from a trading and low-cost manufacturing hub in the 1960-70s to a service- and knowledge-dominated centre by the the late 1990s, probably entrenched certain ideas and mental models amongst the governing elite about what makes Singapore tick.
These ideological biases made it difficult for the country’s educational, institutional and social infrastructure to reform and adjust to the demands of a knowledge-based economy. In other words, given that “the Singapore model” was successful in fostering talented, hardworking workers during Singapore’s early development through the 1990s, there would have been little impetus for significant change to prepare for knowledge work.
Indeed, it is only recently—with the benefit of multi-year observations of Singaporeans in knowledge roles—that more insightful analyses have emerged. That does, however, imply a greater urgency for Singapore to enact specific reforms in order to better prepare Singaporeans for work in their own knowledge economy. Among other things, this will boost Singapore’s overall productivity, lessen the dependence on highly-skilled foreigners and reduce resentment amongst Singaporeans against similarly-qualified foreigners who are currently being chosen over them for knowledge-based positions.
This essay will be part of a compilation, “Hard choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus”, edited by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, which will be published in early 2014.
 Perhaps a more accurate descriptor than “authoritarianism” of Singapore’s political system is an “illiberal democracy”. I use both interchangeably here—the reasoning being that Singapore’s illiberal democracy is one governed, for all intents and purposes, by an authoritarian state.
 Government calls for greater political participation are only a very recent phenomenon
[i] “Is meritocracy outmoded in a knowledge-based economy?” Appold, Stephen J. The Singapore Economic Review, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 18
[ii] “Remaking Singapore: Language, culture, and identity in a globalized world” Chew, Phyllis Ghim-Lian, Amy B. M. Tsui and James W. Tollefson (eds.), Language policy, culture, and identity in Asian contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007, pp 75
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