Why has Singapore failed to prepare its citizens adequately for the knowledge economy?

Credit: www.hongkiat.com

One of China’s main challenges is “cultural habits that limit imagination and creativity, rewarding conformity….China will inevitably catch up to the US in GDP. But its creativity may never match America’s because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas.”

– Lee Kuan Yew, Time, Feb 4th 2013

This essay argues that Singapore’s developmental model, while efficient at producing workers for most jobs in a manufacturing- and service-based economy, has failed to adequately prepare citizens for knowledge work. The average Singaporean worker will thus underperform in a knowledge role relative to his/her own paper credentials.

In particular, when compared to similarly-qualified workers from other developed countries, the average Singaporean is: 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.

This essay points to several factors that might explain these characteristics: the nature of meritocracy in Singapore, the country’s pedagogical approach, the socio-political climate, and the materialist culture.

Consequently, it is important 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 moderate resentment amongst Singaporeans against similarly-qualified foreigners who are currently being chosen over them for knowledge-based positions.


Over the past two decades, the relative importance of knowledge work to Singapore’s economy has continued to grow. However, companies seeking to fill knowledge-based jobs have often had to recruit workers from abroad due to domestic talent shortages.

There are two dimensions to this labour shortage. The more commonly accepted one frames this as a symptom of the overall slow growth of Singapore’s knowledge-worker base, itself a product of overall slow population growth coupled with relatively low tertiary enrollment.

The less frequently discussed dimension relates to the fact that Singapore’s overall “knowledge environment”—including schooling, cultural attitudes and the country’s broader socio-political climate—may not be conducive to producing workers who can perform at the highest level in knowledge-based jobs.

As a result, there is a disjoint between the average Singaporean’s relatively impressive paper achievements and that person’s actual job performance in a knowledge-based role. At an aggregate level, this implies that a broad analysis of the domestic labour force’s educational attributes will actually overstate the number of Singaporeans able to perform knowledge work at the highest level.

In other words, there exists not only a traditional labour supply shortage but also a specific jobs-talent mismatch not discernible through quantitative analysis. While public discourse tends to focus on the former, there is a pressing need for Singapore to address the latter, specifically potential deficits in its knowledge environment.

This essay will attempt to shed light on the issue by first discussing the nature of knowledge-based work; identifying where the average Singaporean falls short; then postulating why Singaporeans may have a natural handicap in this segment and suggesting some policy changes to address it.

Knowledge work—what exactly is it?

Peter Drucker, a management consultant and author, coined the term “knowledge work” in 1959 to refer to work that involved the use and manipulation of knowledge and information.[i] He was partly seeking to draw a distinction between knowledge and manual work. At its most basic, therefore, knowledge work refers to any output that depends largely on the mind rather than the hands.

Within that simple dichotomy, there is no consistent granular definition of knowledge work. A narrow one would be “the direct manipulation of symbols to create an original knowledge product, or to add obvious value to an existing one”, which necessarily equates knowledge and creative work. A broad definition includes “all workers involved in the chain of producing and distributing knowledge products”.[ii]

Though the modern representations of a “knowledge worker” often refer to the likes of software engineers, financial wizards, doctors and lawyers, it is worth noting that knowledge work is actually performed in every kind of industry. For instance, there are knowledge workers in everything from agriculture (plant genetics) to zoology (migration analysis). Additionally, any sort of process or management improvement, whether in the organisational structure of a large bank or the efficiency of a chicken farm, is a form of knowledge work.

The point here is to de-emphasise any hard link between knowledge work and specific “knowledge-based industries”. While some sectors do have a greater dependence on knowledge work, in today’s modern, complex, globalised world, where many organisations strive for flat structures and open communication lines, there are many workers across a broad swathe of the economy who may actually have elements of knowledge work in their jobs. For instance, the personal assistant who recommends a simple energy efficiency measure that saves the firm money has, in effect, performed knowledge work.

Rather than focussing on specific professions or industries, then, it is perhaps more important to examine the attributes that a person must have in order to perform knowledge work well, and specifically how it differs from manual work.

Frederick Taylor was an American mechanical engineer who aimed to improve industrial efficiency in a manufacturing-dominated economy. He lived from 1856 to 1915, about a century before Peter Drucker. By comparing Taylor’s views on manual work with Drucker’s views on knowledge work, we can better understand the cognitive, intellectual and professional skills that each demand.

Frederick Taylor on Manual Work Peter Drucker on Knowledge Work
Define the task Understand the task
Command and control Give autonomy
Strict standards Continuous innovation
Focus on quantity Focus on quality
Measure performance to strict standards Continuously learn and teach
Minimise cost of workers for a task Treat workers as assets and not as costs

(Source: Reinvent Your Enterprise, Jack Bergstrand, 2009)[iii]

A corollary of that is that the drivers of productivity in manual and knowledge work are significantly different.

Manual Work Productivity Knowledge Work Productivity
Work is visible Work is invisible
Work is specialised Work is holistic
Work is stable Work is changing
Emphasis is on running things Emphasis is on changing things
More structure with fewer decisions Less structure with more decisions
Focus on the right answers Focus on the right questions

(Source: Reinvent Your Enterprise, Jack Bergstrand, 2009)

Singaporeans and knowledge work—where do we fall short?

There are two ways to assess Singaporeans’ ability to perform knowledge work. The first is to look at traditional measures of a knowledge economy’s potential.

For instance, The World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) ranks countries around the world based on four different categories. First is the “Economic Incentive Regime”, which includes indicators like non-tariff barriers and the rule of law. Second is “Innovation”, which includes factors like patents and journal articles. Third is “Education”, which analyses statistics like literacy and tertiary enrolment. Fourth is “ICT”, which looks at telephone, computer and internet penetration.

In the 2012 KEI, Singapore ranked 23rd out of 145 countries. This placed it below many other developed countries, including Sweden (1st), Finland (2nd), Australia (9th), the US (12th), Hong Kong (18th) and Japan (22nd), but above the likes of France (24th), Israel (25th) and South Korea (29th).

The main reason for Singapore’s somewhat mediocre performance is a poor “Education” score. Compared to many other developed countries, Singapore has low rates of secondary and tertiary enrolment. For instance, according to UNESCO, in 2009 Singapore’s higher education enrolment rate was 62%, well below countries such as South Korea (98.09%), Finland (94.44%) and the US (82.92%). There are many reasons for Singapore’s relatively low tertiary enrolment, but an exploration of them is beyond the scope of this essay.

The methodological approach typified by the KEI is one that attempts to predict a country’s potential for knowledge work based on some fixed national qualitative and quantitative indicators—a macro analysis of national ability.

This essay will instead use a second approach: actual evaluations and opinions from managers regarding Singaporeans’ workplace behaviours, characteristics and performance—a micro analysis of individual ability. Considering Drucker’s views on knowledge workers, it will examine Singaporeans’ ability to work when, among other things, they are given significant “autonomy” and asked to do work that is “invisible”, “changing” and “holistic” in an environment with very little structure.

Given the high proportion of foreigners and naturalised citizens in Singapore—perhaps less than 50% of Singapore’s total population was actually born in the country—it is notable that the main arguments in this essay apply much more to people who grew up in Singapore.

The essay analyses the influence of Singapore’s broader cultural, educational and social climates on an individual’s cognitive, intellectual and professional skills. It has much less application, therefore, for older immigrants or even international school students who may have technically lived in Singapore but effectively spent little time interacting with local institutions.

The essay’s analysis is based largely on anecdotal evidence and interviews during the period 2005 – 13. Therefore, it is certainly not meant as a definitive statement on the qualities of Singapore’s knowledge workers. Rather, it should be viewed as an initial exploration of some crucial themes that warrant further study. Indeed, the absence of more rigorous research into the attributes of the average Singaporean worker continues to hamper policy dialogue.

In January 2012, for instance, Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s education minister, admitted that he was surprised by the number of top CEOs who feel that Singaporean graduates lack the drive and confidence to venture out of their comfort zone—precisely some of the qualities a knowledge worker needs.

It is telling that at very highest policy levels there exists insufficient data and information on this issue. A more granular understanding of the situation will allow the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Manpower, and the broader policy fraternity to better address the challenges Singapore faces in nurturing knowledge workers.

Moreover, this essay’s focus on the average Singaporean worker’s shortfalls should not obscure the worker’s undoubted strengths, including academic achievement and efficiency in completing defined tasks. Yet those are generally better understood, and there is less need to discuss them here.

Finally, it is worth stressing that these are not absolute but rather relative criticisms—in that the average worker falls short in performing knowledge work relative to his/her own paper credentials.

“Although the system has created many gifted technically capable people, it has done so at the cost of creativity and lateral thinking,” says an Indian American financier who became a Singapore citizen in 2007. “I have found it much easier to succeed against ‘smarter’ competition in Singapore than any other country in which I have lived.”

With all this in mind, these are some of the main performance critiques of Singaporean workers in a knowledge-based environment.

  • Less willing to challenge convention or question authority

Arguably the most common criticism is that the average Singaporean worker is less willing to speak up—either to challenge his/her superiors intellectually or to point out potential flaws in established corporate processes.

While this attribute serves the worker well in a “manual work” environment, with its emphasis on strict standards and consistency, it handicaps the worker in a “knowledge work” environment, where innovation and change are valued.

For R&D work, this implies that a Singaporean worker might excel more in the development than the research, says Steve Wilson, director of R&D Asia-Pacific at Welch Allyn International, a medical device manufacturer. Welch Allyn had set up a development centre in Singapore in 2004 to focus on new product development for emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India and China.

“Singaporeans are academically brilliant and they have a tremendous respect for authority. A similar team in the US would keep questioning and want to have a healthy dialogue every step of the way. This may be good in the early stage of a project’s development. But it’s a real problem during the execution. Singaporeans rarely revisit and question the purpose of a task. They have a great ability to translate something from requirement to developed product. They just get it done.”

But, as Steve pointed out, that very strength also presents one of the biggest challenges to performing R&D in Singapore. “Our teams are very focused on their tasks and as a result do not think much outside of what they have to do. Ideas are seldom generated, as no incentives for creativity exist in the Singaporean education system. In three years of operation, our facility has not produced a single patent, and there is no record of new ideas.”

A related criticism concerns sub-optimal critical thinking skills amongst Singaporean employees. Several HR directors have mentioned that Singaporeans are generally less likely to analyse issues critically and, conversely, more likely to follow “accepted wisdoms”.

  • Afraid to take risks and move out of comfort zone

Singaporeans’ well-established risk aversion affects their performance in knowledge work, where work is “invisible” and holistic. Roles are often ill-defined and fluid, requiring workers to adapt and “step up to the plate” as the situation demands.

In the same discussion with Mr Heng in January 2012, one CEO compared the responses of a European worker and a Singaporean worker when given a different role with new responsibilities. “What sort of training will I get, how will you help me succeed, what will I do, and so on,” the European worker responded, as reported in The Straits Times. [iv] By contrast, the Singaporeans focussed on the risks. “What if I fail? Do I still have a job? Is there a support system, and do I get retrenchment benefits?”

Similarly, at an STJobs HR Summit in April 2013, five senior executives at MNCs expressed their concerns, suggesting that while Singaporeans are talented, they often lack global exposure and are afraid to venture abroad.

The Straits Times report cited Kensaku Konishi, Canon Singapore president and CEO, who said that when Singaporeans are put in a foreign environment, “they just complain that it’s different from Singapore”.[v]

Singaporeans can thus appear more concerned with guarding and nurturing their own turf rather than being adventurous and exploring other opportunities. The common caricature is of the Singaporean worker’s “shield”, which is tucked close to the body, and raised instinctively to deflect new “arrows”, or responsibilities, which are outside our regular mandate.

In short, Singaporeans’ risk aversion and inability to move out of their comfort zones can translate into professional inflexibility and a lack of ambition—which, again, may seem better suited to “manual work” than “knowledge work”.

  • Silo mentality and poor cross-collaboration skills

On a related note, the average Singaporean worker often does not have the full ability to collaborate across the organisation, and draw on a range of multi-disciplinary skills. Instead, workers are much more comfortable working on set tasks and processes, often in silos.

Singaporeans may be more comfortable with individual tasks than group projects because they lack the necessary public communication skills and/or the emotional dexterity required to balance different personalities.

Another reason could be that Singaporeans tend to have a narrow, individualistic view of job performance and reward, not a holistic one that encompasses a team or an entire organisation. From this perspective the primary professional objective is simply working within the bounds of a strictly defined job scope.

There is perhaps a preference for minimising personal responsibility—or, “liability”—over maximising group performance. For some, this can translate into small-mindedness and a reluctance to help others. “The India Indians are much better at looking after their own kind,” admits one disgruntled Singaporean banker. “Singaporeans are more adversarial, afraid that others will get ahead, so we do not compliment or praise each other as much publicly.”

This is Part 1 of 2. Part 2 discusses the specific reasons why The Singapore model may not be good at producing knowledge workers. To read, please click here.


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.


[i] Landmarks of tomorrow, Drucker, Peter, 1959

[ii] Knowledge Workers In The Information Society, ed McKercher, Catherine, Mosco, Vincent, 2007, pp. vii-xxiv

[iii] The graphical presentation of Bergrstand’s work is taken from “Peter Drucker’s view of knowledge-based work”, Applitude. http://www.applitude.se/2011/02/peter-drucker’s-view-of-knowledge-based-work/

[iv] “What CEOS told the Education Minister”, The Straits Times, Feb 2nd 2012

[v] “Lack of global exposure, Gen Y staff among managers’ top concerns”, The Straits Times, Apr 25th 2013

Top image credit: http://www.hongkiat.com

48 thoughts on “Why has Singapore failed to prepare its citizens adequately for the knowledge economy?

  1. Great stuff …… except that there comes a tipping point where the clever gets a bit too clever and the stupid think they are clever.
    Supply: Wall Street creativity in mass destruction of wealth and well-being.
    Demand: Corporations and people want more for less and do less for more. .
    In-between: Regulators knowing when to look the other way underpinned by strategically timed flip-flops between private and public sectors.

      1. i have actually seen this somewhere before. you sure you wrote this?

  2. Primary School education screws us
    The current emphasis on just maths n science at pri6 psle with MCQ questions kills any incentives to think out of the box.

    Control of newspaper kills the students inituatives.
    Have you seen any reference to a good website in our ST?
    There are none. To them it look like only think they want you to look at is their newspapers and nothing else.
    This contributes to our lack of skills developed in the IT sector.

    In the name of control, we don’t hv the full version of twitter, which is actually sms based. This service is very popular works-wide but yet to be introduced here.
    Why? I guess it a another means to control the masses, whr with a click if a button , I’ve can reach out to thousands !

    Use of ebay is dismal in Spore.

    Hardly any online classifieds.

    NO Internet newspapers or TV stations.

    All in all, we are about 5 years behind the leader, and the real sad thing is its going to get worst.

  3. I can’t agree more. In my dealings with my fellow colleagues in SIngapore, i have found that they generally are afraid to take risks and move out of their comfort zone, unable to find the correct ‘box to tick’ so to speak and this infuriates me to no end. The lack of ‘can-do’ attitudes to find a creative solution to a client situation has made me turn to our colleagues in HK instead, directing business there.

    I find this very sad, especially as a fellow Singaporean myself. It’s as if, they know where all the dots are but they just can’t connect it. Very seldom do I come across a fellow worker who can not only point out what’s wrong in a picture but have some idea of how to right it. Our team in Singapore is a machine, ruthlessly efficient at getting things done, but only within the parameters of their coded logic.

    It’s through corporate level policies and programs that we try to overcome this malaise but it is through the import of foreign talent to examine, assess, recommend and implement changes at a senior level. What we really need to for our local talent pool to be able to do the same.

    1. Thank you. From 2006-2009, I spent a lot of time working in both the Hong Kong and Singapore offices of The Economist Group. The experiences of executives I’ve spoken to, as well as my own, chime with yours.

  4. You may be right about Singapore of 2000 to 2009. Things have changed a lot in the field of education and the way school teachers are handling the children for the future knowledge based economy. The foundation stone was laid by the then education Minister Tharman when he started the NUS High School , NTU’s SST and the SUTD( Singapore University of Technology & Design). I came to Singapore in 2003 and this was my complaint about Singapore with just ‘O’ & ‘A” levels. Now you have IB, AP direct A level & so on. Our son is a beneficiary of the changes. I am dealing with the fresh graduates of Poly & A levels joining their NS . I can assure you they are “thinking” now and ready for the new economy. Regards

    1. Thanks. You may well be right. Over the past seven years, I’ve worked with interns from SMU and NUS, some Singaporean, some from other parts of Asia. They always amaze me with their intellectual and professional ambition. Let’s hope they don’t get stymied in the workplace by very traditional bosses!

  5. My thoughts exactly. Couldn’t have been said any better. Our education system as it is, is not prepared to structurally meet the demands of the future economic system and future marketplace as a competitive edge.

    1. With so much unhappiness on grnoud level, most people do not have the mood to celebrate. Those flags that one sees in HDBs, who puts them up. Most people knows the answer.G still have the mindset that they knows best and refuse to admit their mistakes and reverse screwed policies. It’s in their DNA to always think that unpopular decisions/policies are the right ones when it has been proven otherwise. Whats wrong with admitting one’s mistakes. Egos, lost of face, political votes??Sporeans must come to their senses that in any good organisation/country, it is imperative to have transparency, check & balances. Without it, the results are obvious.Another thing, no point going through the motion of asking for public feedbacks when the decisions are more or less decided. Going through this exercise will only generate even more resentment when the final decision is to the contrary.These are my humble thoughts.

    2. Some people have proosped the term “Basic Living Wage” to highlight that govt & society have a duty to ensure that anybody who wants to work will be able to provide at least a basic and comfortable home for themselves, adequate nutritional food, ability to raise a family, adequate recreational time for family bonding and personal development, etc. We should not expect people living in this land to work for pittances such that they cannot provide for family locally, cannot afford a safe & accessible housing, cannot spend time to nurture their kids becoz they need to work double shifts just to pay the bills and buy enuf food. It is a social compact to ensure sustainable working society. We have not reached a stage whereby we face outright revolt by the socially and economically oppressed. It is also a terrible waste of human resources by creating a difficult environment for children from poor families.Those who think that it is perfectly ok to pay however low that indebted foreigner “slaves” are willing to take, and that less capable Singaporeans must also take it, are simply ascribing to creating a class society or apartheid or even a form of eugenics to ensure that less capable people are not able to form families and have kids.Back in the early 1970s, LKY was serious when he stated that those who earned less than $200/mth should be sterilised so that they do not produce too many “stupid” children. The irony is that back in the early 1970s, the average starting pay *was* $150-$200/mth. A couple with gross household income of $400/mth in those days could afford to have a family car, bring up 2 kids, and pay-off a 3-rm HDB flat in less than 10 yrs.

  6. awesome article. something i’m going to read over and over. looking forward to part two!

  7. I’m normally a big fan of this blog but I think this entry fails on plenty of counts. To be fair, you start by saying it’s all going to be based on anecdote… but that’s exactly why you end up with a garbage-in-garbage-out problem.
    If you had any kind of data to back any of your points you’d be a lot more convincing. Unfortunately, we end up with an article full of prejudice and whose conclusions seem to have been decided before the arguments to justify them were found. And you often attribute causes and effects with not a bit of justification. It makes for pleasant reading because it satisfies all our stereotypical expectations but ultimately it’s intellectually lazy. I’m sure The Economist has much higher standards for its reasearchers. You’re better than this.


    Among just a few of the things I thought were ridiculous:

    1- “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.”

    Source?!? Not reading the newspapers means not being immersed in political affairs? But foreigners are pretty much banned from any political involvement (and will get shouted down or locked up if ever they bring anything up anyway – so if anything their mental restrictions are worse). And I know plenty who read the local papers. And what about Singaporeans who don’t read the papers? And if all that weren’t enough it becomes completely laughable when you then write that the local media is rubbish anyway!

    2- ““The India Indians are much better at looking after their own kind,” admits one disgruntled Singaporean banker. ”

    Ah yes, we should strive for nepotism based on nationality.

    3- “In Singapore, with limited ways to spend one’s time, and few other means of building social capital, consumerism and materialism reign.”

    This is wrong on so many levels.
    I think there are loads of ways of spending one’s time and building social capital in Singapore – but if you disagree you’re going to have to show that there are fewer in Singapore than in other countries.. Good luck with that.
    You’re also saying that these 2 shortcomings necessarily cause materialism and consumerism. I think that’s nonsense but I’d entertain the thought if you could only provide some data. How does Singapore compare to other countries in both respects? If this is really the case, then how come “foreigners” don’t have the same materialistic approach despite also being stuck in this intellectual wasteland? Do “foreigners” also become materialistic after 10 years?


    I thought your part on the education system was the more interesting one. But I would have liked to see you look towards the future a bit more by looking at today’s 10-20 year olds as well. Maybe all your sterotypes will have disappeared in 5 years when these guys enter the workforce.

    Also, I really would have enjoyed some serious comparisons with other countries. Sure there are some great knowledge workers in the US. But what about the average worker? Is he really better prepared for a knowledge economy than the average Singaporean? What about in HK or France or Portugal?

    Finally, the underlying premise seems to be that you want Singapore to wean itself of foreign workers, especially foreign knowledge workers. Are you sure that’s in Singapore’s or the world’s best interests? I’ve worked and lived in plenty of countries and nationality is not the criteria I care about: our ultimate goal should be the happiness of (all) humans and having diverse international places is one of the best ways for that to be possible.

    1. Thank you.

      The reason I do not have any data on Singaporeans’ ability to perform knowledge work is because I cannot find any–as I mention, there is a dearth of rigorous research on the topic.

      Quite the contrary to what you say, though, it would be intellectually lazy of me–and everybody else in this country–to use that as justification never to start a conversation on the topic, which is what I’m trying to do.

      I do hope that one of our institutes or agencies carries out a proper study at some point.

      Although I suspect that there are many in this country who would rather believe that all is dandy with the Singapore model.

      The only other point I want to respond to is: No, I do not think Singapore should wean itself completely off foreign workers. Our country is all the richer for them.

      But I do think that the rate of immigration must be tempered; and part of the answer is training Singaporeans to better perform knowledge work and assume leadership positions.

  8. Well done Sudhir! I enjoyed reading the essay. You speak to the limitations of available evidence and have started a dialogue by looking at a preponderance of patterns that you observe in the Singapore system. You have taken the lead in your willingness to ask the right question? I look forward to reading Part 2.

  9. the words “knowledge” and ‘work” are mutually exclusive in singapore. from primary one until jc two, everyone is taught to memorise, do rote learning or is force fed. [some prefer spoonfed since it suits them better]

    upon entering university, everyone is then cut loose and told to “go forth and be free!” that inevitably results in a rush for model/seniors’ answers and lifting entire blocks/pages of text from recommended readings and dissertations.

    this results in people hitting a nadir in the workplace. templates are common in the civil service and stat boards while the private sector ones hold countless meetings to either push work away or “blamestorm”. the inability to do original work can be boiled down to the fact that our beloved founding fathers couldn’t tolerate anyone who was different from the herd and a possible threat to their domination.

    now the ruling class is telling everyone education is no longer top priority in a meritocracy. i for one, would like to see the ministers telling their kids to drop out of school now.

  10. I’ll add that there’s a skill divide where our workers and graduates skill levels do not match up to salary expectation thus making Singaporeans one of the most overpaid workers as compared to their counterparts in Taiwan, Philippines and India. e.g. A Taiwanese graduate is paid about 3 times less than a local graduate but the question is, are our graduates doubly more productive or could add double the value in the work done?

    Our education system is being forced to play catch up to train effective knowledge workers while the inflow of foreign talent over the years have accelerated the cost of living, especially in housing, creating a gap as such.

    Unlike a country like Indonesia or Malaysia, our economy depends less or domestic consumption and thus we’re less shielded from the influences of globalization and need to change quickly to match other developed economies with similar cost of living. Thus the push for labor productivity.

    Our average labor wages for PMEs poses a problem for our talent mix because while its high enough to attract talent from developing economies, it’s too low to keep our very best from seeking greener pastures.

    I’m not sure if our government could have done anything to better prepare for this but as far as I’m aware, local education institutions and our young local populous have been slow to adapt.

      1. to a YTL executive, he loves Singapore, but not its ccnailil and soulless Govt. We agree with him, and not displaying the flag in our home dun mean no love and patriotism for Singapore. It’s the heart that counts, not ostentatious display for foreigners to see.Nonetheless, we hope to put up flag one day, but not now.

  11. Very good to read your deductions on the latest in Singapore. Singapore’s economy might be very much like that of Israel with no disparaging political enemies around ( maybe a few competitors who might help stimulate the productivity) and no sustainable/renewable natural resources and organized unsparing hand-outs from major global economic players in the west. On the other hand, being a small but solid player in the manufacturing sector, Singapore has done so far very well, albeit, it might be an uphill struggle with unforgiving emerging economic giants like China and India next door. Imaginative diplomacy has more to do with Singapore’s success than any economic mantra or political maneuver in the 2st century dog-eat-dog competitions.

    1. Thanks. Yes, there are some similarities, though also some clear differences, including socio-political climate (Israel much more liberal) and very different migration/population characteristics. And good point on “imaginative diplomacy”

  12. Interesting article. Just want to add more anecdotal fuel to the fire. 😉

    I’ve found that in my own professional life, taking the time to think and innovate, and then speak out based on your thinking and innovation aren’t appreciated in Singapore. In fact, in many of the companies I worked in, those were qualities that were actively penalised, one way or another.

    Interestingly though, those qualities that made me the bane of my bosses’ lives were the exact ones that helped me land a new job in Melbourne, with zero contacts, and making more than twice what I’ve ever made in sg even BEFORE superannuation. My current employer is sponsoring me, and 8 months into my employment *touch wood!* seems to be extremely happy with my performance.

    So… I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘education makes it hard for sg workers to think!’ It’s more of if the system consistently rewards unthinking behaviour and penalises thinking, then only the nutty ones will persist in thinking. And then those nutty ones will leave (if they can). And then you have the general moaning about how Singapore’s citizens aren’t all that good when it comes to knowledge work.

    Just a little parable about what working life in Singapore was like for me! 😉

    1. Throughout the great pattern of thgins you get an A for effort and hard work. Where you misplaced me was on all the specifics. As people say, the devil is in the details And that couldn’t be more correct at this point. Having said that, permit me reveal to you just what did work. The article (parts of it) is certainly incredibly engaging which is possibly the reason why I am making the effort in order to comment. I do not make it a regular habit of doing that. Second, even though I can see a jumps in reason you come up with, I am definitely not sure of just how you seem to connect your details that help to make the final result. For the moment I shall yield to your point but trust in the future you connect your facts much better.

    2. I think you have to read the above post together with the other post I have on the sjbeuct. Compulsory religious studies in my Catholic School years was only given as an example of brainwashing school curriculum. There are other examples of compulsory study materials given in the other posts. Let me post all of them here:Excuse me for writing in English. The Chinese software in my computer is not working properly. I also apologize for not noticing the difference between 伊利沙伯中學國民教育舊生關注組 and伊中舊生會.The purpose of my message is not to judge the value of 國民教育, and even less do I dare to suggest our beloved school to accept or reject the program. The purpose of my message is to make the point that: “With so many voices opposing the National Education program, do we really realize that we have already received a large number of indoctrinations during our school years? If we do, why do we single out our objection on the National Education program and passively accept others?”The answer has been partly provided by the very eloquent message of Mr Well Lee: “It is not the indoctrination process in education to which one objects; rather it is the content of the doctrine which decides one’s choice.” This, however, immediately leads to the next question: “Who is best to be the judge of the content of the education material?” In my view, hopefully, we have a sensible Education Department which may make the “unbiased” decision by following the national and international history as well as development trends. A fair and unbiased decision may still not be possible since “fairness” and “biasness” are relative terms. Then, is following the majority always right? Not necessarily! (Not long ago, some schools in southern USA chose to abandon the teaching of Darwin’s Evolution due to pressure from the majority of the parents and the outcries of extreme religious groups.)In describing the National Education program, it was mentioned 內容偏頗﹐反倫理﹐是非顛倒”, and the term “荼毒” was also used. I have not studied the program content, therefore, I cannot pronounce, in my own opinion, on the suitability of the National Education program in school education. However, I remember through my personal experience of the primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong, there were quite a few occasions in which official text-books (as well as teachers) showed complexion which suits those words of description. The religious classes I had (mentioned in my last message) could be cited as examples; the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians in Jerusalem in 1099 was (and probably still is) described in history books as “holy” and we were supposed to worship such “wars”; the infamous Opium War caused by drug smuggling and drug pushing by the East India Co. was taught to us as “the Chinese needing British goods”; the rule of the great British Empire was always glorified while the atrocities committed by her troops to the natives in Africa, Australia, N. America and the Middle East were dismissed as “disciplining the savage”. The above are just a few examples in a multitude. However, I must admit that, in many of the “civilized” countries I visited, such education materials of glorifying one country’s past while downplaying (or even omitting) its atrocities can be commonly found in schools – Japan, USA, UK, Israel, France, (and even Canada!), etc. Due to the stand of the colonial Hong Kong Government in the past, such biased materials were approved for education and have infiltrated our text-books and schools. Somehow, we accepted them – no protest!In the eve of sending out a petition, I like to ask ourselves to sit back and consider this analytically, “Is the content of the National Education program that much worse than the materials I have cited? If so, please go ahead and protest! If not, singling out the National Education program as a target of protest will be infringing on ‘double-standard’”.Yours truly,Max Wong

  13. I believe that there are several areas that contribute to the problem of the kind of workers in S’pore that do not pass muster when it comes to the crunch so much so that the govt can justify their policy to allow companies to recruit large numbers of knowledge based foreign workers into our country.
    1. Our educational system is one of the problem: it is one-way communication and students learn by rote or take what is being taught wholesale without evaluating or critiquing the content in the classrooms. Teachers are fearful of appearing less knowledgeable than students who have access to more information if they are more industrious than the teacher. I know of cases where teachers put down students who stood up to challenge what was taught as outdated but told to sit down and shut up. Or another teacher who told a student that the answer to one of the mathematical sum was wrong because the working method is wrong or rather not her method. This is one area that your research should dig deeper to be helpful. Teachers and students all learn in the classrooms, and teachers ought not to be fearful that a student has read much further and this will improve for all.
    2. At the work place heads of depts usually like to employ those who are less threatening or mediocre, unless they are going to be heading depts and interviewed by the bosses themselves. So heads of dept and superiors recruit those who will pose no threat to their own positions.
    3. The office environment plays a role too in what kind of workers will be nurtured in the long run. There are probably a good number of organisations that do not like workers who have a mind of their own, or who would not conform, particularly in doing things that are meaningless or just maintain the status quo when a different way of looking at and solving at a problem would have better result. Again superiors and heads of dept do not want others to come out better than them. So either the creative worker will leave the company or s/he will just conform and settle down. Why rock the boat and risk one’s own rice bowl.
    4. The PM was once concerned about the outflux of S’pore talents offshore as we know many have uprooted permanently overseas where there are more room for them to be creative, authentic and rewarding, not just materially but as a person and careerist or profesional.
    5. The govt is definitely a culprit. Let’s not be nice here and pretend that the problem does not has its source in the policies of the govt. Many govt agencies have employed foreign workers, both manual and knowledge based. Why? Is it the conformity factor at play? For ease of management, for ease of pushing things through when you have a work force that is unquestioning, conforming, and pliable.
    6. We also look at the cabinet and most of the members of parliament from the party with the biggest number represented to know the answer to where the problem lies. There is a certain degree of conformity and attributes that are replicable or identifiable in the crop of public servants to see the need for something to be done to ensure that nurturing talent that is unfettered and authentic is getting urgent.

  14. “One of China’s main challenges is “cultural habits that limit imagination and creativity, rewarding conformity….China will inevitably catch up to the US in GDP. But its creativity may never match America’s because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas.” – Lee Kuan Yew, Time, Feb 4th 2013. I think LKY sees what he wants to see, and his frame of reference needs some updating.

    Surely he would have read or heard about the Chinese making inroads in other countries other than China. Not just the Chinese govt but also its citizens who have left China because there were too many people looking for too few jobs, or jobs that pay enough. Chinese nationals have ventured into Eastern Europe, the Indian peninsula, Africa and Latin America too to make a living for themselves. And there are many Chinese who are involved in overseas govt projects, eg, helping build some of the African countries’ infrastructures. LKY also forgot about the rapid progress in China over the pass 30 odd years since Deng Xiaoping opened its door to the world.

    Yes, it is true that the cultural habits of a few decades as forcefully shaped during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zidong takes time for people to come out from under its oppressive and warped influence, but the Chinese as a people has come through to stand up for their rights and for what they believe. Chinese nationals are more vocal and eloquent when it comes to challenging the govt and local authorities, which Singaporeans are not quite seen to be doing even with policies that are cause for concern because of risk of negative impact on society and people. The Chinese would take to the street when an issue is serious enough.

    Stories have been told on television of even peasants, old and young, who have taken their cases to court, if not the highest court in the land if necessary, come what may. And we know that in the past, the Chinese were and still are good at imitating or rather ‘stealing’ ideas and making them their own. For a time there was no furniture company or shop that would print and give out brochures of their products for fear that they would be copied. And there are things done that would put Singapore. For example, we are a tiny island but we do not have intelligent buildings that minimize energy waste such as lightings turning on and off by sensors. Instead we have covered walkways that uses 60 and one at a quick count over a hundred lightings. HDB common corridors and void decks are brightly lit from 6.30pm to 7am the next morning daily. Are these ideas that create waste and encourage more energy consumption than we really need necessary or wise when they are done simply because we have the excess funds to splurge on frivolous projects. Prudence is an idea that is alien to the S’pore culture!

    LKY risks giving the wrong impression that Singapore ‘permits a free exchange and contest of ideas”, do we? Really? Or am I not seeing what LKY sees?

  15. Freedom of choice is given to All .
    Knowledge is given , Wisdom is to be found on Individual thirst.
    No perfect institution can encompass Both – knowledge & Wisdom … Since Wisdom cannot be bought. It’s. Gift or you may say am Grace.

    Five fingers are not the same length , one need to be different.
    Listen to & follow a Wiseman & learn from him / her until you have the desire to explode .
    It’s time then , for you to make the difference.

    Gain wisdom from GOD, only He is perfect .

  16. Well its proof that not just government but the education system is at fault . Initially Singapore and its government were good , then when the old guard was pushed out , thats where things started to go wrong , and Singapore became a money culture .
    This is one of the problems of a pseudo democratic society

    1. In Sgp we see that a money culture has already degraded our politics and educational system. With the govt as ‘gatekeeper’ determining who and how many in each yearly cohort (previously less than 25% according to leaked diplomatic cables by Wikileaks) gets into our local universities. This resulted in a different outcome and problem than that faced by the United Kingdom. There the majority of their young people were signing up for economics, banking and finance because the financial sector is a lucrative industry with handsome remuneration for ‘managing’ or we should call it speculating with depositors, investors and pensioners’ monies. The UK badly needs more of their young to take up science, the humanities, and other disciplines other than finance and economics or law. They have come to realize that to be great and thriving they need to be innovative through science, research and devt, to be at the forefront leading innovations and solving society and humanity’s problems. That record was well known before its subsequent decline. Our problem here is that our govt is happy to churn out mediocre or pliable graduands for the workforce, while a miniscule number of ‘talents or scholars’ are bonded to serve in govt agencies or stat boards, which in due course potentially will lead to the most lucrative ministerial career in the world. Even becoming an MP, or appointed to head a govt-linked company or agency means all the trappings of a comfortable life is assured. The kind of leaders we produce is largely shaped by the kind of politics and educational system as determined and put in place by the one and only party in power for several decades. Are they on auto-pilot now? That is the danger.

  17. Knowledge is an ongoing project , not just during the first years of life , many people do not understand this , and stagnate after leaving the education system , and companies are also responsible as they take the easy way out by only looking at paper qualifications ( which from many countries can be false qualifications) and not at real experience and jobs held .
    As has been said before , education systems today have the tendance to make people know more and more about less and less , and without a broad educational base it is impossible to make major changes to careers , be flexible , and adapt to changes in the work world .

  18. Agree. Very difficult to find Singaporeans in the SME sector that do well where autonomy, judgment and decision making are required; the costs and the churn to find the few make it inefficient to look here. In ten years hiring people I’ve found one that was suitable for such a role. None of my Singaporean hires except that one have done well overseas. Very bleak for our economy.
    A slight silver lining is that although our older workers may require more training, they tend to be dedicated to their work and delivering results. Somehow that’s harder to find in the under 30s.

Leave a Reply