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