Saturday, February 27, 2021

You Don’t Have to be a Greedy and Selfish A**hole to Get Ahead

 What can a Pig Farmer can teach a Politician about Management?

At the beginning of this month, I wrote a piece entitled PROFIT MAKING ENTERPRISE BEATS WORKERS COOPERATIVE IN WORKER WELFARE” (Published 2 February 2021), which talked about how Seng Siong, one of our local supermarkets had managed to grab the headlines by announcing that it was awarding a 16-month bonus to its employees in light of its exceedingly good year in 2020.

As I wrote that post, I realized that what made Sheng Siong particularly unique was that it proved that you can succeed by sharing your success and by treating workers fairly. What was striking about this particular comparison was the fact that Sheng Siong, a profit-making enterprise with a legal and moral obligation to maximise returns for shareholders, had not only made enough to ensure shareholders had a regular dividend but also provided great social benefits by selling products at lower prices and paying its staff better than NTUC Fairprice, a worker’s cooperative which has a mission to “moderate” prices.

The point that I was trying to make in that piece was enforced by announcement on February 24, 2021 that Sheng Siong’s Q4 profits had jumped 84.9 percent to S$32.1 million. The news report can be found at:

https://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/sheng-siong-q4-profit-jumps-849-to-321-million

A snap shot of Sheng Siong’s financial performance can be found at:

https://corporate.shengsiong.com.sg/sheng-siong-groups-net-profit-grew-54-4-yoy-to-s31-8-million-for-3q2020/

 

This significant news for one simple reason. It exposes one of the biggest myths that powerful people in Singapore work very hard to perpetuate, which is the fact that it is necessary to pay people in power a lot of money because you have to pay for talent and it is important to somehow pay people at the bottom of the ladder less because it allows businesses to provide us with “cheap” living.

One only has to look at the debate on wages. I think of the late Lee Kuan Yew telling the public during a debate on ministerial salaries that “A 100 million dollars is a small price to pay for people to run a 100-billion-dollar economy.” At the other end of the scale, I remember being at a function with a senior minister of state, who was asked about raising wages for those of the lower end of the social ladder. His reply was “well, we understand what you’re saying but would you be prepared to pay more for…….” Paying a million dollars is called attracting talent whereas paying the old lady who cleans up after you at the hawker centre a hundred a month more is the cause of why you can no longer afford that plate of kway teow.

The polite term for this is “sanitizing” our wide inequality gap and it’s not just the locals who actually believe this. I first took issue with the “Fawning Follower” or “Critical Spectator” as he likes to call himself, when he decided to promote the disease-causing accommodation that our foreign workers were housed in as a “blessing” because it enabled to our construction companies to provide us with “cheap housing.” To be fair to the Fawning Follower, I’ve heard this argument used in many variations. Pay the bus drivers more – do you want the price of transport to go up. Pay the hawker centres cleaner more – are you willing to pay more for your noodles.

If you follow the logic that the powers that be have used, you’d get the impression that lavishing things at the top and denying the bottom is a crucial element for Singapore’s national survival.

So, how does Sheng Siong get away by not following this model? How is it that Sheng Siong pays workers more and sells products for less but still makes healthy profits? Is there something that Mr. Lim Hock Chee, Sheng Siong’s CEO, know about business but the rest of us do not?  

I cannot claim to be a management expert. However, could Mr. Lim’s secret be the fact that he’s motivated his stakeholders such as his workers a reason to do things that make him succeed? Just look at the following comments from Glassdoor, about working at Sheng Siong:

 

By ensuring the front-line staff are well taken care off, Mr. Lim has seen to it that his customers see happy workers who are willing to make their shopping experience a pleasant one. As for the customers, who wouldn’t like to shop at a place where you are well treated and the prices are more than affordable?  

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Problems with the Fortune made in Shit

 One of my more prominent memories of my last year in university, was being at an event where the then Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Tony Tan was the guest of honour. Dr. Tan was on visit to the UK and the prominent members of the Singapore community had gathered to see what he had to say about Singapore’s relationship with the UK.

During this event, I was introduced to the representative of a Singapore government-controlled company. This was an exceptionally educational conversation into the workings of the Singapore advertising market and suddenly the representative mentioned that the Company had the capability of upgrading the entire island to broadband fiber optic system overnight (this being in 2000 when broadband was just becoming a standard and wi-fi belonged to the realms of science fiction). I remember asking him why the system wasn’t upgraded if there was the capability to do so. The reply was that the company was making so much money from the status quo and there was no rush to upgrade the system.

I’ve been made to recall this story because my day job in the insolvency sphere and my side hustle promoting start-ups paint two very different pictures of the Singapore economy. In the side-hustle, you’re given the impression that Singapore is serious about being a “Silicon Valley” for Southeast Asia. Our government, which is famous for its “control freakery” is somehow sending out ministers to give all sorts of speeches about needing people who can take risk, think out of the box and so on, all in the hope of getting the world’s innovators to set up shop in Singapore. Apparently, the world’s most famous group of control freaks are committed to growing Asia’s Elon Musk out of Singapore. Funnily enough, the statistics might be proving them right:

https://www.visualcapitalist.com/world-most-innovative-economies/


However, in my day job, I run into a lot of businesses in the old-fashioned industries like shipping and construction. These are the industries that are capital, asset and let us not forget labour intensive. The most prominent part of these industries is the fact that they are powered primarily by labour from what the former US President called “Shithole” countries because they involve physically demanding labour in rough conditions. 

While the old-fashioned industries may not have the glamour of the “sexy tech-start-ups,” they are what you’d call the backbone of the economy. Singapore was founded as a trading centre so it goes without saying that the shipping industry plays a vital role in keeping Singapore relevant in the world. Singapore’s construction industry also has a role in keeping Singapore’s infrastructure in tip top condition. 

These are also the industries with the most amount of patronage (the major construction projects are inevitably government ones) and depend the most of exploitation of the poor for their profits. Let’s face it the work of say paving a road requires you do physically do it and the only people willing to do it at low wages are the people from what Donald Trump most famously called “Shithole” countries. Not only do these workers power the old-fashioned industries, they are also the source of funds for a strangely entrepreneurial industry called “labour supply,” which basically involves a group of middle men getting workers to work on various construction projects for a certain fixed wage and pocketing things like overtime.

Thanks to Covid-19 and the explosion of cases in the dormitories, to get an idea of the extent that the industries were dependent on foreign labour. The tax payer had to step in to assist the dormitory operators to “upgrade” their facilities to more livable ones and when questioned as to why the tax payer was bailing out an industry that had benefited from keeping workers in conditions that helped breed the disease, the standard response from the industries was this was our national obligation because the system of keeping workers in disease breeding facilities benefited the rest of us through cheaper real estate (which was a polite way of saying nobody would be able to afford a roof over our heads). 

Leaving aside all the other arguments on the merits of foreign labour, one thing is clear – our old-fashioned industries are exceedingly unproductive and basic task that could be done more efficiently are done by manpower. 

I take the conversation I had with a General Manager of a Swiss company that sells cable pulling wenches. The man found it easier to sell his machines in the “Shithole” countries in the region then in the land of “ultra-modernity.” His point was that despite the fact that a single one of his machines could pull a cable a greater distance and, in less time, then several men, the “bean counters” on the client side found that it was cheaper to hire those several men (a cynic might also argue that you only pay goods and services tax once on the sale of a machine but the worker’s levy is a monthly affair). 

https://www.plumettaz.com/en/product/capstan-trailer/TL%203022%20DRE-1050%2F9 

There is technology available to make old fashioned industries more productive or at least less dependent on manpower. I think of a former Nanyang Technological University (NTU) professor, who is working to develop a wheelchair that will help the mobility of the aged. With an aging population, this would be a good product in Singapore’s market. However, if you look at what he considers his “selling” points, you’ll realise that it will reduce the need for manpower, which means an army of agents will have less to earn from an army of maids, which also means that there will be less money generated in the form of levies.


This is clearly not a question of a lack of money or technology. If you work on A*Star or DSTA accounts, you’ll realise that a lot of patents do get filed and if something can’t be invented or develop in Singapore, there are technologies developed elsewhere which can be bought. 

So, the question then becomes, if the money and technologies are there, why aren’t they being adapted to create greater efficiencies? I go back to that conversation all those years ago and the answer seems that too many people are making money from a system that encourages exploitation and discourages efficiency or productivity. 

If Covid-19 brings us anything, it should be to force the old-fashioned industries to adapt to new technologies that create greater 

efficiencies. An investment in technology might seem daunting but in the long run in pays off. I think of the most successful member of my army cohort who has become a “cleaning entrepreneur.” He provides robots who can help keep our environment clean:

https://www.lionsbot.com/robots/floor-cleaning/

Singapore has reached a stage where the problems it faces cannot be solved by only one source of ideas. It needs entrepreneurs like my friend, who are looking at ways of making basic industries more productive and less exploitative. 

The government needs to find ways to make it expensive to make money in the shit and incentivize ways in which people can make money from cleaning the shit. That is if the government is really serious about restructuring the economy to a “new normal” and making us a more productive nation. 


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Do You Salute the Rank or the Man?

 One of the major “Bromances” of modern politics has turned exceedingly sour. Former US President Donald Trump has just lashed out at the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate, Mr. Mitch McConnell, who had in turn taken the time out to say some “mean” things about Donald Trump. Despite voting to acquit Mr. Trump in his second impeachment trial, Mr. McConnell then gave a speech accusing the former president of inciting the crowd that stormed the Capitol Building on 6 January 2021. Details of the latest in the Trump McConnell row can be found at:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/17/trump-lashes-out-mcconnell-republican-rift-deepens

 

How did this relationship suddenly turn so sour? As leader of the majority party in the senate during the four years of the Trump Presidency, Mr. McConnell was to all intents and purposes Mr. Trump’s enabler. Mr. McConnell practiced his constitutional obligations to check executive power by giving the blank cheque to the administration to do whatever it wanted to do. So, why did Mr. McConnell suddenly turn so sour on Mr. Trump.

The answer is simple. By 7 November 2020, it was clear that the Trump Administration was on its way out and as a proverbial “lame duck” president, Mr. Trump’s value to Mr. McConnell and the rest of the Republicans in the senate started to decline. It didn’t help that Mr. Trump didn’t fade away and so, there was no skin off Mr. McConnell’s nose to get snappy with Mr. Trump.

The breakdown of the relationship between Mr. Trump and McConnell is what you’d call the most public example of what happens to relationships based on convenience. Unfortunately, the world is filled with examples of leaders who derive their respect and authority from being, well in certain positions, rather than earning their respect. As is so eloquently said by Major Winters in Band of Brothers, “You salute the rank not the man.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTRZRRlA4sw

 

The military functions on a certain system. Where possible, an effort is made to ensure that the men with certain ranks earn them. However, relationships are ultimately built around the rank structure. A young lieutenant commands a sergeant old enough to be his uncle because he has rank. The said sergeant will usually act as a “guide” to the young officer who is to all intents and purposes his boss but has less experience.

In the civil sector, things can be a little more diverse. Instead of an obvious rank, the main differentiators are money and power (which often go hand in hand but are not necessarily the same). In the work place for example, we try and build relationships with the boss because he or she is the centre of power and by extension power. You may not have to salute the rank in the work place, you merely remember who decides if you continue collecting the monthly pay cheque and who decides if there’s an increase or a deduction.

Most are trained to work in a career path where we get to decide on whether the people below us get a cheque at the end of the month and whether we cut or increase their salary. It’s a normal human case of wanting to be the one with the power in relationships.

While most of us work hard to get into positions where we have power over others, there is a need to solidify relationships beyond that. If we go back to Major Winters in Band of Brothers, you’ll realise he has a point. You salute the rank but not the man. However, there comes a time when the man no longer fits the rank or when the man no longer has the rank but is still required to lead. Will people still look to the man for leadership and give the due respect when the man does not have a rank?

Let’s look at Singapore’s Prime Ministers. Modern Singapore had Lee Kuan Yew who was a force of nature. His nature was such nobody ever believed he had relinquished control until the day he died in 2015, even though he had “stepped down” in 1990. It was a case of the man having control. By contrast, we have our “Prime-Minister-in-Waiting,” Mr. Heng Swee Kiat. While Mr. Heng is a technocrat. He’s been named deputy Prime Minister and given the heavy-weight finance ministry. However, if he hadn’t been given the rank of “deputy Prime Minister,” would anyone bother with Mr. Heng. Sure, Mr. Heng came up with five budgets last year, but his leadership was, well virtually invisible.

Singapore does need to move beyond Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore is a nation not a brand that belongs to one man. While Singapore does need a competent leader, it does not need one that dominates everything the way Mr. Lee did. However, we don’t the other extreme of someone who takes the rank and sinks into the rank and does not rise to the occasion.

Life’s proverbial rank holders need to remember that while they derived certain perks from holding the rank, they also need to remember that they will not hold onto that rank for life and that they are likely to have a need for the people who saluted that rank. Hence, the smarter rank holders do enough to ensure that the people who saluted them will continue to salute the man once the rank is over.

I take my own professional development as an example. I kept in touch with PN Balji after he left the editorship at Today. I earned a job at Bang PR and two court case jobs (Susan Lim vs Singapore Medical Council and Guy Neil vs Ku De Ta). I have now reached the stage where I can pass him work.

Forgetting that holding a rank is finite, does have consequences. Mr. Trump could not imagine that he’d lose an election and that the judges he appointed would not support his bid to get the results struck down. Not long after he lashed out at his former ally in the senate, Mr. McConnell proceeded to laugh at him – something which would never have happened when he was the president.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-mitch-mcconnell-republicans-impeachment-b1803904.html?utm_content=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR3j_H3gOM5tCqC1hwPY0s_OpsOouBKuvd_YisMyJdJ2Yo5djQmA8f1xQcs#Echobox=1613634521

 


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

“A Punch is a Punch,” – Bruce Lee

 I recently posted something about Donald Trump setting back the cause of White Supremacy because his mishandling of the Covid-19 outbreak in America showed people that White Males were not necessarily superior to women or people of colour. My post can be found at:

 

What was interesting was that I got an angry response from a friend of mine, who said that it was enough of my “Fake CNN Opinions.” I was intrigued by this comment because this line summed up the crux of his argument, which was “my opinion was fake,” because he or his position said it was. I was a little taken back because this friend of mine is an exceedingly successful corporate high flyer in the technology sphere and given his corporate position, I did expect him to use a more intelligent line of attack.

However, in certain respects, this is part and parcel of living in a world that is highly polarized and thanks to the internet, people have so many sources of information to choose from that instead of looking towards the news agencies as a source of information, people look to the news as a source of confirmation of their own preexisting opinions.

Thanks to Trump, America is the most extreme example of this. To be fair to Donald Trump, he wasn’t the first politician to exploit this difference, he is merely the most successful. If I look at my Facebook feed about stories on the second impeachment trial, I’ve noticed that for every article stating why Trump should have been convicted, there are plenty of other articles from people who think the impeachment trial was a plot by the evil Democrats who chose to target a well-meaning former president.

America, is however, not the only example of this polarization of opinions and people who forget that disagreements are just that. Here in Singapore, one always needs to read a lot to find out the truth of any given event. As my former boss, PN Balji, former editor of the Today newspaper used to say, “According to the mainstream, government can do no wrong and according to the online media, the government can do no right – so the truth is probably somewhere in between.”

Everyone is so busy fighting for their opinion to be regarded as the right one and thanks to the invention of the term “fake news,” it becomes very easy to label anything that you disagree with as “fake.” As my mother pointed out, most us gravitate to the news sources that we agree with. I am guilty of this in many respects. My views on the Middle East for example, are shaped by Haaretz, the Israeli paper which does not follow the Zionist view on things. I also check out Al Jazeera English’s website. For local Singapore news, I’m little bit limited, so I check out the Straits Times Forum, Today and TRemeritus. I avoid reading say, the Jerusalem Post, which an Israeli Diplomat I know, said was what the dumb people read.

In our effort to get confirmation from the press, we forget that there are two sections of the news media. One is the “Opinion” section and then there’s the “News” section. We need to remember that there is a difference between opinions and news.

Let’s start with the obvious. News is supposed to be report on what happened. For if there’ a flash flood, the fact remains that every newspaper reports it because the news is the flash flood. If a politician says something, reporters, regardless of political affiliation are obliged to report what was said. Let’s take the now infamous “covfefe” tweet. This was what the then US President tweeted and was reported by both Fox News and the Guardian.

News happens regardless of our political affiliations. Does the flash flood in some part of the world care if I work for a “conservative” or “liberal” publication? No, it just happens. This is news. News and facts happen regardless of political affiliations of the media. It’s like being punched. Does it matter if the guy who punched you gave you a Chinese Kung-Fu punch or Western Boxing Punch? It’s a punch, you were punched. News reporters are obliged to have some objectivity.

Opinions on the other hand are totally slanted, because well, they are supposed to be and there’s no obligation on the opinion provider to be objective. He or she should argue how a particular opinion was formed and it makes compelling reading if the opinion is based on some form of fact. However, I’ve known successful enough bloggers who write opinions because, well, that’s the way they feel and screw you if you disagree.

The best example of a medium that understands this is, funnily enough Fox News. You have the team that gives you opinions with the likes of Sean Hannity and Laura Ingrahm. I find both pretty objectionable in the opinions they provide (though I do find Laura easy on the eye) but I got to respect that they are opinion providers rather than fact providers (though I do believe trreating Covid like a joke was irresponsible). Both Hannity and Ingrahm took the view that whatever Trump did was a blessing, which was their obligation as opinion providers.

Yet, at the same time section of Fox News that covers the news, does so rather professionally. You have the likes of Chris Wallace who is known as a good objective journalist who has challenged political candidates that his network openly supports. Then there was the reporter who, when asked about the voter fraud allegations during the November Election said “That’s NOT true.”

 

The difference between two sections of the same outlet shows that both sides do two different jobs. People like Wallace are paid to tell it as it is. People like Hannity on the other hand are paid for provoke a reaction.

Sure, we’re not going to like everything we see or read, but the sooner we accept that there is a difference between news reports and opinion reports, the more likely we are to remember that we need to live together in some form of harmony.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Hello Trouble

 

Highlight of Valentines Day took the shape a “romantic” flick on Netflix called “Namaste Wahala,” which has labeled as a “Bollywood-Nollywood” collaboration and tells the story of an Indian investment banker based on Lagos Nigeria who falls in love with a Nigerian Lawyer called Didi.

 

Copyright – The Indian Express

The plot is cheesy (they fall in love after colliding on the beach), which is part of the fun. There are the usual Bollywood dance scenes too, though the songs are for the most part in English. Having said all that, there is an underlying story, which is the story of acceptance of someone from a different culture.

The first scene starts out when he visits her parents. Like a good Indian boy, his automatic reaction is to touch the feet of his perspective in laws. Upon seeing him, her father spits out his drink and goes utterly nuts. She tries to assure her father that “he is a good man,” to which he replies “there are plenty of good men, who are Nigerian.”

The second culture clash comes when his mother makes a surprise visit and when he introduces her as his “girlfriend,” the reply from mummy is “Oh, you mean a friend who is a girl or a female colleague,” refusing to accept that the young African girl in front of her could be anything else to her son.

I bring this up because interracial relations are probably the last frontier of cracking racial and cultural divides. In our “modern – multi this and that” age, we’ll make a song and dance about acceptance and diversity until it hits home. This was brought home most clearly in the famous 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” staring Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier. The shock of having a “black” son-in-law is one thing, but its compounded by the fact that he marched along with the civil rights movement. The father, played by Spencer Tracy is a liberal who believes in equal rights to the black community but even then, it’s a struggle for him to accept a black son-in-law who is exceedingly qualified (he is a medical doctor). In fairness, the father of Sidney Poitier’s character also thinks the “black and white” mix won’t work.  

Much as differences are praised, we often look for similarities, particularly when it comes to something as sensitive as a life partner. It’s admittedly easier to have someone who looks similar, speaks the same language, goes to the same church/temple/mosque etc and follows the same dietary laws. People end up with people who are similar for the simple reason that it doesn’t require too much ‘of a tough compromise. It’s a different story when you spend your life with someone who is immersed in personal values which are fundamentally different from yours.

This struggle is seen most clearly in the movie when the girl tells her mother, “You of all people should understand – you’re a Youroba Woman who married an Igbo Man.” The mother’s reply is “I just don’t’ want you to go through the struggle.” The daughter’s reply is “Yes, but wasn’t it worth it?”

Compromise does require struggle and it often requires a little pain for all parties. However, if both parties believe it’s a struggle worth going through, it often ends up being the case.

Which leads to the cheery point is that perhaps our efforts to be a “united” people might not be as bleak as I and a few others have often made them out to be. One of the more cheerful aspects from an otherwise depressing news report on marriages was the fact that the number of inter-ethnic marriages increased between 2009 and 2019, despite the fact that the overall number of marriages had fallen and the number of divorces and annulments had increased in that very same time period.

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/number-of-marriages-registered-continues-to-decline-more-couples-divorced-in-2019

This is probably a good sign in as much as people are willing to make cross cultural and ethnic compromises in the name of love. It will, as the famous fictional Senator Bullworth says a sign that we can “f*** each other until we’re all one colour.” Surely that can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Coincidence?

 The big news is the fact that Madam Ho Ching, CEO of Temasek Holdings will be retiring from her position in October of this year and be replaced by Mr. Dilhan Pillay Sandrasegara, who is currently serving as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Temasek International. The full story can be found at:

https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/ho-ching-said-she-stepping-aside-temasek-holdings-let-younger-leadership-lead-charge

 

 

What makes this story particularly interesting is the fact that Madam Ho is married to none other than our Prime Minister, who happens to be the proverbial boss of Temasek Holding’s only shareholder, Singapore’s Ministry of Finance (our Prime Minister was minster of finance from 2001 to 2007 and Mr. Lee’s successor, Mr. Heng Swee Kiat is our current minister of finance). While Temasek Holdings is not a “Sovereign Wealth Fund” in the strictest sense of the word, its status as the main shareholder in every company of any significance on the Singapore exchange makes it the nation’s second Sovereign Wealth Fund. It also ensures that while there is a “private sector” in Singapore, its pretty much controlled by the government.

Why is Madam Ho retiring now? While Temasek Holdings had some notable losses in the 2008-2009 recession, the financial reports indicate that Temasek had been growing steadily since 2010:

https://www.temasek.com.sg/en/our-financials/group-financials

 

Under these circumstances, one would imagine that there was no particular reason for Madam Ho to announce her retirement. So, why would Madam Ho need to leave?

Well, one can argue that she had been head of Temasek Holdings for 19-years and she’s argued that she felt that it was time to bring in the next generation of leaders at our national holding company.

However, this is not the first time that Madam Ho made her stepping down a public issue. In 2009, there was much fanfare about how she was going to step aside and hand over the reins to Mr. Chip Goodyear, an American businessman. However, despite spending the better part of 2009 as CEO-Designate, 2009 ended with the announcement that Mr. Goodyear would not be taking on the CEO job due to a difference in strategic vision with the board. Madam Ho continued in the top job.

So, one might be inclined to ask why is Madam Ho stepping down now and will she really step down and not extend her stay for another decade plus?

The most likely answer is that this stepping down is going to stick and Mr. Sandrasegara will be the new CEO after October. The reason is probably in timing, particularly if you look at when Madam Ho took over the reigns at Temasek Holdings.

Madam Ho, who had been the CEO and President of the Singapore Technologies Group became Executive Director in 2002 and two years later, she assumed the role of CEO. Interestingly enough, in the year when Madam Ho became CEO of Temasek Holdings, there was another change of leadership – this was across the road from Temasek Holding’s office at The Atrium@Orchard on 60B Orchard Road. Singapore found itself with a new Prime Minister, who happened to be none other than Madam Ho’s husband. Was this a coincidence?

Interestingly enough, we’re now aware of who the next Prime Minister will be. While the Prime Minister has announced that he is going to delay handing over the reigns of the country to the fourth generation of leaders (known collectively as the 4G), it is a question of when he retires rather than if he retires in the next few years. Is it a coincidence that his wife has announced her retirement now?  

Friday, February 05, 2021

The “Chinks” Don’t Get It? – Really?

 Say what you like about him but Singapore’s late first Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had a genius for manipulating the Western narrative when it came to all things Chinese. Mr. Lee, the original WOG (Western Oriental Gentleman) started out as “Harry Lee” and had made a point of only wanting to speak English as an Englishman and refused to speak “Singlish” or anything resembling a Chinese dialect. However, he realized that the English educated would never help him get into power and so he taught himself the language of the streets, ensured the name Lee Kuan Yew would be the one the public knew and before you knew if he was “Chinese.” Once in power, he then tried to redefine Chinese culture to his own liking. He kept the public persona of Lee Kuan Yew but went to war on Chinese dialects. It was a mixture of wanting to ensure the Chinese-dialect street agitators would never do to him what they had to done to the colonial government but at the same time wanting to stay Chinese enough to capitalize on a Chinese market should it ever grow.

Singapore’s meteoric rise is well documented and Mr. Lee saw to it that his colleagues went on a process of “leadership renewal,” while he had himself hired as a well-paid consultant in the cabinets of his successors. Mr. Lee, who had shamelessly used Western expertise (particularly that of Dr. Winsemius) and capital to build Singapore, proceeded to promote the Singapore Success story as a success story of Asian Values under a wise Asian ruler. He told his “fellow Asian Leaders” that he had the secret formula for success and at the same time he promoted himself across the Western World as the man who knew Chinese and Asian culture. How successful was he? Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the UK, talked about how she’d ask her friend “Harry Lee of Singapore” about Chinese Culture.

As the so-called premier expert of all things eastern and western, one of Mr. Lee’s greatest lines was to announce that “Democracy was incompatible with Chinese culture.” The motivations behind this message were obvious. To his Western Audience, it was the message that they could pump capital in Asia and not worry about what the common folk felt because they’d follow their leaders. To the Asian audience, there was a message to follow the leadership and prosperity would follow.

It’s tough to argue against Mr. Lee because he was right in so many ways. Singapore remains a fairly pleasant place or at least pleasant enough for you to get looks of “what the heck are you complaining about,” from your American and European friends and the Asian countries that prospered like Taiwan and South Korea also did so under strong authoritarian rule. Then, there’s the giant story of China, which has gone from a backwater in the 70s to a world power set to change the nature of geopolitics and remains under one party rule. Mr. Lee has been described as probably the best nation builder by non-other than Charlie Munger, the number two man of Berkshire Hathaway.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbU6vaEiohY    

 


While it’s hard to argue with Mr. Lee and his track record, he was, however, not perfect. As a Singaporean who grew up with Mr. Lee in the 80s, it was clear that while Mr. Lee set high standards for many things, age somehow mellowed Mr. Lee into being, how do you say – a bit more flexible. The Prime Minister who said he always sacked and replaced the chief when things went wrong, actually started berating the public when members of the public were not pleased with the Minister in charge of security when a terrorist was allowed to limp out of a highly secured facility.

Mr. Lee’s flexibility in the high standards and good planning were particularly visible in the area of Chinese culture and democracy. As the proclaimed “father of the nation,” Mr. Lee stressed that it was a Singaporean Singapore rather than a Chinese Singapore. He also threw his weight behind a pledge to “build a democratic society based on justice and equality.” However, once he got himself his consulting position, he felt that Chinese culture and democracy were somehow incompatible.

Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. If you look at the other two places outside Mainland China, namely Hong Kong and Taiwan, things like democracy and individual liberties are taken very seriously. In the last two years Hong Kong, which is Chinese sovereign territory (Despite one country two systems, it is clear that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive reports to China’s President), you’ve seen things like the Umbrella Movement, where ordinary people have taken to the streets in protest against draconian surveillance laws. In Taiwan, which claims to be China (Taiwan’s position is that it is the government of China in exile in Taiwan, whereas China claims that Taiwan is a renegade province) is famous for legislators who are so passionate that they end up brawling.

Needless to say, Singapore gets rather smug when scenes of the mess in Hong Kong and Taiwan get shown on TV. Our calm and clean little pond compares well with their rather less calm and clean places. It’s especially true with Hong Kong, which is Singapore’s largest rival for banking business. Our private banking sector has been particularly blessed as the wealthy take their money out Hong Kong and park it in Singapore.

However, this smugness fails to take into account two key factors. The first is geopolitics. Singapore is an independent and sovereign nation. Our immediate neighbors are Malaysia and Indonesia. While there was “Konfrantassi” in our early years, Singapore has had a relatively peaceful relationship with its immediate neighbours in the last 40-years. Malaysia and Indonesia are unable to make laws for Singapore nor can they bar other countries from recognizing the existence of Singapore.

Taiwan and Hong Kong by contrast have a different relationship with their big neighbor – China. Hong Kong was a Crown Colony and then it became a “special administrative” region of the People’s Republic. In theory Hong Kong is allowed to operate under its own set of rules and only leaves defense and foreign policy of Beijing. In theory, the Chinese government has signed a treaty agreeing to leave Hong Kong alone under a system of “One Country-Two-Systems.”

Practice is a different story. Much as Hong Kong readers will protest it – the fact remains “ONE COUNTRY two systems.” Hong Kong is China and its very reason for existence is China. People go to Hong Kong to get into China and while the Chinese government has refrained from sending tanks into Hong Kong the way it sent them into Tiananmen Square, its capable of doing its part to see that the investors head for Shanghai, which is China-China – or One Country: One System.

There’s a different twist with Taiwan. Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is not a part of China. For many years, Taiwan under the Kuomingtang (KMT) claimed to be the rightful government of China which was in exile in Taiwan, whereas the Communist Party (CCP) claimed that Taiwan was a renegade province of China. While Taiwan is to all intents and purposes a sovereign nation, it is not recognized as one. While Taiwan has plenty of money, China freezes out Taiwan from just about every recognizable international body. The rules of geopolitics are simple – size matters. While Taiwan is democratic and has plenty of money, nobody is going to get on the wrong side of a billion consumers. Even pro-independence Taiwanese politicians tread carefully to avoid unnecessary conflict with China.

So, comparing Singapore with Hong Kong and Taiwan is an “Apple-versus-Oranges” comparison. Singapore has a certain amount of control over its economic and political destiny in the same way that Taiwan and Hong Kong do not.

The second point that one should take note off is that despite the relative difficulties that Hong Kong and Taiwan face when compared to Singapore, neither appear to be rushing towards a Singapore style of “Daddy knows it All” government. Taiwan in particular takes pride in its democratic system of government:

https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4118874

 

Many years ago, the Economist stated that if you looked at East Asia with ethnographic lenses, you’d notice that outside of Japan and South Korea, the countries that have done best are primarily Chinese. Of the Chinese majority countries, Hong Kong put everything into overpriced real estate, Singapore put everything into government, China put it into the party apparatus. Taiwan by contrast had entrepreneurship. Think of the semiconductor industry, which had a heavy presence of Taiwanese entrepreneurs. Is there a link between democracy and value-creating entrepreneurship and is it sustainable: Well, it appears that Taiwan has done respectively well given that its not even a recognised nation?

https://www.dbs.com/aics/templatedata/article/generic/data/en/GR/112019/191101_insights_taiwan_hongkong.xml#:~:text=With%20growth%20averaging%202.4%25%20in,years%20from%202015%20to%202018.

 

Democracy and individual liberties are not bad for business and Chinese culture has shown that it is not against business. Chinese people steeped in Chinese culture have also shown that they treasure individual liberties and democratic process as much as other people who have experienced democracy and the protection of individual liberties. This is something that non-Chinese people should remember whenever they talk about how Chinese culture is incompatible with democracy. 

© BeautifullyIncoherent
Maira Gall