Administrators should never be mistaken for leaders

By Anonymous

As a government scholar, I feel it is important that I echo my thoughts on this.

I attended the Integrated Programme at HCI, and proceeded on an SAF scholarship to read PPE at the University of Oxford. I then completed an MPhil in Economics at the University of Cambridge.

Scholars in Singapore are chosen at a very young age. I would hesitate to say that A-level performance is correlated with how competent you will be as a person because as many people who have went through the process know very well, you can do pretty well if you were born to a good family.

From the age of 7 through when I graduated from Hwa Chong Junior College, I was waited on hand and foot by at least 4 different tutors every week, usually in more than 4 separate two-hour sessions. In JC, I averaged one two-hour session a day, which cost an average of around $80 per hour. If you run the numbers, that’s $1120 a week, $4480 a month, and $53,760 a year. A lot of Singaporean households do not even earn $50,000 a year to be spent on tutors alone.

Because I was under such strict supervision, at no point in my pre-university academic journey have I felt that I lagged behind. In fact, I have perpetually felt that I was very much ahead of my peers. This is the privilege I was awarded for having tiger parents, and as such, I suffer from one disadvantage that many scholars will never admit to because of their inferiority complex—I cannot deal with situations in which parameters are not explicit. In other words, I panic when it comes to dealing with atypical problems.

The Singapore government scholarships reward pre-adults in Singapore who have been able to be very consistent at achieving their annual KPIs. There are benefits to identifying those who can perform well in clearly specified tasks, which are what academic examinations are, the main of which is you get good workers.

The methodology of academic testing is simple—you attend school for a period of time to learn a particular set of topics based on an explicitly described set of syllabi. The examinations at the end of the term check that you have made consistent progress in understanding the material. There might be a few trick questions which would require some level of creativity, but while these questions take you outside the box, you are still pressed right up against it. This is the same for all aspects of school-based achievements, such as CCAs, competitions, community service, etc. The very best students in Singapore are basically very good at checking off items on a list.

Public administration is mostly about carrying out government services in a way that ensures the least disruption to the livelihoods of the people you serve. i.e Trains should not fail, passports should be issued promptly, roads should be maintained, trees trimmed, etc. When you deputize people who have been able to perform tasks with well-defined parameters to complete tasks with well-defined parameters, they do well. This should be the intent of government scholarships—to identify these people such that they minimize the frustrations of the public with regards to public infrastructure and services.

What should not be the intent of government scholarships is to be of the impression that these scholars have what it takes to perform adequately as leaders in any organization. This is a flawed impression that is only getting worse from generation to generation because of the elitism that we have fostered in the civil service. The idea that scholars are the cream of the crop of every imaginable domain is poisonous, and symptoms of this hubris have started to manifest in the PAP over the past few years of leadership transition. We now have textbook teacher’s pets occupying ministerial positions; I know one when I see one because I am one. Trust me, you don’t want them as your leaders.

Who then should lead?

Lee Kuan Yew, while a remarkable student in his own right, had other qualities that made him a great leader. The qualities that made him a great student were not always the qualities that made him a great leader. I stand firm on this position.

Great leaders are resilient. They are able to think of solutions to problems with an overabundance of unknown parameters. They are able to perform well in the most complex and messy of situations; not because they can do no wrong, but because they have the gumption to get it right, even at the end of many wrongs. Make no mistake, the one thing that defines a great leader is failure; not success. And I think we, in Singapore, chronically get this upside down.

Our merry band of scholars and 4th-generation leaders may be of the impression that they share the spirit of that which underpinned the transformation of our country; but the reality is none of them have faced rock bottom in their lives. Sure, they may have botched a smattering of projects, but this is nothing compared to when your life is literally falling apart and you have to muster strength and grace in those situations in order to turn things around.

Why do top American schools produce so many inventive thinkers compared to top schools in other countries? Why have the founders of companies whose products have revolutionized the way we live, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, IBM, Microsoft, Uber, Google, Amazon, all been from top American universities? If you attribute it to the quality of education at these universities, you will be wrong. There’s nothing intrinsically superior about the education received at Harvard or Columbia compared to the education you receive at NTU or NUS. You attend lectures and take exams just the same at Harvard as you would at NUS. The difference is (and always has been) the ability of top Ivy League universities at identifying leaders of tomorrow.

Contrary to how most universities that we are accustomed to choose their students, American universities have a very different guideline. They are interested in who you are as a person, rather than just your test scores. They appreciate those who take bold risks, those who do things differently, those who overcome adversities, those who are street-smart, those who see the world for what you can do; rather than what you can’t.

In Singapore, we glorify the student who gets 9 distinctions at A-levels, and we ignore the athlete who competes every year but wins nothing. We award scholarships to those with a perfect record, but the student who achieves a 2:2 degree while battling cancer is a mere footnote.

We have talent in Singapore. We have people who have done amazing things with their lives, people have gone through incredible journeys, people who have learnt far more about this world than that which can be put from pen to paper for a letter grade. We keep telling ourselves that we need more talent, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves, what is talent?

Do we stop giving out scholarships then?

No, we will always need public administrators. But we should start by acknowledging that public administrators are administrators, first and foremost. They have been administrators from the start and you are not going to find a Steve Jobs in Ng Wai Teck from Raffles Junior College. Give them a task and they will do it well, but in nation-building, it is easier to do the actual “building” than to think of “what to build.”

We have a lot builders in the country, now what we need are architects.

We, as a society, need to learn to harness the energy of the many Steve Jobs that we have collectively decided to be talent-free. In the next 50 years, we are going to have to deal with a lot of problems in our country that cannot be solved merely by a team of yes-men. We could do that before because we have just been meeting the basic requirements of life. Scholars are good with meeting requirements.

Our “leadership” love to make sweeping statements that we do not have enough talent and creativity in this country; which is why we need to bring them in from abroad. I have nothing against talent from abroad. They make us stronger. But perhaps we have to ask ourselves the fundamental question—how are we suppose to find talent if we do not provide incentives for talent to manifest?

Leaders do not have to know how to do everything. They just have to know who can. For that, you do not need someone who has all A’s, you need something that is far more precious—imagination.

We now have new needs that will continue to be unmet if we keep on thinking that old formulae will keep being applicable. If we insist on having builders to do the job of an architect, all we will get will be square houses. Functional, but of little value. It is not easy to separate the leaders from the best workers, but we have to start somewhere; and we can start by rewarding those who have overcome repeated bouts of absolute failure, rather than those who have had it together since day one.

As a scholar, I acknowledge my weaknesses. It is the very existence of these weaknesses that make me a good student. I do not challenge the norm, I am detail-oriented to a genuine fault, I do what is required, I will go the extra mile to get the extra points. These make me a very good worker. But as a result, I chronically miss the bigger picture. Do I deserve to be fast-tracked in the public sector when I actually perform best when doing tasks at lower-levels? I don’t think so.

Many of our civil service leaders with pristine, unblemished scholar backgrounds would be far more valuable to this country if they were workers. By that I mean, if they were led, rather than if they are forced to lead. I say that categorically. Put them in a management position and they become flustered, and they often start raising their voices, or pulling rank. I have seen too many of them in the civil service.

A good leader never becomes flustered or nervous regardless of how much unexpected and downright stupid problems exist in a project. In fact, they love when things turn completely on their heads. Do we have such people in our political leadership? Maybe. But based on the many parliamentary sessions I have watched over the years, most of them do not have a modicum of the composure that top leaders in the private sector whom I have worked with exhibit. Many (I would even say most) of the best leaders in the private sector whom I’ve become acquainted with were middling students in school.

One person who definitely has the composure to be an excellent leader is Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

We need to change our system and we need to change it now. We need send the message to parents that says, “look, you can keep sending your children to tuition but he’s not going to get a scholarship; but you know what, let him build that app he’s been talking about. Get us a prototype and we will fund it.”

Once we start rewarding our kids for who they are, not what they know, we can build a country that all of us are proud of. When you create a macrocosm of the classroom where you make the teacher’s pet class monitor, you make people hate him more. Where there is hate, there is conflict; where there is conflict, there is unrest; and where there is unrest, people are going to get hurt.

This first appeared as a post on Quora. Do join in the discussion over there if you have thoughts to share.


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