Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Singapore’s Pioneer Generation, work ethics and accountability

How soon will the phrase 'Pioneer Generation' join Singapore's popular lexicon? The answer may reflect upon the values held by Singapore's younger generation. The 'Pioneer Generation' phrase was aptly used by Prime Minister Lee to describe the generation of senior Singaporeans' responsible for propelling Singapore into the developed world's ranks in one generation.

Undoubtedly, Singapore owes a great debt to those who built Singapore into the prosperous city-state of today. The debt becomes greater if one remembers the realities of life during the 1960 – 1980s.

Jobs were not as plentiful – perhaps not plentiful at all; no Medishield program to pay for medical expenses; public transportation was in its infancy: the subway system was inaugurated as recently as 1987. That too with a single train line between Toa Payoh and Yio Chu Kang. Education was about learning survival skills – not a means to actualize creative potential in 'abstract' artistic or creative fields. The transition from kampong attap huts to Housing Development Board (HDB) flats – with all its associated implications for piped water, sanitation, etc. - only began in earnest in the late 1960s.

A glimpse of traditional 'kampong' or village life of yesteryears
Today, in 2013, the quality of public infrastructure is world class. Singaporeans' need not be quite as anxious about basic necessities such as housing, medical care and education. Worries have shifted to questions about quantum of disposable income (how to pay for the next vacation, latest phone, new car, etc.); getting one's child into a secondary school of choice; or the desire to maintain a better work-life balance ... and so on.

I am a newcomer to Singapore. I did not witness the transformation of marshy swamplands into concrete towers leave alone the shift from kampongs to community centers. However, I get the impression the urban landscape is not the only characteristic which has changed in the city-state.

Many Singaporeans' have lost the all-pervasive sense of ownership and accountability held so deeply by the Pioneer Generation. If something needed to happen, the community got together and did it – with the encouragement of local community leaders. The reflex action was not to complain and subsequently expect the government to address the problem by throwing taxpayer money at it.

The changes appear to have permeated the political elite too.

Sure, members of parliament are available to constituents at regular 'meet the people' sessions. However, the 'real' connection between the political elite and the population has weakened. A leadership living in landed properties or condominiums driving expensive cars to work is less able to relate to a population still overwhelmingly living in public housing and using public transport to commute to work. (Something reflected by the SMRT CEO's comments a few years ago about people having a choice to board trains?)

Additionally, many public servants (bureaucrats) seem content to keep their 'iron rice bowl' secure at the expense of delivering quality public services. The incessant 'outsourcing' of tasks to foreign workers, often supervised by more 'skilled' foreign workers, means accountability and quality of work suffers. Perhaps the 'non-Pioneer Generation' is more interested in sitting in an air conditioned office and less inclined to pull up their sleeves and make things happen?

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Singapore’s NDP and the limits to integrating foreigners

Singapore's annual National Day Parade (NDP) is a unique event. The NDP contains enough songs and pageantry to make even the hardest heart melt. Failing the songs and skits, demonstrations of brute military strength and prowess by the Home Team will evoke pride in any armchair general. Though most of all, it is the nostalgia of a Singapore long gone which appears to bind together local hearts and minds – particularly when described through the local Singlish 'dialect.'

All that and more ... but only for 'genuine' Singaporeans.

Yes, I am a Singaporean. Not only did I attend NDP 2013, I also enjoyed it ... to an extent.

A photo taken at Singapore's National Day Parade in 1968
Sure, I could answer most of the NDP's 'pop quiz' questions relating to Singapore's history. Who designed City Hall? What is the oldest building standing in Singapore? In fact, dare I say it, I probably know at least as much about Singapore's history as most of the 27,000 other NDP attendees seated at the Marina Bay Float. (Not surprising, as I regularly relate the 'Singapore Story' to visitors to the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) in my capacity as an NMS volunteer guide.)

Still, something was missing at the NDP.

It starts with the Singlish. I admit I don't speak Singlish. So many humorous references in the NDP skits left me scratching my head. Secondly, my theoretical or factual knowledge about Singapore cannot replace the experiential familiarity 'born and bred' Singaporeans have gained over a lifetime of living – despite my having lived in our fine city for almost fifteen years.

So, yes, 'true-blue' Singaporeans you are right: first generation foreigners cannot completely immerse themselves in Singaporean culture (however we define the city's culture). I will never relate to Kuehs, Ice Kacang, Laksa or the many other 'Singaporean' things the way you do. It's an honest to goodness fact. No denying it.

However, that simply brings me to the point where most Singaporeans' historically started the 'Singaporean Journey.' That is, as foreigners arriving in Singapore aspiring for a better life and to support families back home.

Over time, 'back home' became a slowly fading memory as roots were sunk on this island. With each passing generation, it became clearer that no person actually intended to return to the 'homeland,' ever. Be that China, India, other islands in the Malay Archipelago, or, as in my case, Pakistan.

Result: the birth of the second or third generation (or more) Singaporean – the so called 'true blue' Singaporean.

I am a Singaporean too - a Pakistani-Singaporean (or a Singaporean-Pakistani if you prefer). Asking me to shed my 'Pakistaniness' is like asking a Singaporean to shed her 'Singaporeanness.'

Can a Singaporean give up Singlish, laksa, roti pratas, and all else 'Singaporean' simply because they migrate to Australia? Unlikely.  So please don't ask me to achieve the impossible.

I cannot be exactly like you. Nor do I aim to be exactly like you. We do not share the same history, though we certainly share many similar values.  

Leave the 'real' integration for the next generation. Until then, please humor me and respect my history.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com