On values with Raymond Lee

A memorable conversation with an inflight manager (IFS) on a recent flight. I enjoy chatting with the crew of airlines when I travel, and especially Singapore Airlines (the crew make up for where their company fails). I had taken notice of Raymond Lee, the assistant inflight manager as soon as I took my seat. He came around to greet me, and we exchanged pleasantries. The moment he told me that his name was “Raymond”, and with such genuine warmth and with a huge smile across his face, I immediately guessed that he was a “Peranakan” (Straits born Chinese, a culture).

After he greeted me, I watched from my seat at the back of the cabin (I always like the last row so I can watch everyone and not be watched) as he walked around and greeted each one of the business class passengers, in what was an almost full flight, one by one with such personal charm that I was even more sure that he was such a hardcore Peranakan, that he probably lived in the east coast of Singapore, where the Katong area is also known as the Peranakan heartland.

One of the “train spotting” past times of a frequent traveller is to be able to profile people quickly. Raymond was a very Peranakan name, and the genuine multicultural hospitality was a signature of Peranakan men. So, when he came across the second time to my seat, I asked him and he broke into his smile again and said he lived in a place which placed him firmly in the east coast of Singapore. He then clarified, “I don’t know if I am Peranakan, I know I am Teochew but we do speak Malay and Chinese dialects at home and my wife is definitely Peranakan.”

He then opened up to me and shared that his multi-tiered family was very different from many small families in Singapore. Food was at the center of everything they did, and that his mother and other members of his jovial family loved entertaining guests with no concept of how much it cost them. He said that his three children were spoilt for so much good food at home that they rarely ventured to eat outside, and that even when they did, “they are such food critics, that I have to remind them that there are many people who don’t have enough food to eat.”

He came around again and continued our conversation after the plane was airborne, and he told me how he was training his three children to hold their own in a very conformist society that Singapore is. He told them that it was not important that they scored “As” in their studies as long as they enjoyed what they were studying. I told him that the students who did well later in life were very rarely the straight A students, and that even in my own cohort of university graduates there are those who stopped learning new things right after they left school and those who continued to learn well into their old age.

He then related an incident where he had to visit the principal of his child’s school to scold the class teacher for overburdening homework that the child was not able to cope with. “You are not interested in my daughter and whether she enjoys her lessons, you are more interested in meeting your own KPIs (key performance indicators),” he quite clearly knew what he was dealing with, after which the school did take recovery measures.

On the surface, Raymond gives the impression of a jovial and convivial man, and yet lurking just under the skin was a serious father who is teaching his kids deep life transforming and character building lessons that will equip them for adulthood in a way that I have seen few others match.

At the same time, he worried about occasions it appeared to him that his kids slacked in their work or household duties, and calibrated aloud how much was enough of anything. I told him that I thought that he was already doing an amazing job, and that kids learn from what their parents do, not what their parents say. I (who have no kids of my own) offered that he should see himself as a coach who is preparing his kids for the long distance run that is life.

From my own cohort in life, I have seen how some of my own peers peaked when they were 19 with all the “A’s”, others peaked when they were 28 as top salesmen in their first jobs, others peaked in their early 40s as they become senior managers in complex organisations and yet others peak in their 50s when they take on roles as leaders with wisdom and vision.

I also noticed that few are able to peak a second time and that it was very important to keep faith with ourselves and run the race at our respective pace so that we enjoy the journey rather than the desire to peak all the time. I thought that Raymond was himself peaking as a father to three precocious kids, even if he was just a crew on a flight from nowhere to nowhere.

He lamented that it was so difficult to teach his kids to be themselves when teachers shafted down “model answers” to memorize and ace examinations and then hate everything learnt afterwards. I thought that actually, it was exactly this peer-pressure, hothousing nature about Singapore that set it up as the best training ground for his kids to stand out, precisely because they will pay a price for being themselves.

If Singapore was any more laid back and accepting of individuals, then the character building price of the process will not kick in. I am so sure that when the time comes, it will be his kids, well fed, well loved, taught to enjoy every station in life for what it is and to never look over their shoulders, who will not be found wanting when the moment requires, and this training, from a man who did not go to university himself.

When I later told one of the stewardesses that I had a memorable conversation with Raymond, she confirmed that the crew also enjoyed working with him. She then revealed to me that as the brunch meal service on the flight was scheduled to be served later, too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, Raymond had instructed them to check with each passenger if they could wait a while or liked to have their meals served earlier.

This is not something that even the unions would allow the crew to do, but it is that little touch that makes the huge difference to the customer experience that the customers themselves would not be aware of that day. I thought I met a giant of a man on that flight, and he wasn't anyone we thought we knew.


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