On “diversity” in a “post-meritocratic” world

[9600 words. Best printed out or read in sections]

In the past year, a dear friend of mine, not a Singaporean, but deeply involved in a movement to see more women in corporate boards in Singapore, tried to enlist my involvement in this movement. I avoided her on this topic for more than a year. Then when she finally caught up with me and sat me down to a long conversation, I revealed to her that I avoided her not because I did not think the topic of “gender diversity” in Singapore Inc boards was not important, but that if we were to push the agenda further, Singapore has a much more urgent and deep-rooted difficulty in dealing with “people diversity” in a broader sense.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think that gender diversity is very important for Singapore corporate world. I always thought that the Singapore Institute of Directors, made up as it is, by a bunch of old, charming, retiring but very clannish Chinese gentlemen, is reflective of where the Singapore corporate world is at the moment. The core male, Chinese Singaporean chauvinism is smug about a world that works just fine for them and they do not think it is necessary to change anything despite all the signs around them.

I also told my foreign friend that the fastest way to get gender diversity going in corporate Singapore is to get it going in the top echelons of government, because it is the most visible of institutions and sets the pace. When I pointed out to her that the painful way in which women were being inducted into becoming full ministers in government sends the message that there is something wrong with women that they need to be inducted with great suspicion and complexity when there is no need for either. She told me that the government people her association has been speaking to have been very supportive of their movement, but told them that this was a very sensitive matter. Since she was not Singaporean, I asked her why then did she bother with the matter at all, as it was something that Singaporeans needed to deal with for themselves.

Apparently, there are “generational changes” underway to include more women in the government ministerial cabinet, and that we should give them time to bring these changes into being. But in a world where any number of Singapore’s neighbours have had women presidents, prime ministers, chief justices, central bank governors, corporate CEOs and why, even female national role models, Singapore looks archaic, without a reasonable excuse for treating this as a complicated matter.

I thought that the initiative by Lee Hsien Yang, the former CEO of Singapore Telecom, to tap on a woman to be his successor, was such a ground breaking thing to do that it should have opened the way for more women CEOs and women in Singaporean boards. The ground did not shake after Chua Sook Koon was appointed CEO of Singapore Telecoms, one of the largest corporations on the local stock exchange, and she is doing her job just absolutely fine. She even takes the trouble to be well coiffured, unlike the CEOs of some of the other government linked companies who could do with some basic grooming.

I think its own “diversity”, in all its iterations – gender, racial, social – is a very powerful communal asset that Singapore has not come anywhere close to coming to terms with. This is a country where its people have been taught to stop thinking beyond that invisible line called “racial harmony,” for fear of engendering racial discord and getting that proverbial midnight-knock-on-the-door from the police.

But this is also the line that has been protecting the quiet chauvinists in Singapore’s corporate world, for not being held accountable on why the corporate leadership is in no way reflective of the social fibre of the country. Because the quiet chauvinists have had their way, there is an entire generation of young Singaporeans who think there is nothing wrong with the status quo.

Not crossing the line to ask some hard questions has also festered seething problems that have been growing and can one day become difficult to deal with. I sincerely believe that some of the racist outbursts that we have been seeing recently on the Internet from otherwise perfectly reasonable young people are actually a cry for help to understand the mixed messages we are presenting them with. On the one hand we are saying to them that they should respect Singaporeans of other races and religions. On the other hand, they meet more foreigners than they do their own different countrymen.

The adults do not like these rude messages that the young people are sending them through the Internet graffiti. The adults are even in denial. “This cannot be happening to our society. We are committed to a multi-ethnic society. We put in jail people who say we are not”, even if what they have perfected is a social eco-system that is capable of categorically excluding people they are not comfortable with. A few years ago, the local English language national newspaper, reporting on the “National Racial Harmony Day” celebrated in schools, published a photograph of three Chinese kids dressed in Chinese, Indian and Malay national costumes. I wrote a short letter to the editor, asking if they saw anything amiss in that photograph – that all three kids were Chinese. I did not receive a reply and neither was the letter published.

Several recent notable old timers visiting Raffles Institution, a premier school in Singapore, have said as much – they wished the elite schools in this country were more representative of the racial plurality that gave them their character in the first place. Strangely enough the newspapers quoted these old-timers, but did not give enough attention to figure out why this was the case.

The contradictions that adults find only too easy to quietly pretend does not exist are exactly the ones that the young pick up and in their low moments, find the most vulgar way to show them up. We ignore these graffiti and the sensitivity of the young to our own peril, not theirs, not even after we have triumphantly extracted an apology from them to say that the world is as we said it was.

So, it is time to cross the line.  Crossing the line means asking some simple but obvious questions that has been limiting Singapore from using its full diversity to operate in an increasingly complicated world. Questions like, “why do we not have almost any Singaporean Malays in Singapore Inc boards today?” or “why are Singapore corporate boards the sole preserve of ethnic Chinese managers and a sprinkling of Western board members” or “is it really true that only Chinese students qualify for the President’s Scholarship?” They are terrible questions, but they must be asked and answered honestly and constructively if we are to start drawing from the richness of Singapore’s heritage.

The incremental value of diversity

Why is all this important? Because given the sophisticated economy that Singapore wants to build, it is in a powerful position to start first with the assets of its own people and its own history. When the world speaks of “India and China” in one sentence today, hey presto, Singapore has both Indian and Chinese elements in its society and it is familiar with both cultures more deeply than anyone else on this planet. When Singapore wanted to capture a slice of the “Islamic finance” industry, hey presto, Singapore has Islamic elements in its society that visiting Islamic scholars can feel familiar with. These are already credible characterisations of Singapore. Singapore does not need to go back to a lower starting point to benefit from these global realities.

Unfortunately, there were actual moments in this country’s history when the ethnic diversity of Singapore was treated as a nuisance, when the sentiment was that Singapore could have moved faster as an economy if it were more homogeneous, like the Japanese and the Koreans. The thinking at that time, in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, was that homogeneity was an asset to build a country quickly. Today, Japan looks like a really sad excuse for homogeneity, and Korea pretends that it is not. One day, Singapore will be totally ashamed that it even thought that way at some point in its history.

The most compelling reason for the mainstream Singaporean Chinese dominated corporate boards to embrace the country’s own diversity is that the incremental addition to the GDP of the country adds up in real and sustainable ways. When I want to graphically demonstrate what a highly mobilised Malay Singaporean populace in the corporate world could mean to Singapore in economic terms, I just compare the Singapore passport and the Malaysian passport.

The types and number of countries that require visas for a Singaporean passport vis-a-vis a Malaysian passport is interesting to study. Singaporeans of course will be proud of the fact that Singaporeans are given preferential treatment for visa free entry into some OECD countries – particularly the US. What many Singaporeans do not understand is that there is a price that Singapore pays for its pro-US orientation, because it has limited Singapore’s ability to relate more freely with a wider cross section of other interesting developing countries.

While Malaysia has had recent problems with countries like Canada because of its own Chinese population seeking employment illegally (a different but real Malaysian problem), there is a string of relatively major or strategic developing countries for which Malaysians do not need a visa but Singaporeans do – Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Brazil, Cuba, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and North Korea, amongst others. The name list may look uninteresting to a corporate executive accustomed to a US oriented business world, but some of these are very strategic countries in their parts of the world and some of these are the very countries that are going to be generating 5-10% per annum growth in their GDPs per instead of 0-2%. On the Asia Pacific front, their membership to the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) regional grouping puts both countries on an equal footing, as the APEC Card streamlines visa free access to all member states.

The reason for this is not because Malaysia is Muslim, but because the major Malaysian corporations such as its oil company, Petronas, its commodities heavy blue chip corporations like Sime Darby and a string of entrepreneurs in the manufacturing, construction and logistics industries, have been really adept at building business relationships in the developing world.

Building relationships with developing countries is different from with the OECD ones. They are smaller, but much more multi-faceted, centred around import-export, playing the roles of transfer hubs for south-to-south trade, capital, commodities and people flows. Nothing that would show up on Singapore’s pillar industries, but they add up incrementally and reinforce Singapore’s own hub status. The real work for the Port of Singapore, for example, is in defending its own hub status, especially to the parts of the world that could live with a Port Klang or Colombo, because everything adds up in a competitive world.

The fact that some Singaporean Chinese professionals, particularly architects and property developers, already get called to participate in infrastructure projects in the Middle East and Africa. These opportunities would be further enhanced if there were more ethnic Malay architects and executives in the property world that go out to these places.

If we asked the right questions, for example, why are there no Singaporean Malay equivalent of the ethnic Indian-owned commodities giant, Olam International, the answers will not be straight forward but still instructive. The people who developed Olam surely did not sit around waiting for a government to start them going. A visit to Arab street merchants will show that there are Malay businesses that resembles Olam in a fractured sort of way. Their problem is their inability to scale. Mobilising the Singaporean Malay in industries that are natural to them and that they can scale to international standards is an agenda worth pursing today, not tomorrow or 10 years down the road when other complications arise.

The Malay people in today’s world are light years away from the real qualities of the Malay people as they existed in the global stage centuries ago. We forget that the reason Southeast Asia is such a cosmopolitan stage, despite being in an inaccessible corner of the world, is precisely because of the Malay people’s ability to welcome and absorb foreign cultures. From more than 2000 years ago, they have absorbed Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and even this will change in the future. This is not a Chinese Singaporean trait, this is an ancient Malay trait, that all of us in Southeast Asia are beneficiaries of.

Despite obvious limitations, the Chinese Singaporean is already so much more cosmopolitan than his Chinese counterparts from China and Hong Kong and Taiwan. His food preferences includes prata, nasi lemak, otak as much as noodles and dumplings. When he meets an Indian or any other ethnic group, he can go back into his memory and recollect encounters with an Indian school teacher or a Malay policeman from his childhood to be able to relate to other people. Chinese from other countries would start from a basis of suspicion. By the time Thailand and Hong Kong finally wised up to building formal government-to-government business relationships with India and the Middle East, Singapore was already there at least 10 years ahead of them.

From the peripheral into the mainstream

We need to get past the mental block in Singapore’s corporate world that the Malays are not “good enough” (whatever that means), because when you look across the border into Malaysia or Indonesia, and see a whole list of leaders of Malay extractions – Javanese, Bataks and Sudanese, both men and women, who hold their own in corporate settings in a global economy. In Malaysia, the governor of the central bank, Dato Zeti, the chief executive of the Securities Commission, Dato Zarinah, the CEO of Malaysia’s Central Provident Fund who has run a bank before, Dato Azlan Zainol. In Indonesia, the chairman of Bank Central Asia, Djohan Setioso, the governor of the city of Jakarta, Fawzi Bowo, both outstanding individuals. I purposefully picked names of people who stand out on the basis of merit, having gone to world class universities and are recognised by their peers internationally, and not merely on the basis of the affirmative action programmes. You realise people like these exist inside the Singaporean woodwork.

In fact, Singapore is not unaware of this class of professionals in its neighbouring countries. Very recently, Singapore’s Sembcorp Marine, a very prominent state-owned Singaporean company appointed the globally respected former CEO of Malaysia’s oil giant Petronas, Mohd Hassan Marican, as an independent director on its own board. He was invited not because he was Malay but because he was bloody accomplished globally. But between a Hassan Marican and the next Singaporean Malay to gain a similar role within corporate Singapore, we are staring down a wide chasm that must be closed actively, and not just tolerated.

The point is that there is a world beyond meritocracy, where the rallying call is “inclusiveness.” It is a world where the more successful segments of the population is able to say, “we will not move forward as a society unless we are able to carry all our people with us.” Singapore is nowhere near in capitalising on and, yes, profiting, from its own diversity.

The answer to the questions I am raising is a multi-faceted one, and requires careful study to be accurate. Singapore does have a growing number of Malays who do go to good international schools, but who come back and quietly and work instead in the lower rungs of government or run businesses that are very successful within their own communities. It is possible to be very rich and successful in pockets of society that are not served by the mainstream, whether it is Malay or Indian or Italian or Russian in Singapore. The people who excel in these segments don’t see the need to climb up a Chinese defined mainstream corporate world and be regarded as second class, when they can be first class within their own community.

There is nothing wrong with this, as long as there is opportunity to create and scale their businesses to become large enough to be visible on the national and international stage. But this is not going to happen as long as the businesses that the Malay Muslim population get involved in are peripheral ones and their own composition of the economy is a small one.

Some of the things that can be done include internationalising Malay owned businesses to create scale, or jump starting active recruitment of capable Malay professionals into the larger national industries where they can excel in a visible manner that is exemplary for other younger Malays to say “I want to be like him” as they did with Fandi Ahmad, one of Singapore’s more prominent soccer stars in the past.

The success of Fandi Ahmad showed that Singaporean Chinese are not inherently dismissive of their fellow multi-ethnic citizens. There are other very encouraging examples – such as during the first season of the “Singapore Idol” competition (the Singapore iteration of American Idol) where an outstanding Malay singer was recognised as the winner despite the fact that the record label companies would have very much liked to see a Chinese winner who would have sold more records.

Transposed to the corporate world, it is not right to say that there is an inherent bias against a Malay Singaporean in a board. But he has to be so good and so outstanding in a way that so many of the Singaporean Chinese in them today are themselves not, that we are faced with a situation of void ab initio. It also shows that there has to be two sides to the equation – the availability of opportunity and the willingness to take it. So, it is a complex issue that will make this essay longer than it already is.

As for the Indian Singaporean, there is something I notice in the annual line-up of various entrepreneurs of the year awards in Singapore. Year after year, the ethnic Chinese Singaporean winners who make the majority of shortlisted people for these awards, come mainly from businesses around food and manufacturing – industries that need heavy capital and cash flow support. The few Indian Singaporeans (few, but whose numbers are an over-representation of their percentage of the local population) who win come from businesses like logistics, transportation and delivery services – businesses that can be built from the ground up with little or no capital. Remove from the list the Indians who are more recent arrivals into Singapore from countries like India and the US, who are in businesses like technology, because these are not people who are local to Singapore, and they have solved the problem of access to capital.

Taking into account the fact that some of these Indian Singaporeans come from really poor families, and from a culture that in the past was that of indentured labourers that the British brought into Singapore 200 years ago, they are truly amazing entrepreneurs, building something almost out of their wits. Chinese culture as it operates within Singapore as residuals of the tight family knit economies of the South China, has built within itself the ability to raise capital – from family, friends, from cash flow – in a way that does not exist in the South Indian extracts who find their roots in the labourer classes. Just this fact should accentuate just how much more these highly entrepreneurial Indians could achieve if the ability to generate wealth and access to formal and informal capital from within their own community, is inculcated over time. These are not natural to them.

The defects of “Meritocracy”

So when we see the richness of Singapore’s ethnic diversity in its historical and social context, it begs the question even more emphatically – why aren’t we appreciating each other as we should? Part of the answer lies in the way in which the British taught us to measure and rate each other.

One of the post-colonial legacies left behind by the British was the collective aspiration to education as a source of social mobility. Education was the common and equal starting block for all races in the new nations that were Singapore and Malaysia and many other post-colonial countries. The yardstick by which the capability of an individual for high office and good corporate jobs could be measured, regardless of race.

In the early years, educational performance was the great equalizer, the great level playing field that did not respect social and economic stratifications. So every year, on both sides of the causeway, the governments release the school results that also indicates how the different races do in education. In the beginning years, the data showing the Chinese kids doing well, the Indian kids doing just so and the Malay kids having some catch up to do, would have been a novel way to demonstrate how each of these cultures have been adapting to education as personal improvement platform. But over the years, it does seem to me that these data have come to indicate more of a status quo rather than of any evolving trend.

But 40 years later, year after year, we are still told that the Chinese kids come out tops in Math and Science and just about every subject examinable, and that “Indian and Malay” kids fare worse. Are we still running this exercise year after year actually thinking that these ratios were ever going to change? That one day the Malay kids were going to be the best in Math and Science, outsmarting the Chinese kids?

Curiously, Chinese kids in general do come out tops in Math and Science in almost any country they are in, in California against the white American kids, and in the UK against the local population there. This has been a good thing for Singapore, because the core Chinese Singaporeans ethics and aspirations sets the bar very high in a way that the others have to catch up. But we do have to ask if the measurements actually compare the Chinese, Indian and Malay kids against a common measuring line or simply against the Chinese kids? The truth is that if this were any other country, even a Western one, if one community does consistently better than their own mainstream, they will find every way to change the measuring tape, so as to hide their own inadequacies.

As a baseline indicator, these data are still important and will always serve an important purpose. But now that after nearly 40 years of nationhood, the fact the data describes the status quo has not struck someone in the system that we are actually looking at a profile that needs to be dug deeper to give usable meaning instead of becoming a tool for prejudice.

As an employer myself, I am reminded again and again by my own staff and by friends, that I achieve nothing by telling a “weak” staff year after year that he is bad, unless what I want to achieve is for him to leave my organisation. If I want to keep a staff, I should focus on his or her strengths and not relative weaknesses. I am ashamed to say that there are days when I forget this rule, but I do try my damnest. The same rule applies in society. We need statistics that measures why the different main races are good for this country, not those that only serve to further marginalise some for the advantage of others.

The school examination statistics, like all statistics, is a lie that serves only those for whom it works, and there are a number of factors that demonstrate this lie graphically.

Firstly, with all due respect to my Chinese Singaporean friends who are truly brilliant, and whose friendships I enjoy immensely, Chinese kids do well in school because they are generally more exam smart. Learning the Chinese language also adds the dimension of memory in Chinese kids that gives them a greater head-start to any other kids in the world, including the best of Western kids. Let’s just say that it has not brought the Chinese Singaporean population anywhere nearer to winning a Nobel Prize. In fact, the headline treatment of Chinese kids as doing better than the rest is a recognition of their high average, and says nothing about their propensity for genius (if that is what exam scores are meant to detect), which is based on a completely different scale.

Malay Muslim culture emphasizes other features, such as communalism and family, that perhaps makes them do better in studies or forms of studies that emphasizes these. They are known to be superior to the Chinese Singaporean in the areas of entertainment, hospitality, health care and other vocational professions. These are currently emphasized in vocational training which is treated as second class to the more academic training, but have many attributes that are potential more “game changer skills” in a sophisticated and futuristic economy. But how do we measure them and create patterns of recognition that can track how Malays are excelling in the areas that are natural to them?

Drilling deeper into the examination scores for Indian kids reveals the lie even more emphatically. If you visit the Sri Lankan Indian temple in Ceylon Road in Katong (I think it is called the Sri Senpaga Vinayagar temple), and read the list of donors to the temple’s building fund listed on one of its walls, you will be shocked to see the number of doctors on the list. Such a small community with such a large percentage of doctors in the community. The only other time I have seen such a long list dominated by doctors was a similar list on the walls of a synagogue in Syracuse in New York, dominated as it was by high achieving Jewish immigrants to the US.

If Singapore’s national exam scores were listed as say, Chinese, Malays, Sri Lankan Tamils and Other Indians, I suspect that we might find that the Sri Lankan Tamils would come across as over-achievers in this country. The reason for this is because the Sri Lankan Tamils (or the Jaffna Tamils as they are called from the province they come from) historically came to Singapore, not as indentured labourers like the Tamils from South India did, but as teachers, top civil servants and doctors in the colonial era (not lawyers or union leaders, these were mostly South Indians). Why, even some of the more accomplished Singaporean pianists and musicians will tell you that their first piano teacher was Jaffna Tamil.

So the data for Indian kids is highly polarised – some Indian kids do extremely well, even better than Chinese kids, but because they curiously never get selected for a “Presidents Scholarship” or other visible recognition, they are not on the national radar screen. Others fail miserably, appearing to drag down the community’s averages. When you classify them correctly you realise that even the worst of these have come a very long way from their historical past.

Managing their motivation levels appear to be the real variable for Indians in general – those who are well motivated excel and those who are not, despair, sometimes to the point of becoming alcoholics in their adult lives. So how the national treatment of the educational scores even begins to be helpful is anyone’s guess.

Notwithstanding the distorted picture that the national exams data provides, accentuated by the fact that well deserving minorities are not given national visibility through programmes such as the “President’s Scholarship,” the great redeeming feature built into the national psyche is definitely the government’s own relentless recognition of anyone who has scored an equivalent of a “first class honours” in his or her undergraduate degree.

The Singapore government has been relentless on this front. Anyone with a first class honours degree or even almost there, regardless of whose son or daughter he is, regardless of what ethnic group he or she comes from, is immediately catapulted into high recognition in government, in the professions (as senior counsel in the legal profession for example) and the state-owned industries. Despite the national educational data and the odds against them, this is the route taken by many of the Indian Singaporeans we see in the top echelons of government. This visibility gives the Indian Singaporeans the access to mobility that is not available to minorities otherwise.

The mechanics by which every society incorporates its minorities into the national psyche is a very fascinating phenomenon that is worth studying. From the ancient days of the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians (King Ahasuerus and Modecai the Jew), the Greeks and the Romans, right down to modern day Iraq (Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz, an ethnic Assyrian Christian prime minister in Muslim Iraq), minorities have found themselves catapulted into roles as prime ministers and top ranking officials over and above the general population. The Chinese equivalent would be the string of minority people who served as advisors in the emperors courts, and of course, Admiral Zhang He, who was a eunuch from a minority group who rose over and above the majority Han people to command the largest fleet in the world.

Notwithstanding that the realities of each situation is different, this phenomenon is predicated by one important consideration and one only: the leadership is confident enough to choose more broadly than from the core majority population, whether for good or bad. In Singapore, this confidence comes from the fact that the majority Chinese Singaporeans are themselves a confident and self-assured community, doing well in the economy and able to be benign to the achievements of their multi-ethnic brethren. The core Chinese population being able to maintain this self-assuredness is core to the well being of Singapore’s minorities. The same rule – the cohesion of the core – applies in any country, any civilisation.

At no point in this essay do I even imagine that there is such a concept called “equal” representation for minorities. Minorities will always be under-represented and will always have to figure out a way for themselves. Nothing is given to them as of right. The incongruity can be as cruel as in the Middle Ages, when the Jews in Europe were denied land ownership rights, or something as benign as a casual preference for “Mandarin speaking” candidate in the silly job advertisements or for home rentals in modern day Singapore today.

Instead of finding themselves in the boards of the state-owned enterprises, the Indians in Singapore have tended towards the professions, where they can run services to serve the mainstream Chinese board members, and you will find them historically as good corporate and litigation lawyers, but who were never good enough to be invited into boards.

I used to think that this meant it was not a good thing to be a minority. But historically, how the best of minorities have dealt with the incongruity is sometimes just short of amazing. I came across a Sindhi friend (another minority Indian group who are over-achievers in business) who told me once that in his wayward youthful years he started his own jeans manufacturing and distribution business that grew to just less than US$100 million in turnover. Most mainstream Chinese Singaporean parent would have been happy to see such a boy succeed so well, but to the parents of this Sindhi friend, he was never good enough because the family’s private business was more than $2 billion in turnover. In their view he was a failure. The standards that some of these very private families set for themselves are much higher than the national economies of small countries.

Today, I see minorities as condiments who spice up otherwise bland national averages. Someone whose race is a majority in any society is cursed to conformity. A minority is free to be different from the mainstream. There have been really small but resilient minorities – which also includes the Sherpadi Jews, Armenian Greeks, the Arab Malays and the unassuming Batak businessmen – whose qualities of resilience about themselves have brought more value to any number of Chinese majority communities – Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai. It is good to note that Singapore does value them.

Being able to draw from history

Losing the ability to draw from a country’s own history also means losing opportunities for the future, and this is well illustrated in Singapore’s sports arena. There was a time when everybody in Malaysia or Singapore would remember that the top athletes, especially in running, were generally ethnic South Indians. Some, like C. Kunalan set records for Singapore that was broken only 33 years later – by another ethnic Indian. Others were athlete scholars, as was Dr. R. Ratnalingam, the first Malaysian Rhodes Scholar in 1966 who went on to be a founding member of the Penang Medical College. The list of names is a long one.

Somehow over the years we have forgotten that asset. Athletes like C Kunalan are still very much well regarded in Singapore, but it never occurs to anyone to stop and ask, why aren’t we seeing more Indian Singaporean athletes anymore? It is one of the world’s best kept secrets – that Indians do make great athletes and only three countries in the whole world knows this secret – Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa. Not even in India. Most Indian athletes, outside of cricket, have only been able to excel when they are outside of the suffocating grips of India itself.

In Singapore’s aspiration to become a world class sporting nation (it has so many ambitions for a small population!), it now imports young Chinese sports talent from China. Now, let’s stop to think the implication of this. Top sports talent in China all vie to be included in China’s own national programme. They are motivated by something more than just money. It’s the honour of representing the largest country in the world, and their mother land. The Chinese sports talent who responds to Singapore’s lure of money and citizenship would almost by definition be those who are not going to make the China list, and become Chinese stars. So, they hedge their chances by moving to a smaller country where they are more likely to shine. By this process of self selection alone, Singapore automatically hardwires itself to importing only second tier talent from China, and guarantees that it will never make an Olympic gold in the sports that these stars shine in, because their better rivals will always be from China.

On the other hand, if the Singapore International Foundation went out to the rural areas of South India, and looked for school athletes in the same cast as their forefathers who migrated to Singapore 200 years ago, it stands a better chance of finding top-notch Indian sports talent ahead of India itself, which is in no position to nurture them. Every day and every area in which India is a dysfunctional country today, Singapore has an area to import from and excel in. In this regard, Singapore has an at least 20 years head start. When we examine the very few individual sports talent from India who do make it to an Olympics medal, and see that they train under such onerous conditions using their own money, a scholarship from Singapore would take them much further than they ever could in their home country.

The two routes of nurturing Chinese and Indian sports talent that mirror the talent that was already in Singapore do not need to be mutually exclusive. The Chinese tended to do well in certain sports and the Indians in others. But the whole narrative has been right there inside Singapore’s own history to draw from.

Three Important rules on “diversity”

So, how do we create and manage diversity in Singapore’s corporate world? My examples on diversity so far, have had little to do with the corporate world, but the corporate world draws from the real world, so if it does not exist in the real world, we should not expect to see it in the corporate world. We cannot bring local diversity into the boardroom if it is not already being nurtured in the schools, in sports and in everyday life in general.

From my observation on diversity that exists in the best of countries, the following are three important rules that must be in place for diversity to really work for Singapore. They are important rules because they are counter-intuitive to the assumptions that policy makers and the ordinary person base their own initiatives.

The first rule is that true diversity is only possible if there is a healthy and confident dominant core culture or community. Creating diversity does not for one moment means diluting the mainstream. I have not seen any place where there is great diversity where there is also not a core cultural group that dominates it and sets the tone for the rest to follow. What this means for Singapore is that the dominant Chinese Singaporean culture is the core and defining culture to Singapore, and Singapore must not lose that. At no point would I suggest that greater diversity means a dilution of the core.

I see this rule applied in the United States, where despite its apologetic stance, the “Anglo-Saxon Judeo Christian” defined white culture is still the rallying core around which the country holds together. All immigrants to the US find themselves subscribing to the unifying values of the White Anglo Saxon Judeo Christian core in order to benefit and perform in that economy themselves. If this was Malaysia, I would say that for diversity to work in Malaysia, the first rule is that the Malaysian Malay people are core and must not be insecure about their own place in the world for diversity to work in that country.

I think we are very fortunate in Singapore that the mainstream Chinese Singaporean core sets high standards of achievements for itself, and sometimes does behave like a minority culture in itself in the way it demonstrates its own insecurities and pre-eminence over other cultures. I also do not begrudge the need to establish the pre-eminence of Singapore’s Chinese culture as the core because it has done well in the defining years of Singapore’s history. Anyone who wishes it to be otherwise needs to rewrite the accomplishments of the past 40 years, and also to look at other countries to see what the alternatives were.

To a point, I have also been sympathetic to the elite school programmes for Mandarin speaking children and the curious fact that only Chinese and Chinese-speaking students appear to ever qualify for the prestigious President’s Scholarship programme. These were classified as “meritocratic” programmes, when in essence they were defensive, to establish the Chinese Singaporean as core to this country. This was such a necessary phase if we think about the confusion that reigned in the formative years of nationhood for both Singapore and Malaysia. All races were immigrant. Even the sultans of Malaysia trace their origins back to islands in Indonesia at about the same time as the Chinese and Indian immigrants. So, everyone was insecure.

For Singapore, the ethnic core and the academic achievement core appears to confluence, so it works for them in a way that it would not work for another ethnic core who could not supply the high average scores in the academic arena. But over time, these yardsticks run the risk of becoming old fashioned and defensive. It starts to accentuate the mistaken belief amongst the Chinese themselves that the Chinese Singaporean children are “smarter” than the rest, when the measurement has to be broadened.

The president’s scholar finds himself or herself an underachiever in vocations outside of public service. The elite Mandarin speaking bilingual scholar finds himself alienated by even the mainland Chinese, who have been developing their own identity in a pluralistic world. Very recently, I met a 20-something year old China national who on his first visit to Singapore was impressed with the way that Singapore was following China’s example of using state stimulus to build additions to its subway system during an economic downturn. I told him it was the other way around, that China learnt from other countries like Singapore. He belongs to a generation that thinks that Keynesian economics was invented in China. The next generation of foreigners who have benefited from looking at Singapore in the past will have no respect for Singapore in the future. The world moves on to the next big idea.

The challenge for the core Chinese Singaporean culture, if it is to remain core, is to be attractive and aspirational to the broader world, in the same way that the Anglo Saxon Judeo Christian core value system continues to be the inspiring myth around which all foreigners going to America rally around, mimic and emulate. The Anglo Saxon value system continues to preserve its unifying myth by celebrating the world class achievements of its strong willed patron saints – the Steve Jobs, the Warren Buffets, the Sam Waltons, the Jaime Dimons of corporate America.

The Chinese Singaporean’s equivalent, people whose strong personalities can capture the imagination of any community include Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the country, and then maybe, Wee Cho Yaw, for his bold entrepreneurship, and then the name list drops like pebbles off a cliff. It’s not a culture of strong personalities. Goh Keng Swee, the genius economist who was deputy prime minister, should make this list of admired Singaporean Chinese, but he was Peranakan not just Chinese, and he kept a very low profile.

Sim Wong Hoo, the founder of Creative Technology, is an object lesson of someone who did have a strong personality and could have made that list. He had even generated considerable originality in the areas of sound and portable video technologies and led his company to a bold Nasdaq listing in the days when he was hungry and scarcely respected at home in Singapore. Then the politicians brought him home prematurely, before he could actually peak in his career. They celebrated him, took pains to be seen in photographs with him, and told him how much he stood for their commitment to entrepreneurship. Slowly he started to believe his own press, spending more time at home writing philosophical books on what it meant to be an entrepreneur at a time when the technology war was raging in the US. Over time, he lost that war and his company is in permanent decline today. Maybe there was a time when he could have been what Steve Jobs became, but today that is just a moot point.

If I were Chinese Singaporean and wanted to be world class, I would fear being noticed by my own community. All communities have this tendency of soothing and comforting their own kind to death. But the Chinese Singaporean has it worst. It is a small community, it is comfortably middle class and uses mostly academic scorecards to rate itself. There are just too many prematurely middle aged Chinese Singaporean professionals who were scholars in their youth but who have achieved exactly nothing more than raising children in the comforts of a cloistered environment in the past 20 years. The delusion of meritocracy continues into the next generation where the major junior colleges mass produce straight A students, not in the tens, but in the hundreds, who then demand for the same recognition of the state as their parents were.

You would think that it is ridiculous that an Indian national from a small village in Uttar Pradesh who paid less than $300 a year for his university education at the Indian Institute of Management could become a global head of wealth management for an international bank ran out of Singapore, when his more urban Singaporean Chinese, who with straight As went through a $15,000 a year education at the National University of Singapore, is sidelined to a mere managerial position. That scenario already exists today.

One is more sophisticated by being hungry, not taking life for granted, drawing from considerable inner resources, not having borders in his mind and being able to relate globally, while the other has become increasingly parochial and fit only to work for his own kind. This is graphically what the lack of “diversity” has done to the Chinese Singaporean. In less than another generation, it is going to marginalise him in his own country, and this is when the future of stability of Singapore will be threatened.

The anti-dote for the Chinese Singaporean is that he has to learn to allow “diversity” to hone his thinking, to keep him honest. Not external diversity, to the “ang-mohs” (white men) who come from far away and unthreatening lands, but to an internal diversity, with the other races with whom he shares a common destiny and whose achievements he is more likely to dismiss as inferior to his. Who is the more unique asset – 200 Chinese students who are capable of scoring straight As in their pre-university examinations through constant tuition, or one genius Malay guitarist who can silence a crowd of 1000? Preserving the core is precisely in democratising the core, opening it up to the constant testing of diversity. That is what the post-meritocratic world is about.

The redeeming feature of the core Singaporean Chinese culture is that it is benign and even admirable for its hardworking, self effacing social values that all others can subscribe to. The core values of this culture is credible and even universal to a point. But these are not the values that preserve them. It is the constant reminding that the rules are always changing on them.

The second rule for successful diversity in the corporate community is that we need to learn to expect less from each other, not more.

It is more difficult for a Chinese Singaporean to allow the ethnic minority of his own countryman into the boardroom, than for him to allow a foreign Westerner, not because his countrymen are less competent, but because they are emotionally too close and we expect too much from them – and we expect them to be the same as us so that we can be expedient.

Many crimes have been done in Singapore in the name of “expediency”. In denying women from entering the local universities to study medicine, the excuse given was it was not worth training a gender that statistically showed many drop outs of the profession who became mothers and housewives. The money spent on educating them as doctors was deemed not justified by the statistics of how many stayed in the professional.

The same excuse of expediency was applied to the public transport system when the CEO of the main bus company once said that the bus system cannot cater for the handicapped because it will slow down the schedules and create jams at the bus stops. Yes, these were some of the shocking thinking present in this country previously.

It occurred to no one to counter the bus company CEO or the university chancellors hard enough to say that the handicap Singaporean and the female Singaporean doctors are still Singaporeans and that if our buses have to move slower, and all our doctors are women, then so be it!

To measure the value of women in economically expediency terms is deeply shameful by the standards of any society. It also denies the rightful dignity of the role of women. We can’t change humanity, we can only live it. This is one of the reason that I expanded the original conversation I had on gender diversity into diversity in its fullest sense. The roots are the same.

One of the qualities about how diversity works in the major American cities is the interesting way in which it accommodates the work ethics of the whites, the blacks, the Hispanics, the Chinese and so on. Some are very hard working, and others are not. Some are very communal and others are more task oriented. Even at a corporate level, some can be very strategic and others very relationship centric, for a better word.

Yet, in New York, in DC, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I have seen people being able to build really large businesses, and get on with meeting their corporate objectives, despite having to hold together such a diversity of people. They do this simply by expecting less, not more, from each other. The work ethics derived from a Protestant base does not require people to stay past working hours and chat and become bosom buddies with their colleagues. Also, work is well defined, (Max) Weberian style, so that you are only measured for the role you are given at work, not for what you are not given. This does result in people coming to work, interacting at a superficial level, and then going home to their respective realities, but it also results in them expecting less from each other and enabling the workplace to be more inclusive without losing its efficacy.

The Chinese Singaporean, on the other hand, thinks that it is okay to ridicule other races who are not outwardly as hard working or task oriented as they are. In the US, it is simply against the law.

The Singaporean Chinese entrepreneur almost always wants employees or board members who are of his own ethnic makeup mostly because he expects a lot of forbearance and additional demands that only someone from within someone’s own community can provide. This does not makes him more efficient, as some have claimed that homogeneity brings, but instead dulls his abilities through familiarity. It makes the Singaporean workplace and boardrooms relatively dysfunctional, with a lot of expectations dominating the interactions.

American corporations are very specific in their role expectations, so that if someone from a different ethnic group does only what he or she was told, that is all you can expect from him and no more. US workplace laws disallows any discrimination on the basis of ethnic differences. In fact, I saw how the otherwise notoriously racist Hong Konger became more accommodating after laws barring discrimination in the workplace were introduced. Sure, in the beginning the Hong Konger was frightened and said all the right things to stay within the law. But after a while he actually starts acting the part, finding it easier to work with Indians and Africans and Filipinos in their midst without fuss.

The third rule is that we are able to embrace “diversity” only if we appreciate broad strokes of human ambition, and not when we micro manage human potential.

One of the amazing achievements of Air Asia, a highly successful budget airlines that originated in Malaysia, if one bothered to notice, is that it is run largely by carefully selected, hard working and, I might add, good looking Malays, alongside very capable Chinese and Indian Malaysians. This was never thought possible in previously Chinese dominated Southeast Asian economies, that a business of more than 200 aircrafts in constant use can be successful using people other than the Chinese. The Malays who dominate his organisation are of a scale that is contrary to all prejudices about Malay work ethics, simply through a process of active selection.

But another amazing achievement is the way in which Air Asia successfully draws from Malaysian high school leavers from poor families and trained literally thousands of them to become airline pilots beyond their wildest dreams. This is an outstanding example of a business that has learnt to draw deeply from its own population by drawing broad strokes of opportunities for them. You can imagine that the loyalty engendered by its battalion of pilots is a dividend that goes beyond the company’s balance sheet.

I get angry every single time I hear the voice of an Australian boy from the cockpit in Jetstar Asia, the Singapore incorporated budget airline, because this airline has been giving Aussie school leavers the opportunity to train to become airline pilots, while excluding a whole generation of Singaporean young people when it profits from Singapore as its base. What is even sadder is the fact that even as this airline deals with the shortage of pilots, it draws young men from the Philippines and Indonesia to become pilots, but has no programme to draw pilots from Singaporean youth. What happened that Singaporean boys missed this opportunity, you may wonder?

There is a structural difficulty in that to train a Singaporean pilot in Singapore would cost 4-6 times more than an Australian or a  Filipino pilot. It is in moments like these that state intervention to co-fund or subsidize the training costs of the airlines operating here is so needed to create opportunities for young Singaporeans on an equal footing with their cheaper neighbours. At the lower rungs of the working population, Singaporean youth will always lose out to their equivalent from neighbouring countries, reinforcing the perception that the ethnic minorities who dominate these lower rungs are under-achievers when in fact, they are victims of cost arbitration between countries in an open economy.

What the minister of finance did at about the same time, however, was to send out a curious brochure to every letter box in Singapore to outline how, using the lowly security guard as an example, Singapreans in general could add value to their skills and therefore income. He argued in the brochure that by taking on a few additional roles and upgrading his skills, a Singaporean working as a security guard can increase his salary from $750 a month to $1500 per month.

The prospect to micro manage the value add and costs of skills may appeal greatly to an economist. But the cost of labour has never and will never be in his hands. It is in the hands of employer, who will be constantly trying to be bring it down, and in an open economy, to relative costs in other markets, who are building their own value adds. That is why the best he can do is focus on the big trends and strike with large strokes, and not micro-manage the small man.

Assuming instead that the bourgeoning budget airlines industry needed 1000 new pilots for the Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A320 aircrafts commonly used. Assuming also that 1000 Singaporean polytechnic and school leavers could be trained as pilots earning $4000 a month instead of $2000 a month if they were in a regular polytechnic level job. The additional $2000 to a family income would make the parents of these school leavers happy to taken on retirement jobs as security guards paying $750 while being proud of the fact that their sons and daughters are airline pilots. Nobody would even need to be bothered about skills improvement as security guards. Such is human nature.

Singapore missed the opportunity to benefit a generation of school leavers to upgrade their skills and their income from this new airline phenomenon because in a highly managed society, it thought of its population only in incremental terms. I have come to the conclusion that the reason the large countries, particularly the US and China, are seen as lands of opportunities, is not because they are large or represent huge market potential for the individual. It is because opportunities in these countries are created using broad strokes – people are free to be whatever they want to be, to define themselves in whatever way they want to, to associate with whoever they want to and achieve whatever it is they want to achieve. They don’t have ministers telling them that if they added three skills to their portfolios, they can increase their salaries two times.

In fact, every time the Americans did exactly that, micro-managing their social economics, there were always unintended consequences that created other problems. The rise of black-dominated inner city schools in the US for example, were the direct result of policy makers trying to forcibly integrating the inner-city schools. White families responded simply by moving to the suburbs.

The now infamous Alan Greenspan kept preaching right through the 1990s and early 2000s how his cheap credit policies and greater “productivity” were making Americans richer. The only productivity gains being recorded by American corporations in that time were the result of moving jobs to lower cost India and China, and paying executives high bonuses. The hollowing out of America’s productive capacity to other countries is the tragedy being played out today.

The law of unintended consequences works in reverse when governments do not have the capacity to micro-manage. Malaysia for example is technically one of the most racist countries in the world, where official policies relentlessly benefit one communal group at the exclusion of all others. Yet, Malaysia is also the country from where one can rattle off the names of internationally credible self-made corporate titans from all of its communities – Syed Mokhtar al-Bukhary (of MMC fame worth about $1b), Azman Hashim (banking net worth about $1b), Robert Kuok (sugar and hotels worth more than $6b), Lim Goh Tong family (gambling worth more than $2b), Teh Hong Piow (banking worth $2b), Ananda Krishna (telecommunications worth $5b), Tony Fernandez (airlines worth about $0.5b) and the list goes on.

The reality for most ordinary Malaysians is that they can only function within the yoke of a racially polarized country. But it is a country where the state has its own limitations, and compensates by allowing individuals to break out of its mould and create tremendous value where it can’t itself.

Singapore is not a racist country by any stretch of the imagination, even if benign bigotry is not absent. This is a country that can still draw deep into its own reserve of diversity and increase the incremental value of its own population. Not by micro-managing them, but by drawing broad and bold strokes of the kind of society it wants to be and leaving it to the individual to find himself in it.

So, I have crossed the line now. But all I see are opportunities, not threats, and much work ahead. I think that more than any of its neighbours, Singapore and Singaporeans are mature enough to discuss of all these, and move on to the next stage of its development together.

I have said nothing much about diversity in the boards of Singapore's listed companies, which was the cause of this rant. By the time all of us arrive as adults into a boardroom, our lives would have already been shaped by the things we become accustomed to from our childhood, our adolescence, our brothers and sisters, our friends and the neighbours we never knew. If we have nothing to draw from within us, then diversity in the boardroom will be an impossible topic. The only way we will accede to diversity is if we are forced to.

Managing diversity is hard work, and it is not natural to any society in any country. If we have just 10 percent of the total corporate sector demonstrating commitment to diversity, we create a hopeful environment for all. I do apologise for expanding the topic of diversity as widely as I did. But to limit the dialogue on diversity to gender only is not to understand diversity at all. Diversity means exactly what the word says it means, and to qualify it will be to miss the point, corporate or otherwise, altogether.

On Twitter     @emmanueldaniel


  1. very interesting thoughts on diversity..a simillar debate is in about diversity in bschools maybe you could write a post on that sometime

  2. You've said a lot that needs to be said.  An interesting read.  Just to clarify, I am sure you are referring to the workplace with the comment:  The Chinese Singaporean, on the other hand, thinks that it is okay to ridicule other races who are not outwardly as hard working or task oriented as they are. In the US, it is simply against the law.
    American's are still free to say anything they like, as long as their actions don't discriminate.  In the workplace this usually means limits on speech. 

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  4. SingaporeanInMalaysia

    Thank you so much. As a Malay Singaporean I always find it a battle to convince others that I am as good as any non-Malays in Singapore. In Singapore I had to work twice or three times as hard just to be on equal footing with the rest. 
    In Singapore, I was always met with remarks that " You are good for a Malay"  followed by another question " are you a Malay, because you don't behave like one." It was so blatant that even taxi drivers would ask of my identity, because I do not fit their "stereotypical" Malay. It is insulting.
    I chose the easy way of leaving Singapore for Malaysia many years ago because there is no point in hating or being bitter. The best way is to leave and move on.
    Seriously, I find that Malay Singaporean suffer from institutionalised  racism. It is subtle because it gets to the unconscious. Every day, Malay Singaporeans are met with remarks that undermine their credibility without them even knowing it. 
    Thank you.  A very good article.

  5. Pingback: Affirmative Action and the reality of the Malays | Life's Journey

  6. That’s really thnkiing out of the box. Thanks!

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