Monday 27 February 2017

Why Singapore needs more naysayers

By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2017

Singapore needs more people to speak up and challenge authority, said a panel of academics and former senior civil servants yesterday.

They lamented the reluctance of civil servants to pose contrarian views when facing political office-holders, and the reticence of university students in asking questions at conferences.

But this ability to question views and policies is vital if Singapore is to do well in the next 50 years, said the speakers at a one-day forum with the theme of unintended consequences in Singapore.

Said Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani, 68: "We need more naysayers."

He argued that Singapore cannot take its formulas for success developed over the last 50 years and apply them to the next 50 years, as the world has changed drastically.

"We need to create new formulas, which you can't until you attack and challenge every sacred cow. Then you can succeed," he added.

Panellist and behavioural scientist David Chan jokingly addressed civil servants in the audience, saying: "You talk so much to me but when the minister is present, in front of him, you're absolutely silent."

This habit stems partly from a fear of looking bad in front of others and of failing, added Prof Chan, 50.

He heads the Singapore Management University (SMU) Behavioural Sciences Institute, which organised the conference that was attended by 350 people.

Mr Han Fook Kwang, 63, the editor-at-large of The Straits Times, said Singapore became so successful in such a short time that its people became too risk-averse.

For instance, policymakers are unwilling to take bigger risks with policies and fear that making major mistakes will cause Singapore to lose it all, he added.

But it is in policies and leadership teams that Singapore needs people willing to challenge authority, said Professor Chan Heng Chee, who is in her 70s and chairs the Singapore University of Technology and Design's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

She called for more robust internal discussions on policies with a wider range of people from different backgrounds, adding: "We need naysayers in leadership teams who can think the unthinkable."

Panellists also noted that Singaporean audiences tended not to ask questions at conferences, unlike people overseas, whose hands would shoot up as soon as academics finished their lectures.

In response, audience member and National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan said "the art of asking critical questions" can be developed in people.

SMU, for instance, grades undergraduates by how much they participate in class.

Above all, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, 79, felt that differing points of view should be valued.

He said: "When we appoint people to boards, we can also appoint challengers who are subversive and who have alternative points of view. That's the kind of cultural change we want to see. It makes Singapore stronger, not weaker."

Get rid of blind spots to see way forward: Nanyang Business School Dean
Organisations can't rely on past experience, says Civil Service College fellow at conference
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 25 Feb 2017

The setting up of the Municipal Services Office (MSO) to improve inter-government agency cooperation in municipal issues embarrassed Nanyang Business School dean Neo Boon Siong.

Its formation in 2014 was the "clearest sign of how our agencies cannot work together to solve simple municipal problems", he said.

Professor Neo, who is also a fellow at the Civil Service College, pointed out in a speech that Singapore's past success may hamper its ability to deal with the challenges of a fast-changing world.

He said public and private organisations have developed blind spots on what can or cannot be challenged, and this has the unintentional consequence of diminishing their capacity to deal with uncertainty and disruption.

"I think we are losing our capacity to think ahead... We have a long way to go in developing our ability to think across boundaries and to innovate," Prof Neo said at a conference organised by the Singapore Management University's Behavioural Sciences Institute with the theme "Unintended consequences in Singapore''.

He and other speakers at the conference gave their views on how Singapore will deal with uncertainty in a range of areas, from the impact of the country's adoption of technology in its push to become a smart nation to how the private and public sectors respond to change.

The MSO, Prof Neo noted, was the outcome of the "silo system" of statutory boards - each with its own clear focus and mission - that Singapore has created.

The country's approach of setting up statutory boards has achieved tremendous results in the past, he said, highlighting how the Housing Board and Economic Development Board created housing and jobs in the early years.

It has set up a number of such boards in recent years, he noted.

But as problems become more complex, they may no longer fall neatly into the functional role a typical statutory board may have.

What might have worked in the past may not always be the best way forward, added Prof Neo.

Singapore must, in its public and private sectors, look not just at efficiency but also at innovation, he said, citing the Monetary Authority of Singapore's approach towards financial technology as an example.

It has created a "regulatory sandbox", which provides a safe space where Singapore's banks can experiment with and test new technology, without potentially affecting their main operations or customers, even if the project fails.

This is a different approach from the regulation he has seen in many parts of the Government, he said.

"I think it's acceptance and acknowledgement that pathways forward cannot be based on past experience, and no matter how experienced (the Government) is, it's not going to be adequate because we're charting paths that we've not taken before, and are relatively unknown," he added.

How not to surround yourself with yes-men
When the future is uncertain and full of surprises, no one has a monopoly on wisdom
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 5 Mar 2017

Is there enough diversity of views in the political and public sector leadership?

Are there people in their midst who challenge one another's thinking and the conventional wisdom?

There was an interesting lack of diversity in the answers to this question among panellists at a discussion organised by the Behavioural Sciences Institute of the Singapore Management University which I participated in last week.

We had not discussed beforehand what we would be speaking on.

But when the moderator of the forum, Ambassador-At-Large Tommy Koh asked us what was the one big change Singapore needed to overcome the challenges of this increasingly uncertain and volatile world, having naysayers who speak out topped the list.

Here is a sampling of what they said.

Prof Kishore Mahbubani: "We need to create new formulas, which you can't until you attack every sacred cow. Then you can succeed."

Prof Chan Heng Chee: "We need naysayers in leadership teams who can think the unthinkable."

Prof Koh: "When we appoint people to boards, we can also appoint challengers who are subversive and who have alternative points of view. That's the kind of cultural change we want to see. It makes Singapore stronger, not weaker."

I spoke about the tendency here to value and trust those whose thinking and views conformed to the accepted wisdom.

We didn't know it then, but on the same day the forum was held, the Prime Minister spoke about these same issues in another part of town, at another dialogue.

His remarks were published three days later, and this was how he put it: "I try not to surround myself with yes-sir men. That's important because if all you have are people who say 'three bags full, sir', then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous.

"You need people who have their own views, whose views you respect, whom you can have a productive disagreement with and work out ideas which you might not have come up with."

Asked what his personal approach was to help him stay open to ideas, he said: "The most important philosophy is not to take yourself or your philosophy too seriously. If you think you have found a formula to succeed, somewhere in there you are going to fail."

That's as strong an endorsement as you can get from the top about the need to have a diversity of views in decision-making.

His message is important because the cultural change which Prof Koh spoke about can happen only if the leadership believes in it, shouts it out loud, and shows by example.

There's hope for Singapore yet.

Why is it that so many people now believe this is important for the country?

I think it is because we all instinctively know that when the future is uncertain and full of surprises, no one has a monopoly on wisdom and it is dangerous to have everyone thinking alike.

In fact, this issue about how leaders can avoid surrounding themselves with yes-men has been recognised as a key problem in the corporate world, and with good reason.

Company bosses, too, find it tempting to work with like-minded colleagues and there are too many subordinates willing to play sheep because they want to be in their superior's good books.

The subject is a well-researched one in management studies because it is so commonplace.

In a piece on this in the American business magazine Forbes, bosses are asked to examine critically the composition and background of the inner circle they work closely with.

The writer, Susan Tardanico, lists various types of personality who can help provide different perspectives to the decision-makers:

The Contrarian pushes you to think differently by taking opposite views and is always thinking of the worst-case scenario.

The Everyman is plugged into the lower levels of the organisation, helping you understand how your decisions affect them.

The Optimist is a best-case scenario person, and provides positive energy during difficult times.

The Bleeding Heart is the empathetic member of the group, making you aware of how your action affects people.

The Sage is the strategic thinker and coach, helping you to stay calm in a crisis.

How do leaders ensure they have a mix of these people?

Among other things, look through your list and identify the roles each plays with regard to the different types mentioned above.

Tardanico has this other test: "Reflect on your interactions with these "trusted advisers" over the past 30 days. How many have come to you with uncomfortable news or delicate feedback?"

For Singapore leaders, I would add one more: Be more willing to critically review past actions and policies, to openly admit mistakes, if any, so as to learn from the experience.

I think there is a reluctance to do this here, perhaps because we don't want to be seen to be critical of our predecessors and to cause them to lose face. Here, failure is taboo and not regarded as a prerequisite to success. Instead, too often, whenever public and private sector leaders talk about their organisations, they almost always speak glowingly of their achievements.

It wasn't always like this in Singapore. The earlier leaders were often very critical of the way things were done here, about the inefficiency and low standards, and their frankness was sometimes painful to the ears. But it made Singaporeans more aware of their shortcomings and the need to improve.

As a society, Singapore has swung too quickly from one which was always reminded to pull up its socks to one always reminding itself of how successful it has become.

At the forum, one of the speakers, Singapore Management University president Arnoud De Meyer lamented the reluctance to talk openly about mistakes.

Remember the ambitious plan to develop Singapore into an education hub, attracting students and educators here, he asked.

It was much talked about some years ago, but the project seems to have been quietly dropped without much public discussion or explanation. Was it a failure, and if so, what were the problems?

How can Singapore improve if people are not prepared to talk about past mistakes openly and constructively and learn from them?

If more of them did so, perhaps attitudes towards failure might change, and there will be a greater willingness to take risk, and to speak up. So, here is my addition to the list above:

The Singaporean who is not afraid to talk about failure.

The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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