Category: Systems thinking

Every Singaporean a Talent: The Political Economy of Talent, Education, and Companies in Singapore

I’m ready to be wrong on this. To improve it, give links for resources and other arguments.

Turns out just a few things are needed to explain why it is difficult develop enough deep technical talent to have the likes of disruptive companies in Singapore.

1. Domestic conditions. That will be the most difficult constraint to overcome. Any hope of overcoming this constraint will have to come from a deeper economic integration with the region — something that will take a long while more to overcome.

The small domestic market does not encourage the rise of large companies. The companies that have become successful and relatively large companies are either those that were started by the state for developmental purposes, or due to traditional trading skills. Domestic firms cannot pay enough to attract deep technical talent.

2. Large foreign firms. Large foreign firms are here due to Singapore’s policies. These large foreign firms supported economic growth, giving jobs and skills to Singaporeans. These firms, being well-resourced, are far more able in providing a higher wage. These companies can outdo local firms in attracting the same person with more pay. As a result, small local firms cannot attract the talent they need to expand and grow.

3. The presence of a relatively large banking and professional services industry. Talented people have other avenues other than the MNCs. They can also become consultants or bankers. These industries siphon off people who could have gone to MNCs to sharpen technical skills or to build local capabilities.

4. Awkward labour. There are basically a few models of the labour dynamics from the political economy perspective. One of them is the antagonistic relationship in the US — with labour competing with capital over the conditions of work, with the government as a referee of sorts. In many parts of Europe, there are still elements of a labour system that is embedded with capital at various levels of operations. Labour in essence, makes a pact with capital on restraints, but only under conditions of shopfloor autonomy. Overall, this is undergirded by a cultural appreciation for blue-collared workers — which are highly trained and specialised in what they do.

5. Education as a filter. Then, there is the whole notion of ‘talent’ in the first place. What is a talent? How is it defined?

The current model of education is still meant to filter the top few percent as leaders for the administrative elite in the government of this country. This means that resources are concentrated at the top. Some of this is surely desirable; after all this country certainly requires excellent leadership, and starting from young is not a bad idea. Plus, elites occur in every country. However, education as a filter, together with the concentration of resources at the top, means that there is a underemphasis of the rest of the population. This has only changed more recently in the past few years with the revamp of the polytechnics and ITE, and even more recently with the ASPIRE committee.

However, a system of obsessive competition for limited slots for the elite path has been created. This system of obsessive competition creates a lot of waste, visible through the tuition mania. The notion of talent and meritocracy is still seen through the narrow lens of examinations and grades. Maybe an expansion of resources to more schools at all levels of performance might be required. This is not to say that schools should become homogenous — no, but MOE has to give more resources to allow teachers to teach better and to give students more opportunities for all-round development, including in academics.

Education cannot be a filter — it must be a moving escalator that gives and supports people the skills, training and retraining — cohort after cohort after cohort.

What’s possible?

SkillsFuture and the ASPIRE committee together constitute attempts for Singapore’s political economy to move towards a German-lite model — creating a system where workers can find training for providers and go back to the shopfloor. The next piece of this transition could involve a more robust labour that will need to negotiate with companies on giving workers more assurances especially when they go for training.

Yet another piece will involve even greater resources to be expended to improve the quality of polytechnic education, inasmuch as they become the bastions for industry-related training. The universities will have to adjust in this, perhaps moving more strongly into basic research to differentiate their offerings from the polytechnics.

A big elephant here — on the continued emphases on international companies — will likely remain giving longstanding practices. With a labour force that has deeper technical skills, international companies might find it favourable to stay here. A greater pool of deep technical labour could even become the basis of world-beating local companies, though that will remain difficult still without a more deeply-integrated regional economy.

One can tell that its really difficult to talk about one single issue in isolation; I just pulled a thread on talent and the whole rug came out.

What’s possible? 

SkillsFuture and the ASPIRE committee together constitute attempts for Singapore’s political economy to move towards a German-lite model – creating a system where workers can find training for providers and go back to the shopfloor. The next piece of this transition could involve a more robust labour that will need to negotiate with companies on giving workers more assurances especially when they go for training.

Yet another piece will involve even greater resources to be expended to improve the quality of polytechnic education, inasmuch as they become the bastions for industry-related training. The universities will have to adjust in this, either moving more strongly into basic research to differentiate their offerings from the polytechnics. 

A big elephant – on the continued emphases on international companies – will likely remain given longstanding practices. With a labour force that has deeper technical skills, international companies might find it favourable to stay here. A greater pool of deep technical labour could even become the basis of world-beating local companies, though that will remain difficult still without a more deeply-integrated regional economy. 

One can tell that its really difficult to talk about one single issue in isolation; I just pulled a thread on talent and the whole rug came out.

Notes

Bits of the things here are definitely outdated. I don’t know if a ‘German model’ has been able to persist since the 1990s. Comments about the German model(s) on labour-capital relations are much appreciated.

I did not write about immigration policies here, because it is difficult, and it is not the emphasis. But a few things: immigration will be necessary, because even productivity will have limits. Diversity in international experiences/perspectives will still be an important thing to have. However, immigration cannot be the substitute for the difficult reforms for a more productive economy. I apologies for the motherhood statements here, and the model to arrive here is one where immigration policies are a supplement to economic growth, one where the numbers game is not the main consideration. There clearly is more to this, but that will be another essay.

Also, please don’t see this as an end. See this as a start of an journey to see how the different pieces come together. Once again, remember to post counter arguments and links to resources at the side.

I owe intellectual debts to Hall and Soskice — on the LME and CME frameworks.

Thanks!

How I think about topics and issues

In conversations with friends, I’ve had the chance to reflect about how I look through readings. This is an attempt to articulate what happens when I’m browsing for articles and books, both physically and digitally.

What usually happens is that I start off with a bit of grand theorizing – find the people who try to construct universal frameworks. These are only the beginnings and they are often discarded and/or refined as I encounter new facts and frameworks. After a while, I realise that I’m looking a lot at academics and specialised journalists who have spent a long time looking at a specific area. This is also that I try to avoid op-eds and authors of books who tend to only aggregate newspaper material.

Tapping into academics and specialised journalists helps me to construct detailed concepts about how a specific issue develops and its sub-issues. For example, if I was doing work on poverty, I would be looking at grand theories about how poverty happens – cultural framings, economic framings, cognitive framings and so on. Within each of these framings I would go into detail, all the time asking if the framings are appropriate. For example, with culture, I would ask, how do people talk about culture in useful ways? With economic, perhaps its an issue of skills and economic structure. With cognition, it could be the way people decide spending and investment decisions. And then go into greater detail into the linkages between say, economics and culture.

After exploring the silos, I’ve found it helpful to read works on how the different silos are related. I like the works by Vaclav Smil as he explores the interactions between energy, food production, consumption and natural processes. Sometimes they horizontal linkages become silos in themselves – such as system dynamics and complexity, both of which are vast disciplines in themselves. So with the poverty example, I would be interested in how cultural framings interfere with economics and/or with cognition, and how various countries have addressed poverty in various ways.

After a while, it’s possible to develop a meta-sense when looking at articles into: (1) things directly relevant to interests; (2) things that add to current interests; and (3) things that I never knew about. (1) and (2) overlap, and its a function of what am I interested in at the current moment, and also about rebalancing areas that I am more familiar with and what I’m not as familiar with.

I try to look for fact-heavy books with subtle arguments. They tend to be historical and supplemented by primary research – which as a result, becomes the domain of academic researchers, or very senior journalists who have spent a lot of time in an area.

I guess what drives me is that I’m trying to understand the world and constructing frames to guide my understanding.

So far, what I’ve described is pretty generic – I’m thinking this is the general process of what most people go through in many things, ranging from workplace implicit knowledge to how fan-fiction is generated.

To further categorize the knowledge acquired, another labels can be helpful. I’ve found Aristotle’s 4 causes to be useful labels: efficient, material, formal and final causes of things. In short, they describe the process, the materials/technology, the medium in which the happen and the purpose for why they occur, respectively.

I’ve found the Snowden’s Cynefin useful – in describing the epistemology of events/processes – whether the process are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic – terms to describe the relationship between cause and effects and the degrees to which they are known. Kahane’s notions of complexity are also useful – whether things are socially (involving diverse beliefs), generative (awkwardly, the expectedness of outcomes), and dynamic (again, relationship between cause and effects) – as I understand the terms. I hope to explore their notions and other notions of complexity in greater detail in a future blog post. 

There are some limitations in my current understanding. I don’t have clear notions about aesthetics, spaces, tactility and perceptions. My design/aesthetic senses are not as developed, and its something I ought to get more experiences at.

Thanks for reading, and hope you find this helpful. 🙂

Identity, and Materialism

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I’ve been wondering about the relationships between materialism, personal security and self identity, and the cultural attitudes in society. How firmly do people believe that material possessions are an important source of identity? Where do we get the sense of attachment from? And how does that relate to how we interact with other people? Do we believe more in closed zero-sum interactions (as being Kiasu could imply), or in more open, non-zero sum interactions?

Singaporeans are surrounded by material abundance, but to as phrased by Laurence Lien, we could be in a “social recession”. How is this possible? I don’t know. How is that the material abundance we have is not clearly evidenced in the abundance of compassion and spirit?

 

Patriotism

The map of the week is about patriotism.

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This is a purely-sentimental driven map, although things like economic opportunities could be interpreted in terms of the pride and identification that one has with the country, as with “I appreciate the opportunities I have in this country to realise my abilities”. In a similar way, ownership of property can also be interpreted in the same vein, as with, “I appreciate the fact that I can own my own home.” And then there are pride-destruction experiences, such as losing confidence with the political leaders, losing employment, seeing discrimination perpetuated by authorities of one form or another. This isn’t specific to any country, and I guess the weights of countries will be different. In others, the identification with a local or a national culture (if one exists at all) could be more important than pride for the local region or community.

Dependency and Ownership

Are people dependent on government for governance? Everytime there’s a problem that needs to be solved, the immediate attention is always to look to the government for what they could do. So the government ends up running our lives as we cede responsibility for the little things. Yet that’s only one way of looking at the dependency and governance. Yes, governance does touch many facets of our lives, from ensuring food safety to keeping the economy vibrant. Yet there are also domains such as culture and social dynamics where government cannot be a substitute for responsibility and ownership. And there are yet other things where government should take a facilitative role and step back afterwards. There are many subtle gradations in involvement and responsibility on individuals, communities and governance.

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The effectiveness of government’s actions has made it easy for people to ask, “what the government will do” in the various myriad issues. The overpowering leviathan of government power has also reduced the role of civil society organisations. Will the social and political environment encourage the growth of other civic organisations? Will people continue to join the efforts of CSOs in their respective causes or will it continue to be marginal in governance?

City vs Country

I believe that one of the most profound and abstract contradiction that Singapore experiences is its dual existence as a city and as a country. The city is the basis for economic existence, but the country is the basis for national survival. The city is about being open to flows of ideas, people and capital; a country is about security, community and stability. The two of them have counter-acting tendencies, and they will always be in tension. Slide5

In Singapore, one cannot do without the other; the city provides the economic basis for funding the programmes for the country; the country provides the security for the city to carry out its business. Yet the city’s tendencies affect the ability to form communities will be challenged as it constantly adapts to the inflows of capital, people and ideas. Communities could also do with new ideas, and people, but there will always be a time period required for assimilation. Too many people and too many ideas can challenge existing community norms too much. Capital also has its dangers, as it pushes up the costs of living for the rest of the inhabitants. 

Yet there is also no other way about this. Again, we need to the city to prosper, but the country to survive.

Marriage and Choices

 

 

 

This week, it’s something micro. This is a hypothetical relational map about what goes in when couples are deciding whether or not to get together.

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We take for granted that lifelong-monogamous relationship with one partner has been the not-so norm among human institutions. I say, “not-so” norm because it’s an ideal thats routinely broken – no one can point specifically to an age where lifelong monogamous relationships happened without occasions of adultery (by either gender).

The lifelong-monogamy I imagine made sense economically, with divisions of labour splitting along gender lines. Individualism, gender equality movements have made marriage less compelling (for either gender, and more so for females). The reaction so far in developed societies is to let-it-be; accept serial monogamy (people divorcing and remarrying), slowly sorting out child-custody issues (allow dads some rights in raising the kids), lowering the barriers to single-parenthood…

I realise that many of these things are legal developments too. Should laws conform to the attitudes and conventions of the current age, or should they reflect some notion of rights? The former could be used to justify racial segregation in the US; the latter might be too unrealistic for acceptance by ALL sectors in society. What then, what next?

The last point is methodological: I admit that a lot of the variables or qualities or concepts usually assume the rational person, in making decisions using some notion of cost/benefit analysis, and reduce the weight of other factors. What I’ve tried to do usually, is to factor in social expectations as well – and this is one way to incorporate the non-rational, or non-economic rational. I still think this encompasses the way we make choices, that we do consider a lot of the variables together, but the framing of these variables matter. I think what a systems-based representation does is to clarify at which point of decision-making does the framing matter. They could come at the initial process of scanning; at the middle part as they get processed; or at the end as they consider preliminary impact of the choices guided by the framing. Of course they could also happen at every/any stage of the process too. There’s no good way, and it’s up to the individual analyst to choose where does framing matter the most, or if it’s in the background of things.