I had the opportunity to join in an in-depth discussion of Singapore issues at the National University of University. Was nice to be back in University Town to be back with USP friends. The discussions was rushed but still robust. And during the discussion, a particular thought came up, that “in Singapore, things get done“.
In a presentation later, the notion dawned upon me that for various reasons, GSD isn’t just a productivity geek culture getting things done in a distraction-rich world. GSD – Getting Stuff/Sh*t Done – has been ingrained in us for a while now – 2 generations and counting. We have demonstrated over the decades, that we have been able to get initiatives going, get mega-projects done, pull through from crisis, and doing a really good job of accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves. In Singapore, things get done, and we aren’t too shabby at it.
I used the “we” in a collective sense – for the people who have made visions realized – from the politicians through to the construction workers who have built the projects. Yet I also know clearly that this national obsession with GSD also has all kinds of unintended side effects. I’m wondering if our obsession for ‘deliverables’ has got anything to do with it. In previous occasions, I used to think that it was clearly for accountability, in the ‘what do you have to show for it’, but I’m also beginning to wonder now that part of this has to do with the expectation that whatever we do will have an applicability component to it – “it will be useful, and this is how it will be useful”. Even in the OSC, the demands that something ‘tangible’ to show for the process was initially attributed to just general impatience, but after this framing, it’s also because Singaporeans also like things to get done. Clearly for somethings, the process is genuinely useful as a way to get in touch with other Singaporeans, and to see their point of view. The discussion content merely comes out of that sharing of perspectives.
There are also more serious side effects, such as how we might have ignored all kinds of sensitivities – in the enthusiasm and rush to get things done, emotions are brushed aside as ‘subjective’, policies can become inaccessible and cumbersome to navigate, and people have to put up with all kinds of temporary inconveniences for some abstract greater good. Perhaps the clampdown on political expression in previous times was also an expression of GSD as quickly as possible, without having to do with political contests.
There are other things that GSD has no comment on. I’m not sure what the appropriate rationalisation is for GSD to comment on the things of skewed income distribution, the tuition-obsession, the refusal for a more substantial social welfare system. GSD is only one part of a larger system of values that we embody, and there are several others.
Maybe this is also the reason why there’s always a bit of doubt about the purpose of subjects such as history, literature or philosophy, wherever they are thought. It’s not just because these subjects are difficult to ‘score’ in, but that they are about things that are not objective oriented – they are not about getting things done – in that sense. These subjects are about explorations for their own sake, in learning about the crafting of words as with literature, or learning about how our narratives are created, as with history. And maybe ‘worst’ of all – philosophy – thinking about thinking. In this sense, Alfian Sa’at’s repsonse to this national aversion to literature in sceondary/high school is brilliant, and to quote it in full”
“A question I was asked: What more can be done to arrest the trend of dropping Lit candidature? Do you think it is an inevitable trend?
My answer: Yes, I think it is an inevitable trend. And I don’t think it’s necessary to arrest it at all. Look at the speeches in parliament, or even the columns and editorials in our mainstream papers. There’s hardly anything literary about them, and yet they get their points across. I think we should stop measuring ourselves against other countries that have deeper cultures and traditions and accept the fact that we are this mercantile, pragmatic, tough-minded city-state that has no time nor inclination for the effete humanities. I think it’s perfectly fine if our main cultural diet consists of Channel 8, Jack Neo movies, anthologies of ghost stories and self-help books. As a people we are kiasu and crass and ungracious. But why should there be shame in any of that? We’re already a First World country, and cultural capital had no role in determining this particular achievement. One of the indices of ‘first world’ human development is literacy, not literature. This anxiety to acquire ‘high culture’ is actually part of an aspirational third world mentality, and we should feel secure with our own brand of smug philistinism.”
Another issue with “GSD” as an ethos is simply that GSD has no stand over the content of the stuff that gets done. And GSD also doesn’t fully explain this national impatience about needing things to be done quickly.
I guess the GSD ethos only assumes that small fixes get done – after all, for various reasons, Singaporeans only care about what gets done in the here and now – fixing the MRT delays; reducing property prices; meanwhile the longer-term horizon becomes hostage to short-term exigencies. What then, what next, what else?
[Admin note: I’m back from the overseas trip, and will be taking this series in a new direction.]
There is one item that I have not addressed in full, and that’s the part about decision-making – how decisions are made and the cognitive biases that often arise. For now, the works by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Gary Klein ought to be the guiding lights. They focus on the psychological bases of decision-making. In the works of Kahneman and Tversky, numerous cognitive biases are identified – a lot of which had to do with the framing of information and the context in which that information is presented in.
The way we make decisions is based on how the information is presented to us – and especially so if we constantly use what Kahneman describes as System 1 – the intuitive and unconscious processes that nonetheless determines how we make our decisions. Kahneman urges us to use our System 2 more frequently – System 2, referring to the slower, conscious and much more deliberate processes that we activate, such as when we are working through a difficult, multi-step mathematics problem. Checklists might be another effective way of structuring our thinking that reduces cognitive biases. Gary Klein might have a different view, but the end result is often the same – good decisions are often made through good representation of the information.
Then there is the tradition of decision-making that comes from looking at politics. I’ve been trying to go through Irving Janis’s Groupthink – where the processes that lead to the political fiasco in the US were identified. As things turn out, sometimes, the processes behind groupthink and bad decisions are the result of having prioritised social bonds and harmony within the in-group more than anything else. There appear to be, in actuality, a few simple guidelines to achieve rigour in decision-making.
1. Be open to different views, especially if they are dissenting views;
2. Have time to think and activate System 2 as far as possible and not just rely on “gut instincts”;
3. Represent the problem meaningfully – this is admittedly a difficult tone, as there can be very many ways to do it. Yet, we want to avoid problems like the Florida Balloting format in the presidential elections in 1999/2000, which confused people. In this respect, we do know of worse and better ways of presenting choices.
There is another way to think about actions. Since actions are about the construction of new systems, there are other deliberate ways to design entire systems. Futures constitutes one way to think about decisions in time. There are other processes that help with designing processes and systems. There is design thinking. Design thinking can be thought of as a process to create systems that create positive experiences for people. Often the result is a different context in which actions are applied into, and these actions can, but not always result in different sets of decisions. One of the steps in design thinking is almost about choices – rapid prototyping. In this step as I understand it, the ideas drawn from ethnography and prior research contribute to the construction of prototypes of products or processes. These things are tested and evaluated to see how they might fare in the rough and tumble of reality.
On the larger scale of things, culture is a set of rules designed for a set of contexts. That’s not to say that cultures are deliberately designed with definite intentions towards managing particular problems in specific environments. Having a tacit understanding of cultures bring down the costs of communications and transactions between people belonging to the same tribe or clan. Besides cronyism is nothing but that – where people of the same culture collude together not deliberately because they are of the same clan or tribe or region, but simply because they are people who could be trusted. This is certainly not a defence of these things, but for the contemporary era, some of these culture traits could become maladaptive – instead of creating benefits, they end up giving disadvantages.
In Singapore we’re always told about how we’re a meritocratic society. There have been criticism about that, most notably, by Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
I’m not going to repeat their powerful arguments, because I can’t, but what I would do is to think about the less-looked consequences of meritocracy.
As a starting point, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that Singapore was an “exam-meritocracy” in contrast to the US’s “talent meritocracy” – this back in 2006 when Tharman was still the Education Minister. A lot of things have changed since then in Singapore. There has been a broader definition of excellence other than grades alone, but culturally, the obsession towards grades remains, attested to by the proliferation of increasing-sophisticated tuition centres.
To me, there could be another insidious way in which this examination/grades-based obsession impacts our culture. Here is the hypothesis:
The examination-based meritocracy creates a clear sense of “people who have made it, and people who don’t”. Our education system incentivises the people who can continuously jump through the hoops – constantly scoring distinctions and all. However – and this is the oft-neglected part – that the education structure disincentivises people who don’t make it at any stage. The end result, after a while is that people lose interest and stop participating fully in anything later on.
That’s the power of the incentive structure that we’ve set up in Singapore society. I suspect that the impact of the education system goes beyond the display of grades as signals to other institutions and companies. I suspect that there is also a neglected side in this discussion, in how the examination-obsession shapes our behaviour in subtle ways.
I think the incentive structure finds its way into the workplace – people who have jumped through hoops want to continue jumping through the various hoops – the everyday work assignments; the projects that they do, and who continue to do them in engaged, and enthusiastic ways. And then there are the people who drop out – people who have not cleared hoops and decide to drop out and refuse to participate beyond the necessary – as what happens when there are no more incentives to aim for in the education system – no more distinctions required, no “good stream” to enter into.
But life is not a serious of hoops to jump through. Life is a series of experiences, and it can be made into a process of continuous growth and possibility (just read The Art of Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander). Our exam-based meritocracy shapes our cultural ethos and behaviour in more ways than one, and we should acknowledge that influence before moving on to think about routes to change.