Matching talents
In today's world, it is no longer wise to regard scholars as panacea of all Singapore's leadership problems; they need compassion and initiative. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Jan 14, 2012
(Synopsis: The imperial Chinese scholar system is often out of date but public respects academic grades too much for anyone to change it.)

WHEN a former navy chief was appointed to manage Singapore’s water supply, including combating floods, it hardly raised an eyebrow.

It was business as usual for a city which is used to being led by military chiefs or scholars of whatever discipline. The latest, Rear Admiral (NS) Chew Men Long became head of the Public Utilities Board (PUB).

He joined several military scholar-leaders that included Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his deputy Teo Chee Hean. Former Navy chief Lui Tuck Yew, runs public transport.

Few ministers in Singapore are non-scholars, and many hail from foreign Ivy League universities. At the top are President’s Scholars.

The institution of selecting the academic brightest to administer Singapore was introduced and fine-tuned into a sort of sacred cow by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee was an admirer of China’s imperial exam system used by emperors to have “the brightest” to be administrators and magistrates to help run the vast country.

In Singapore, the system had worked well for decades. In one year, there were 12 former scholars in a 19-member Cabinet.

But with the world, particularly Singapore, having undergone drastic political and technological changes, is the scholar system outdated?

Can the ancient Chinese way of appointing leaders still have a role in building and running a modern world city?

Already, in the face of recent infrastructure breakdowns and a spate of government mistakes, a section of the population appears to be losing confidence in scholars doing the job.

The recent MRT fiasco, frequent return of floods, severe shortage of public housing, and healthcare woes are causing young Singaporeans to question the usefulness of this sacred cow.

So when former Rear Admiral Chew was appointed the PUB chief, what had been a traditional matter of unconcern started raising some heckles.

“What, another military man? Where are the professional engineers?” asked writer gunese. “I think floods are best left to engineers to solve rather than an elite army-man.”

A major flaw of the system has been “mismatched” scholars who are from a totally different discipline doing a crucially important leadership task that he had never been trained for.

Like putting round pegs in square holes! The recent MRT disaster was an example.

Eight years ago, the government employed known retailer Saw Phaik Hwa to become its CEO, bypassing people with strong public transport and engineering backgrounds.

Saw was headhunted because the authorities thought she could rake in profit, rather than for her ability to serve rail commuters.

A Singaporean commented: “We don’t need top scholars, brigadiers, generals, top senior servants or top surgeons to serve and lead this country.

“It’s better for Singapore that they stay put and excel in their own profession.”

This city, she added, would be better led by true passionate selfless people willing to serve the public.

Another writer said: “The method that the Singapore establishment uses to select leaders is truly retarded. It is a throwback to feudal times.

"How can you select a person based on his exam score at the age of 18 to eventually lead the country?”

Even the PM’s wife Ho Ching, CEO of the multi-billion dollar Temasek Holdings, was not spared criticism in the wake of her ill-timed global investment and large losses.

When she appointed a military officer in 2007, one critic wrote: “It is bad enough when we have an engineer with no fund management background running our US$100bil national wealth fund.

“Now, we learn of a career soldier (former defence chief Ng Yat Chung) being hired by Ho to be its Portfolio Management managing director.”

Ng has just been appointed as the new CEO of Neptune Orient Line.

The history of Temasek, and several infrastructure state boards and ministries is peppered with names of ex-armed forces commanders, all scholars, for a good reason.

There is a history behind it. The system’s architect, ex-PM Lee believes that academic excellence is the best tangible assessment of human intelligence and leadership potential. If you are intelligent, you can shine in any work or position after some training.

Will Lee’s successors eradicate the scholarship system for something else? If it is left to the markets, then it is sunk.

To some Singaporeans there are few common features between running the military and large-scale world investments; they consider it a “mismatch” of tasks and talents.

Increasingly, the new global economy requires innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship more than straight A’s that show up in exam grades.

Secondly, with large-scale immigration, Singapore employers seem to opt for lower-trained employees rather than high fliers and post-graduates.

I have several nieces and nephews who are working on the strength of their general degrees, and do not mention their Master’s degrees.

On many occasions when they applied for a job with the higher degrees, the boss would say: “Sorry, we don’t need it. You are over-qualified.”

It meant they were doubtful if the employee would stay long in the company and would move as soon as he or she got a higher posting. A recent published survey backs the argument that people are losing faith in higher education.

The number of Singaporeans (aged between 16 and 65 years) who had no intention to pursue further education has reached three-in-ten last year up from a fifth in 2009.

But judging from public perception, the love for scholars will not disappear. From teachers to political leaders, the public here want them highly educated.

Ill-educated candidates will continue to lose out. It looks like this sacred cow will still be around for a while.