June 16, 2008

[This is a continuation from our interview series with J.Kompf. On this occasion Kompf directs a series of pointed questions to Darkness about talent management and the selection of future leaders]

Kompf Q: Your PM recently has voiced his reservations concerning the low return rate of top scholars. This along with many officials who frequently cite a lack of talent to fill key governmental positions in the future – he has even described this as a brain drain – what’s your take Darkness?

Darkness A: I believe we need to buy into a long term view on this subject only because what seems to be regularly dished out on the table these days seems to be the card board flavored short term stayer vs quitter calculus. That IMO is just an unimaginative dead ender that will yield zero – let me share with you the elements which makes up the components of this long term strategy.

Firstly, we need to move away from the whole notion of finality. There’s no evidence to suggest the trend of intellectual migration is any where near final. I happen to know this area on an authoritative level of detail as I often study manufacturing and technology trends. When we speak about talent management, it’s important to unlearn many of our home grown assumptions; we are not dealing with terminal cancer here as much as a very dynamic learning cycle. That’s to say I don’t buy into the idea people decide to let’s say work in New York or Hong Kong and that necessarily translates into an actual loss. If you think real hard about it, it’s only perceived and treated as a loss because the rules of accounting for intellectual capital are designed that way. To me that’s a very serious omission that needs to be corrected.

By that I mean, If one looks at economies like Taiwan, Hong Kong, India and even Malaysia, there’s actually a wealth of incontrovertible evidence suggesting graduates do frequently return home after working abroad providing the right social and economic incentives exert a strong enough gravity to attract them back home. This also applies to those who decide to choose to migrate overseas for whatever reason.

My feel is policy makers need to move away from this simplistic way of accounting for loss and deficit.

Q: Let me get it right Darkness. You are actually believe your government should proactively woo these intellectuals back – what about trans-migration wouldn’t that be effective to augment the deficits? Why go the high road when there’s a short cut?

A: Yes, I can see why you see trans-migration as a short cut, but I don’t believe that truly captures the whole idea of managing talent on a long term basis. When I say policy makers need to move away from the standard of accounting to make sense of intellectual capital. I simply mean, they need to understand the learning curve doesn’t just end once someone completes their tertiary education. If you look very carefully at talent management in Singapore; you will notice a few glaring anomalies; 99.9% of it is for example focused on the least productive stage of the knowledge curve i.e during the tertiary education stage, when students are just focusing on knowledge acquisition.

What happens after the graduation? Nothing. Here if you notice the squandered opportunity cost is hardly any attention is given to the most productive stage of the knowledge cycle; when those same students begin putting into practice what they have learnt in university; here what’s important to understand is people regularly past from the realm of theory to practice; they are synthesizing new knowledge.

So what you really need to ask yourself is an economic question; does it make more sense for those students to test out their theories in Singapore or abroad?

I will of course argue for the case of the latter, but if you notice because of the myopia which standard accounting imposes on the bureaucrats; they don’t consider it worthwhile to pursue those opportunities; because in their definition of ‘value’ anyone who chooses to cut their teeth abroad is defined as a ‘quitter’ i.e a loss.

How far are you going to go when the ruler you are using doesn’t even produce an accurate measurement?

Q: Darkness. Allow me to reiterate the second part of my question; what about trans-migration wouldn’t that be effective to augment the deficits? Why go the high road when there’s a short cut?

A: (LOL). Kompf, I didn’t avoid the question. I am merely trying to illustrate here that we may not be even talking about the same thing here i.e intellectual value. You can only believe encouraging trans-migration of professionals will be able to augment the intellectual deficit, if you believe for one moment, this is an apple to apple comparison. My point is there is no comparison.

As a Singaporean who has worked abroad in my view is significantly better prepared and equipped to contribute to the local economy than lets say a Malaysian who has only worked in Kuala Lumpur; of course when I say this some people out there will accuse me of elitism or snobbery; but this bears out only too clearly when one looks very carefully at the chronological drivers which sparked off the industrialization of Taiwan during the 80’s it wasn’t powered by the local Taiwanese as much as their compatriots who had mastered core competencies in Silicon valley only to transplant it back home – the same pattern of explosive growth bears out in India, where the Indian diaspora was cleverly reversed and this created a cadre of savvy intellectuals who once again returned home and spurred the programming and code boom in Mumbai and Bangalore – what we see very clearly in every case is the enrichment of the value chain or what I just call brain juice factor from people who once worked on an idea in New York, Paris or Tokyo and said, “Hey, I think, I can take this idea back home and make something out of it!”

Here you can say there is an effective strategy to reverse the brain drain, it can have a very positive effect on the local economy as it regularly inures businesses with a higher level of innovation and creativity – this observation I feel should be treated as an opportunity and I for one consider it a travesty of logic that no government agency to date has even seriously addressed this matter head on with concrete steps – instead they seem to be resigned to this reality of playing zoo keepers instead of bee keepers. My feel is this generates absolutely nothing for the intellectual capital value chain – and instead sabotages the imperative of competitive advantage.

Q: Darkness you really believe working abroad makes such a difference?

A: Yes, yes and yes! I really don’t think there is any comparison between a fresh graduate who returns home after his study tour, doesn’t matter how revered his Alta Mater is. You’re not going to fool anyone. Not even if you give yourself a pay rise and put on a Superman jump suits. All you’re going to do is confuse a whole lot of folk; who will wonder no end as you can never stop them from picking at your lack of exceptionality. In short, you’re got no kill flags on your fuselage that proves that you’re better. That’s iron truth. And it cuts right to the marrow. It’s really like comparing a local league kampong hero with a footballer who has been rotated in the English, Spanish and French league, there’s no fight – 10 out of 10 if you put him up to the quick draw with the Kampung hero, he will bag him.

Q: Tell me Darkness, you seem to advocating a broader mindset, but if you really take the trouble and look closer there remains certain uncomfortable realities such as the policy of foreigners not interfering with politics etc. How do you reconcile such a divide?

A: Kompf again you seem to speak as if this is a condition that only afflicts my country – I hope, I am not coming across as overtly defensive. But let me just say this; we just like the Americans and even to Europeans are basically inheritors by which one is defined by the nation, which in turn derives it’s authority from a supposedly unbroken tradition. That’s hogwash, if you look for example at the notes and minutes of even the founding fathers who drafted the Bill of Rights, it was originally written not in English, but in French, so that pretty much makes a nonsense of purity and if you go back further Greek permeated Roman law etc. What we are seeing here is in effect leeching, but I feel it’s simply technology transfer. People will always import and export schools of thoughts and states of mind, so when one speaks in the context of excluding others by virtue of race, creed or even nationality. Then it’s a bit like saying Chinese only read Chinese books, use Chinese methods to make sense of the world and the like. I think if you really want to see things in this context then, you can even take it ten steps further and ask yourself whether Yo-Yo Mah has a right to stage a recital of Vivaldi in Carnegie hall. Hey shouldn’t he be playing the er-hu instead of a Strad Cello? See how ridiculous the whole idea is? The way I see it’s plain and simple economics, Vivaldi or for that matter Beethoven belongs as much to the West as let’s Africans as they do to the Italians and Germans, since his music is part of the human heritage.

My point is simply this; you have to be very careful of relying solely on a dogmatic approach; that’s fine if it makes sense, but when the logic starts to be get edged out; then I feel, one needs to earnest detangle oneself from the various interest, agenda and impulses accounting for mindless xenophobia.

Q: What are you saying then, you people should actively encourage our scholars to go abroad and work?

A: There you go again Kompf. Let’s just press the pause button and step back for a moment to examine the premise of your question; “scholars?” Why do you even consider them to be the most productive and reliable class? You see what we have here is precisely the sort of thinking that hobbles the management of intellectual capital at every turn and opportunity. Even before you have started, you’ve narrowed the field of possibilities, put yourself even in a straight jacket with a ball gag.

If we are really serious about leadership, not only in politics but in the businesses and even academia – we will make good straw if only we can consider putting an end to the cult of veneration and infallibility we often ascribe to scholars. This sort of corrosive mentality if you notice does not exist in either the West or even in broader Asia, for a very good reason. It’s a lousy way of soliciting peak performance. If you go to Hong Kong for example and ask any man on the street who his role model is, you will probably get Li Ka Shing. Do the same in the Boston and probably a host of names like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs will crop up. But come back to Singapore and everyone wants to be a mini me version of Lee Kuan Yew.

Here you really need to ask yourself what value that sort of role modeling brings to the table?

I cannot answer that question, as it will influence the readers. Now follow this loose thread and don’t be surprise if it accounts for why we have one of the most abysmal entrepreneurial class out there – I can say a lot about this topic, but let me just say this; when goals are structured, defined and positioned to hold out one version of reality that manages to encapsulate the whole idea of personal and organization success, then don’t be surprise, if society follows; every German for example in the 1900’s aspired to be join the armed services; because the heroes of that period were soldiers; they were usually accorded the highest respect and one could even say in pre Weimar Germany, no politician could even aspire to a respectable office in the Reichstag without at least having distinguished himself in the name of the Kaiser. What we are seeing here Kompf is nothing more than a process how every oligarchy ritualizes and even mythologizes the whole idea of its societal ideal.

The same came be said about the British; who once ruled one third of the world and that promoted the cult of the bureaucrat, where political life assumed an allure. Result: institutions were geared to produce perfect politicians. If you go to middle schools in Eton and Harrow, don’t be surprise to see young men dressed up in coat tails and bow ties as if they are preparing for a session in Westminster.

Q: Let me get it right. What you are saying is. When society sets an ideal; everything in that society is geared towards it? It becomes something like a self fulfilling prophecy?

A: Yes Kompf.

Q: Let me put it this way, don’t you think all these limiters that you have mentioned can be redressed with a dose of critical thinking?

A: Understand this Kompf. Critical thinking isn’t an activity like bending spoons. I can really speak on this topic for ten pages, but in one breath, it’s really just a function of exposure; in math terms you can express it as the more exposure you have to diversity, the greater your valence or capacity to understand this or that; so what we have here is a state of mind that is inextricably fused to the environment where you will find thematic words like “import” – “transplant” and even “transfer.”

In essence “critical thinking,” is really the quintessential bag word which implies an assortment of terms coloring our sense of scale, perspective and even spatial awareness. So what it really imposes is the discipline of multitudes; here you need to understand the word functions very closely with how we define our environment; so when one says; one should think critically and yet on the other hand gag foreigners from commenting; how far do you think you’re going to get in the critical thinking progress curve?

Here we really need to be brutally honest with the politics of lack. As a country and people, we certainly lack not only the obvious economies of scale in the physical, but it’s conceivable we may not even possess the requisite diversity or even intellectual landscape needed to revivify a class of intellectuals who may be highly adept at thinking critically, its simply not possible given Singapore’s present social constrains – you can even juxtapose these constrain on the social political canvas to account for why there no verve and elan in these spheres.

That’s why I have very little patience with people who go around banding the idea this is and that should only be for Singaporeans and off they go excluding everyone else. What these urination technicians fail to understand is there are turning away from the intellectual breadth, inputs, feedback etc all the stuff which we usually associate with the term diversity. In the long term, that just not intellectually sustainable, not in business, academia or even in politics.

My feel is local institutions disregard this new competitive calculus at their own peril and its not unusual because most of them do so for precisely for vest interest; job security features very prominently along with dead wood mentality, not knowing how to handle a maverick and labeling him a misfit is another, but if one peruse very carefully how firms and institutions in the West they have really identified these drivers of change. You will see that not only have they provisioned opportunities for these unconventional movers and shakers, but they have also raced ahead industries provisioning even havens for these mavericks to define their own metrics of individual and organizational success and this is very much reflected not only in the products and services they regularly produce, but also in their corporate culture. For instance, it not all together unusual to seek out CEO’s, Presidents and even Prime Ministers in the West who don’t even have the basic prerequisites to qualify if they were based Singapore! However despite their apparent limitations, the selection process has still managed to successfully separate the chaff from the wheat to regularly produce world class leaders who continually deliver not only a higher standard of living for their citizens, but they are also enjoy a higher quality of life and their industries lead the world – now if you say these things mean nothing, then you really don’t know what you are really talking about when we talk about talent management and leadership selection – its really as simple as that, unless you can tell me we managed to send a man up to the moon last week or something.

To be con’t

[Interview Series J.Kompf / Darkness – Please note: Most of the answers given by Darkness was provided by the ASDF – The Strategic Think Tank Unit of the Brotherhood / This interview series is funded by the Interstellar Federation of Free Guildsmen / The Brotherhood Press 2008 / This article was first posted on Phi Beta Kappa / The Singapore Daily / The Intelligent Singaporean / The Strangelands and ASICS – This interview series has been reconstituted courtesy of the Free Internet Library Board based in Primus Aldentes Prime – The Brotherhood Press / Retrieval Code for this EV 983929200]


  1. […] reasons? – Hard Hitting in the Lion City: ASEAN need to hit Myanmar’s rulers – Just Stuff: The Great Singaporean ‘Take Away’/ A Study in ‘Brain Drain’ Management – The boy who knew too much: A cause of death: legislation against fitness – Simple is the Reason […]

  2. Curious said

    My summary of this interview:
    ! == not.
    note disagree with some point.
    Scholar ! necessary = Talent.(Knowledge Acquisition phase)
    Talent = People who do thing and get thing done.
    Observation : Current SG sys is stuck in the imperial Exam phase Thus will experience the evolutionary force that have proven that sys as !robust.
    (own opinion NS Col++ rank != real world implementation of acquired knowledge no real battle base logistic management and deployment)
    Talent are mobile in order get satisfaction of needs so a conducive environment(technical, political, sense of belonging) is crucial.
    Talent in other place ! so bad cos They will gain XP and connection that will help them when they are back here.
    That why the ones who stay for whatever reason do have a reason to stay. That is to support the ones with higher mobility when they come back.
    ! to prove a warped sense of loyalty.
    But for the mobiles to come back sufficient changes must have occur for such event to happen.
    catch 22
    Change is good as it spark innovation.
    Science is the accumulation of knowledge base on observation and study of the changes that occur.
    Innovation = Change in design or implementation of a Change in technology.

  3. […] reasons? – Hard Hitting in the Lion City: ASEAN need to hit Myanmar’s rulers – Just Stuff: The Great Singaporean ‘Take Away’/ A Study in ‘Brain Drain’ Management – The boy who knew too much: A cause of death: legislation against fitness – Simple is the Reason […]

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