Where should firms go from Brexit and Trumpism

February 7, 2017

Q: Where do you see it all going from this point onwards?

A: My position has always been super clear. Globalization as a school of thought to me has never been a sustainable idea – so my recommendation in the form of a solution has to be exactly the same solution that I have always advocated in the past.

There is a need to redefine the whole philosophy of globalization and free trade in such a way where people who work hard and who are industrious don’t get left behind simply because the system spits them out in the name of the profit motive.

Q: How should this philosophy be defined. By who? The politicians? Industrialist? Intellectuals?

A: I don’t think there is a need to reinvent the wheel – if you look around Kompf. There are some countries and even firms and we are not talking about mummy & daddy Inc here. These are very serious firms who make products or offer services that people are willing to vote with their wallets. It’s not true to say that every country has not emerged better, stronger, healthier and more optimistic from globalization – like I said there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

All that needs to be done in my considered opinion is to look at the underlying philosophy that governs these firms from every functional aspects ranging from the work compact between employer and employee to perhaps even how management and workers define organizational and personal success to derive at a list of best practices.

Q: When you speak about philosophy. Are you also talking about culture, attitudes, value and behavioral norms?

A: Of course. Let me give you an illustration. You know if you observe some firms around the world…the really good ones that have all it all together – they don’t ever promote workers who stay back after five. You want to know why because the philosophy of that firm defines that sort of method of approaching work as counter productive and in some cases it even reflects very badly on one’s productivity.

But conversely in Japan – it’s a badge of honor to die standing at your workplace – widows would proudly recount how their husbands died as he worked so hard.

Q: But isn’t Japan a great industrial power?

A: It certainly is. But it’s also going no where as well – economically at least from a strictly metric and KPI perspective – the Japanese economy has already made it to the Guinness Book three times over and a bit as the only nation that has the most prolonged period of stagnation. It’s also a nation with a huge lost or confused generation – where the youths these days don’t want to work any longer like those who came before them, simply because they have seen first hand how corrosive and hazardous work can be. So when you add and subtract all this – yes on one hand you can say Japan is certainly still a great country. But at the same time. You can deny it’s also going nowhere.

Q: So what do you see as the basic structural set pieces of this so called new philosophy that globalization desperately needs?

A: You’re not listening to me Kompf. Not as you usually would. Perceptively at least. As I said, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel – as there are already business models out there that can be retrofitted into the idea of globalization to render it more humane, egalitarian and even fair. Let me give you one illustration – at a time when both firms and government desperately need to craft a new covenant with society. Consider how crowdfunding as a business model has changed not only the way business is conducted. But alongside that change there is also a social cultural paradigm shift.

It’s not the shift that’s significant – it’s the social rammification of that shift where you could say power has devolved from officialdom to the individual – I know there is still a lot of skepticism about crowdfunding especially from a sustainability standpoint. But my point is simply to illustrate how crowdfunding has developed from just a kooky idea into a very serious and powerful finance model that can recruit ordinary people – I think the key word here is ‘include’ or inclusion. As one of the failings of globalization as a school of thought is it’s the direct opposite of that idea where you have people dressed in Italian suits driving BMW’s and staying in the four seasons sitting behind closed doors and brainstorming a grand economic architecture how we should all live along to what might make us all happiest – frankly that whole imagery was what Trump singularly leveraged on to win.

I think my second point is – when I brought up crowdfunding – It’s not really the funding part that is profoundly intriguing. Rather it’s how crowdfunding as a business model is transforming the traditional culture of how we all see things moving from the realm of theory to reality. Be it making parks funner places to perhaps even revivifying whole communities to of course funding weird projects like making elephants fly.

Q: So let me summarize. As you have thrown out a lot of ideas here. You’re saying the philosophy that governs globalization needs to be changed from the inside by the people and not top down by governments?

A: It’s a bit fuzzy now. Only because what I am proposing is so new – but it think Kompf, you’ve got the gist of it – the way I see it globalization is heavy on the top down approach it takes it’s cue from cod liver oil – as the general public is often told, it’s bitter, but good for you.

And to be honest – for the most part of globalization, it’s actually good. I am not here to say it’s a malevolent force that only produces good. But since it’s top down and non inclusive like the TPP where only those who stand to benefit most are privy to the conceptualizing the economic architecture all it does is marginalize droves of stakeholders who just feel whatever little power they still have is arbitrarily gazzumped by governments – it’s a PR disaster.

Q: Can you give us an illustrating where globalization has failed so miserably to the point where people no longer feel they’re empowered?

A: You know Kompf. Speak to any aid worker in Africa and they will probably tell one of the perennial problems is water, specifically transporting potable water. Speak to WFP, FAO, USAID. Speak to even the Aga Khan foundation to the Hare Krishna’s and they will tell you the same thing – you know what for the last fifty bloody years, the sheer amount of men and material that has been invested by all these good intentioned folk to transport water has failed. They put their best industrial engineers. Their best mechanical engineers to convince rural Africans to use their nifty water carrying contraptions and each and every one of these projects have failed.

You want to know why Kompf – because no one has ever just sat down on a rock early in the morning to watch African women walk to the well and carry water on their heads. May not deceptively simple but it’s not. As when the Africa woman puts twenty liters on her head and walks, her hips swings like a pendulum off setting the downward weight just enough so she hardly feels the weight – from a standpoint of physics, carrying water on the head is kinetically far more efficient than even military backpacks.

That’s why they all fail. What perhaps I am trying to say here is globalization isn’t an universal solution. You know I rue the passing of wet markets. I used to live in Tanah Merah. Then super big supermarkets came along and of course with volume they could provably deliver in the parlance of free trade – greater value at less cost to consumers. But if I go to Seng Shiong – I can’t my salmon deboned and cut the way the friendly uncle in the wet market knows then way I like it – I don’t get extra value. All I seem to get is stuff that I need to go back home and do extra work to get it the way I like it to be cooked. So I think globalization in some areas have gone so far that it just displaces people and most importantly the sense of community that makes living interesting. I mean if I pick up the phone – I don’t want to talk to a robot that will ask me twenty stupid questions before I actually end up talking to a human being who will ask me the same twenty questions I just answered.

My point is globalization needs a soul. Tell me ever heard of a word called simpatico?

Q: No…what about it?

A: Not going to tell you.

Q: Do you think businesses are earning too much at the expense of workers?

A: That’s a loaded question. And you know it! What I think is for way too long the trite corporate mantra is of delivering more value to the shareholder needs to be first tempered with the idea of the giving due respect to the idea of dignity of labor.

The problem with firms these days is so much of their corporate culture is an accretion of the free market in so many various shapes and forms ranging from arbitrage to how their stocks may perform in their respective bourses that the worker these days is alienated from the idea of dignity of labor that he or she is just a means to an end.

I don’t necessarily blame firms per se – I blame the people who wrote the rules of how the game is played.

And the cost to all this is staggering. Especially for a highly competitive place like Singapore that’s really at the leading edge of globalization. You know before it was just really well educated Sumiko Tan from Holland V who felt that work was more important than motherhood. But now even Sengkang Sally who works in an assembly line somewhere in Boon Lay has decided to it’s better to hang up her eggs – so at the end of the day the whole idea of the nuclear family is seen as a national liability.

Of course if you speak to politicians they will say, what to do? It’s inexorable. It’s happening all over the world! The trend is irreversible. Don’t blame us!

But what politicians will never ever tell you is, that’s one aspect of globalization.

So the whole narrative begins and ends there.

Q: What’s your point?

A: It boils down to the whole idea of how one goes about measuring success – that’s what determines the rest of the loci that follows thereafter. Again this is not new Kompf. The soviets found this out the hard way – they set five year plans on measuring organizational success for their glass factories in tonnage and what they ended up with were glass goblets which were so heavy people were using them as door stoppers and paper weights. Then someone said, we are still short of glasses in the Soviet Union – so they changed the metrics to quantity of glasses produced and when that happened factories began churning out thin delicate wine glasses that were so fragile that they had to spend a bomb on just packaging them with extra stiff cardboard that cancelled out the gains.

My point is globalization is a bit like that – since it’s driven by only by the metric of delivering greater value to the shareholder, it optimizes everything in the name of the profit motive – you’re in your forties, well there’s even an actuarial software that can calculate what your utility against your renumeration would be in cold and metallic utility terms. Next thing you know. You’re retrenched. Because for what they pay you – they can probably get three graduates from some third world country to not only do your job, but probably out perform you.

To exacerbate the workers lot these days. Now you have automation and robots – today you still see humans driving trains, buses and planes. But one day all and much more would be done with digitalization and programs and where do all these people go? What do they do? Do they sit at home and watch TV all day?

Q: I do get the feeling you do actually share some of Trump’s sentiments, especially when you talk about the idea of dignity of labor, respect for the worker. How much does your thinking converge with his?

A: The difference between Trump and me is he’s I suspect a sentimentalist – where he might even harbor the belief it’s possible to return back to the good olde cottage industry days of little house in the Prairie or that other TV serial Bonanza – where everyone including Hop Seng has clearly defined roles and they all have jobs.

I on the other hand am a realist. Globalization as a school of thought. Even state of mind is irreversible – the tragedy is that it’s not as if globalization makes compelling sense that perpetuates it – it’s just that most nations these days are so addicted to the narcotic of growth at all cost. Even destroying the environment is just a punctuation mark – that it has become the only game in town.

And let me be prosaic. In any game. In the beginning. You may exert control over the outcome. But at some point – it’s no longer a case of how well you play the game as much as how it will play you.

And that’s really where we are in the chessboard of world affairs.

Q: What would your advise be to the average Singaporean worker in the background of these changes that you see between the altering compact between firms and employees?

A: Globalization is a self perpetuating equation that will only sharpen and heighten as time goes by – it’s like one of those machines that squeezes out every drop from an orange. And that simply means the life cycle of a job will get shorter. If it’s twenty years now. In five to six years may be fifteen or even less and that means the aperture for upward mobility for most workers will get shorter. Those are the lucky ones – most will just get retrenched before the end of their natural life cycle.

Of course government being government will always prescribe training. But anecdotal evidence suggest this is at best rain dancing.

For me the only sustainable approach is to start an enterprise. To have the end in the mind from the very beginning when one enters the workforce – to always be curious and even be inquisitive enough to always ask, how can I insert myself in the value chain as an independent contractor, product or service provider….when I decide to start my own enterprise – it’s doesn’t necessary have to be high tech based. Don’t be drawn in by that hype and spin. To be honest with you all this preoccupation with innovation and creativity pays out lousy dividends. Just look at the Fortune 500 list. How may high tech companies even make it for a full ten year run. Very few. The ones that sustain. The ones that growth steadily and pay out good dividends are the boring firms that only use high tech to balance their accounts and very little else. So don’t fixated with technology.

Because if you fall into that trap you’re just cutting off an entire field of possibilities for yourself.

You know I happen to know of hotel workers who eventually started laundry services when hotels decided to outsource their entire laundry cleaning to contractors. There are many doors that can open when one is inquisitive – but don’t do stupid things like start a cup cake shop or a gourmet coffee outlet just because everyone is doing just that – that’s not business. It’s just infanticide when you decide to follow what everyone is doing.

Find your own niche. It takes some time. And you might not always get the recipe right the first time – so be kind to yourself. As most of it doesn’t come by following the yellow brick road that everyone else is walking on – just go your own way. You know I happen to know this cycling enthusiast who makes specialized components for stuff that’s not even profitable for big companies to produce. He started small with a mini lathe the sort that hobbyist would use and worked in between his day job and now he has steady orders that keeps him busy 24/7 just fulfilling global orders.

Today he’s big and his products are even on aircrafts.

Like I said it doesn’t have to be necessarily high tech or even space age – it just needs to be something that fulfills a need that people are willing to vote with their wallet.

I mean Singapore is not exactly a stimulating place to inspire enterprises so it takes a lot effort. With dead wood outfits like HDB and URA who have been around for over fifty years and they don’t even see the value in investing core competence in tropical architecture…it’s very hard to get inspired. Or just having enterpenuers who seem to only know how to build malls and run hotels and very little else.

But don’t let that demoralize you – my point is try to look at it all from the inside out. That’s what a job gives you. A vantage to see opportunity. Like even in my job as a farmer. There are many things I want to buy, but it doesn’t exist – I want a wheel barrow that is power assisted. So that if I press a button it would allow me to conserve energy uphill. Go do that and I promise you that I will pull up to your drive way in a Mercedes 500SEL and write a cheque there and then for four containers of battery powered wheelbarrows. No talking!

To me there is something very wrong with the picture when all everyone seems to do is to make cars drive by themselves when the basics like pushing a wheelbarrow hasn’t even been sorted yet.

And leads me to my second point – there’s a lot of myopia, blinkered and tunnel vision out there that hasn’t really been clear commercially harvested yet – but know the process – how do I know there is a demand for this sort of thing? Because I happen to have a habit of working alongside my farm hands from time to time – and that enables me to see and understand their work from the inside out to get insights.

So that is what I mean by looking at things from the inside out – it’s not a complicated metaphysical thing or even zen attitude where you have to sit cross legged for one hour every day – it just means you have an attitude that is strategic where before you even start a thing. You already have the end in mind.

But do it your way. Rely on no one. They will just let you down or tell you stupid things that will just demotivate you.

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