TRE writer on why must have FT CEOS

In Uncategorized on 29/09/2020 at 4:43 am

Local talent pretty BS.

Buddy Capitalism Continues

A few nights ago, the Young Pork Guzzling Muslim Politician sent me a photo of several Linkedin profiles of people working at Standard Chartered Bank. The only thing that that connected them, other than the fact that they were working for Standard Chartered Bank was the fact that everyone was from India. I told him that I didn’t know why he was sending me the photo; a copy of which can be seen below:

He called and explained that people in one of his WhatsApp chats were getting agitated by the fact that Singaporeans were getting upset that plum jobs were going to Indian Nationals and not to Singaporeans. It was, as they say, the same story about the Indian Nationals stealing jobs from locals and only helping themselves and so on and so on. As far as most Singaporeans (or at least the ones on the net are concerned) the Indian Expats are a group of unqualified louts stealing from the hard working honest, Singaporeans graduate.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. While it’s easy to take a snap shot of someone’s Linkedin profile, it’s another thing to actually read that person’s profile and assess whether he or she has gotten to where they have been through fair or foul means. If you look at the 15 profiles, you’ll note that one of them was from the National University of Singapore and another one was from INSEAD. If you look at those who were from Indian Universities, one was from Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA – the place that gave you Ajjay Bangha, CEO of Mastercard) and another was from Indian Institutes of Management Calcutta (IIMC, – the place that gave you Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsico). If you were to delve deeper into these profiles, you’d notice that the majority of them had at least a decade of experience working with the bank and more often than not, they had experience in the big market of India and within the Southeast Asian region.

So, while I don’t doubt that there are Indian Expatriates who are not qualified to be where they are (which is the same that can be said for any other group), Singapore as a collective, needs to get rid of the idea that the only talented people in the world are Westerners and Singaporeans as the loyal servants of the West.

The reality is that “developing” Asia is producing people that are qualified to do great things and are doing great things. If you look at the world’s game changing companies, there is Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, who from Indian Institutes of Management Kharagpur (IIMK) and there’s Microsoft CEO Staya Nadella from Manipur Institute of Technology. It may be hard for the average Singaporean to swallow, but the fact is Mr. Nadella is credited for making Microsoft sexy again after years of being dull when it was being run by Steve Balmer.

By contrast, I can’t think of a Singaporean, trained in Singapore who has gone onto run a company outside the Singapore and the Singapore government. OK, Ogilvy hired Tham Khai Meng to be its world-wide creative head, but Khai was trained in the UK. There was apparently a vice-president on the board of 3M who was from Singapore.

However, nobody talks about this because it’s politically inconvenient. For the “opposition” camps in Singapore it’s easier to talk about how our government has sold us out to India and China. It’s easy to talk about how unfair life is for the ordinary Singaporean who will be overwhelmed by unqualified Indians stealing their jobs.

If the “opposition” camp is guilty of playing on native resentments against dark skinned people, the government is playing an equally insidious but far more subtle game. The government is currently playing a rather confused game. On one hand, it is claiming that welcoming foreigners is good for Singaporeans and on another it is calling Singaporeans racist and xenophobic when they complain that they are being discriminated against in their own land. What is going on here?

I believe there’s an element of distraction here. If Singaporeans were to look at the “real” cause of their job losses, they’d realise that they’ve been screwed by what I’ve called “Buddy Capitalism,” rather than by evil geniuses from India and China. This came out very clearly in a blog piece by Emanuel Daniel, on Piyush Gupta, the CEO of DBS. Mr. Daniel’s blog entry can be found here.

Mr. Daniel, who runs the Asian Banker, is a well-connected figure in the Asian Financial Industry and he’s spent decades studying trends in the industry. He takes Mr. Gupta to task for not doing enough to prepare his bank for the future (He’s accused Mr. Gupta of believing his own hype and enforcing a system rather than preparing for a changing world), but at the same time he argues that Mr. Gupta has done more for DBS and Singapore than his four immediate predecessors (all foreigners) and when compared to the CEOs of the other Government Linked Companies. Mr. Daniel points out that under Mr. Gupta, DBS has continued to see a growth in revenue and profits (LINK) unlike a good portion of the GLCs who have lost money despite having a near monopoly on their respective markets.

A few people were offended by Mr. Daniel’s article, arguing that he was ignoring the fact that the other GLC’s like Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and the Singapore Mass Rapid Transport (SMRT) were run by military men who had been parachuted in with no commercial experience and thus screwed it up. It wasn’t Singaporeans per se.

However, I think their missing the point. Mr. Daniel has very clearly articulated that the key issue in Singapore is the fact that “talent” is inevitably about creating compliance rather than competence. Brilliant people are taken over by the government and made so comfortable that they have no need to excel at anything in particular. One only has to think of the number of military scholars who have been promoted effortlessly to very cushy positions. In the SAF, competence can be a handicap. You will inevitably be replaced by a scholar with no experience. I think of 21 SA in my day. There was a CO called Tan Chong Boon, who was what we call a farmer (A-levels, worked his way up). The then, Major Tan turned a sleepy unit into a fit fighting force by sheer guts. Then, 21SA was awarded the best artillery unit, they posted him out so that a scholar could replace him and get the glory.

The second point that Mr. Daniel makes is that the big GLC’s have a habit of knee caping small enterprises with the blessing of the regulators. In another blog piece, Mr. Daniel argues in another blog piece that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has made it such that all Fintech Systems must have an actual bank account with an established bank, unlike say China or the USA. This ensures that the Fintechs will never be able to take away from the banks and in turn serve as convenient contractors rather than competitors. (LINK)

Why would the government do that? I believe that as much as the government talks about wanting to be “future ready,” it is in fact unwilling to prepare for the future and thus moves to protect its established companies from anything resembling competition. As such, you get companies that think of monopoly profits as a right rather than something that has to be earned.

Let’s look back at the attempt to introduce competition into the media in the early 2000s. That experiment ended within four years when both MediaCorp and SPH found they were losing money. They then spent the next few years arguing over whether readership or viewership figures were more meaningful without realizing that people found more relevant news sources online than they did in print or TV. Unfortunately for both media houses, the advertisers noticed too and before you knew it, SPH was trying to reinvent itself as a real estate company and has shed Singaporean jobs.

Why does the government mollycoddle companies like that? Well, it’s a case of buddy capitalism. Where can you put your buddies if you don’t have profitable sectors?

Our system has worked to make the Singaporean incapable of shinning in their own land and the need to hire foreigners to run the show is the inevitable result. If you listen to government communications, you’ll notice that its always the same theme – Singapore has a limited talent pool and therefore you need to rotate buddies from the government and private sector and supplement them with people from elsewhere.

In 2016, this was proven untrue at the Rio Olympics. We had Joseph Schooling, who beat the world’s greatest swimmer to win our first ever gold medal. What should be very telling is the fact that had Mr. Schooling stayed behind, he probably would never have won anything. His good fortune was to have parents who were willing to leave Singapore so that their son could develop his talent and in the end, bring glory to Singapore.

You’re not going to make life better for Singaporeans by mollycoddling them on this island and telling them everything is OK when it isn’t. You’re not going to help by banning foreigners. You will only get a solution when you break up the buddy system and ensure that Singaporeans have to develop their talents.

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

  1. Think those complaining are in the middling – lower middling jobs but any Singaporean aiming high won’t play the race card. That said, Indians (and Aussies) are notorious are organising gangbangs with their own kind. The other thing is Gupta is a poor example to build such a long article (Daniel’s) about. Not the person but the industry……. the local banks can only be as good as the regulatory regime allow them to be. There is a reason why they have strong capital ratios and are at the same time (until pandemic) profitable. Usually one offsets the other, trade-offs. Uniquely Singapore they can both but someone paid for it – the banks’ retail and SME customers. Lol!!!

    • Its the middling and the lower middling grp that is driving the conversation online. We are sleep walking into becoming a society that is highly intolerant. E.g. the callous comments on the news abt the Msians who did not see their children for the past 6 mths.

      Just need a populist to come to provide that spark.

    • They like those who supported Hitler, Mussolini etc. And there are good reasons for the anger sadly. An American fan of Trump “The economic system is unfair. It’s not enough to work hard, you have to work extra-hard. If you’re good, it’s not enough. You have to be super-good and know the right people — otherwise you won’t earn enough to live.”
      I got to know some hard working, smart kids few yrs ago. I felt sad as I tot they’d be among the many struggling good.
      Turned out that they are scholar material. One’s an overseas MoE scholar and her sister could get an overseas merit scholar — exams coming. But she already qualifies for Cornell. As I told them, God (They tah chiat Christians) gave them the appropriate gifts so that the PAP will look after them. They had it rough emotionally when I first knew them. Dad had walked out on mum.

  2. Forget to mention the MAS allowed it which is also the reason for the bit about requiring bank accounts for Fintech….. this bit is quite common unless the Fintech gets big enough to have its own cash float. Anyway local CEOs didn’t exactly covered themselves with glory.

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