Monday, October 30, 2017

Titles Culture : A Demon of our own Design.

I think it's going to be quite vogue to talk about "Titles Culture" in Singapore today. "Titles Culture" happens when Singapore yuppies get together. The first thing they try to probe are the schools that you have attended. In this other article on Today, this is repositioned as an act of probing for weaknesses.

Like many things about Singapore society, it's easy to point out our problems and then try to appeal towards a "mindset" change. This always sets off alarm bells for me because it smacks of not really trying to solve the problem at all. Mindsets will only change if there are underlying socio-economic reasons for reform - otherwise the status quo remains.

I did not experience "Titles culture" when I became an engineer 20 years ago. The idea of a JC/University student doing tech willingly was sufficiently rare in the face of IT Outsourcing and the usual Senior IT engineer was an NCC Diploma holder or someone with a Private degree. There is also no need to probe for any weaknesses when any degree holder can volunteer to leave IT to get a better paying job in Banking or even Real Estate.

The "Titles Culture" really started to hit me when I tried to enter the legal sector.

Law students are cows.

Law students are really graded like Kobe Beef in the workplace, a summa cum laude or First Class can be as expensive as grade A4 Kobe beef with A5 grade reserved only for the Oxford BCL or Cambridge tripos graduate. I found myself probed right up to the subject level and my interviewers were really interested in my JC and secondary school experience.

[ A classmate just corrected me. An Oxford BCL is the equivalent of a Masters. A tripos is an exam name. I will leave the mistake here for the reader's edification. Cambridge Law degree is a BA Tripos Law. I also need to get my knowledge of beef right. Only Wagyu is graded like what I described. ]

Being probed did not annoy me, but here are some uncomfortable thoughts about "Titles Culture".

a) What if this is really a better system of meritocracy in Singapore ?

One of the things I picked up in Part B is that Law Students are actually quite well-rounded and smart.

I tried to start a negotiation session by asking my opponent when he did A level maths and then worked with him on turning the legal case into a maths problem involving the Binomial distribution and was pleasantly surprised that he understood the maths perfectly. At the end of the session, I felt a tinge of sadness because my opponent would have made a decent engineer and could have created quite a number of jobs in Tech. In fact, every single decent engineering student who could have build a unicorn in Blk 71 have gone to Law or Medical school because of our society's priorities.

You can hate Titles culture but what if it is really what we have been working towards in the past 20 years ? If 40% of the population can enter Universities and there is already a route to the top from Polytechnics and ITEs, then there are fewer excuses for not getting a degree in the first place. Furthermore, as more late bloomers no longer find themselves disadvantaged, people no longer feel elitist when they probe the schools you come from.

It becomes culture. A habit adopted by everyone.

It might actually be a fair and objective benchmark.

b) It begs the question as to what can replace Titles Culture ?

As much as I dislike Titles Culture, I'm not sure what can possibly replace it.

Older European cultures still have aristocratic titles like Duke, Viscount or Baron. Is this the kind of culture we want ? What if like some countries we want to know whether someone is related to someone in the ruling party ? Twenty years ago, the status symbol is the company you worked for. You get a lot more credibility if you worked for a international bank or an oil firm.

The major question for any reformer is how should HR change its practices in the future ? I agree in part with the Startup community that a skills based meritocracy is what we really need to build a vibrant ecosystem but is this realistic? If the startup community wants to do this, it has to actually pay for skills and get their HR to set an example by not using paper qualifications.

Why is this not being done? Why are our startups not trying to headhunt our Poly and ITE graduates ?

If you you pay a top flight programmer from Poly the same as a CS grad from NUS, we will get the skills meritocracy we deserve.

c) So should we make your net worth your report card ?

The issue at the end of the day is how to really stop feeling like shit if you don't meet up to other people's benchmarks. I don't have a comfortable solution as well.

As far as I know, markets don't look at your qualifications when they decide to give you a dividend. Perhaps your net worth can become your report card.

Personally, I don't really like this approach as well because most ACS alumni start out with much more than I do. Some financial bloggers struggled with a working class existence before becoming financially independent, I think they deserve more credit than those who have a push from a posher background.

d) Maybe we really need a mindset change after all - specifically, yours.

Our education system, being Asian, does not really put an emphasis on self-esteem. There has to be science behind building a set of beliefs that allow us to keep our confidence up when some asshole starts asking you what school your come from and how many H3 subjects you took during your A levels.

( Although in my opinion, the last thing you need is to have someone in a school or government to bestow a "title" on you to make you feel like a human being. In the US, you can get a trophy for coming in at 6th place - we should not build a culture that celebrates mediocrity. )

I'm not a trained psychologist but I recommend that we seek a "confidence target", a major win in life that can form a bedrock to buttress our personal esteem. This can be running a successful business. Becoming famous for a worthy social cause. Making a big social contribution. Being a champion in a sub-culture. ( Like being a Grand Prix Champion for Magic the Gathering although many of them are pretty big assholes too ! )

Unfortunately, many will go through their lives without ever winning a major milestone to give them enough self-esteem to resist a Titles Culture.

But we owe it to ourselves to give it a try.

Just don't let the assholes win.


  1. Chris - great article.

    Maybe instead of benchmarking to 'assholes' one might want to adopt a philosophy of benchmarking to their past self.

    Driving oneself through competition or desire might be initially a good move, but it does come at a cost at the end.

  2. It's really admirable to employ a personal benchmark but the effect of doing that can differ from individual to individual.

    Some people will lead lives of constant and never-ending improvement, trying to overcome themselves at every stage of their lives. I am, however, more familiar with folks who do this and end up leading a mediocre existence because they set such pathetic and low standards for themselves.

    The opinions of the general public and what society cherishes as external forms of success is not something we should completely write off. Sometimes, they have a point.

    Also, societal progress often depends on it.

  3. Hi Chris,

    I admire your writing as well as analytical ability and have read through many pages of your blog (not through to the first post yet, but will get there).

    Like you, I am keen to learn more about REITs and your investing philosophy.

    I also came across the talk you would be having on 22 Nov , but realised the tickets are sold out. Would there be any possible way I could get seats for your talk ?

  4. Verseun,

    I think it's going to be quite hard to get seats for the talk as we're really sold out.

    How 100 seats can be sold out within such a short time baffles me.

    After every talk, I will conduct an after action review here.


  5. That's because you are really good. Thanks for sharing. And I look forward to your next talk. (By the way when is your next talk?)

  6. The talk schedules are organised by my company directors, I promote them as soon as I am aware of it here.

    Anyway, you can always follow my AAR when I put it up.