Sunday, January 27, 2019

On employee engagement, productivity, and the death of a Singapore Son.

One of my favourite bloggers, TACOMOB has not only made a come back after taking a long break from his blog, he showed up for my preview this week. I strongly urge you guys to read his comeback article here because it provides a lot of food for thought.

The FIRE movement is strengthened by the dissatisfaction of workers in Singapore. While we are not responsible for the poor work cultures in Singapore that lead to so many workers becoming disengaged, we derive a lot of our popularity from it.

Attaining FIRE often requires massive personal sacrifices, sometimes we spend less than 20% of our take home pay. The only impetus that can lead to such behaviour is immense dissatisfaction at work and the dysfunctional workplaces that we have.

Attached is a word cloud spontaneously generated by the preview attendees when I asked them to use one word to describe their working life.

On TACOMOB's blog article, he did not explore why we are disengaged. I thought I'd explain it in a politically incorrrect manner that, if he had done so this way, he would have gotten into trouble in thin-skinned Singapore. So it is best that a Singaporean blogger do this.

The brutal truth is this : Singapore managers, unlike their Ang Moh counterparts, are culturally immature.

Another words, Singapore managers suck.

The Singapore corporate landscape is brutal for a developed economy. Singapore workers work 45 hours a week. German workers work on about 26 hours a week. In spite of that, Germany remains one of the most successful economies in the Eurozone today.

I personally transitioned from an American corporate culture to a Hindi-speaking start-up and then out of the private sector into public organisations run by locals. I rate my experience with expat managers like TACOMOB as the most pleasant and egalitarian I ever experienced in my life. I rate my experience with local managers as one of the most unpleasant, actually worse than my time in an Indian start-up. I still remember the days when a director of mine, a control freak, would expect me to parrot his exact phrases when preparing me for a presentation to a room of senior directors. ( Even though I am way better a public speaker than him. )

Singaporean bosses are "ngiao" and very stingy with praise. I wrote a letter thanking a committee for letting me play the role of secretariat and was subtly told that I should not have done so (without reason). They are actually very entitled and are protected by our resistance to a welfare state economy. On the other hand European and US managers are trained to deal with very aggressive unions. How many local bosses ever had to negotiate with an angry union leader or even an employee who does not need his job to feed his family ?

What is the root cause of this ?

The time it takes to build a corporate culture is much longer than the time it takes for a country to leap from third world to first world. We've only had half a century of independence, so Singapore has the hardware of a first world country but we are essentially a country running third world management software. If you observe the behaviour of a top senior director in a government agency, his management methods assume that his men are going to be lazy and will ring-fence their work - sad thing is that he right, these agencies often retain the workers who are the best at doing that.

The sum total of our immature corporate culture has taken its toll on the country lately.

We've lost a prominent son of Singapore to SAF training lately. Whichever side you are in, safety in a dangerous organization like the SAF can never succeed if it is top down. It has to be maintained on the ground by the rank and file. But for safety to be bottom up, a soldier must feel that he can report a lapse without facing consequences.

In my penultimate ICT with the SAF I was in a Brigade and during an exercise, my land rover's engine stopped working in the middle of an expressway. After we pushed the rover to the side, The MT line sent a tow vehicle to our location but left us at the side of the road. In the end, we called our Signals CSM who is a cab driver to pick us up in his cab. When we finally got back, the canteen was closed and we basically ended up skipping one meal.

I wanted to complain, but there are so many impediments. First of all, no one died. Subsequently, a feedback session recorded my feedback, and there was a promise was made to update us on the next ICT. That did not occur. By next ICT, I did not want to pursue the matter because it would brand me a "troublemaker" (I was not legally trained then). As much I as liked my commander, brigade command staff were almost all chosen from powerful echelons of Singapore society. Offending them or giving them extra paperwork may have long term consequences.

After what happened to Aloysius Pang, I felt a deep sense of regret of my conduct during my days as an NSman.

The right thing to do would be to hound the powers that be until we get some assurance that land-rovers are properly maintained. I might be punished - the biggest punishment would be relegated to a  Battalion, but maybe if some other soldier were more disagreeable, maybe, just maybe Aloysius Pang would be ok today.

Unlike other folks, I'm not calling for the blood of the CDF or the COA. Once we become NSmen, we have more autonomy and power in society. Maybe some professionals who can write nasty letters and have plenty of investments can summon the courage to take a stand against safety lapse.

It is up to us, professionals, possibly FIRErs who might be financially independent, who can pick a fight and not get squashed by the military machine.


  1. When i was in NS and one particular civilian job later that involved life & limb, i very quickly preferred to be in an on-the-ball unit & working with serious colleagues. Sure we all bitched about the job/tasks and mgmt, but not when we were on the job or in the danger zones.

    I used to get real mad when assigned with bochap colleagues when there is possibility of bodily harm. Many a time when i would demand reassignment of guys or duties. Otherwise i would adopt a real paranoid look out for #1 attitude and be damned about the snake eaters.

    Conversely when i was working in the typical office or cubicles, my preference was for slacker work environment & colleagues. Just get the important stuff done & don't be so anal about things.

  2. This sounds like really good advice everyone should follow.

    Is this the oil rigging industry ?

  3. Shipbuilding.

    We built submersible & semi-sub oil rigs šŸ˜‰

  4. Hi Chris, good insightšŸ‘totally agree.