Friday, 6 November 2015

Developing Singapore Talent - The Great Wall Challenge

The Great Wall Challenge for Singapore Talents

Opportunities for Singapore Talent Development

From the Reflections of an Outsider Talent

As Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Singapore for a state visit on Friday, Nov 6, Singapore is expected to strengthen her uniquely special strategic bilateral framework with China.  Over the past 25 years of never-ending deepening ties and cooperation have the 2 countries built what can only be referred to as "a partnership of all-round cooperation keeping with the times".

Of more than 25,000 Singaporeans working in China, it is notable that most of our Singapore flag-bearers making impact in China are not those who are commonly referred to as “Talent” insofar that they are not graduates of top universities or have studied in famous elitist Singapore schools.  And very few are actually former Government scholars or have accumulated mostly “A’s” and distinction grades in their school examination transcripts.  

The overseas Singaporeans also invariably formed Singapore Societies and are proud Singaporeans who gathered regularly to celebrate common national events.  I know many personally and joined the Shanghai Singapore Association in celebrating National Day 2015 recently.


China has become Singapore's biggest trading partner with bilateral trade in 2014 totaling nearly US$80 billion (S$112 billion), which represents a 28-fold jump from over two decades ago.  Among other things during this visit is the launch of a third government-led project in China's western region with modern connectivity and modern services as its theme. 


President Xi Jinping’s visit is an opportune time to reflect on the need to review Singapore’s hitherto approach to talent development to target impact-creating Singaporeans so as to better prepare more Singaporeans for the vast career and life opportunities that have been established especially for them in China, and elsewhere in the world.

Why the Chinese Great Wall analogy for Talent Development?

As I walked a section of the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass, which is near the Ming Tombs just outside Beijing, I was struck by its tremendous architecture, but more by its place and impact on the historical developments of the world. 

The relatively simple concept of a defensive “wall” to deter marauding ‘barbarians’ from the North was in fact responsible for the substantial and massive upheavals in world history for nearly 1,000 years.   It is a clear example of the kind of impact that one can and should expect from the deployment of ordinary Singaporean talent.   

What is the relevance of the Great Wall of China to the nurturing and growing of Singapore Talents?

The simple Great Wall of China changes fundamentally the course of European history, and perhaps hastens the Renaissance and Reformation events, which saw the emergence of great scientific inventions that have made modernity possible.  The impact of the Great Wall is the extraordinary results from the deployment of ordinary talent.  


According to a National Geographic info-documentary, the Huns people, who were the forbearers of the Mongols, emerged from the 3rd century BC in the north of China but were unable to seriously threaten China in the South because of the Great Wall. As a result, the Huns eventually turned their attention westward towards Eastern Europe and then, when they were blocked by the Urals Mountains, decided to march northward toward Russia.


And at the beginning of the first century AD, the Huns swept across Asia towards Europe. They invaded the lower Volga valley and advanced westward, pushing the Germanic Ostrogoths and Visigoths before them and thus precipitating the great waves of migrations that eventually destroyed the Roman Empire and changed the face of Europe. They crossed the Danube, penetrated deep into the Eastern Empire, and forced many countries to pay them tribute. Attila The Hun, their greatest king, had his palace in Hungary. Most of the territories that now constitute European Russia, Poland, and Germany were tributaries to him, and he was also collecting tributes from the Roman Caesars in Rome.  When Rome refused to pay further tribute, the Huns invaded Italy and Gaul but were defeated, but they ravaged Italy before withdrawing after Attila’s death. Their descendants, the Mongols, returned to invade Europe after they had conquered China in 1215 AD, and remaining in Europe until the late 1400’s AD.  The rest is history.


Historians agreed that, if the First Chin Emperor Shih Huangti did not build the Great Wall, and the Huns had continued to attack China and likely conquered it 1,000 years earlier, Europe could very well have been spared the dire consequences of the Huns invasion and developed along very different tracks with possibly a much different pace and has different outcomes.    


What then constitute “The Great Wall Challenge” for “Talented” Singaporeans?  

Singapore currently has a “narrow” conception of “Talent” confined to looking at only individual attainments by way of grades, university degree honours, and doing more of the same things rather than riskier innovative stuff.  This is an immature and myopic understanding of true “Talent”.


“Talent” is evidenced by IMPACT.   Talent without impact is like erecting a simple wooden wall with interesting patterns and designs without useful purpose other than to satisfy the whims of its builder and superficial expectations of spectators.  

True Talent must be nurtured and cultivated in our people by Singapore education, community and society with great purpose and meaningful impact in mind.  The single-minded Goal is to obtain impact from every Singapore “Talent” in a manner that makes significant differences and positive change in the life of other people, the community, society, nationally and the world. 

From your experience, do you consider yourself a Singapore “Talent”?

Not in the current definition of the word.  I have over the years developed a set of unique competencies that I applied with some impact in unusual situational contexts that are rather unconventional and often out of the ordinary. In many high-level consulting assignments, whether with business organisations or with international agencies like the International Labor Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency, I feel continually challenged intellectually to unleash creativity to adapt my knowledge and experience to hitherto unthinkable circumstances.  I find such challenges invigorating and refreshing.  

In February 2003, I was appointed the International Consultant by the ILO for a high-level consultancy project for China.  I have been involved in high-level consultancy assignments for the governments of Canada and Vietnam. The China assignment is in line with what I refer to as “The Great Wall Challenge” to my calling and life purpose.

What is the nature of your China consultancy assignment?

That was in 2003 the first meeting by Chinese social dialogue partners – government, trade unions and employers’ organisations – to discuss the structure and process of tripartite social dialogue that the Chinese government was keen to embrace.   The participants included the Ministry of Labour and Social Services (MOLSS), Beijing City People’s Committee, senior central and provincial government officials, senior officials from the All-China Confederation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and senior officials of various employers and business federations.

How did you feel about the United Nations’ ILO appointment?

It was not my first UN ILO engagement. I was again humbled by the privilege to facilitate a historic event that could define permanently the labour relations landscape of a huge country like China.   The opportunity to work with 3 other highly competent and knowledgeable senior ILO officials of various nationalities provided much learning opportunities for sharing and mutual learning, leaving me rather refreshed and energized after the China assignment. I had already worked with one of them to facilitate the historic startup of Vietnamese Industrial System previously.  Subsequently, I participated in the follow-up events held in Beijing, Xiamen, Dalian and other major cities over the following months.


As some follow-up assignments to Vietnam and China are postponed because of SARS, I have been sought for a new high-level consulting assignment … this time to Cambodia, another totally ‘virgin’ country with hardly any experience in industry, commerce and labour relations.  


This is really my preferred choice of learning environment.  It is also my first appointment by the International Organisation of Employers (IOE).   The IOE is the only organisation at the international level that represents the interests of business in the labour and social policy fields. Today, it consists of 136 national employer organisations from 132 countries from all over the world. The IOE provides the Secretariat to the ILO Employers' Group in all its various activities and pursues a number of policy priorities within the ILO.

The high-level strategy consulting assignment requires me to embark on a field trip in the summer of 2003. The mission focus is to identify and map the challenges and prospects facing the Cambodian Federation of Employers' and Business Associations (CAMFEBA), and to guide the development of appropriate action plans to engage the key issues over the following 3-5 years in a subsequent high-level CAMFEBA Strategy Workshop.

How can Singapore deploy the “Great Wall” Principle of Talent Development?


The global context is the learning eco-system for island-based Singaporeans.  A safe “kiasi-kiasu” (fear of losing or failure) culture nurtured by the education system has cultivated and gravitated an elitist group of “talented” Singaporeans to the top of the Government civil service, Armed Forces, Government-linked corporations and community organisations who are unaccustomed and reluctant to own the risks of making adaptive changes to policies and system processes without expressed directions from their political masters.  


Singapore should stop identifying “Talent” by the mere show of personal school attainments, but to be able to predict and confirm the “Talent” value ultimately by the measure of its impact on the real world. The fruits of Talent defined by impact outcomes are certainly more important to sustain the relevance of the Singaporean Talent to Singapore and to the global community. 



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