Monday, February 19, 2007

Isn't Thailand So Much More of a Democracy than Singapore?

Despite potentially undermining the reputation of his country's reputation as a safe opportunity for foreign investment, Gen. Sonthi not too long declared that he wanted to reverse the sale of Shin Corp from Thai hands into the portfolio of Temasek Holdings, an investment arm of the government of Singapore.

In spite of the military fashion in which he displaced Thaksin Shinawatra, the way Sonthi seems to be going about trying to get back the telecommunications assets seems to be very democratic. Just today, there is news that "Thailand to poll nation on reclaiming satellites from Singapore." It is not sure what sort of poll is going to be conducted, whether it is going to be a national referendum or whether it is just going to be a survey conducted by sampling a subsection of the population to determine the Thai people's sentiments.

Yet, even if the poll is not a full-scale national referendum, the process in which the decision is going to be made is surprisingly democratic, in many ways much more democratic than one might expect from Singapore.

Whatever the case, it appears Temasek's investment in Shin Corp has turned out to be a disaster. And the lessons Singapore can learn are not just to be careful with what may turn out to be politically explosive, it is also a lesson that Singapore's version of democracy is just one that is unlikely to work in various jurisdictions - Thaksin who declared he wanted to follow Singapore's model has been ousted, and Gen. Sonthi's process seems to be working much more effectively.

Young Foreign Talent in Singapore

Mr Wang has an interesting post about foreign kids coming to Singapore to enjoy education subsidies, where he laments that these are not the kind of "foreign talent" that Singaporeans want, because the foreign kids pack up and leave after finishing their secondary education, and do not contribute to the country after having received the education subsidies.

Instead, he implies in his argument that the focus on foreign talent should be on bringing in talent and expertise that Singapore lacks, and that Singaporeans themselves are not able to provide, an example being Darrell Metzger.

While these are interesting points made by Mr Wang, I do not think that the main problem lies in the 'importing' of young kids into Singapore. Rather, I think that the real challenge lies in making Singapore a place where people will be happy to settle down and consider home, after having spent their primary and secondary education years here.

Consider, for example, the US, where many foreign students enrol and later on, stay in the country and take up citizenship - the situation is different from Singapore because the US is a much nicer place to stay after you have completed your education because there are bountiful opportunities to pursue your ambitions, and there is an active political culture where citizens have a real say in how their country is run.

Singapore, in contrast, is a country dominated by one political party, where freedom of expression is curtailed, and where a political culture is deemed as a threat to the nation. It is difficult for individuals to be motivated to take up residence here when there is little opportunity to feel like you have played a real part in shaping the nation. Furthermore, for males, there is the question of having to do national service, and then reservist for many years after that. The job opportunities are also restricted, compared to a place like the United States.

As such, while we may never expect to be able to provide the same kind of opportunities that a country like the USA can, we can endeavour to make our country a much more attractive place to live in (than it currently is), and that retains the young talent that we 'import.'

Such measures can include
  1. an opening up of the political culture such that the young are able to feel a sense of ownership in the country - this not only encourages young foreign talent to hang around to shape the nation in which they have spent their childhood, it also encourages Singaporeans to stick around instead of emigrating.
  2. heightened recognition for the sacrifices that Singaporean men make to defend and protect their country - both monetary and non-monetary. Indeed, national service can not only be made less of a chore, it can even be transformed from a liability into an experience that Singaporean male (and foreign immigrant) can be proud of.
  3. a recognition that alternative lifestyles, other than the typical doctor/lawyer/accountant/engineer are not only feasible, but are worthy of respect and dignity. The skewed technocratic mindset of the government has resulted in a rather elitist view of certain professions, to the exclusion of others. Unlike other countries where you can work at McDonalds and still be treated with dignity, Singaporeans seem to treat 'lesser occupations' with less respect. A broadening of mindset to recognise alternative occupations will go a long way in welcoming those who might otherwise be discouraged to hang around.
These measures are not exhaustive, i'm sure they are only the beginning. And while they cannot guarantee that the young foreign talent will definitely stick around, it does greatly increase the chance that they will. And instead of stopping the influx of 'young foreign talent' completely, we can bring them into our society and assimilate them as people who may one day be proud to be called Singaporean.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sonthi wants Shin Corp Back

Sonthi, the military leader who led the coup to topple Thaksin Shinawatra, has declared that he wants the telecommunications assets which were sold to Singapore's Temasek Holdings back in Thai hands.

Singapore's MFA, has started "seeking clarification," while Thailand's MFA has said the issue will "fade away." But I think the issue will fester, and will not "fade away."

1. This huge multi-billion dollar tangle shows that Temasek Holdings has too much capital on its hands. As its reserves have grown and grown, Singapore has to look in more and more places to invest its money; without the huge glut of capital, Temasek would probably have never had the need to buy a set of (politically sensitive) Thailand's prized national assets in order to grow its money. With more than S$100 billion under management, Temasek should seriously consider returning a decent amount of its equity to its shareholders i.e. the government of Singapore, and hence forth to the people of Singapore.

2. Even if the investment was made on a "purely financial basis" as the ministry of finance has claimed, Singapore cannot ignore the fact that any transaction of this sort of scale and that involves major political figures DOES have political ramifications. And, the fact that Temasek is owned by the ministry of finance and hence the government of Singapore means that it WILL be perceived by foreign bodies to be politically linked and controlled.

Whether Ho Ching likes it or not, she MUST consider in depth the political implications of her actions, and declaring that her investments are made "purely as financial investments" is simply giving bad excuses to avoid what has to be done on her job.

Indeed, knowing that Ho Ching's father-in-law likes Thaksin, it is no wonder that foreigners perceive that Temasek bought Thaksin's assets as a way of giving him an avenue to cash out. Whether or not there is politics going on behind the scenes (and yes, there probably is), Temasek will always be perceived as a political arm of the government, and never as an independent, privately owned company that is just concerned with the profit motive.

3. Why is Singapore's MFA getting involved in the incident? If Shin Corp is 'purely a financial investment' and Temasek and 'independent arm', what has the MFA to do with Sonthi's comment? Indeed, MFA's statement that it is 'surprised,' clearly demonstrates that there is more involved here than just a 'financial investment' - politicians are getting involved in 'private' business affairs.

4. Technically, Sonthi can roll in the tanks and take over Shin Corp by brute force. And should he? Maybe he should. That will teach the Singaporean politicians a good, hard-learnt lesson.

5. Of course, that doesn't mean that i endorse seizing assets which have been 'lawfully sold' and acquired - Sonthi's actions are probably not endorseable within a legal context. But given how Temasek and Thaksin have angered Thais by their insensitive and selfish actions, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that this hoo-ha has happened.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Small Victory for Bloggers: Why the Counter Insurgency is an Admission of the Power of New Media

Recently, there has been a big hooha over a recent article in the Straits Times that said that the government was going to launch a "counter-insurgency" by sending anonymous pro-PAP cyber commandos into the internet to counter critics of the government.

Since many have said their piece, I will not give my opinion on whether I think their plan will work. Rather, I wish to declare this a small victory for bloggers, and explain why I think the balance of media power is shifting, slowly but surely, from the hands of a dominant PAP towards a landscape where there is freedom of speech and equal opportunity for all.

1. The PAP now has to play on the internet on fair and equal terms. They no longer exert the monopoly of publishing on the web that they do in print media. On the internet, the PAP, WP, SDP and any other tom, dick or harry who wants to make a political comment has an equal opportunity to be heard.

2. In fact, the PAP is now at a distinct disadvantage. Because they cannot depend on their control of the medium, they now have to depend on the quality of the message. In the press, the lack of a competitive voice means that the PAP can skew and manipulate their messages in any way they like, without fear of reprisal and behing criticised on the spot. The internet, however is different:
  • Any blog post that is put up by a PAP member can be instantly replied to on another blog by another blogger.
  • Any comment left on a blog by a PAP member can be instantly replied to by other commenters.
  • The internet is dominated by independent bloggers who are far ahead in experience, skill and prominence compared to PAP 'counter-insurgents'.
  • Opposition parties have already been using this medium for many years, and will at least have an equal opportunity of expression. This is a far cry from broadcast TV and newspapers where the opposition has little say, if any.
3. The internet is rapidly growing in influence, and has already established itself as the dominant media for the young - in the not too distant future, it will have the ability to challenge the mainstream press and broadcast media as an equally powerful, if not more powerful, voice.

And because the PAP is playing catch-up, as highlighted in point 2, it stands to lose out in the race to claim ground on the new battlefield that is the world wide web. Instead, this is a great opportunity for bloggers and 'insurgents' to race ahead and to further cement their lead.

For too long already, the media have been dominated by the political machine that is the PAP. It is time for media in Singapore to be a much fairer playing field where different political voices, both partisan and independent, can have their say.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Bloomberg by Bloomberg: 3 Simple Lessons for Entrepreneurs and Businessmen

This was first written for SG Entrepreneurs

“Bloomberg by Bloomberg” was written in 1997 by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, the financial information service provider that provides financial institutions and media companies with business and financial news and information. Mr. Bloomberg has since gone on to become the Mayor of New York City, but the principles that the banker, entrepreneur and politician espouses in the book that he wrote a decade ago still ring true for entrepreneurs and businessmen today.

Simple Truth No 1: Business is, first and foremost, about people

Many people think that business is about cutting costs, driving innovation, developing a strong brand, or creating efficient supply chains. Or they might think it’s about optimizing cash flow, managing growth, or outmaneuvering the competition. Yes, business is very often about all these things. However, before considering all these operational issues, business is, first and foremost, about people.

“…our main asset is not our technology, our databases, our proprietary communications network, or even our clients.
It is our employees.”
- p.63

It is the business leaders and entrepreneurs who best understand how to identify, motivate and value talent, who will most succeed. It is the managers who best understand that their most valuable asset is the team which works with them, which will get ahead. Hence, it is no surprise that Bloomberg declares:

“The primary function of those at the top is the care and feeding of the company’s most valuable asset, its employees…” - p.180

This is because a business which consists of a well organised team of talented individuals led by an inspirational leader will be the one which can best come up with creative ways to cut costs, drive innovation, develop a strong brand, or create an efficient supply chain. And the businesses which get bogged down by corporate red tape, politicking, and poor morale, will find themselves least likely to outmaneuver the competition.

Bloomberg reiterates the value of having a great team:

“The leverage a great team provides makes management a fantastic investment for a company’s stockholders, but phenomenally overpriced when the executives can’t get the organization to perform.” - p.180

Indeed, the importance of having great people in an organisation cannot be understated. No matter what business you are in, no matter which country you operate, a business will rise and fall according to the quality of its people.

Simple Truth No 2: Entrepreneurial Success is 1% planning, 99% execution

“If you’re going to succeed, you need a vision, one that’s affordable, practical, and fills a customer need. Then, go for it. Don’t worry too much about the details. Don’t second-guess your creativity. Avoid overanalyzing the new project’s potential. Most importantly, don’t strategize about the long term too much.” - p.43

Too often, people with good ideas get bogged down worrying about how their brilliant ideas are going to pan out. Or they get thrown off their paths by ‘advisors’ who tell them to plan months, even years ahead, before jumping into the fray. Or they may get caught in the trap of ‘analysis paralysis,’ where they spend time analysing the potential of their ideas at the expense of getting things done.

The problem with focusing too much on planning is that often, entrepreneurial enterprises are operating in fields where there is much technological change and flux, or where the competitive landscape is uncertain. Planning cannot accurately anticipate or foresee the pitfalls and challenges that lie ahead, neither can it give foreknowledge of the opportunities that will present themselves when an entrepreneur starts getting things done.

Conversely, the entrepreneur who starts working on his project right away jumps into the fray and gets miles ahead of his competitors because he solves problems that his competitors do not foresee and capitalizes on opportunities which are not available to those who are stuck in the planning stage.

Bloomberg mentions,

“Fortunately, our competitors never work this way. They study. They plan. They work toward getting consensus and approval and closure. They try to define it all up front, even specifying the end game from the beginning. Ridiculous!” - p.145

There is much wisdom to the Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” Businesses which focus on execution will get much further than those that wield about grand plans and visions, but are unable to get things done.

Simple Truth No. 3: No Guts, No Go.

In part of his book, Bloomberg narrates an account about a person on his original team who bailed out of the business on day two. The person cited too much risk and too little return as the reason for bailing out of the newly formed enterprise. Years later, that same person has had a mediocre career, while Bloomberg and the original founders have become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

This account illustrates that entrepreneurs need guts and courage to take the risks necessary to become successful. It takes a strong stomach and ballsy character to jump into the unknown without the certainty that you will succeed.

This truth is perhaps the most relevant within the Singaporean context, where children are schooled from a very young age to take the safe route of studying hard, getting good grades, getting a high paid job, and retiring at the age of 60. Getting Singaporeans to sacrifice the certainty of the traditional route for the risk and uncertainties of the entrepreneurial lifestyle requires a radical shift in our cultural values and a re-programming of our mindsets.

One thing is for sure, that without taking the risks, you cannot reap the rewards. Bloomberg’s wife commented about the man who jumped ship:

“Don’t feel sorry for him. He didn’t have the guts for it. The others ran risks. They alone deserve the rewards.” - p.47

If and when you decide to take the leap, and do eventually reap what you sow, the rewards will be well deserved and all yours to keep.

Bloomberg, M. (1997) “Bloomberg by Bloomberg,” John Wiley & Sons, Inc., USA

Special thanks to Superurdi for lending me this book