Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Personality traits and student performance 

Temasek Junior College may have found out what makes top students tick. Excerpt from Today:

Top students more resilient and focused at the expense of trust, humility: Study
WHAT makes a student do well academically? Besides studying, that is ...

Temasek Junior College (TJC), seeking...to learn which personality traits correlated with its scholarship recipients and/or top ‘A’ Level performers...found that “successful” students were more resilient and focused than “poor performers”.

These were the two key differentiating traits in a personality model of five factors: Openness, agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness and negative emotionality. People who are more conscientious are more focused, while those with fewer negative emotions are deemed resilient...

[S]tudents with poor academic results or who have undergone lengthy counselling are more prone to anger, discouragement and self-consciousness. They also see themselves as less dutiful and having less drive to achieve success...

Apart from the academic yardstick, the study...also reflected well on TJC’s top sports students. Not only were they found to be more resilient and conscientious than the rest of the cohort, a key differentiating trait was extroversion — they were found to be warmer, more gregarious and more active.

The top students, on the other hand, scored less on agreeableness, as they were less trusting, less tender-hearted and less humble.
I’m not too familiar with the personality model used in the study. The newspaper describes “conscientiousness”, which the study found top students as being high in, in terms of being focused.

One model which I am familiar with describes “conscientiousness” in terms which can essentially be summed up as rule-oriented self-centredness. If the model used in the study defines conscientiousness similarly, then it’s hardly surprising that the top students are not particularly high on “agreeableness”.

The article also said that the study “reflected well on TJC’s top sports students” as they were extroverted: warm, gregarious and active. I’m not sure whether the writer is aware that many political dictators also exhibit the same personality type.

Human resource experts nowadays recognise a wide range of personality types. Each personality type would fit a particular role in an organisation or society, which needs a range of personalities to function effectively. Pigeonholing personality types broadly as “good” or “bad” is no longer particularly useful.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Taking MPs to task 

A reader of The Straits Times takes two PAP MPs to task for taking opposition MP Chiam See Tong to task over the mother tongue issue. Excerpt of his letter to the newspaper:

I felt indignant when I read the article, “Chiam: Make language grade count again for varsity entry”. It was reported that opposition MP Chiam See Tong was “taken to task” by two People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs for suggesting that the Government reinstate the mother tongue grade as an enrolment criteria for entrance to local universities. In fact, one of the MPs even questioned Mr Chiam’s motive for bringing this issue up, saying he hoped the opposition MP was not trying to win votes from Chinese voters.

While we may disagree with Mr Chiam’s proposal, we must respect his freedom to raise his concerns and opinions during parliamentary sittings. Thus, the responses of the two PAP MPs were uncalled for. Why should they launch such a strong backlash against Mr Chiam for raising a current and important issue? Why should doubts be cast about his motives when he was just doing his job?
When having trouble rebutting a person’s argument, it is often tempting to resort to attacking the person himself.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

GIC staff suspended for insider trading 

Last month, I wrote that the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) had penalised three Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) employees for insider trading involving Japanese shares, but that GIC continued to employ them. It seems that GIC has hardened its stance on the infringement.

According to the Channel NewsAsia story “GIC suspends three over insider trading scandal”, the three offenders have now been suspended and relieved of their responsibilities for Japanese financial markets.

While I would not recommend an unduly harsh punishment on the three employees — remember that they did not directly gain from the incident — I thought that it was imperative that GIC took swift action from the beginning to restore confidence in the company. The delay causes one to wonder how committed the company management is to ethical conduct.

Well, better late than never, I guess.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

MOE on the PSLE Science paper — Part 2 

After the hue and cry on the PSLE science paper, it turns out that students’ scores released yesterday were not too bad after all. Excerpt of a Channel NewsAsia report.

PSLE science scores comparable to previous years
Despite outcries from parents and students that this year's PSLE science paper was particularly difficult, the Education Ministry says 91 percent of students scored A* to C. The figure is the same as in the last two years. The Ministry explains the grading of a paper takes into account various factors, including the Chief Examiner's report, performance of the cohort, difficulty of the paper and past trends.
According to a report in The Straits Times, many of those who achieved high scores in the exam were those whose parents had written to the newspaper to complain that it was too difficult. And at least one of them appears to remain unrepentant about raising the fuss.

[E]ducational consultant Grace Yong...whose letter to the Straits Times’ Forum page sparked an avalanche of responses, felt that the good results did not overturn the fact that many children had been “traumatised” by the exam. Her son...got an A for science, similar to the grade in his preliminary exams.
As I mentioned previously, the nub of the problem may be in the implementation of the new syllabus rather than in the syllabus itself or the difficulty of the exam. If so, then, considering that the government likes to change the educational system frequently, hopefully this lesson on change management is put to good use.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Progress of biomedical sciences in Singapore 

Channel NewsAsia reports on the progress of the biomedical industry in Singapore. Excerpt:

Singapore’s bet on biomedical sciences paying off
Singapore’s bold move into the biomedical sciences industry five years ago is paying off handsomely, with several of the world’s top scientists and pharmaceutical firms setting up base in the city-state. Companies have invested millions of dollars in laboratories carrying out leading-edge research at the Biopolis, a futuristic, seven-building complex linked by skybridges located in the southwestern part of the island...
While I would agree that the numbers reported look encouraging, to say that Singapore’s move into the biomedical sciences is “paying off handsomely” based on just those numbers looks like hyperbole to me.

The article reminds me of an earlier post of mine on the innovation movement in the civil service, where civil service chiefs were criticising civil servants for a “numbers mentality”. As I pointed out then, I think it is actually good to use numbers to measure success, but it is important to use the right numbers for the right purposes. Some numbers are useful only in indicating that some elements are in place or are moving in the right direction, but cannot, by themselves, indicate the success of the whole programme.

While the amount of money invested in the biomedical industry and the projected manufacturing output may appear impressive, a more complete picture of the success of Singapore’s move into the industry must include the number of patents and the value of products developed in Singapore -- in other words, the output of intellectual property. It is such numbers that will show whether the industry is a success in leveraging on the country’s intellectual capacity and providing high-paying jobs to Singaporeans, and is not just another manufacturing activity which will remain vulnerable to competition by lower-cost countries.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Pranay Gupte leaves The Straits Times 

Pranay Gupte has left The Straits Times. His description of the circumstances surrounding his departure can be found here (link obtained through mr brown). Do bear in mind that it is just one side of the story.

Having said that, I’m not surprised at his description of the journalistic credentials — or lack of it — of some of the editorial staff in The Straits Times. Quite apart from the political angle, Singapore does not have a culture of respect for professionalism and specialisation commensurate with the supposed sophistication of its economy. The government’s style of selecting scholars, putting them on fast-track careers in the civil service and then seconding them out to the commercial world reflects that mentality.

As for his comment on racism in Singapore, I’d be very surprised if there were none in the country. Every country has its share of racists. But as a foreigner of Indian descent, it is possible that he might simply have been the victim of a broader form of Singaporean arrogance toward foreigners originating from less-developed countries. After all, many ethnic Chinese Singaporeans extend their condescension to Chinese nationals as well.

Anyway, Pranay Gupte’s articles for The Straits Times have often been very interesting and I think his departure is a loss for the newspaper.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Pragmatic ideology to decide on casino 

The proposal to have a casino in Singapore has raised the concerns of many people in the country. Today, The Straits Times published six letters on this issue. Four of the letters opposed having a casino in the country, while two supported it more or less.

One of the letters went as follows:

I am deeply saddened that Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is asking for a “sensible, pragmatic approach”, rather than an “ideological approach” to the question of whether or not to build a casino. While the man in the street often has to take a pragmatic view of things, we should not ever lose sight of the fact that it is ideology that make an organisation great.
The dichotomy between the “pragmatic approach” and the “ideological approach” may be more apparent than real. First of all, for the Singapore government, pragmatism is its ideology.

Secondly, with regards to great organisations, most of such organisations actually use “ideology” — whether it be environmental preservation or family values — to serve pragmatic ends. Community related programmes — for example, environmental preservation, which the letter-writer mentioned — are usually developed to build the organisation’s image as a responsible corporate citizen. It is public relations designed ultimately to boost corporate profitability. Family values and other human resource-related programmes help retain good staff and hence again improve corporate profitability.

It’s all very Machiavellian. But that’s the real world.

Anyway, returning to the casino issue, it is probably only fair to state that Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the senior minister of state for Trade and Industry, actually mentioned ideology in the context of not being “trapped by ideology”. That seems reasonable. If everybody were to insist on his own ideology holding sway, we’ll never be able to resolve the differences.

On the other hand, for those determined to kill off the casino proposal, insisting on an ideological approach might indeed be the better tactic, were it not for the government’s own insistence on its ideology of pragmatism.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

William Safire 

William Safire has been a frequent critic of the Singapore government, so this (“William Safire off the op-ed page”) may be of interest to Singaporeans.

Safire does not appear to have too many fans among liberal Americans, but apparently he was a consistent advocate of civil liberties.

Also, see Joshua Micah Marshall’s follow-up post on Safire.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Government changes Chinese language teaching 

The Ministry of Education has released its proposed changes to the teaching of the Chinese language in Singapore. See the report “S’pore Govt accepts ideas to change Chinese language teaching”.

Much of it is just details of what has already been discussed before. See my earlier post “Learning how to learn the Chinese language”.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Children overloaded by their own parents 

In his article in The Straits Times today documenting a discussion between schools, parents and the community on education, Warren Fernandez points out the role that parents have in maintaining the right sense of priority in their children and not overloading them with work.

During the discussion, a mother had argued that parents send their children to tuition to keep up with others. They send their children to swimming and piano lessons as parents and students compared what medals and awards each child won.

A teenager had the presence of mind to respond that “for those piano and swimming awards, kids don’t really compare these things. It’s their parents who make them do it.”

Apparently the rest of the group agreed with her as they applauded her for that remark. But was it really a revelation to the rest of those present? Somehow, I doubt it. I suspect that what the teenager did was merely to say what most of the rest probably knew but did not say either because they were themselves guilty of the same or were being polite to those who were.

It is no secret that much of what many children do today is actually a manifestation of their parents’ ambitions. The children effectively become extensions of their parents egos — the children’s achievements become extensions of their parents achievements.

While the educational system is hardly free from blame, parents must share the responsibility for overloading their own children and not lay all the blame on “the system”.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Pain-in-the-neck customers 

Singaporeans can be difficult customers sometimes (see earlier post). However, all countries have their share of difficult customers. Ron Kaufman, author of the book Up Your Service!, has the following to say in today's Recruit section of The Straits Times.

[S]ome customers complain and complain and complain. They never stop complaining. No matter what you do, they will still complain. If you work too hard to keep these “pain-in-the-neck” customers happy, they can run you right out of business.

Pain-in-the-neck customers don’t want to be satisfied. They like being unsatisfied. They frustrate your staff and irritate your other customers.
Kaufman recommends the following for handling such customers.

  • Recognise that most complaining customers are not a pain in the neck. “On average, about 2 per cent of your customer base will complain, but only 2 per cent of that 2 per cent are truly nuts.”

  • Focus on damage control. “Isolate a pain-in-the-neck away from your staff, your customers and your brand.”

  • Protect your staff and limit your legal liability. “If a pain-in-the-neck uses threats, abusive language or makes potentially harmful gestures, contact the security team immediately and let them work it out with your lawyers.”

  • Pass the difficult customer to your competition. Kaufman cited the case of an airline who wrote a letter to an unsatisfied customer stating the following: “[A]s we appear unable to satisfy you despite our best efforts, may I recommend you contact one of the other airlines that fly to your frequent destinations. I attach a list of telephone numbers for your convenience...”

  • We all get our kicks in different ways. Some get theirs from the attention that they get from others. And while some want to be loved, others love to be feared.

    Even as businesses strive to upgrade their customer service, they must recognise when that service no longer produces the desired return.

    Thursday, November 11, 2004

    Diversity of views 

    In a commentary in The Straits Times today, Alvin Pang argues for a diversity of views. Excerpt:

    [S]everal of those [Singaporeans] who were once most fervent about staying and “changing the system” are now eyeing other shores.

    One writer framed it thus: “If you know that your views and interests, however valid, are in the minority, is it right that the status quo, with which the majority is satisfied, should be remade for your benefit? Better that you should take yourself out of the equation.”

    This is misplaced pragmatism. We are still too young a nation for attitudes, structures and identities to have ossified into conservatism, and such potential rigidity should be vigorously opposed.

    Just as biological organisms rely on occasional mutations in order to evolve towards more effective survival, so societies can ill afford to lose their exceptional, if dissenting, cases.

    There is a place in any mature community for a spectrum of views...
    I endorse Pang’s plug for a diversity of views in society. However, if he is directing his dissatisfaction at individuals who have or are contemplating leaving the country, then I’m not sure if he is exhibiting misplaced idealism.

    As a society, we should be tolerant of dissenting views because it is in seeing matters in a variety of perspectives that society maintains the flexibility to adapt to new challenges. In this respect, Pang’s use of the biological mutation metaphor is apt. Mutation allows a species to develop diverse strains, out of which some would fit into their natural environment and enable the species as a whole to evolve and survive.

    However, the metaphor is also apt in another sense: strains of an organism that do not fit into their environment die. Translate that into individuals who do not fit into their society and you get the picture.

    What’s good for society as a collective entity may not be good for its constituent individuals.

    In each society, there will be those who have the ability to transform their environment for the better, either because of their innate characters or because of the positions that they have been placed in. We should look to these people for leadership and action in transforming society.

    In each society, there will also be those who do not have the ability to transform their environment. For these people, the alternative must be to transform themselves. A society that takes prides in its diversity should respect that option.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2004

    On gay rights, relationships and marriage 

    Colin Goh (of TalkingCock.com) muses over some of the social issues in the recent US elections in his latest column in The Edge Singapore. Excerpt:

    Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the US has its first religious fundamentalist president and, by definition, fundamentalists are dogmatic. And nowhere is this played out more bitterly than in the arguments over abortion and homosexuality — which the religious right regard as non-negotiable.

    Abortion is extremely complicated, since it turns on the difficult notion of when something can be considered “alive”. It seems to me, however, that a reasonable compromise can be reached over homosexuality because gays clearly exist, are clearly human, and should therefore be accorded rights like everyone else...

    I believe marriage is a fine institution...insofar as it’s an affirmation of commitment, love and support. But why should such an affirmation between heterosexuals attract so many legal advantages over other relationships involving commitment, love and support, like say, between siblings, children and parents or really, really good friends? The fact is, marriage confers all sorts of automatic benefits, including presumptions under intestacy, guardianship preferences in the event of incapacity, decision-making rights in medical cases, certain home-ownership benefits and the ability to sue in the event of one’s partner’s injury or death.

    It’s these rights and legal protections that the vast majority of gays in the US are really fighting for when they’re arguing for gay marriage. And why shouldn’t they get it?...

    If you ask me, the basket of rights should not only be brought into parity, but civil unions should go further — these rights and protections should be extended to everyone who wishes to declare a committed relationship, whether with siblings, parents, children, cousins, best friends or heck, pets, for all I care...
    Since most people are actually involved in overlapping relationships, I’m not sure how this proposal would work out in practice.

    In any case, I have always thought that heterosexual marriage is accorded a privileged status in societies because it provides the framework for families to raise children, and it is procreation that society is actually promoting with that privilege. I am not aware of any homosexual union that has produced children — at least not among humans.

    Monday, November 08, 2004

    Threat perception as the basis of government power 

    In his explanation of the political climate in Singapore, Steven McDermott mentioned in a post that the “presence of a despot” is usually taken for granted as a necessary arrangement to build and maintain order and stability. That, of course, is a widely-held view, especially in Asia.

    I would take this further and suggest that citizens of a country normally perceive threats as coming broadly from three main sources:

  • Internal, including individuals and groups within society
  • External, that is, foreigners
  • Government

  • In other words, most people are not oblivious to the fact that the government itself is a potential threat to their well-being. That they may grant more power to a government reflects their view that one or two other sources of threat may be greater still and they need a strong government to handle them. In other words, it boils down to relative threat perceptions.

    In a large country like the United States, the first two threats have historically been perceived as minimal. If you don’t like the individuals or groups in one part of the United States, you just move to another part of the country; especially in a federation where different states may have different laws, which part of the country you live in can make a significant difference. External threats, obviously, are not a problem for the world’s most powerful country (except possibly where jobs are concerned).

    Things may have changed somewhat in the United States recently. The threat posed by foreigners — specifically terrorists — have obviously become more evident after the 9/11 attack. But even internally, there appears to be an increase in the perceived threat coming in the form of conflicting values. By many accounts, his willingness to use the federal government to impose restrictions on certain practices like stem-cell research and gay marriages helped George W. Bush gain re-election to the presidency.

    In my opinion, when the government is accorded more power because of a perceived threat from foreigners, there is an incentive for it not to abuse its power because of the need to maintain the support of its citizens; a common foe is a powerful bond. But when the government is given more power to suppress internal elements, especially its own citizens, the lines of interests may become blurred.

    The concept of threat perception provides a basis for determining how much government power citizens are likely to tolerate. However, even as each country accords power to its government to deal with the perceived threats it faces, it must also always face up to the task of erecting effective checks and balances on the government regardless of threat perceptions because the government itself is always a potential threat to the citizen too.

    Friday, November 05, 2004

    Ideas and amoebas in the civil service 

    The Straits Times has a report today on how the civil service encourages its officers to create small groups to generate ideas on issues and suggestions for change. These groups are called amoebas because of their short lifespans, just like the single-celled organisms they are named after.

    One such group was described as follows:

    Six young civil servants...from the Finance Ministry...in 2001...gathered information from transport experts, then brainstormed ways to reduce car prices while keeping in mind the Transport Ministry's concerns about traffic congestion... Their idea was not new but they made a compelling case to cut car ownership taxes and shift more towards usage charges to manage traffic demand.
    The six civil servants from the Finance Ministry should be commended for their proposal. What is left unanswered is why the Transport Ministry couldn’t come up with it themselves.

    Most organisations actually should have little problem generating ideas in-house. The real problem — especially in large organisations — is in getting these ideas noticed, evaluated and implemented. Organisations that have difficulty in coming up with solutions for problems that they have identified probably need to first find a way to tap their employees more effectively for ideas. The civil service’s use of small groups like the amoebas is just one example of what can be done.

    Tapping outsiders for new ideas — as opposed to tapping outsiders for help in developing nascent ideas — becomes important mainly when a problem is not well understood, or not even recognised. A good organisation actively scans the external environment for such ideas. The not-so-good ones have such ideas foistered upon them. Very often, they come in the form of disruptive innovations that ruin existing businesses.

    The other situation where an organisation may need to reach outside is when its existing processes are ill-equipped to handle the solution that has been found. For example, even after Compaq found that Dell’s direct computer selling business model is more profitable, its commitment to its distributors made it difficult to exploit the former.

    The civil service is the archetypal large organisation. Turning it into an innovative one is not an easy task.

    Thursday, November 04, 2004

    Music piracy law 

    On 29 October, Andy Ho had written a commentary in The Straits Times on the amendment to the Copyright Act that made unauthorised downloading of music on a commercial scale a criminal act. In the commentary, he had supported the vague definition of “commercial scale” in the law, claiming that a more precise definition risks making it obsolete over time.

    mr brown’s post on the piece drew a number of comments, including this one from Ivan on his own site, which pointed out that in the US, the copyright code is much more precise.

    My own view is that vague laws throw the onus of interpreting the law on the police and the courts. I think that’s wrong. Laws are supposed to be made in the legislature.

    When vague laws are left to the interpretation of the law enforcers and the judiciary, the resulting uncertainty discourages even fair activity while encouraging wasteful litigation.

    Singapore has always been a good place for doing business in Asia precisely because of the rule of law; people and businesses are not subject to arbitrary prosecution. The amendment to the Copyright Act appears to be a step backward.

    Jumping on statistics 

    Statistics can be misleading when not used in the proper context, as a news report in Today shows. Excerpt follows:

    More educated women having abortions: Doctors
    One group of women yesterday bore the brunt of accusations from a prominent gynaecological group in Singapore. Citing abortion statistics from the Ministry of Health, the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Singapore (OGSS) chided tertiary-educated married women for a three-fold jump in the numbers of such women going for abortions — from 324 cases in 1988 to 1,070 last year...

    However, OGSS did not measure the jump in abortion in this group against the corresponding growth in the number of women with higher education over the last 15 years. A check with the Department of Statistics by Today found that the number of university-educated women has increased from 17,300 in 1990 to 68,900 in 2000...
    Credit to Today for doing its homework.

    Wednesday, November 03, 2004

    Best-managed city 

    Another accolade for Singapore. Here’s an excerpt of the report:
    Singapore best-managed city in the world: Jones Lang Lasalle
    Singapore was declared the world’s best-managed city on Wednesday in a survey of major capitals by a global property consultancy... The top 10 cities in overall ranking were Singapore, Barcelona, Dubai, New York, Shanghai, Budapest, Brisbane, Beijing, Auckland and Hong Hong...

    Singapore was noted for its “prominent regional position and cultural diversity” as well as its “physical integrity and city autonomy,” a feature it shares with Barcelona and Dubai. These three cities have a single administrative and political body whose area of responsibility broadly matches the geography of the city economy, the property firm said.
    Interestingly, China has two cities in the top ten (three if you count Hong Kong). It’s not a country that one normally associates with good management or governance.

    Tuesday, November 02, 2004

    Communicating on SingTel 

    Basskaran Nair thinks that Singaporeans’ problems in handling their SingTel shares is the result of poor communication by government officials. Excerpt from his commentary in The Straits Times:

    Never a people to miss a good bargain, Singaporeans formed long queues, back in 1993, to buy new SingTel shares at a deep discount. Today, there are still queues — but this time, it is to sell those SingTel shares, plus some, given to them for having held on to their shares over several years....But that’s not the worst of it. What’s most disheartening are the faces in the snaking queues. They’re the same as those in 1993: The “ah peks” and “ah sohs” who are invariably more than 55 years old, do not speak English and are crippled by anxiety over opening a trading account with a stockbroking firm....

    How did all these queues arise, and why are they still occurring, 11 years after SingTel shares were first offered? The answer lies in communication, or rather the lack of it.

    [T]he Government decided in 1993 to create a shareholding society... Officials from SingTel and several government ministries worked overtime to iron out the details in the dual-track mission: to sell SingTel shares at a discount to Singaporeans, and to develop the social contract through the shareholder society. But, focused on the intricacies of floating a billion-dollar company and creating a shareholder society, the planners failed in one vital area: Effective communication...

    The inevitable happened. From the word “go”, communication was found wanting. First, communication with the media. The planners might have recognised that the media would be a vital conduit for the message, but they didn’t prepare it in advance for the momentous float. Only one press statement was issued... Second, communication with the man in the street. Planners forgot about the nitty gritty that the ah peks and ah sohs would encounter when buying the shares, and later, selling them...
    While I don’t disagree with Basskaran’s analysis, his is not exactly the way I would have framed the problem.

    Basskaran says that the media was a vital conduit for communication. But in fact, many Singaporeans don’t pay much attention to the media. This problem is not necessarily restricted to the ah peks and ah sohs. Many relatively educated Singaporeans also don’t pay much attention to the news, apart from possibly those on their favourite movie stars or singers.

    Even if communication could reach them, there would be many Singaporeans who would have trouble understanding everything involved in owning shares — exactly what it means to own shares, how to value them, when to sell, and how to transact in them.

    So effective communication was always going to be a problem. That, in fact, should have been the starting assumption. That would have led to the question of whether the concept of share-ownership for everyone is viable in the first place.

    Monday, November 01, 2004

    More armed police patrols 

    The Singapore government is taking the terrorist threat very seriously. Excerpt from a Channel NewsAsia report:

    Armed police patrols for all parts of Singapore from Monday
    From Monday, armed officers from the Police Special Operations Command will patrol commercial, entertainment and residential areas. They will be armed with machine guns, similar to the ones used by troops who now patrol Changi Airport... The police said this is an expansion of the patrols that are now carried out at the airport and other areas like Boat Quay and Newton Circus. The police told Channel NewsAsia that the expansion of the armed patrols is not due to any specific security threat to Singapore...
    Those who call Singapore a police state can finally show proof.