Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why settle for competence, asks Tharman

Oct 28, 2010

Singaporeans should strive for excellence or they risk losing out to other countries

By Leow Si Wan

MOST Singaporeans are satisfied with being competent at what they do, with few actually striving to be exceptional. This, said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, is a challenge the country will need to overcome.

He was speaking to student leaders from Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) at a breakfast meeting where they had a chance to talk to 10 chief executive officers of companies here. The CEOs included Far East Organization's Philip Ng, StarHub's Tan Tong Hai and UPP Holdings' Koh Kim Huat.

Addressing an audience including entrepreneurs, 80 students and staff at the Orchard Hotel, the minister said: 'We are always in danger in Singapore of mistaking excellence for competence.

'Most people in Singapore are happy to be competent, above average rather than exceptional.'

He said there are 'not that many people in Singapore who really want to be extremely good at what they are doing', and added that this sort of attitude may result in Singaporeans losing out to those who survive in countries plagued by problems such as poverty and corruption.

The minister called on his audience to push for excellence in their chosen area and said: 'We shouldn't be afraid of being different and wanting to make a difference.'

The CEOs and students had differing opinions as to whether the current generation of Singaporeans have what it takes to follow their dreams and put their all into achieving success.

Secondary 4 student Toh Zheng Xiang said the grade-based nature of the education system deterred students from seeking perfection.

The 16-year-old said: 'In order to get an A1 grade, for example, you only need to get 75 per cent of the full marks. This encourages students to just use this mark as a target and strive for just 75 per cent when they can go all out and do even better.'

One of the CEOs, Mr Kenny Yap of ornamental fish supplier Qian Hu Corporation, agreed with the minister, saying young Singaporeans were too sheltered. He said: 'Lives are getting more comfortable so students may not realise it is not just about competing with Singaporeans but with people in the region.

'Being an entrepreneur is about choice. Not everyone can be one. What's most important is to acquire analytical skills and the spirit of acquiring what they want.'

HCI alumnus David Sin, who manages a finance firm, said the minister was 'spot-on' about the younger generation being more complacent.

He felt it was important to be pro-active and provide students with an environment that encourages them to take 'calculated risks'.

Other industry leaders such as Microsoft's Ms Jessica Tan, however, do not see Singaporean youth as lacking in drive.

She said: 'I see that many students now are extremely talented, and have a lot of potential.

'What must be changed is the environment - we must be encouraged to accept differences.'

The breakfast meeting was part of HCI's Entrepreneurial Leadership programme, which seeks to groom students to be the top entrepreneurs of the future.

It took the HCI team about eight months to arrange for all the CEOs to get together, said one of the teachers involved, Mr Tan Chin Guan, 30. CEOs were seated at different tables with students, who got the opportunity to ask them questions.

Many students asked about the qualities that made them succeed, the setbacks they have faced and how they have overcome those obstacles.

Seah Ying Cong, 17, said: 'I got the experience of having breakfast with Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

'By chatting with him, I have learnt more about how Singaporeans are too contented and how we must try to change our mindsets.'

[I think if the youth are deliberately choosing breadth of experience over depth, to have a broader experience of life, better quality of life, who are we to discourage them?]

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