Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fostering the freedom to think

Feb 10, 2009

By Ngiam Tong Dow

I AM told that when a Jewish boy returns home from school, his mother would ask him: 'Son, how many questions did you ask your teacher today?' In contrast, a Chinese mother would ask: 'Son, what did you learn from your teacher today?'

The difference in approach is cultural. In the Bible, Moses and the other prophets plead and argue with God. By contrast, candidates in the Chinese imperial examinations were required to quote from the Confucian Analects by rote.

I was the first chairman of the Surbana Corporation, which was spun out of HDB's development division. HDB architects were scoffed at by their private sector counterparts as dull and unimaginative. To my utter surprise, when I led them out of HDB to Surbana, the architects who had earlier been derided by their peers won lucrative design commissions, not only in Singapore, but also in the Middle East, India and China.

How did this happen? Essentially, they were given the freedom to think. There were no institutional constraints in Surbana. Thus they thrived.

In public administration, I found that the best ideas emerged in free-ranging discussions with my younger colleagues over lunch in hawker centres. Outside the formal office structure, we were intellectual equals.

To my knowledge, two great ideas were born at such lunches. The first came from Dr Tan Wee Kiat, who was then chief executive officer (CEO) of National Parks Board. He told me - then his permanent secretary at the Ministry of National Development (MND) - that Singapore should not be conceived as just a Garden City, or a city with parks and gardens. Rather we should see Singapore as a City within a Garden.

This vision is slowly but surely being realised to make Singapore a city within a park.

Similarly, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, who was my deputy secretary at MND, suggested that instead of micro planning the streetscape block by block, we should develop development guide plans for the six or eight geographical regions of Singapore. We should canvass ideas from planners, architects, nature lovers, ordinary citizens and property developers. This is now standard operating procedure.

Singaporeans are good at thinking within the box. Our students score well in examinations. We make competent professionals and managers. But very few of us are creative or entrepreneurial.

As a society, we need to foster thinking outside the box. But this is easier said than done. The problem is not lack of intelligence. The greatest impediment is cultural. As an Asian society, we tend to be paternalistic. Father knows best. The teacher knows best. The Government knows best.

Dr Goh Keng Swee, my chief at the Ministry of Finance, told me that my duty as a permanent secretary was to raise the competence of the ministry to the next higher plateau. And then he added wryly: 'When you yourself plateau, you should leave.'

Dr Goh's acerbic comment set me thinking: What is the greatest contribution a CEO can make? I came to the conclusion that the most valuable contribution he could make is know when to quit.

History is replete with great leaders who did not know when to quit. Mao Zedong was a classic example. When the Singapore delegation paid a courtesy call on him in 1976, we felt sorry for the infirm old man who had to be propped up by his nurses to shake hands with our then prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) learnt from the Cultural Revolution that nobody should be a leader for life. They have now instituted a system where the President and the Premier serve no more than two five-year terms. The transition of power from Mr Jiang Zemin and Mr Zhu Rongji to Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Wen Jiabao was achieved peacefully.

Whether you are a parent, CEO or the Prime Minister, letting go is the most difficult decision you are ever going to make. Yet if we fail to make that decision, we would not leave behind a structure that survives us.

A control freak is the worst type of CEO an organisation can be saddled with. Because he is insecure, he works himself into a frenzy delving into minutiae, missing the woods for the trees. More insidiously, he makes sure that no subordinate can surpass him. Because his glass ceiling is low, the organisation can never grow. He abuses the weaknesses of his management to divide and rule rather than leverage on its strengths.

If I were an investment analyst, I would spend time assessing the temperament and character of the CEO before looking at the business numbers.

The East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore published a study 15 years ago on how the CCP identifies, tests and selects the 300 cadres who govern China.

A CCP cadre begins his career at the grassroots village level. His direct supervisor rates his work performance. His character is assessed by someone from the central personnel department who canvasses opinion incognito from the grassroots. Character flaws are identified early. Even then, some do slip through.

No human system is perfect. Nevertheless, we can say that the leadership that emerges at the Politburo level of the CCP is honest and able. Without selfless leadership, China could not have made the progress it has in the last four decades.

The greatest gift that teachers can give their students is the freedom to think. Do not constrain their minds nor constrict their hearts. Asking questions is harder than giving answers. If we think within the box, we demonstrate competence. If we think outside the box, we explore the unknown. It requires intellectual courage to do so.

The writer, a former senior civil servant, is an Adjunct Professor at Nanyang Technological University. An earlier version of this article was delivered as a lecture to the Academy of Principals.

[I am surprise he concludes that the Chinese leadership is honest and able. The list of mismanaged crises from SARS to melamine to are an indictment of their management. If they are "able", they have only managed to be "able" within their empire. Tales of corruption continue to emerged every now and then. That said, there are improvements and signs that they want to improve. And they are battling corruption more successfully than Malaysia. Or at least that is my impression.]

1 comment:

gigamole said...

It made me think about how we train doctors, and what it means for doctors to be 'free' in their thinking...Quite frankly, I am not sure I feel very comfortable with doctors who think too much ... It seems to me like most of the practice of medicine is really based on dependability and quality of diagnosis and care. This comes only with experience, and drill. The more a surgeon does, the better he gets. The more cases a dermatologist sees, the better he is in making a diagnosis. Likewise, the more trauma cases a physician gets to manage, the faster and safer he is when confronted with a crisis situation. I mean, do I really want a physician who is thinking about creative ways of sticking an endotracheal tube down my lungs if I am suffocating?

Having said that, it is true that the medical profession will benefit from a group of smart people thinking of ways to innovate therapy. These are the so called clinician researchers. But these represent a minority of doctors in the profession. The people who go on and win awards. The vast majority of doctors really need to go out there and try and do a decent job of looking after their patients. I think that's what a patient really expects. After all medical malpractice is really based on peer acceptability of what you do. Woe betide the practitioner who innovates too much in managing his patients. That's why I shudder when I read about our Medical School experimenting with all kinds of newfangled ways to teach our medical students. What on earth are they thinking? We don't really need to make all our doctors become experimental physicians and surgeons! What we need are safe, caring and consistent practitioners of their craft.

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