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Beyond Scholarships: Redefining leadership in Singapore’s civil service

An anonymous, thought-provoking response to the question of civil servant leadership in Singapore. The writer, a self-professed scholar, questions the equating of academic achievement with true leadership skills.



This insightful write-up, originally posted anonymously on Quora on the question, “Do you think an overhaul is needed in the Singapore civil service in how we select our leaders (government scholarship)?” has recently garnered significant attention and discussion in Singapore, particularly through private messaging channels. The author, a government scholar and alumnus of prestigious institutions, provides a candid and critical examination of the leadership paradigm within Singapore’s civil service, particularly in the context of the country’s scholarship system.

The piece resonates with a growing sentiment among Singaporeans regarding the nature of leadership and the broader implications of how Singapore identifies and nurture its future leaders. It’s a reflection not just on academic achievement but on the qualities truly necessary for effective and visionary leadership in the public sector.

As you read this anonymously penned article, keep in mind the context of its origins – a platform for open and honest discourse – and consider the profound implications of its message for Singapore’s approach to developing its future leaders.

As a government scholar, I feel it is important that I echo my thoughts on this.

I attended the Integrated Programme at HCI, and proceeded on an SAF scholarship to read PPE at the University of Oxford. I then completed an MPhil in Economics at the University of Cambridge.

TLDR: Government scholarships in Singapore do a good job at identifying administrators; but administrators are not leaders, and should never be mistaken for leaders.

Scholars in Singapore are chosen at a very young age. I would hesitate to say that A-level performance is correlated with how competent you will be as a person because as many people who have went through the process know very well, you can do pretty well if you were born to a good family.

From the age of 7 through when I graduated from Hwa Chong Junior College, I was waited on hand and foot by at least 4 different tutors every week, usually in more than 4 separate two-hour sessions. In JC, I averaged one two-hour session a day, which cost an average of around $80 per hour. If you run the numbers, that’s $1120 a week, $4480 a month, and $53,760 a year. A lot of Singaporean households do not even earn $50,000 a year to be spent on tutors alone.

Because I was under such strict supervision, at no point in my pre-university academic journey have I felt that I lagged behind. In fact, I have perpetually felt that I was very much ahead of my peers. This is the privilege I was awarded for having tiger parents, and as such, I suffer from one disadvantage that many scholars will never admit to because of their inferiority complex—I cannot deal with situations in which parameters are not explicit. In other words, I panic when it comes to dealing with atypical problems.

The Singapore government scholarships reward pre-adults in Singapore who have been able to be very consistent at achieving their annual KPIs. There are benefits to identifying those who can perform well in clearly specified tasks, which are what academic examinations are, the main of which is you get good workers.

The methodology of academic testing is simple—you attend school for a period of time to learn a particular set of topics based on an explicitly described set of syllabi. The examinations at the end of the term check that you have made consistent progress in understanding the material. There might be a few trick questions which would require some level of creativity, but while these questions take you outside the box, you are still pressed right up against it. This is the same for all aspects of school-based achievements, such as CCAs, competitions, community service, etc. The very best students in Singapore are basically very good at checking off items on a list.

Public administration is mostly about carrying out government services in a way that ensures the least disruption to the livelihoods of the people you serve. i.e Trains should not fail, passports should be issued promptly, roads should be maintained, trees trimmed, etc. When you deputize people who have been able to perform tasks with well-defined parameters to complete tasks with well-defined parameters, they do well. This should be the intent of government scholarships—to identify these people such that they minimize the frustrations of the public with regards to public infrastructure and services.

What should not be the intent of government scholarships is to be of the impression that these scholars have what it takes to perform adequately as leaders in any organization. This is a flawed impression that is only getting worse from generation to generation because of the elitism that we have fostered in the civil service. The idea that scholars are the cream of the crop of every imaginable domain is poisonous, and symptoms of this hubris have started to manifest in the PAP over the past few years of leadership transition. We now have textbook teacher’s pets occupying ministerial positions; I know one when I see one because I am one. Trust me, you don’t want them as your leaders.

Who then should lead?

“TLDR: Government scholarships in Singapore do a good job at identifying administrators; but administrators are not leaders, and should never be mistaken for leaders.
Scholars in Singapore are chosen at a very young age. I would hesitate to say that A-level performance is correlated with how competent you will be as a person because as many people who have went through the process know very well, you can do pretty well if you were born to a good family.”, while a remarkable student in his own right, had other qualities that made him a great leader. The qualities that made him a great student were not always the qualities that made him a great leader. I stand firm on this position.

Great leaders are resilient. They are able to think of solutions to problems with an overabundance of unknown parameters. They are able to perform well in the most complex and messy of situations; not because they can do no wrong, but because they have the gumption to get it right, even at the end of many wrongs. Make no mistake, the one thing that defines a great leader is failure; not success. And I think we, in Singapore, chronically get this upside down.

Our merry band of scholars and 4th-generation leaders may be of the impression that they share the spirit of that which underpinned the transformation of our country; but the reality is none of them have faced rock bottom in their lives. Sure, they may have botched a smattering of projects, but this is nothing compared to when your life is literally falling apart and you have to muster strength and grace in those situations in order to turn things around.

Why do top American schools produce so many inventive thinkers compared to top schools in other countries? Why have the founders of companies whose products have revolutionized the way we live, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, IBM, Microsoft, Uber, Google, Amazon, all been from top American universities? If you attribute it to the quality of education at these universities, you will be wrong. There’s nothing intrinsically superior about the education received at Harvard or Columbia compared to the education you receive at NTU or NUS. You attend lectures and take exams just the same at Harvard as you would at NUS. The difference is (and always has been) the ability of top Ivy League universities at identifying leaders of tomorrow.

Contrary to how most universities that we are accustomed to choose their students, American universities have a very different guideline. They are interested in who you are as a person, rather than just your test scores. They appreciate those who take bold risks, those who do things differently, those who overcome adversities, those who are street-smart, those who see the world for what you can do; rather than what you can’t.

In Singapore, we glorify the student who gets 9 distinctions at A-levels, and we ignore the athlete who competes every year but wins nothing. We award scholarships to those with a perfect record, but the student who achieves a 2:2 degree while battling cancer is a mere footnote.

We have talent in Singapore. We have people who have done amazing things with their lives, people have gone through incredible journeys, people who have learnt far more about this world than that which can be put from pen to paper for a letter grade. We keep telling ourselves that we need more talent, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves, what is talent?

Do we stop giving out scholarships then?

No, we will always need public administrators. But we should start by acknowledging that public administrators are administrators, first and foremost. They have been administrators from the start and you are not going to find a Steve Jobs in Ng Wai Teck from Raffles Junior College. Give them a task and they will do it well, but in nation-building, it is easier to do the actual “building” than to think of “what to build.”

We have a lot builders in the country, now what we need are architects.

We, as a society, need to learn to harness the energy of the many Steve Jobs that we have collectively decided to be talent-free. In the next 50 years, we are going to have to deal with a lot of problems in our country that cannot be solved merely by a team of yes-men. We could do that before because we have just been meeting the basic requirements of life. Scholars are good with meeting requirements.

Our “leadership” love to make sweeping statements that we do not have enough talent and creativity in this country; which is why we need to bring them in from abroad. I have nothing against talent from abroad. They make us stronger. But perhaps we have to ask ourselves the fundamental question—how are we suppose to find talent if we do not provide incentives for talent to manifest?

Leaders do not have to know how to do everything. They just have to know who can. For that, you do not need someone who has all A’s, you need something that is far more precious—imagination.

We now have new needs that will continue to be unmet if we keep on thinking that old formulae will keep being applicable. If we insist on having builders to do the job of an architect, all we will get will be square houses. Functional, but of little value. It is not easy to separate the leaders from the best workers, but we have to start somewhere; and we can start by rewarding those who have overcome repeated bouts of absolute failure, rather than those who have had it together since day one.

As a scholar, I acknowledge my weaknesses. It is the very existence of these weaknesses that make me a good student. I do not challenge the norm, I am detail-oriented to a genuine fault, I do what is required, I will go the extra mile to get the extra points. These make me a very good worker. But as a result, I chronically miss the bigger picture. Do I deserve to be fast-tracked in the public sector when I actually perform best when doing tasks at lower-levels? I don’t think so.

Many of our civil service leaders with pristine, unblemished scholar backgrounds would be far more valuable to this country if they were workers. By that I mean, if they were led, rather than if they are forced to lead. I say that categorically. Put them in a management position and they become flustered, and they often start raising their voices, or pulling rank. I have seen too many of them in the civil service.

A good leader never becomes flustered or nervous regardless of how much unexpected and downright stupid problems exist in a project. In fact, they love when things turn completely on their heads. Do we have such people in our political leadership? Maybe. But based on the many parliamentary sessions I have watched over the years, most of them do not have a modicum of the composure that top leaders in the private sector whom I have worked with exhibit. Many (I would even say most) of the best leaders in the private sector whom I’ve become acquainted with were middling students in school.

One person who definitely has the composure to be an excellent leader is Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

We need to change our system and we need to change it now. We need send the message to parents that says, “look, you can keep sending your children to tuition but he’s not going to get a scholarship; but you know what, let him build that app he’s been talking about. Get us a prototype and we will fund it.”

Once we start rewarding our kids for who they are, not what they know, we can build a country that all of us are proud of. When you create a macrocosm of the classroom where you make the teacher’s pet class monitor, you make people hate him more. Where there is hate, there is conflict; where there is conflict, there is unrest; and where there is unrest, people are going to get hurt.

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they wasted our tax money to “train” useless millionaire/billionaire generals who waste even more money or do absolutely nothing useful for the country. defund it , or use it to only fund the poor who can’t afford even ITE and poly.

Congratulations to the writer for “coming out” and being honest about himself; notwithstanding the Tharman example which many have taken exception to. The one person whom I consider a good administrator and not a leader would be Heng Swee Keat. Please don’t get me wrong; HSK is probably a very nice person but that he could not respond adequately to Sylvia Lim is a very clear example of an administrator who is not a leader. He was not able to think on his feet – this is possibly the quality the writer alluded to when he wrote about leaders not… Read more »

The main problem is: Ownself Check Ownself has DEFINITELY FAILED. If million$ PM/ministers cannot be honest and check themselves, then there is NO WAY any system (educational, social, political, commercial, judicial, etc..) can change for the betterment, except they pray-pray someone does rise from 6-feet under. Self-entitled ppl will never admit it is their faults – a good example is GE2020, where the Kayu One expected voters to glorify himself but got a black eye instead. No daddy, jilat already. So he blamed it on “Free Riders”, instead of his own incompetency. “… Government scholarships in Singapore do a good… Read more »

From the first paragraph, if you are really interested, I think you can narrow down the identity of the writter pretty much down to the EXACT person.

He cites the privilege of having costly tuition. Yes, but with TutorGPT, soon, pretty much EVERYONE could have the same privilege. But not everyone would turn out like him.

Yes, not every scholar ie: academically good/excellent would turn out into a good administrator or leader. But the likelihood of someone who ISN’T academically good turning out into a good administrator or leader is considerably LESS.

The First generation of leaders in the PAP had what it took to think out of the box. It is from GCT’s tenure that the focus on education to enable the PAP to make themselves millionaires started. Now we live with incompetent leadership that has eroded our civil service and the three branches of the State. The writer has said the scholars are good administrators but I differ as the administration has to be varied to the needs of society. It changes continuously also because of policy changes. The administrator must be capable to read the cause and effect in… Read more »

Change the KPIs Change the appraisal criterias Not all can be measured by numbers. Provide good training for anyone who needs to appraise Monitor Check These skills cannot be left on automatic mode..needs rebalancing frequently. But, alas… profit and sales are ultra important. Pricing as high as the market can bear is important Investing in the long term is not. Why..? because the manpower source is limitless. Dont be too sure… limitless…?? We will be irrelevant very, very soon. PAP must not be given the mandate anymore… Enough of chances Enough of learning ( theirs) Enough of being scared shit… Read more »

Haha! The idiot who wrote this is a rejected scholar who can’t make the grade. He is now writing nonsense to badmouth those good scholars who made it. This idiot is just one big sour grape. I suggest rather than wasting everyone’s time whining online, go jump down from MBS and kill himself to relieve him of his misery

An entirely engrossing read until, … … out of nowhere and without warning, and entirely antithesis to what’s been said, … out pops Tharman Shanmugaratnam !!! C’mon, is he not oso, … another of those “yes” men, who voted with every policy, walked the very paths and direction of this overpaid, cronied and over~entitled regime !!! Sure, he’s a nice guy, cool under pressure and speaks well, but, … can’t the same be said of most that pride themselves on appearances, toeing the line and being part of the “club”, but, … ultimately, will little to no substance, … when… Read more »