Friday, August 15, 2008

A refined CBD system would be better

Business Times - Weekend Edition, November 12-13, 1994

Ong Yong Hwee has reservations about the effectiveness of the planned ERP traffic control system

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Financial markets held hostage by fear

Business Times - 14 Oct 1998

By Ong Yong Hwee

An interesting phenomenon became evident early last month. Stock prices traded on Clob and on KLSE in the wake of Malaysia's capital control measures showed large differences.

In a market where fear was the predominant sentiment, a difference of as much as 78 per cent was possible on the same stock on the same day. Some banks even classified Clob shares held by margin investors as worthless.

It goes to show how fear alone can significantly drive down any financial market, disregarding any fundamental factor of the economy. Many analysts think that crony capitalism was the main reason for the fall of the Asian financial markets. However, the severity of the plunge in both the stock and currency suggest a systemic error or faultline in global capitalism.

For a good five years before July 1997, huge amounts foreign capital came pouring into Asia driven by expectations of good returns from the lands of rising tigers and dragons. Western funds willingly found their way into the pockets of powerful individuals and corporations with "good" projects and connections.

Lenders later came to realise that much of their funds had been unwisely used or squandered and that many of the borrowers were cronies with connections but perhaps not the financial wisdom for sound investment decisions. This, according to some economists, triggered the reversal of foreign capital flow.

However, I believe crony capitalism has little impact on a country's economic system, as long as the money is circulated within the economy.

Crony capitalism may have an impact from the standpoint of efficient allocation of resources, but is not likely to have been the key factor leading to the rise and sudden fall of the Asian economies.

The real reason for the crisis is the intense fear initiated by financier George Soros' attack on the Thai baht that started the downfall of one Asian currency after another. The speculative attack (the greed factor) on the baht and other Asian currencies created fear in overseas lenders. Short-term lenders left in droves.

The present sorry state in Asia is the result of a lack of resolve by the Group of Seven industrialised nations, which have it within their power to tame financial speculators like Mr Soros and calm the markets.
The free-enterprise system, like the law of the jungle, encourages the survival of the fittest. But when the fittest become too greedy, the weak will build walls to protect themselves to ensure survival.

Like ostriches, the world's economic powers prefer to bury their heads and leave everything to the the market. But if the atmosphere of fear is not calmed, the world's hope of more openness and democracy will be undermined. The world trading system will go backwards. More walls will be built. What Malaysia is doing now in the area of capital control will be imitated by others, in one form or another.

The world's financial system must be reformed and a proper framework instituted to ensure that the greedy cannot plunder and destabilise the system.

The recent debacle involving a US hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), should be an eye-opener. LTCM was reportedly able to borrow more that US$100 billion (S$164 billion) from banks to buy securities, based on the fund's relatively small capital of US$2.5 billion.

The borrowed money was then used as collateral to take positions on various derivatives and forward contracts with an underlying value of more than US$1 trillion.

Imagine the amount of leverage these combined global hedge funds can exert to destabilise financial markets. Speculators are allowed to sell and profit on what they don't have.

On the other hand, the margin investors are coerced into force-selling their declining assets at below the net asset value of their shares.

So, without proper controls and regulations, fear can overwhelm market fundamentals.

The problem today is that the key world leader, US President Bill Clinton, is preoccupied with his own problems. But until another powerful leader -- or a world organisation -- is prepared to trigger the process of cleaning up the system, confidence will not return to our markets.

The writer is a mechanical engineer by training and a business consultant by profession

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Building a nation of workhorses and racehorses

Business Times - 25 Oct 2006

We have to believe in ourselves as precious racehorses where personal health is concerned


WORKHORSES are usually kept to do hard manual work in the open fields and are not necessarily well taken care of. These animals are usually taken for granted and their owners will pay special heed to their needs only when they are sick.

Racehorses, on the other hand are considered prize possessions by their owners who spare no expense in ensuring the health and general well-being of their precious animals. These horses benefit from the best of a well-planned diet supplemented by vitamins, exercise and grooming to ensure that they will perform at their optimum when put on the race tracks.

This is because the opportunity costs of a racehorse being unhealthy or sickly are immense. To stretch the analogy, should we live our lives as racehorses or workhorses? It depends.

In health matters, we need to take care of ourselves with as much care and thought as though we are precious racehorses. We cannot afford to take our health for granted, but must constantly be mindful that our health is our wealth.

In today's developed societies where the majority of us work in sedentary jobs, there is a tendency to forget that we need to regularly exercise to keep fit. Too frequently, work, family and other commitments take precedence over our time meant for exercise and recreation.

We often wait till we feel sick before we make a trip to the doctors who then prescribe some medication along, with the good old advice to take proper sleep, rest and exercise (which we may neglect to follow up on).

When we reach the stage where the ailment becomes major enough for long term treatment, drugs or surgery, we have already reached a critical point in the health management cycle. At this point, when we have been diagnosed with a serious illness and then choose to make radical changes to our sedentary lifestyle, it may be already be a case of 'too little, too late'.

In America last year, it is estimated that nearly US$2 trillion was spent on healthcare - and virtually all that money was spent on treating disease. Despite this massive expenditure on treatment, more Americans are sicker than ever before with diseases that are largely preventable: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and depression, to name a few of the more common ailments.

Financial resources are strained when medical treatment is required for major illnesses, and the results are often temporary or somewhat patchwork in effect. It does not make economic sense that so much monetary resources are channelled towards medical treatment rather than on preventive treatment.

A conscious effort at preventive healthcare is a much more practical and cheaper alternative to that of treating illness which could have been prevented or avoided. Hence, we have to believe in ourselves as precious racehorses where personal health is concerned.

We need to set aside personal resources of time, effort and discipline for health. Key areas of focus for physical and mental well-being are through diet and exercise.

I would like to focus on the exercise portion in this article. There are of course, an infinite number of options in terms of types of exercise to stay healthy. Here, I shall describe - taiji & qigong, as I have been a recent practitioner and convert. Taiji & qigong practitioners treat the body as a network of energy systems.

When these systems are working properly, the body can harness, store, distribute and utilise the energy for our daily activities. Practising qigong allows one to restore and maintain these energy systems in good working condition through its set of relaxed mind-body coordinated movements, breathing exercises and meditation.

Regular practice ensures that we maintain our health and hopefully, age gracefully. Qigong, when practised for health and healing benefits, has helped many who had been fighting sickness and poor health.

In the US, the late taiji & qigong grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and prolapsed stomach at the age of 47. He was introduced to taiji & qigong at that age and managed to consistently practice, excel and discover some important secrets of the art which he shared generously in his books.

National treasures

At 74, he looked like someone in his 40s or 50s. In China, these grandmasters would have been considered by some as national treasures. Because qigong and taiji often conjure up images of elderly and wizened practitioners, not many fit and healthy young enthusiasts choose to learn these forms of general exercise which have been practised for thousand of years in China.

It is often only when Heaven starts knocking hard at the door, do we start to look for quick cures and remedies. Qigong or taiji, however, requires years of practice to build up resistance and generate good health benefits.

Practised regularly over a period of time, it will go a long way in reversing early stage ailments, like in the case of the late grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa. In Taiwan, some qigong masters play a visible economic role when well-to-do entrepreneurs require their services at business functions.

Once, one of my business associates was in Taiwan and developed a bad headache before an important meeting. The CEO of the Taiwanese company motioned to his qigong master to help this associate clear off the blockage that caused the headache.

The headache subsided and my business associate was able to continue the negotiations unhindered.

Racehorses may be handsome to look at on and off the racetracks. However, these horses can only perform at top speed over a short distance. Their competitive spirit and physique may not however, be geared for the long haul.

In education and work, we need to groom workhorses who are flexible and adaptable, unlike their more pampered racing cousins. Workhorses are hardy animals, accustomed to work in rain or shine, and flexible in adapting to ever changing climatic and economic circumstances.

Students need to inculcate a 'workhorse' attitude which will enable them to rough it out in the increasingly competitive workplace.

On the other hand, if children are brought up like royal racehorses, and start behaving like little CEOs, this would translate to a poor finish at the races when they are placed in the working world. These 'royal' individuals would soon enough be put out to pasture. My alma mater's motto, 'Serve to Lead', is, I think the right way to holistically educate our children, i.e. they must learn to serve first, and serve well.

They must be put through the fire, otherwise no 'special steel' leaders will emerge who can rough it out over the long haul, let alone lead like racehorses.

A good value system that Western fast food chains have brought into Singapore is the 'clean up after yourself' philosophy which allows the premises to be clean and pleasant at all times.

The practice of throwing away remnants or clearing your tray after you are done with eating, is a good one which we should perhaps adopt in our hawker centres.

Our philosophy and attitude in a particular environment makes all the difference in whether we adopt a 'royal racehorse' stance where 'menial' work is left to others or a 'workhorse' orientation where we buckle down and do things for ourselves (and others), whether it be in school or at work.

To sum up, although it may sound contrary, in health, we do want to be as healthy and competitive as racehorses, whereas in work we need to be as hardworking and adaptable as workhorses.

Whether at the personal, company or national level, this special combination of qualities will hopefully enable one to excel right to the finishing line.

(The writer is a mechanical engineer by training, and a business consultant by profession, with CEO Search & Services)

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Entrepreneurship and the art of bicycling

Business Times - 16 Mar 2004

Learning about either involves the mind and the gut


WHAT is a bicycle?

This is not a trick question. There are two ways to find out the answer. One is through borrowed knowledge. You can get to know more about the bicycle through a traditional education-based system.

You can spend your early years in an innovative, fast-track, knowledge-based educational system via a gifted programme. Tutors and teachers can spoon-feed you on the intricacies of the brakes, pedals and the handlebars.

You can study the risks involved in cycling and do comparative studies on the most appropriate type of helmet and protective kneepads to wear. You can also be 'taught' the art of balancing oneself and the need to.

A global positioning system for navigating the bicycle can be included in the syllabus. Higher 'bicycle knowledge' can be gained by observation or experimentation and you can even finally get a PhD in 'bicycle-logy' without being able to ride one.

The other way to find out about a bicycle is via experience. You get to know a bicycle simply by riding one. You can even do a triple somersault without any prior knowledge about the bicycle system.

This bicycle-based analogy illustrates two aspects of the learning process. They are basically two sides of the same coin and both must balance each other for a total learning experience.

Training of the Mind

The knowledge-based system which we are accustomed to so far generally requires a logical, facts-and-figures way of learning. Concepts and principles are based on those discovered and are known entities, except if you have not read them. Questions are well defined and students are to regurgitate and apply those principles.

At a higher level, new theoretical or even practical ideas generated are generally based on further rationalisation, synthesis or mixing of existing knowledge. This is done via experimentation and the power of observation on problems surfaced up by those encountered through the door of experience.

Otherwise, the ideas that are generated out of a knowledge-based system are for an imaginary marketplace - that is, not tried and tested - and many will fail the test of the marketplace. You probably will retain the reasoning and thinking skills but will forget most of the knowledge that was pumped into you during your early learning years.

By pushing educational boundaries, educators can continually add new knowledge and push more difficult concepts downwards to the young.

The mantra for a knowledge-based learning here is to acquire, acquire and acquire some more. With the advancement of science in recent decades, there is a knowledge explosion. Even a lifetime isn't enough to learn everything.

But if the education system overdoes the training of the mind, we may achieve many negative traits among students. In pursuing education excellence, the present mantra is divide them into groups at an early age and to push them to the limits of learning incompetence.

As such, we are creating many more who are anti-learning as there is no joy in their educational experience, given the work overload.

For those who have succeeded in the rigorous educational regime, a sense of untrue confidence prevails, hence resulting in arrogance or even naivety.

Given that the educational system is so result-focused, we find ourselves caught up in fighting over an extra mark or two throughout our education years. Teachers and students alike end up focusing on the trees and not the forest.

Training of the Gut

The alternative approach is an experience-based system of learning. Try remembering your own cycling experience or try observing your children trying to acquire the art of riding a two-wheeler. This is generally an intuitive process by venturing into unknown territory. You need not know anything about the bicycle in depth.

And you can only acquire the art of balancing the two-wheeler by letting go of the mind/knowledge interference. If your mind starts interfering, you will not succeed in balancing the two-wheeler. In fact, if the knowledge-based education system emphasises the risks of cycling, you may not even dare ride one.

In the training of the gut, the main goal that applies to everyone is to discover one's centre. Hence, training of the gut means, among other things, the ability to go beyond one's own boundaries, develop confidence, judgement, sensing and awareness.

All these traits can be developed only through experience. Remember that these are the skills that the young are naturally trying to acquire after they are born until they are truncated or stunted by an education system that too heavily emphasises mind training.

The process of discovering one's centre cannot be spoon-fed. It is powered by gut-feel and only you alone can make that happen. If you over- or undercompensate yourself, you will fail to find your centre and will not be able to balance the bicycle. And that discovery cannot be taught but only acquired through experience. When you are centered, your awareness and consciousness are at a higher state of alertness.

The mantra here is exposure, exposure and more exposure.

This exposure can only happen if students have sufficient time (after completing all the knowledge-based educational assignments and accompanying tuition homework). Everyone can acquire the knowledge of bicycling but only you can balance the bicycle through experience. And once you have acquired the skills, you will be able to retain them throughout your life.

Balancing the Mind and the Gut

Once you have experienced cycling, the ideas you will get on how to improve a bicycle system will be more realistic than imaginary - and more acceptable in the marketplace. Thus, knowledge-based learning works together with experience in promoting innovation and problem-solving.

Experience also helps serendipity. Interestingly, many discoveries happen by accident, but if you have not found your centre via experience-based learning, you will not have the awareness to recognise a happy accident when it happens.

Remember, Sir Issac Newton discovered the law of gravity by accident, not through scientific analysis. But if he had not discovered his centering as a scientist, he would not have had the awareness to notice the gravitational phenomenon when the apple dropped on his head.

And if he had not had a good grounding in scientific knowledge, he probably would not have come up with the law of gravity. He would probably have just eaten the apple.

The Gut Route to Entrepreneurship

Like cycling, all of us who want to be entrepreneurs have to experience it and to discover our own entrepreneurial centre. This means developing those traits that are important for entrepreneurship - which can be done mostly through experience.

There is no substitute for this. When you try to find a rationale or a reason to be an entrepreneur, then the centering will not be discovered and entrepreneurship will usually not happen. This is because your knowledge-based logical mind will tell you that entrepreneurship is too risky and complex - which will put the brakes on further development of your entrepreneurial ideas.

Hence you will not move forward. As the adage goes, sometimes, 'to analyse is to paralyse'. The more you excel in acquiring your knowledge through your traditional educational system, the less entrepreneurial you will be. That is one reason why we don't see many PhD holders starting their own businesses.

If our education system continues to be heavily biased towards the training of the mind, we may, at the end of the day, produce a populace that does not have the confidence to venture out of the known or out of the 'comfort zone'.

It is only when we, as a society, are able to create a total learning experience, balancing the teachings of the mind with those of the gut, that cyclists will not only think they know the bicycle well but also ride it with confidence. Only then will we have more entrepreneurs stepping out and seizing new business opportunities.

(The writer is a mechanical engineer by training, and a business consultant by profession, with CEO Search & Services)

Copyright © 2004 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Raising the bar of good governance

Business Times - 09 Mar 2007

The 75% voting system can diminish any underlying uncertainty in working conditions where many dissenting voices can create confusion and hence poor management implementation


THE National Kidney Foundation (NKF) saga is really an eye opener. Given the organisation's high profile as well as the constant spotlight on its fund raising activities, it really illustrates the adage: 'the safest place for a thief to hide is the police station'.

Good governance can be hard to qualify and quantify, whether it be in charitable organisations, commercial conglomerates or even condominium management. Can good governance then be improved by simple measures? One suggestion I have is to raise the bar of consensus on all matters which need approval at committee or board level from the current 'more than 50 per cent' simple majority to 'at least 75 per cent clear majority'.

Closer to home, for me, than NKF, is being on the council of my condominium. When I asked my 13-year-old daughter what percentage voting system we should use to manage a condominium, a 'more than 50 per cent' figure was her prompt reply. On the surface, the '50 per cent' rule of thumb appears to be a straightforward, natural figure.

This in fact has been the practice of our condominium council and likely many others, in coming to decisions requiring approval in all matters whether it be financial, maintenance and enhancement or general policy matters. Fifty per cent is a convenient figure. Anything over this number means, 'majority' decision and issues can be pushed through neatly and quickly. However, a simple majority of anything more than 50 per cent may NOT always be the magic number to determine outcomes which are sometimes contentious and require a careful process of weighing pros and cons.

Obtaining just over a 50 per cent majority indicates that there are close to 50 per cent who may disagree i.e. the committee is divided on the issue and there is therefore much room for discussion.

In Parliament, only a simple majority of votes is required, except for an amendment or change of the Constitution whereby a 2/3 majority of votes are needed. In the case of Members of Parliament, they have already gone through a vigorous selection process, so first level safeguards are already in place.

At the Condominium level, serving on the council is almost akin to doing community service, and there are few contenders vying for the posts. That is, almost anyone who wishes to have a seat on the council often faces no competition and simply gets voted in. Character, competency, and commitment to serve and make good decisions in the best interests of the condominium are assumed, but never actually put to the test at the point of voting.

We are assuming that council members, each with a stake in the same real estate, have similar goals, that is, to manage the condominium in the best way possible for the benefit of all. However, apart from the common thread binding council members i.e. each owning a piece of the real estate, members may have very diverse views, visions and philosophy of how money should be spent or saved. This is indeed a good and healthy situation. It means that there is enough diversity so that issues can be approached from different angles and surfaced for discussion.

Having said that, it is important to remember that running a condominium is NOT like running a business in that there are no 'commercial' decisions relating directly to Profit and Loss.

Making decisions for a condominium requires a conservative (rather than gung ho or risk taking) approach to ensure that the assets are well maintained, funds are well spent, and that enough monies are in the sinking funds for asset replacement. To ensure proper checks and balances, committee members must act first with their heads, then their hearts.

Although the process of condominium management is uncomplicated, it does require careful assessment of pros and cons before proceeding (or not) with a plan of action which often entails expenditure which is forked out ultimately by condominium owners. Careful brain-storming and analysis of issues and projects are needed and hopefully through this, more consistent right judgements made by the Council will prevail.

This essentially implies that we need a 'BAND 1' decision, hence the 75 per cent majority voting recommendation. A 75 per cent majority system has its benefits:

Collective rather than factional decision: The 75 per cent majority voting system forces partisan members to work together. Council members who initiate ideas would have to study and think through the proposal before putting up to the council for deliberation. At present, the set of by-laws that is applicable to the private condominium allows factional interests to thrive. With the simple majority system, there are times where half-thought out issues are pushed through because of the 'group think effect'. On the other hand, a clear 75 per cent mandate would ensure that 10 different ideas coming from 10 council members become synthesised and distilled eventually to one.

Clear mandate for implementation; with the 75 per cent voting system, there will be less flip-flops in the Council decision making process, as decisions made this way are likely to be usually well thought through.

This would make the job of the condominium manager easier as well, since decisions are made with a clear 75 per cent mandate, and the condominium manager can safely take action based on decisions made, and need not spend his time appeasing the other dissenting voices which are in a clear minority.

Hence, the 75 per cent voting system can diminish any underlying uncertainty in working conditions where many dissenting voices can create confusion and hence poor management implementation.

Closing the loop: This will also ensure that only issues that are well trashed out at Council level, are allowed to be tabled at the AGM.

Given that the Singapore residential landscape comprises mainly of high rise buildings which require collective effort to manage, it is timely to step up the level of prudence in its management practices. As many of these collective real estates age, unless there has been prudent management of the sinking fund to service the cost of asset replacement, we may be in danger of pushing this liability of a depleted sinking fund to the next generation of home owners.

Thus, it is time that we need to raise the bar to a 75 per cent voting system at the council level to ensure higher level of prudent governance in our real estates. Should the same rule apply to clubs, charity organisations, non-profit organisations, or even public listed companies? Well, the ever prudent Warren Buffett has essentially two rules. Rule 1: Don't lose capital. Rule 2: Remember Rule 1.

Whilst I don't have the first hand knowledge to make an affirmative statement, I would not be far wrong to state that a higher level of collective decision leads to more prudent management of assets and capital.

Therefore, the answer to greater governance, corporate or otherwise, can be achieved by pushing for more prudence i.e. merely raising the simple majority voting system bar to 75 per cent on all issues presented at Council or Board level. It just does not make business sense to have a paper thin 'simple majority' system that easily allows cracks to develop, which can then lead to exploitation or mismanagement. Good governance through clear majority decisions will go a long way in ensuring solid consensus building and management.

(The writer is a mechanical engineer by training, and a business consultant by profession, with CEO Search & Services )

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Getting manufacturing's golden goose to stay put

Business Times - September 27, 2001

The Singapore economy will suffer greatly if the government ignores crucial measures to keep the Republic attractive to MNCs

By Ong Yong Hwee

MANY employees in Singapore currently feel uncertain, rather than confident, about their jobs and their future. Those in the manufacturing sector seem most concerned.

The present hollowing out of multinational corporations (MNC), particularly in the electronics manufacturing sector in Singapore, is disturbing. And it is extremely stressful for Singaporeans who feel they are drawn into a Russian roulette game with their careers - you know you could be next in line to be chopped, but don't know when.

Harvard guru Michael Porter, during his recent visit, said that Singapore should focus more on services and less on manufacturing, and move away from a foreign direct investment (FDI) driven strategy to an innovation-driven strategy. Anxious Singaporeans working in the manufacturing sector, already at a loss, became even more distraught, as they interpreted the advice as confirmation that manufacturing has no future in Singapore.

Is this indeed the case? Is China going to become one giant manufacturing plant and leave a big manufacturing hollow in Asian countries?

In the much longer term, China may indeed be the manufacturing centre of the world with its huge market potential, which will work as a magnet for MNCs. But this does not mean that developed countries like Singapore should stop attracting foreign investments in manufacturing.

Attracting MNCs' manufacturing FDI is, in fact, a 'no risk, golden goose' strategy for Singapore. They invest their capital, time and technology, whilst the direct risk to Singapore should the investment fail is a reduction in jobs which can, with some foresight and planning, be replaced by new MNC investments. Singaporeans do not lose everything in the process of transition; they merely change their jobs for a different one. Although there are investments on Singapore's part in infrastructure and manpower training, these investments have to be sunk in anyway before any golden goose will come to roost.

The manufacturing sector is an important anchor for Singapore's economy. This sector, particularly electronics manufacturing, has played an important role over the last few years and allowed Singapore to ride out the 1997 downturn with less pain than otherwise. The electronics sector during this time was the bright spot, and factories were kept busy with Internet dotcom and Y2K orders, providing considerable spin-offs to the rest of the economy through its linkages with design, IT, logistics and finance.

Contrary to the perception that manufacturing is labour-intensive, with low returns to the workers, great strides are being made in further automating assembly work through the use of IT and complex robotics. Productivity per worker (and hence, earnings) can increase many fold, and is more quantifiable than productivity strides in the service sector. And it is precisely because of the ability of this sector to use unlimited machines and robots to generate a higher level of economic activity that this sector should continually be nurtured.

A recent case in point is that of Seagate's 'Factory of the Future' in Ang Mo Kio, showcasing one of the world's most sophisticated assembly lines and an intelligent tracking system. These high-tech machines allow a very flexible production system of producing a wide range of disk drives, depending on demand requirements. At the same time, workers have not been displaced, but are upgraded to process the data from the machines, hence increasing overall productivity.

To quote Seagate president William Watkins: 'Singapore is the central location for our disk-drive manufacturing. China is meant to be the satellite, a second plant.'

Hopefully, Singapore can develop to be the central Asian base from which design, innovation and new manufacturing processes will evolve. Manufacturing can have an important future role to play, and continue to be a 'golden goose' for Singapore provided we provide a comfortable and competitive nest for the goose to lay the golden eggs.

Singapore already offers the political stability, transparency, rule of law, infrastructure and efficiency which attract top businesses to locate here. But the one snag foreign and local companies face is the issue of cost.

What appears to be missing in the equation is the Republic's hands-off approach in allowing internal market forces to determine pricing levels. In land-, resource- and labour-scarce Singapore, a slight shortage of any one factor of production tends to lead to a quick escalation of costs. The tight and inelastic supply of these factors in a small country leads to a bottleneck of unmet demand and, ultimately, irrational spiralling costs.

We have to recognise that the cost of doing business in and from Singapore is now high. The government must respond quickly and react with an appropriate strategy. The present mantra in electronics manufacturing is swift restructuring through significant cost-cutting measures. As a pro-business environment, the Republic has to respond accordingly. Otherwise, Singapore will continue to see an erosion of MNCs as they move out to more cost-competitive locations.

The latest casualty in Singapore is 3Com, the computer networking giant which is relocating part of its manufacturing operations to Ireland - and the speed of the departure after they had just moved into their own building is telling. Earlier, Aiwa closed down its fairly large R&D facility in Singapore. This is a significant signal indicating that the cost structure here may not be favourable to an innovation-driven strategy as well.

It would not pay to adopt a wait-and-see attitude or shrug off yet another relocation; fast counter-measures are needed. After all, there is a critical mass required for any one sector to flourish, and the electronics manufacturing sector is no exception. Looking ahead, it is going to be more difficult to promote new foreign direct investment. Hence, it is up to the Republic to ensure that it is even more attractive for the existing ones to remain.

A concerted effort to consider all aspects of the cost structure in Singapore and how to best create flexible and elastic solutions needs to be part of the new masterplan. Only then will Singapore be able to maintain a strong manufacturing base and continue to enjoy the fruits of this 'no risk, golden goose' strategy.

(The writer is a mechanical engineer by training and a business consultant by profession, with CEO Search & Services)

Intrapreneurs: The other engine that can drive Singapore's economy

Business Times - Weekend Edition, June 4-5 1994

Tap experienced local managers to run companies so that homespun MNCs may merge

By Ong Yong Hwee

The Property Steroid

Business Times - February 28, 1996

For long-term prosperity, a nation needs to manage its real estate sector to prevent excessive speculation

By Ong Yong Hwee

Run S'pore as big city or small country?

Business Times - 01 Jun 2005

History provides the answer - being replete with instances of countries going into decline when they became city-focused


THE die has been cast. Singapore will have two mega integrated resorts (IRs) with casinos to be 'financed' ultimately by the global gambling community. However, the bigger question for Singaporeans - in the debate over casinos and IRs - is whether this nation should view itself as a small country or a big city.

Recently, the dean emeritus of MIT's Sloan School of Management, Lester Thurow, painted his big-picture concept for Singapore. He advised that Singapore should think about itself, not as a country, but as a city like San Francisco, Boston or New York. Prof Thurow's vision is very inviting.

However, I would like to argue that in order for Singapore to move into the big league of global cities, the Republic first needs to be focused on the fact that great cities generally thrive from being part of a great country.

The cities of San Francisco, Boston and New York all have large suburbs and the rest of the United States as direct and borderless hinterlands to support them. These cities are thriving because the prosperous country of America provides an intricate infrastructural network of economic activity and ready markets of consumers.

It would be hard to imagine, say, cosmopolitan San Francisco as a flourishing stand-alone city without the Greater Bay Area. This thriving metropolis bay area of over 6 million supports both global and small businesses, provides less expensive rental and housing, and helps to ease the usual cost and space constraints of a congested city. The Bay Area/Silicon Valley in turn relies on the prosperous state of California for good infrastructural support.

A great city (effect) is a result of a well-managed country (cause). The country (at different economic layers) as a whole has to do well in order for the city hub to thrive. But when the city becomes great, and the country forgotten, we will start to see the decline of the entire country.

If we were to look at some previously great cities, we can attribute instances of decline of the country to when they became city-focused. For example, when China was run primarily at the 'Forbidden City-level' centered in Beijing, China was city-focused, and thereafter went into a long state of decline.

Hence, for Singapore to achieve a global-city status, it needs to be viewed and run as a top-rate country. The 'city' will then naturally take on a world-city image and status. The larger issues of the country must first be addressed before the 'city' can flourish.

Singapore Inc branding

How will welcoming the two casinos affect the Republic of Singapore's image? A city-level strategy will find Singapore viewed as the Las Vegas of the East, not unlike Macau and Monaco. A country strategy, on the other hand, will have just pockets of Singapore - that is, Sentosa and Marina South - considered the Las Vegases of Singapore.

Singapore must think carefully how it plans to develop its marketing image to the outside world, for global tourism and the foreign investment market.

If Singapore is marketed as a 'Casino City' for the tourism dollar, this would definitely be at odds with Singapore's carefully-earned wholesome reputation as an attractive location for overseas investments. The mentality of 'quick bucks' - rather than steady returns on investments resulting from solid hard work, skills and reputation - may take hold.

If this happens, the Republic's dream of going into serious industries like biomedical and other higher value-added activities could become a marketing nightmare. Hence, a well-planned country-level strategy must ensure that Singapore's name does not become synonymous with the word 'casino'.

The correct branding of Singapore's image is key to the country's continuing success.

Singapore's post-war situation makes for interesting analysis. Post-war Singapore had high unemployment and a largely uneducated and unskilled workforce. A city-level strategy then could have meant glamorising colourful Bugis Street with its transvestites, and moving to an easy sleazy image of fun and entertainment. Our medical sector could have earned the dubious distinction of being No 1 in medical surgery for sex-change operations.

Instead, the Republic adopted a country-level strategy of developing a strong manufacturing sector, thanks to a Dutch economist, Dr Albert Winsemius, who led a UN Industrial Survey Mission to Singapore in the late 1960s.

This strategy would lead to Singapore's remarkable economic transformation from post-war poverty and unrest to a nation which created steady employment and skills and brought prosperity for decades to come. A huge industrial estate was born from converting swampland in Jurong into well-laid-out land for buildings and factories.

Land availability, pricing, and location were all centrally controlled and well managed through Jurong Town Corporation's (JTC) industrial land and leasing policies.

The other factors of production - labour (through the National Trades Union Congress) and capital (through the Monetary Authority of Singapore) - were also well managed and gave investors confidence to make million-dollar investments in plant and machinery here. American and European conglomerates like Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, Seagate, Infineon (then Siemens Components) and Philips spawned an entire new economic sector for Singapore. Manufacturing has been an important economic contributor, contributing some 25 per cent of the country's GDP.

Cost control

Today, a different type of global economy exists. Singapore has to adapt to a completely new set of economic challenges. Industries and ways of doing business are morphing at an ever faster rate. The mushrooming of dotcom companies can bubble over overnight.

Global corporations which for decades were household names are acquired or fade into oblivion. China, not Asia as a whole, is the new centre of production for the world.

As Singapore is physically a small country, the cost of doing business is high - like that of a 'big city' without its own supporting hinterland.

In 2003, then prime minister Goh Chok Tong remarked that, 'For every one manufacturing worker hired here, a company can employ three in Malaysia, eight in Thailand, 13 in China, or 18 in India'. However, for each Singapore worker here to work 18 times harder than his counterpart in India is going to be a near-impossible task. Working 18 times smarter is possible, however, but may require a paradigm shift.

For example, the delayering of organisations here will continue. Multi-functional, multi-skilled and multi-tasking executives will be the way forward.

A $5,000 per month engineer here will have to think and work more like a $5,000 departmental manager in India. This type of attitude towards work and productivity must be translated into society at all levels across the country.

Again, at a country level, the skills in which young Singaporeans are trained must be put to good use. Technicians and engineers, for example, must be able to see a clear long-term role for them in the manufacturing and technical services sectors. The relocation of MNC plants from here to China - based on costs, for example - will put a major dampener on career aspirations in manufacturing.

The attrition of good technically-trained workers who do not see a rosy future in technical work will create an increasingly smaller pool of workers with the skills, knowledge and experience which Singapore has invested heavily in.

Singapore, at a country level, needs to continually and creatively price itself correctly to ensure that the existing base of key and supporting industries can continue their operations here. Manufacturing companies provide the cascading spin-offs to the financial, legal, logistics and transportation industries which are other key sectors of the economy. A concerted, innovative, image and cost-control strategy at the country level will allow Singapore to retain top-notch foreign and local investments in the economy.

'Growing its own timber'

In the US, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) of businesses are commonplace. In these M&A deals, the ownership of these companies generally still rests within corporate America.

As such, corporate ownership, control and profits are retained within the country even if some of the activities of these US-owned companies can be contracted abroad.

In Singapore, however, when companies are sold, ownership often ends in foreign hands. To maximise shareholder value, these businesses are sold to the highest bidders, often overseas investors, as few private-sector companies here have the resources and/or interest to mount these buyouts.

Hence, Singapore as a country should re-evaluate its 'detimbering' approach. The Republic has, over the last few years, lost control of quite a few of these companies. Some examples of ownership sell-offs of established home-grown companies to foreign parties include CPG (formerly government-owned PWD Consultants, with a well-regarded brand name) to Australian Downer, and property management company Premas (formerly owned by government-controlled CapitaLand) to Australian United Group.

Singapore Inc, via the government-linked companies (GLCs), should ensure that the Republic continues to 'grow its own timber' (borrowing former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow's words), including maintaining ownership of non-strategic, but nevertheless profitable, businesses.

A well-positioned Singapore (as a country) with key economic and social issues well handled and addressed will then naturally give rise to a great Singapore city which could conceivably be mentioned in the same breath as global cities like San Francisco and New York.

The writer is a mechanical engineer by training, and a business consultant by profession,with CEO Search & Services

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

More business builders needed, not deal-makers

Business Times - October 11, 2002

A secure long-term futurefor Singapore Inc can only be assured with GLCs leading the charge abroad and grooming promising intrapreneurs

By Ong Yong Hwee

THE Great Singapore Asset Sale is here again. This time, Singapore's 96-year-old bookstore chain icon, MPH, has been sold by deal-maker Simon Cheong to a Malaysian firm owned by Syed Mokhtar of Tanjung Pelepas fame.

Before this, there have been many other solid Singapore entities, built up painstakingly over the years, which ultimately ended in the hands of foreign firms.

These companies include NatSteel Electronics sold to Solectron, Omni Electronics to Celestica, and JIT to Flextronics. NatSteel is now up for grabs, foreign parties not excluded. 98 Holdings, a high-powered investment company which has just put in a bid for NatSteel, has among its shareholders a subsidiary of Standard Chartered Bank and a foreign fund management group.

These deals may at times appear sexy when there are buyers who are willing to fork out a handsome sum for the business; after all, it is part and parcel of modern-day business dynamics. However, the Republic cannot rely on this type of deal-making to build a robust economy and create a secure future for Singapore Inc as a whole.

Instead, we need long-term business builders, rooted to Singapore, who have the vision and the courage to own and build business systems that are amongst the world's best - especially so since the Singapore domestic market is uniquely small.

The cost and market attractions of North Asia, particularly China, are pulling away numerous multinational companies (MNCs) operating here, particularly those in the electronics manufacturing industry. If, one day, Solectron, Celestica or Flextronics were to completely pack up and leave, that probably would be the last of the value-added activities that the Republic could receive from these companies.

Since private sector companies in Singapore could be classified as 'stayers' or 'quitters' in the sense of staying Singapore-owned and rooted here, it therefore falls on the government-linked companies (GLCs) to carry the baton and ensure a long-term economic commitment to Singapore. The GLCs are collectively Singapore's key economic stalwart - as business builders for Singapore. Who else is better able to take the lead in creating employment for the 6 per cent well-trained but unemployed, many of whom have been laid off by MNCs now eyeing the greener pastures of North Asia? And which other entities have the financial muscle, talent and resources and are amongst the most prepared to venture abroad in a big way? And who else can we count on to have permanent roots in Singapore?

For all the debate about the way forward for GLCs (divestments, avoiding competition with local entrepreneurs, etc), it is the GLCs who are Singapore's assured stayers and provide the best bet for Singapore's long-term economic future. The GLCs should move forward affirmatively and take the lead to find niches in the global value chain, beyond the sheltered shores of Singapore. They should do so confidently and at the same time bring along Singapore private enterprises, so that the strong partnership from a large grouping has a better chance of succeeding in the huge wide world.

GLCs must adopt a 'thick-skinned' approach and not shy away from pursuing attractive business opportunities, strategic or otherwise, as the competition is really from without, not from within, Singapore. Ignore the Economic Review Committee's 'Yellow Pages' ruling especially when you are doing business overseas. This rule suggested that government-related companies should stay out of any business which is, or could be, provided by the private sector.

Valuable time and resources should not be wasted selling off viable but non-strategic businesses. Instead, GLC management should direct their efforts to harness the resources of Singapore Inc (including local enterprises) in a Japanese sogo shosha (general trading houses) manner, to explore opportunities beyond our shores.

Given the condition of the world's economy, it is far easier and faster to promote risk-averse Singaporeans to work in GLCs as intrapreneurs. Give them the power to map out the destiny of the company based on what makes business sense, but not the absolute power to uproot the linkages from Singapore. And when the intrapreneur decides to be an entrepreneur, encourage them - but not by selling them the businesses that the GLCs have taken risks on and successfully built.

There may be some truth that managers in government-type organisations don't make good businessmen. This may be partly due to the philosophy and nature of the GLCs, which may have 'asset preservation', 'national brand name' and 'strategic considerations' to juggle along with business interests. As GLCs and Singapore companies explore new territories overseas whether separately or hand-in-hand, the various parties will have to continue to find their own brand of entrepreneurship, risk-taking and reward benefits.

Time should be spent to find and nurture professionals within GLCs to be potential intrapreneurs. The real test of business acumen is when GLCs taste success in the overseas market and not within the small controllable local market. The reward system for intrapreneurs should be based on long-term business development ability and can be tied to incentives beyond their GLC careers. This is to ensure that whatever business decisions are made are for the long-term benefit of the company and not for the short-term share price gain where the intrapreneur can cash out. This way, we can avoid the problems of short-term incentives that have affected world-class companies like Enron, WorldCom and Tyco.

In fact, bring in the Singapore populace into the long-term business-building equation. For example, it would be more meaningful if a basket of GLC shares were given to Singaporeans instead of the current Singapore Share Scheme. Like renowned long-term investor Warren Buffett, who owns Coca-Cola shares and drinks his Coke wherever he goes, Singaporeans can have the same sense of attachment with GLCs share ownership.

With intrapreneurs in GLCs, entrepreneurs in Singapore enterprises and the Singapore populace linked as long-term business builders of Singapore, Singapore's long-term economic future is better assured, and with it, the Republic can be assured of far more economic stayers than quitters.

(The writer is a mechanical engineer by training and a business consultant by profession with CEO Search & Services)

Three-realms philosophy can help Asia

The Business Times, July 29. 1998

by ONG Yong Hwee


Business Times - 28 Oct 1997

By Ong Yong Hwee

UP TO NOW, South-east Asian countries' economic growth has been the result of good political and social order, as well as positive pro-business development efforts. Multinational companies responded and capitalised on the region's favourable factors of production. The consequence was the buoyant Asian economic climate.

The Asians and many others adopted what I term an "instant noodle" economic development approach. The Maggi instant noodle slogan: "Fast to cook, Good to eat" (and obviously cheap) summed up its key characteristics.

And, broadly speaking, this simple approach has been one of the key determinants in Asia's prosperity in the last quarter of the 20th century. However, as with instant noodles, we cannot price ourselves much higher. Otherwise, the cost-conscious buyer will go for an alternative cheaper brand. And the not-so-cost conscious one, who is generally more fussy, will be rather selective and perhaps go for other more tasty and upmarket options.

As the more developed Asian economies appeared to be too expensive for the instant noodle economic development approach to be sustained, the regional currency turmoil set in and does come as a reprieve.

Hopefully, all Asian countries will take this opportunity to strengthen internally, during this seemingly uncertain period.

But first, the South-east asian economies have to go back to basics and keep tabs on the cost of their factors of production, which have spiralled over the years.

Whilst the instant noodle approach is a sound one and can, in fact, quick-start any economy, Asian economies need, in parallel, to develop their own indigenous capabilities.

To this end, I believe two other significant ingredients need to be in place, that is, origination/innovation and ownership of ideas. This next lap requires further development in terms of creating a more nurturing environment where creative juices can flow. A "can do" and proprietary mindset has to be inculcated into the young.

In Singapore, for example, the recent move to a more creative or application-oriented educational system is a right move towards this direction. Singapore is now pumping in a lot of R&D funds to the MNCs which are utilising local talent in their research endeavour. Hopefully, some of these individuals can later spin out new ideas and become the new generation of successful entrepreneurs.

The larger local companies can also be encouraged, with appropriate government support, to allocate financial resources into nurturing and developing individuals with innovative ideas.

In this way, more Sim Wong Hoos can grow their Creative Technology and, eventually an "Asian Microsoft" or an "Asian Motorola" can emerge.

What South-east Asian companies really need, beyond finance, is to develop a new mindset of what talent they must have and change their traditional hiring philosophy. With so many Asians excelling in top foreign universities, countries in the region have to find the right incentives and create a suitable environment and culture to entice these graduates back to work. With talent back in Asia, new inventions and innovations become the property of such Asian companies. Ownership of ideas, information and technology will be the keys to managing one's destiny.

Regional companies need to move beyond owning supporting services like PCBA subcontracting, diecasting and molding. These companies have to bring in new talent and find new products and develop new technologies to move beyond their existing status quo. Only then can this region be strengthened to soar beyond the instant noodle tag.

The writer is a mechanical engineer by training and a business consultant by profession

Friday, August 8, 2008

Managing in an imperfect world (business management)

ST Recruit on 22 Dec 2003
by ONG Yong Hwee

Good managers recognise their weaknesses and know how to bring out the best in their imperfect surbordinates.

You have an excellent engineer in your company, but when he is promoted to manage others, his performance dives. Sounds familiar?

A main reason for this is narrow, academic-focused education, which is why the education system is increasingly emphasising CCA (co-curricular activities) to complement the highly academic curriculum.

Unfortunately, there are students and parents who still view taking CCA as an end in itself. They do it just to fulfil the requirements of the school curriculum. They don’t see it as a personal development process.

Mathematics and science subjects are about perfection and exactness. A large proportion of the brighter students are channelled, trained and grilled in such subjects.

These subjects are good as they help students develop critical and vigorous thinking skills. However, a negative effect is that these individuals may, using a “perfect” model, analyse situations and human relationships as either right or wrong, in their “perfect world” scenario.

When these “science/maths perfectionists” venture out into the real, imperfect corporate world, they often get frustrated and discouraged when things don’t go neatly according to plan.

They get stressed out when their reporting staff do not live up to their expectations. They are also less tolerant of non-conformist, out-of-the-box thinkers, as these groups may offer ideas that appear unusual or even “off-the-wall”.

In human resource management, the art of people management is about understanding, accepting and managing imperfection. This would suggest a 180-degree incongruence when compared to the “perfect” disciplines of mathematics and science.

So, accepting imperfection is really the first step towards managing one of the company’s most valuable resource, its human talent and capital.
"The art of people management is about understanding, accepting and managing imperfections"
While training and management theories and case studies can help corporate managers grasp the essence of people management, the actual work experience and practical exposure are key to better human resource management.

Choose carefully
Managers should be discerning when selecting or promoting management staff. While most tend to be biased towards those who shine academically (followed by those who excel technically or technologically), they have to differentiate such skills from their people management abilities.

So, during the hiring process, try to give more weight to those who talk about and accept responsibility for project or business failures.

It is difficult to get senior-level candidates to talk about their management failings and shortfalls. Experienced interviewers must thus be skilful in leading them towards discussing such issues.

A red flag comes up if they tell you that they have not experienced any failures or difficulties either in managing people or projects.

Maturity in accepting weaknesses, especially in one’s own personality traits, is another sign of a good people manager.

Sun Tze said: “Know yourself and know your enemy, 100 battles will produce 100 victories.” So, knowing oneself is half way to being a good people manager.

It is not so much the negative traits that you want to hear from your candidate, but his acceptance of his and others’ weaknesses, and his ability to come up with ways to surmount those weaknesses, that you should look out for.

People management is, afterall, an art, and good people managers know how to bring out the best of their imperfect subordinates.

Finally, reference checking with those who have worked with or for the candidate is another way of confirming your analysis of whether he will be good at managing in an imperfect world.

(Article contributed by Mr Ong Yong Hwee, general manager of CEO Search & Services. This article first appeared in ST Recruit on 22 Dec 2003. )


ST Recruit on September 3, 1999
by ONG Yong Hwee
...unless you've also used the Twin Approach of handwriting analysis and referencing in your selection process

A Princeton University study found that for every five people hired for a particular job, four are wrong for it.

In sales, 85 per cent of employees leave their jobs - either by resignation or termination - within three months of getting hired.

Successful recruitment is a much more complex process than the matching of a candidate's academic and work experience to the position's requirements.

After all, it's not what we know but rather what we don't know about candidates that cause mis-hires.

Dr William Swan, a US management expert, introduced an interesting model in his book. How to Pick the Right People, (published by John Wiley & Sons).

It looked into the following three broad fit factors:

· The Can-Do factor analyses the candidate's knowledge, skills and abilities. This includes work experience, education, technical, analytical and communication skills, and specialised training.

These can be obtained through face-to-face interviews and appropriate technical tests.

· The Will-Do factor covers the behavioural aspects of the candidate, such as motivation, interests, goals, drive, honesty, reliability and initiative.

· The Can-fit factor covers team orientation, independence, social effectiveness, stress tolerance and other limitations.

Will-Do and Can-Fit factors are not easily determined by direct interviews.

Some employers rely on general volunteered information from references provided by candidates. Often, a lot of details are not revealed during this referencing.

But take heart, a better recruitment analysis model exists.

Twin Approach

This combines handwriting analysis and character reference checks.

It minimises job mismatches and job hopping, and helps to increase a company's chances of
hiring the most appropriate candidates.

It does not purport to replace the usual hiring processes, like face-to-face interviews.

However, used togetherwith such traditional methods, it can save precious time and money as
well as improve staff morale.

Let's look at each one in detail.

· Handwriting analysis tool:

In many European countriesand increasingly in the US, handwriting analysis is utilised as part of the screening tests prior to hiring.

It is a good, scientific and non-discriminatory method of determining the character of the candidate.

Using handwriting analysis, an in-depth understanding of the candidate's personality profile, including his personal dynamics, interpersonal skills, work style and motivating forces, can be determined to analyse Will-Do and Can-Fit factors with relative accuracy:

· Personality assessment and reference checking:

With background information from the ,handwriting analysis, you then engage in the next important step of reference checking specific attributes.

The candidate's key weaknesses and strengths can be confirmed through careful reference checking with his ex-colleagues, clients and associates.

This way, an accurate picture of the candidate can be formed and a decision to hire can be made more easily.

Article by Ong Yong Hwee, general manager of CEO Search & Services.
This article first appeared in ST Recruit on September 3, 1999.

GOOD CHOICE! (hiring during downturn)

ST Recruit on 4 Nov 2002
by ONG Yong Hwee
When you hire new employees, what you see may not necessarily be what you get. Learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. 
In an economic downturn, it is vital to have strong employees on your team. Tough times require tough people, and it is not necessarily true that those who have done their job well during the boom times will be able to pull their weight during the lean years.

When you are hiring, be sure you have the ability to differentiate between those who are genuinely good workers and those who do well because they "happen to be at the right place at the right time".

For instance, candidates who have been successful in a multinational corporation (MNC), where the products are market-ready, business systems are well-developed and resources are available, may not necessarily do well in a non-MNC environment. Therefore, local companies that intend to hire key and often expensive staff from MNCs have to be very careful in their recruitment process.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself when considering a candidate:

Is he or she capable of motivating staff?

Find out whether the candidate has successfully mentored any of his staff. Make sure he is not the kind of person who puts down his co-workers, or who sees them merely as obstacles on his way up the corporate ladder.

Look for a person who uses his expertise to develop new ideas for the growth of the company, and not one who plots and gets involved in petty office politics.

Beware the candidate who looks good but is merely a hitchhiker going for a ride in your company. Always countercheck his claims or achievements with his referees. For instance, the business ideas he claims to have successfully implemented in his last job may have come from the corporate headquarters and not from the candidate. A big company with a good business model is like a big ship running on its own momentum. It will keep sailing even when there is a less-than-competent captain in charge.

Does he blame others for his mistakes?

Watch out for the candidate who plays the blame game. Be on the alert if you hear one too many personal attacks or complaints. If all the jobs he has held so far did not work out because of politics or difficult colleagues, the problem probably lies with him. Usually, this occurs with drifters ? those who move from job to job.

A candidate who admits and learns from his mistakes is the type of candidate you should seek. Try asking your candidate to cite one of his biggest career mistakes and the lesson he learnt.

Over the years, I have heard quite a few key managers denying any blame for the decline or failure of their business. Some even insist that they have never made any mistakes in all their decision-making years.

These are the candidates who refuse to take any responsibility for mistakes. It may also indicate that they were so cautious that they did not attempt to innovate and try out new ideas.

Would you hire someone in this category to help revive your business?

Is he stuck in an ivory tower?

Dreamers are usually easy to detect as they are all talk and no action.
A know-it-all may have all the management theories at his fingertips.

Your job is to detect the truth from the fluff: Is his knowledge gleaned from reading or from real-life experience? If it is the former, what you get is an armchair consultant rather than a real business practitioner.

Someone "up there" who is not hands-on may also have difficulty fitting into most local companies' work cultures which demand a more hands-on approach from their key personnel.

Is he flashy?

Avoid show-offs who claim to have done it all. This is not an employees' market. Therefore, candidates tend to blow their trumpets a little more.

Other points

Find out if the candidate is a clock-watcher who only works from 9 to 5. Worse, is he a spy for your competition? Is he the kind of person who "delegates" the dirty work to others?

This brief guide is by no means exhaustive. Use your common sense to map out more negative traits that you usually look for in candidates and apply them during the interviewing and recruitment process. It will definitely help you to go deeper in analysing your candidates.

Article by Mr Ong Yong Hwee, general manager of CEO Search and Services.

This article first appeared in ST Recruit on 4 Nov 2002.

AT YOUR FINGERTIPS (Article on Recruitment)


You don't need to carry loads of paper to interview a potential employee. Here's a quick way to suss out the soft skills of your interviewee.

The interviewing process can be such a daunting task for many hiring managers that they avoid or delegate part of the hiring decision to others.
Often the hiring managers only focus on the hardware skills-set that they require and give minimal attention on the equally important software skills of the candidates.

What do you look for in a "perfect" candidate?

While the one to two hour process cannot possibly unearth all the facets of a person, you can use two basic techniques to systematically "cover the ground" and thus ensure a better hiring decision.

The three most important traits are the following:

Integrity: This defines the character, positive attitude and honesty of the person.

I-can-do attitude: This includes creativity, courage, action, a healthy ego, determination, will power, passion, enthusiasm and adaptability.

Intelligence: Acumen, awareness, alertness and maybe academic achievement, are key in this category.
And at your finger tips, literally, there is a method for you to further assess your candidates.

The hand is a useful guide for hiring managers. Here's how:

Thumb: This represents the fulcrum.

The key ingredient here is the person's ability to leverage on resources & skills within and outside the organisation - to network, create teamworking, harness technology skills.

His ability to motivate people is also among the important traits under this grouping.

Remember that even if one doesn't have sterling academic credentials or the perfect technical background, one can still sucessfully "borrow" them , if one's ability in this category is strong.

Index finger: This represents direction and focus. Does the candidate have clear goals - in a project, his career or his personal life? What does the candidate do to attain those goals? How focused is he and what sort of timeline does he give himself? Is he realistic or passive?

Middle finger: This represents his ability to grasp the BIG picture. Here, you want to find out if your candidate has concepts and ideas, and has a macro view.

Ring finger: This represents commitment. How loyal is the candidate to his career and to his employers?

Little finger: This represents the ability to be humble. Does the candidate have the ability to balance and not forget about small details which can be important? Does he have the humility to reach out, and not treat staff in the lower rung shabbily?

These people are important to clear and maintain the system, and small doesn't mean unimportant.

This handy guide is a quick way for you to get an impression of your interviewee. It is by no means exhaustive, but should be sufficent to help you map out the candidate's key soft skills.

Obviously, you need to look into your internal, organisational and business requirements to determine the type of candidates you need.

(This article appeared in Straits Times Recruit on 27th November 2001 and was contributed by Ong Yong Hwee, the general manager of CEO Search & Services.)