• Lee Chee Koon •
No one is born ready for the future economy. What matters is the desire to learn and readiness to change. My eldest son enters Primary 1 next year. When my wife asked me which primary school we should pick for him, I replied, to her annoyance: ‘It doesn’t matter.’
My reply does not mean I worry any less than other parents about my child’s first step into the education system in Singapore. The truth is that I worry a lot. My three children will grow up with an entirely different set of opportunities and challenges than I had. I worry about what future changes will mean for our children and their economic future.
As the CEO of Ascott, a home-grown serviced residence business with global operations in more than 100 cities across 28 countries, I worry about the challenges of operating in a rapidly changing marketplace.
I worry about how our economies and lives are being shaken up by technological disruptions. Much has been said about the radical changes unleashed by new digital, robotic and genomic technologies. Their impact on many aspects of our lives is undeniable.
Technology has the ability to shift behaviour quickly. As a kid, I remember my parents warning me not to go out at night during the lunar seventh month. Yet, since the recent launch of Pokemon Go, it is not uncommon to see kids and parents wander around at night to catch ‘em all. In a single stroke, Pokemon Go has shifted decades of ‘customary’ behaviour.
The simple answer – which may be a painful truth for us – is that we need to change. We need to change now.
No One Owes Us A Living
One of the great privileges of my career journey has been the opportunity to interact with people of all sorts, from all over the world. Increasingly, Ascott faces strong competition in the accommodation space from new tech players like Airbnb and Expedia.
To better understand the ‘enemy’, I have made it part of my job to meet representatives of tech companies and start-ups as I travel across the United States, Europe and Asia. What I heard shook me up. I recall asking the founder of one of China’s leading Internet companies, ‘What drives you?’ He declared, with no hint of apology whatsoever, ‘I want to make the next company irrelevant.’
I have heard many variations of such bold ambitions. Make no mistake: these technology companies are confident. And it is not just bluster – they are out to change the rules of the game and reshape the future.
That keeps me on my toes, and forces me to ask how our company can continue to stay relevant and competitive against these entrepreneurs who have laser clarity of purpose, are nimble, well-funded and without historical legacies, and can probably better relate to their future customers.
I am acutely aware of how quickly companies can rise and fall. Look at Nokia, Research in Motion (Blackberry) and Kodak in the high technology era. The same applies to Singapore. Nobody owes us a living.
For traditional incumbent businesses, past successes can ironically be the biggest inhibitor of future success. It will always be more attractive to extract more value from today’s tried-and-tested business than risk that for an uncertain tomorrow. A little- known detail of Kodak’s fall was that Kodak was the first to come up with the core technology used in digital cameras. Yet, they still went bankrupt, as they were too complacent and slow to self-disrupt.
This is why I constantly urge my team to dream big, challenge assumptions and push the boundaries of their thinking. I tell them to acquire new knowledge, explore new markets, learn about new technologies and forge new partnerships. As we say, ‘don’t try, don’t know’. Just make sure that if we fail, we fail fast, and fail cheap.
Innovators, Not Rule Keepers
Change is coming for individuals too. Competition for jobs is intensifying. Many people can do your job and they want your job. What makes you so special? What makes you stand out? If you look around the world, there are literally millions of people who are young, highly qualified yet unemployed.
Many of these people are packing up and leaving their home countries to find jobs overseas, armed with Master’s degrees and PhDs. They are prepared to go to China, learn Mandarin (some speak it even better than most Chinese Singaporeans), immerse themselves in the local culture and compete for jobs that pay non-expatriate packages.
If I were to turn the scenario around to our Singaporean graduates: how many of us are prepared to do the same? If your answer is yes, my next question is, what is the competitive edge you have that other people do not? Can you weather the uncertainty and disruption in today’s complex world?
Singaporeans are trained to spot 10-year series answers. My business counterparts in multinational corporations tell me they like to hire Singaporeans because we are honest, law-abiding and hard-working. We are good at following rules and instructions. For these reasons, we make great heads of internal audit, compliance managers and finance heads.
These are not bad things. But have Singaporeans become victims of their own strong values? The pessimists will say that we cannot be in leadership positions. Leaders are supposed to be flexible enough to manage ambiguity and complexity as they arise. Leaders are supposed to make judgment calls, even with incomplete and imperfect information. We often work well within a clearly defined structure, but may feel uneasy when asked to create something new from the whole cloth.
When I started out in the private sector nine years ago as the Assistant to the Group President at CapitaLand, and asked for my job description and responsibilities, I was given this reply: ‘You have a blank piece of paper – make what you will of it.’ It was a simple but extremely empowering statement.
I had no commercial experience prior to joining CapitaLand from the public service. I read up as much as I could on corporate finance, real estate, valuations and business strategies. I spoke to many people, listening and learning from them.
Just as I was getting comfortable in the world of real estate, I was posted to Shanghai to oversee and grow Ascott’s business in China. I knew nothing about the serviced residence business, much less the intricacies of doing business in China. Once again, I was thrown into the deep end to sink or swim. Nobody ever warned me that part of my job was dealing with thugs demanding unauthorised payments.
Did I have moments of insecurity and incompetence? Many. Yet looking back now, I fully appreciate the exposure I was given. I learnt to manage within messiness, and to create my own structure in an unstructured environment.
Getting Used To Discomfort
I have interviewed many people in the course of my work. A young Singaporean man in his early 30s left the deepest impression on me. He had spent a large part of his life growing up in Africa, helping with his dad’s business and eventually venturing into building homes in Africa. It was not an easy journey. He faced business barriers everywhere: dismal infrastructure, lack of skilled labour and corruption. I wanted to recruit him straightaway – for his resilience, adaptability, sense of adventure, and desire to learn. He is a Singaporean, but his journey is a very different one from most Singaporeans.
To remain competitive, we must be prepared to venture out of our comfort zone, and develop resilience and the ability to manage uncertainty. Those who are willing to take risks, step into areas of discomfort and uncertainty will be those who will reap the biggest rewards.
No one is born ready for the future economy. Our education system takes us further than most, but when we first enter the workforce, we are still far from where we want to be. The shelf life of paper qualifications will be limited. We must expect to change jobs, industries and skills in the course of our work life. We must continue to grow and evolve. We must build up the skills and global perspectives that will allow us to take up the very top jobs. How much we want to learn, how much value we want to add, and how much we want to achieve is up to us.
Our work has just begun. We have a lot to do in the coming years to be even more future ready. The first step starts from having the desire to change.
When I told my wife ‘it does not matter’ which primary school our son Matthew goes to, my point is that his school is not the only thing that matters. We may be able to provide our children with the structured environment they need but there must be balance. As parents, as educators, as policymakers, as anyone involved in the upbringing of children – I hope we give them enough unstructured blank paper: to make their own mistakes, to build grit, to learn street smarts. Because they will need all of this to write the next change of our Singapore story.