Go with a smile!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Are Singaporeans Ready for the Knowledge Economy?

I was reading this article: yes I fear that Singapore will not do very well in the knowledge society world. I don’t think we’re trained very well in this regard.

There seems to be an exaggerated respect for people who are in “management”. Like it’s a Singaporean thing to be forever worshipping the man, regardless of whether or not he’s actually doing anything real. And it does seem that there is too much fighting for turf between managers, rather than getting real things done, and developing things of real quality.

I had gone to one of Singapore’s universities for one semester. All of their course material was hidden behind a platform that you had to log in in order to access. I had two email accounts – in fact I didn’t even know that I had the second account for about a month– the second email account was provided by the department, not the university. My memory is hazy now, because this was 2 years ago, but I had to look for the course catalog under one website, and I had to look for the exam schedule under another website. Finding out in which room the classes were conducted was a pain.

The way in which the various departments were organised was also a mystery to me. Computer science was not actually a part of the engineering school. At first this did not make sense, until I realised that it doesn’t necessarily have to be part of engineering. Computer science is like mathematics – it pervades so many other disciplines that it can be connected to everything else. So I suppose I was alright with that eventually. But there were portions of it that were taught in this school with a funky name, or another school with another funky name.

I was not allowed to take courses from another part of the university without written permission. Maybe they were strict about how many or how few courses you could take at the university. In Snowy Hill I took courses from 20 different departments – something that I could never have done in Singapore – I guess that was probably my number one reason for pursuing my undergraduate course away from Singapore. In Snowy Hill, it was taken for granted that you could take any course from any department you wanted – as long as those counted towards a few broadly defined requirements. And I think the fact that they are introducing a Liberal Arts college in Singapore is a great thing. But I don’t really know if NUS is really able to throw off its silo culture in order to become a properly functioning liberal arts college. Of course, that wasn’t even the most important thing people had in mind while discussing Yale-NUS.

Of course, when you’re pursuing a graduate degree, this becomes less important. But I also found it interesting – I took 13 courses for my masters and two of them were from other departments.

In contrast, in the University of Mexico, the website was much better organized. You could find anything you wanted. Well, there were still a few fragments here and there, but at least the layout and the organization made sense. Perhaps University of Mexico had more money, and they had more staff to put everything together well. Perhaps they had a better webmaster. US universities are notorious for having bloated bureaucracies, and I suppose that markedly superior website was a result of more time and effort being thrown into thinking how everything was going to be organized together. But I still think that maybe there might be a malaise in Singapore, where we don’t always know how to sew things together and package them into a big, complete whole.

There was a former colleague of mine who chatted with me right after he quit the company, and we were discussing what the work was like. I can’t remember most of the details but we agreed that in our department we had too many people operating in silos, and for various reasons, the people were not able to make the components gel together.

And there were other frustrating times in my work where I would propose a new idea only to be told that I didn’t really understand how the system worked. Eventually other people came around to the fact that I was actually trying out something new, but the amount of time it took them to realize that was pretty frustrating.

There were other times when I was talking to my boss, and I was asking him, why not we have all these people learning how to code. He said, “it’s going to take too long for them to learn”. I didn’t agree with him very much, and after learning how to code, I was positively flabbergasted. I thought about how much easier everything would be once everybody had some basic skills. If everybody knew how to do these things, we could make it possible for people to work with a system. But they didn’t want to build up a system.

Eventually, what transpired was that everybody was finding a small problem, and solving a lot of small problems piecemeal, without any thought about a larger architecture, or how a lot of solutions would combine into a larger solution that would solve all problems at once. It was disheartening. Sometimes I would get instructions, and I would shake my head sadly and think to myself, “this is really dumb”.


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