Remembering Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

flag at half mast

Our nation grieves. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore, has passed on.

Amid the deep sadness, I also fondly recall the work I did as a young civil servant. Even though I never met Mr. Lee in person or reported to him directly, I feel privileged to have played tiny parts towards building the Singapore he envisioned.

My first job was in MND, where I spent some time working on greenery policies such as streetscape greenery and sky-rise greenery. Word has it that those policies were part of the vision that Mr. Lee had laid out back in the ‘70s. That we were still implementing pieces of his vision more than 30 years on is not a reflection of slow implementation but of his far-sighted vision.

Mr. Lee took Singapore on the green path long before sustainability became important. Based on the conventional wisdom then, the cost-benefit analysis would not have made sense. Perhaps that’s why few cities pursued it seriously. Furthermore, we were a young nation then and there were many other pressing issues to invest our few resources on. But Mr. Lee had the foresight and courage to go against the conventional wisdom, and in doing so, create a new wisdom. It says a lot about his brand of leadership that was ready to make bold decisions when very little was clear or obvious.

My second job was in MEWR, where I worked on water issues. A key project at the time was the construction of the barrage and Marina Reservoir. The work was tough and we were kept very busy. But the reality was that much of the work had been done decades earlier. The barrage and reservoir would not have been possible if not for earlier efforts such as the cleaning of the Singapore River in the 70’s, and the harnessing of membrane technology for NEWater in the 80’s and 90’s – all of which were pieces of Mr. Lee’s vision.

Singapore’s achievements in water sufficiency and greenery highlight the power when a clear vision is sustained over time. Just like money that compounds at a steady interest over many years. Today, we seem to favor more frequent changes. We justify it by claiming to live in a highly complex and uncertain world. Was the world less complex and uncertain during Mr. Lee’s time? I don’t think so. Perhaps it takes a certain talent to be able to find the constancy in uncertainty, and to see order in chaos. It’s a rare talent, and we are blessed to have a leader in Mr. Lee who possessed so much of it.

As I reflect on Mr. Lee’s legacy, two sayings related to my (past) work in water and greenery strike me.

One is the Chinese saying, 饮水思源, which translates to, “when you drink water, think about where it comes from”. We owe many thanks to the pioneer generation and to visionary leaders like Mr. Lee. It is a gratitude we can never hope to repay, but can only hope to pay forward.

The other is a Greek proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”. Even when old age and illness took its toll on Mr. Lee’s health, he continued to plant more trees for future generations. It is such selfless contribution to the larger good that makes our world a better place.

Thank you Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. We will always remember you.

Photo credit:

Ministry of Communications and Information

A changing world?

Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for the Chicago area, predicting up to 18 inches of snow. The city of Evanston deemed it serious enough to declare a snow emergency, although Northwestern University remained open today (from where I sit here typing this J)

Snow or no snow, Rusty still needs to get out of the house three times a day to relieve himself. So, this morning we braved the weather to get out and also check the “damage” outside.

Rusty snow

The snow was thick, but not as scary as I thought. I think Chicago has experienced far worse blizzards. I think we survive this one quite well.

Rusty though was jumpy and anxious. It was not the cold, for he was the least interested in heading back to our warm apartment.

As I observed him further, it dawned on me that the world could look different for him. The usual smells are now blanketed under heaps of snow. As we walked along the footpath, where it was unshoveled he had to jump and hop a lot, and where it had been shoveled the shoveled snow formed huge piles on each side. I was curious how the world looked like for him, so I bent down to take some pictures from a dog’s eye view.

Snow terrain

Seeing these “dog’s eye view” photos, I began to empathize with his experience. I could imagine why he might have been so jittery walking along these same paths that we must have walked hundreds of times. For him now, it may feel like a different place, perhaps like walking around in trenches and not knowing whether friend or foe might pop out at every turn.

Snow terrain 2

I tried to assure Rusty that all was fine, and the world has not changed. But the poor boy could not be placated. If dogs could talk, his cries and whimpers might sound something like, “But Daddy, you don’t understand! The world has changed! Everything has changed! What I used to know, I don’t recognize it anymore! I can’t tell where the dangers are!”

To little Rusty, the world has changed drastically. In fact, it must have looked different to him each time we go out. He is stressed, anxious, and he is mounting a huge effort to make sense of it and find new bearings.

As human beings, we know the world has not changed overnight. At least not in the way Rusty thinks it has. We have a different vantage point to realize that despite the changes, nothing has really changed. We might even have a good laugh watching him running around like a headless chicken.

Could there be an interesting parallel here with what goes on in our organizations and workplaces? On one hand, increasingly we hear leaders and experts declare that the world is changing at a faster and faster rate. Complexity is growing and we must adapt even more quickly! On the other hand, employees are increasingly overwhelmed and fatigued, perhaps not so much by the changes in the external environment, but by the internal (organizational) responses to that.

What if amid all the complexity and change, some things have not really changed? Some of us may have laughed at Rusty just moments earlier, but what if in our own ways our behaviors are not too dissimilar to his?

As the world around us changes, do we focus only on what has changed? Or do we also look for what perhaps has not changed?

Hygge in the workplace


Recently, I came across the concept of “hygge”. It is a Danish word that does not seem to have an English word equivalent. Some people describe hygge as coziness, warmth, and togetherness. Others describe it as a feeling when you relax with family and friends, perhaps gathered around a fireplace. This would seem quite apt in Denmark, one of the darkest and coldest places in the world. At the same time, Denmark is also one of the happiest places in the world, and hygge is often cited as a reason for that. Perhaps there is something about adverse environments that draws people together, and builds connection and community?

The concept of hygge has fascinated some organizations. They want to learn how to create hygge in the workplace. Some ideas include: slowing down to notice each other, making a coffee together in the office pantry, or looking up from your monitor when your colleague arrives and just catching up with him or her for a few minutes.

These are great suggestions that many of us would love to see in our workplaces. Yet, it could be naïve to believe that our workplace cultures would be fixed, and wonderful, if we could just get people to do these things more often.

Because what is often not asked is, what is it about our current work environments that prevents or discourages these things in the first place?

Consider the idea of catching up with a colleague for a few minutes. Implied in doing this is that whatever we are doing at that moment can afford to wait a few minutes. Can it wait? I would like to think that in many situations the answer is yes. Will organizations allow it to wait? That, I don’t know. The answer may be unique to each organization and only the people who work in the organization have the answer. In some organizations I’ve seen, some answers include:

  • Oh, we’re so busy! Always busy! (In fact, why am I talking to you? Bye!)
  • Time is $. Chatting = not making $ (Time to make more $!! Sorry!)
  • Ask me later! I need to reply to the boss’s query NOW!! LOTS of them!!
  • Hush… If the boss sees us talking, he’ll think I’m slacking. Please, go away…
  • Show me the business case for this. Show me the delta.

You may recognize some of these in your organization (and laugh at them).

This is just an example, but if it is indicative of what goes on within organizations, it may suggest that enhancing workplace culture goes beyond implementing a list of good ideas and best practices.

More useful perhaps, is learning why the current environment is not conducive for such good practices to flourish.

Even more useful, might be learning what beliefs and values shape that current environment.

Therefore, it’s not that good ideas and best practices aren’t useful. It’s how we use them. If we apply them directly in our organizations, we assume (or hope) that something that works well elsewhere will work just as well in ours. Success then depends on those assumptions (and hope).

A better way perhaps, is to use those good ideas and best practices to invite a deeper learning and understanding about our own environments, and how those environments are in turn shaped by our very beliefs and values. Doing this, we stand a better chance of learning something deeper about ourselves in order to find answers that may work better.


On a related note, this quarter I am a teaching assistant for a new class. This class uses many videos. The school is migrating to a new learning system, so we cannot transfer the videos from last year’s class. They need to be re-digitized in a different format and added to the new system.

Clueless about how to do this, I emailed the school library for help. One of the staff, “H”, responded and attended to my queries. “H” was patient and helpful in troubleshooting, explaining how to navigate the system, and helping to check things. She even plugged herself in our class group to see that the videos were digitized and uploaded correctly.

I was very impressed with “H’s” professionalism. In my former organization, we would love to acknowledge a colleague like her. I thought, why not now?

thank you

One day, I had a few minutes at my laptop and decided do just that. I searched for the library’s feedback page and wrote a feedback. What I thought would take a few minutes to write took me more than 15 minutes. It took longer not because I could not recall the details, but because I wanted to provide my feedback as best as I could.

I remember thinking to myself at the time: “Why do you bother going through all this? You have spent 15 minutes on this, and you are not done. You have a class coming up soon, and you are still trying to make this feedback as nice as possible. This is someone you corresponded over email; you hardly know her and you may never meet her again.”

This voice in my head is not an evil voice. In fact, it is a highly rational voice.

At the same time, there was another voice in my head, perhaps an “irrational” one. It said, “The world can do with more appreciation! This may seem totally irrational, but it is worth it and you want to do it. If it means you have to rush to class, so be it!”

Is this an example of hygge? I don’t know. Perhaps I should consult a Danish friend! :) But it feels close enough. It suggests that hygge starts from a belief or value, and some people even refer to it as “a state of mind”. It appears to be something that gives reason and meaning to an otherwise “irrational” situation.

Back to my story. Some people may suggest: if we want people to show appreciation, why not implement a 5-point rating survey? It takes only a few seconds to click, and it is a lot more efficient.

Indeed, it would be more efficient, but would the hygge be the same?

A few days ago, I got an email from “H”. The library had forwarded my feedback to her. She told me that it made her day. And hearing that made my day too. Sometimes, the irrational can make a lot of sense :)

Photo Credits:

Morten Wulff via photopin cc

Laurent Manning via photopin cc

New Chapter, Same Storyline

New Chapter

2014 has been a busy and eventful year. Over Christmas as I sat down to write to friends back home, I realized I had many things to share. (I hope I did not bore them! :P) Apart from my studies, I (assistant) taught undergraduate classes, and volunteered with a local school and a local nonprofit. Over the summer, I also joined Education Pioneers and Teach For America to fight educational inequity.

Public service and nonprofit work have always been a huge part of my life, and will always be. Therefore, a major career change came as a huge surprise, even to myself. I accepted a new job in people and organizational change (in the US) that would begin after I finish my studies. It meant that I had to step away from the Public Service in Singapore.

It was a very difficult decision. When I look back on what was most painful, it was the struggles with: a) leaving the purpose-filled work of public service and nonprofit, b) stepping away from the community that has nurtured and given me much, c) perhaps even a sense of “betrayal”.

Coincidentally, my work over the summer had looked at the motivations and concerns of people who switch careers from other professions to teaching. Among the second-career teachers I spoke to who made the switch successfully, identity and purpose were key factors in their decisions. It is not surprising then that my own career decision would also be racked by struggles over identity and purpose.

Many struggles become problematic when we frame them as “either-or” dilemmas. We must choose one over the other. To use my own example, the issue becomes whether I am a public service person, or I am not. Such “either-or” frames can be very restrictive. Sometimes they are imposed on us from the outside, but often they are self-imposed. We become prisoners of our own ways of thinking. For me, my struggles over identity and purpose were most definitely personal ones.

Rather than frame things as “either or”, a better approach might be to ask whether it can be “and”. In my case, rather than frame the decision as a choice between two opposites, what if the career change was: a) not about leaving public service, b) not about stepping away from the community, c) not about “betrayal”? Can I still do the same life work I want to do, in a different form? When I asked the questions this way, a new world of possibilities opened up.

Perhaps because I have been in public service and nonprofit for so long, I have come to see them as the solution for many of the societal ills created by the downsides (or dark side?) of the business and capitalist world. As I thought more about the “and” perspective, it became clearer to me that the answer to the problems of the business world cannot be an ever growing public service or nonprofit sector. A public service or nonprofit sector that grows ten times larger is nothing to be proud of – it simply means society’s problems have increased ten-fold. That is a very sad world! Contrary to this, there is a popular belief among many nonprofits that we should strive to eradicate the issue and make ourselves irrelevant some day. Yet that day will never come if the business world being such a huge (and ever growing) part of society is always the problem and never the solution.

A better world is one where businesses are a growing part of the solution. This will not happen naturally, and it will not be easy. But it needs to start somewhere, and the area of organization development is a good place to begin. Organization development lies at the sweet spot for organizations that wish to bring their business and human/social dimensions in closer alignment. (Business and social alignment is a huge topic for a separate discussion some other day).

After much soul searching, I was eventually convinced that the career change was not necessarily at odds with my identity, and purpose. In fact, it can be quite complementary. Experiences and lessons from the business world in managing people and organizational change, can also be relevant and useful for the public service and nonprofit sectors. Most important in this, I must remain clear of the direction I want to head towards.

So, it may be a new chapter, but the storyline has not changed. I would like to believe there are many possible paths to make the world a better place, and perhaps, the more paths we can find the better the chances we will get there.

Sun horizon

Photo credits:

Quinn Dombrowski via photopin cc

Ewen Roberts via photopin cc

Power and Responsibility – Two Sides of the Same Coin


There is a popular quote in the Spiderman story, where Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

A common understanding of this quote is that power is in our hands must be used responsibly. This is huge in an age where so much power (economic, military, social, or otherwise) lies in the hands of so few. Much can be said about this, but I want to focus on other aspects of the power-responsibility relationship.

Recently, I had a chat with a friend about delegation. We all know that leaders cannot (and should not) do everything on their own. They need to learn to develop others within the organization and delegate duties appropriately. My friend asked whether it would be any different for regimental systems such as the military. (How) should a leader step in when he feels that things are not going the way he thinks it should?

One way to look at such issues is to see power and responsibility as two sides of the same coin – we cannot have one have one without the other. As much as it is dangerous to give people power without responsibility (i.e. the Spiderman logic), it is arguably just as bad to give people responsibility without the corresponding power. One, this sets people up for failure. Two, when we give others responsibility without the power, we end up holding that power ourselves but without the responsibility (i.e. the same Spiderman logic)!

Think about a situation where the boss puts you in charge of a project. He tells you the project is important and puts the responsibility on you to deliver it. But along the way he micro-manages and gives you instructions all the time. When the project fails, the boss tells you that you have failed in your responsibility.

What has happened? If power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, we can look at where the two separated. First, it is useful to note that leaders make decisions all the time on how to distribute power and responsibility. For example, a leader can choose to do the work himself, or he can delegate it. He can decide how and who to delegate it to. This is a prerogative and power of leadership, and it also comes with the responsibility to make the right choices. Often, when certain appointments fail we like to look at the people in those jobs. For me, I like to also ask who had put those people in those jobs in the first place.

Next, when a leader puts responsibility on his staff, does he give them the right power to do the job well? If he does not, e.g. the leader still wants to make the day-to-day decisions, then the responsibility has not left the leader. Likewise, if he meddles or micro-manages, he effectively takes power away from the staff, and so, the responsibility reverts to the leader.

Once we see how power and responsibility are kept together, or kept apart, we can make sense of many dysfunctions in organizations. If we are serious in wanting people to take on more responsibilities, we must be prepared to give them the corresponding powers to do so. So, whether a system is regimental or not, is not the main issue. The main issue is whether power and responsibility go hand-in-hand. In a system where the powers must remain centralized, the responsibility is also centralized, and the leaders should have no illusions about it. We cannot have it both ways e.g. centralized power but diffused responsibility.

A similar logic applies to societies. Today, more Governments are realizing that they alone cannot solve the problems of society; they must involve the people. And so, there are more calls for people to step up to take on more responsibilities. This invites the question, what power will the Government give to the people? In societies, power can come in various forms, e.g. formal authority, process power, financial power, information power, influence power etc. This is where it may get awkward and uneasy. If power is “the ability or right to control people or things” (source: Merriam-Webster), then sharing power or giving it up may make people (incl. Governments) feel vulnerable. For many societies, this is the real deal, the elephant in the room. It is difficult to talk about active citizenry without a corresponding talk about power.

Spiderman popularized our thinking about power and relationship in one way. I think it is important to also look at the relationship in the other direction, that is, “with great responsibility must come great power”.


Photo credit

Marvel comics

When a movement moves on


I did something today that I had not expected. I deleted the Facebook app on my mobile.

By all accounts, I’m still a Facebook fan (and an active one). I simply decide to access it via a laptop rather than my phone. But from a personal habits perspective, much will change. Since it is not so accessible, it won’t be one of the first things I check when I wake up nor one of the last things I check before I sleep. I won’t be able to sneak glances while I’m on the go or when I wait in line at the coffee shop. Without the instantaneity, I will miss those spontaneous instincts when I might post what’s on my mind.

In sentimental fashion, I looked up my Facebook timeline. I joined in August 2007, which places me somewhere between the 1st 20 million to 50 million users. By those stats, I was hardly a pioneer, but arguably an early native if you consider Facebook’s current user base of 1.3 billion (as of Sep 2014). I still recall the early days when Facebook was a quiet place: I had fewer than 20 friends. We would poke each other, and play with one another’s virtual pets (quite fun!).

As Facebook grew, it became a way to stay in touch with more friends and their important life moments (e.g. when they got married, had a newborn, or when the kids grew up and went to school). At times it felt a bit odd that we could know so much about friends we’ve not met for a long time, more than we might ever have known about them! When I came to the States, Facebook became an even more important platform to stay in touch with friends back home.

Facebook continues to fill those needs pretty well. At the same time, as it expanded its services to cater to a wider variety of needs, it began to look and feel different. Politicians and leaders began to use Facebook for public communication, and even propaganda. People began to use Facebook to share their favorite articles (which I appreciated), and to bookmark articles (which I did not appreciate). Facebook also started suggesting articles that I might like (which I did not quite appreciate) and advertisements (no!). It showed me what posts my friends liked or commented on (eh, no), and the pages they liked (e.g. Facebook’s Facebook page – NO). As Facebook made it easier to simply post, like or share things, many of my friends started saying less and less. At times, it felt like being at a party with lots of people, who simply put badges of approval (i.e. “like”) on others but with not a lot of conversation otherwise. It was still an opportunity though to selectively engage friends in private chat, but in recent months the Facebook “ushers” would to stop me and require me to install Facebook Messenger before I could chat with someone (or hear what he or she had to say). It became more difficult to be social, at least in the way I enjoyed being social.


A popular theory in social movement is Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation, which explains “how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures” (source: Wikipedia). Accordingly, a movement starts when a small group of innovators try something new. As they try and experience success, this gives confidence to the early adopters to come on board. The crux of the theory is the underlying social dynamics e.g. the early adopters do not come on board until they see the innovators in the game and experiencing success (and not a lot of harm). The theory has it that among the early adopters there are people i.e. opinion leaders who influence more people (i.e. in the early majority) to come on board. This growth curve has held up for many movements e.g. Facebook, iPhone, fashion etc. Even in an age of disruptive technology, technology may hasten the rate of change, but the social dynamics are what give the movement its distinctive shape.


As a movement grows larger, it may mean different things to different people. The story I shared about Facebook is illustration of how even as Facebook becomes even more popular it may start to lose traction with others. This is not meant to be a prognosis about the future of Facebook. In all likelihood, Facebook will continue to enjoy good growth especially as it enters relatively new markets such as Africa.

At the same time, it could well be that some of the innovators that had sparked the Facebook phenomenon and demonstrated its viability and popularity, could be on their way experimenting other things incl. potential new platforms. Perhaps the same for some of the early adopters who had appreciated the earlier, less sophisticated designs of Facebook.

Even as a movement continues to pick up momentum, more seeds may be sowing for new movements to potentially rise and compete for its place.


Image credits

Facebook screenshot


Bright Spots, Dark Clouds

British Football Transfers

This past weekend saw the close of the summer transfer window for the English Premier League (football/soccer). Premier League clubs spent a total of £835M, exceeding the previous record of £630M last year. (The spending of the other leagues: Spanish La Liga (£425M), Italian Serie A (£260M), German Bundesliga (£250M), French Ligue 1 (£100M)).

That the English Premier League is awash with money is clear, thanks in part to rising broadcast revenue and sponsorship deals. In a league that can only have one winner, there is certainly a lot of inflation going on!

An interesting question is, what do all these inflation and spending do for English football?

At the club level, English football hasn’t fared too poorly. In the 2013-2014 Champions League, a competition of the top European teams, English clubs made up 25% of the field from the round-of-16 onwards through to the semifinals, although the final was an all-Spanish affair.

At the country level though, it’s not a rosy picture. In the recent 2014 World Cup, England finished last in their group. The next highest spending countries – Spain and Italy – also failed to make it past the group stages. The best that England has fared in recent World Cups was back in 1990 when it reached the semifinals (and lost).

Why is English football under-performing at the national level even though it is one of the richest football nations? There are many possible reasons, and I’m not going into the technical (i.e. sports) analysis. Instead, I wish to look at it from an OD (organizational development) lens.


In many ways, the huge spending we see is the visible surface of certain underlying dynamics – the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The availability of big money and economics are certainly major factors, but I will focus on attitudes and belief systems. I would like to highlight three in particular:

  1. There is a belief that money solves everything. When a team under-performs, the solution is to buy better players. If a club is not doing well, bring in (i.e. buy) a better manager. TV shows and websites are full of “expert commentators” (and “expert fans”) who discuss what teams should buy which players. It gets a bit ironical, because one team’s purchase is another team’s sale; one team’s solution turns into another team’s problem. And the merry-go-round continues.

To buy, you must also sell. Sometimes, the word used is “offload” (and it sounds offensive). In fact, this year’s offload may be the star buy last year. Take Shinji Kagawa for example. Manchester United acquired him two years ago, only to under-utilize him and sale him back to his former club for half the price.

Increasingly, teams seem to do better at buying players than getting the best out of them. Which may not be surprising: when a team spends that much money on a player, the onus to perform shifts from the team to the player; if not, he can always be replaced with a better one.

This reminds me of a computer game called Championship Manager, which I played many years ago. You assume the role of the manager – you buy and sell players, and assemble a team to play matches. Championship Manager mimics many things in real life, except you don’t actually interact with any real players, or train or motivate them. You spot who the good players are, buy/sell them, and deploy them.

Somehow, the real football world is looking (and behaving) more and more like the virtual Championship Manager.

Championship Manager

  1. The constant link between price and value creates a mindset of quick fixes and plug-and-play solutions. This may be yet another legacy of Championship Manager – the myth that a player’s quality and role in a team can be boiled down to a set of attributes. If a team is weak in attack, you can plug that gap by buying a player with high attributes in scoring, and he will win the game (and championship) for you.

David Beckham

Such a mechanistic approach overlooks the organic nature of people and teams. The game of football is not simply a function of attributes and skills (although they are very important), but a far more complex interplay involving multiple relationships between players, and with the coach. Someone who can score well, must also depend on someone who can read him well to feed him a good pass. (It also depends on the competition, which is a whole new dimension of complexity.)

A new player that joins an existing team literally creates a new team, which needs time to get used to one another and to settle down. All of this is dynamic, and in many ways, this is the real deal about sports coaching and management. Recognizing and accepting that football is organic, and not mechanistic, does not make the game easier, but it is far more realistic. And we do not end up expecting coaches to weave magic and deliver instant results with new signings.

  1. There is something unsettling about the attitude of always looking for solutions externally rather than internally. Many top teams are packed with more and more superstars purchased from the market – in fact, some of them do not even make it to the substitute’s bench! When teams hold such attitudes, why would they bother about developing talent from within? Why would the young blood and youth academy hold out hope to break into the senior ranks if the boss’ attention is always outward facing? Perhaps not surprisingly, among the world’s top 20 record transfers (34 players in fact, as some positions have more than one name), with the price arguably reflecting their price, none of them originated from the youth squads of the top English teams. (The top British transfers, Gareth Bale, Andy Carroll and Luke Shaw, emerged from the youth squads of 2nd or 3rd tier teams such as Newcastle and Southampton.)

The heady news and record spending in British football may offer the impression of a rise in British football. Yet, they may mask an inconvenient truth – that constant fixation with money and spending may mold unhealthy attitudes and belief systems that may weaken the core of British football for years to come.


Photo Credits:

The Independent (UK)

Andrew via photopin cc