Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jack Ma, the new management guru

Jack Ma is now the latest management guru. Goodbye to Peter Drucker, Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca!

And on top of that, you can also forget Michael Porter, Henry Mintzberg, W Chan Kim, not to mention Rosabeth Kanter, Tom Peters and a couple of others.

You can dispense with Niccolo Machiavelli and Sun-tze’s writings as well.

Jack Ma is indeed a phenomenon. For someone who was not educated in English, he delivers his talks in English so confidently!

I have watched a number of his talks. You cannot help being impressed or mesmerized. The messages are inspirational – you can make things happened if you really want to do it – the “Just like me!” type of evangelism.

But as you see more and more of it, you start to discern a pattern in his speeches. He shocks you into agreeing to his form of non-conventional wisdom. Of course, he has tons of examples to back up his contentions.

His Alipay has taken China by storm; even Lee Hsien Loong is impressed. I am seeing this App in Singapore’s taxis now. I thought I should also keep up with the kneah-sus in Singapore and therefore accessed Apple Store to down the App. I couldn’t go beyond the first few instructions, even though I have some working knowledge of Chinese. It is still very China- or Chinese-centric. I am just curious; for a man of Jack Ma’s global reach and ambition, how can the App be so “cheeeena”?

Jack Ma always claims that he applied to Harvard four times and was rejected every time. Of course, he is trying to tell you that you don’t need a Harvard MBA to make good. Maybe if he had been accepted by Harvard, he would already have become the emperor of the global business world by now?

I have always a nagging doubt about his “joke” about the Harvard part. If you want to go to Harvard, besides a good degree, you also need to sit for GMAT and score well. Usually there is no difficulty for many to do well in the quantitative parts, but to score well in the qualitative parts, where a high degree of proficiency in English is called for, that’s an extremely tall order for those whose principal education is not in English. Did he actually apply to go to Harvard?


I used to know a Dr Yap XXX. He claimed he had a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Manchester and an MBA from Strathclyde (or was it the other way around?). Every colleague took it as a matter of fact. Later, it dawned upon me that he had never used IRR or NPV in financial evaluations. And in another occasion, I found him totally muted when the subject of corrosion was brought up for discussion amongst colleagues. How can a PhD in Chemical Engineering not know something about corrosion? Obviously, he degrees cannot be real, can they? Don’t tell me standards in British universities are so bad!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Who wants to be the first one to boooooo?

I am copying the following from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harari, Yuval Noah; Random House to share with you…

On 21 December 1989 Nicolae Ceauşescu, the communist dictator of Romania, organised a mass demonstration of support in the centre of Bucharest. Over the previous months the Soviet Union had withdrawn its support from the eastern European communist regimes, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and revolutions had swept Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. Ceauşescu, who had ruled Romania since 1965, believed he could withstand the tsunami, even though riots against his rule had erupted in the Romanian city of Timişoara on 17 December. As one of his counter-measures, Ceauşescu arranged a massive rally in Bucharest to prove to Romanians and the rest of the world that the majority of the populace still loved him – or at least feared him. The creaking party apparatus mobilised 80,000 people to fill the city’s central square, and citizens throughout Romania were instructed to stop all their activities and tune in on their radios and televisions. To the cheering of the seemingly enthusiastic crowd, Ceauşescu mounted the balcony overlooking the square, as he had done scores of times in previous decades. Flanked by his wife Elena, leading party officials and a bevy of bodyguards, Ceauşescu began delivering one of his trademark dreary speeches. For eight minutes he praised the glories of Romanian socialism, looking very pleased with himself as the crowd clapped mechanically. And then something went wrong. You can see it for yourself on You-Tube. Just search for ‘Ceauşescu’s last speech’, and watch history in action. The YouTube clip shows Ceauşescu starting another long sentence, saying, ‘I want to thank the initiators and organisers of this great event in Bucharest, considering it as a—’, and then he falls silent, his eyes open wide, and he freezes in disbelief. He never finished the sentence. You can see in that split second how an entire world collapses. Somebody in the audience booed. People still argue today who was the first person who dared to boo. And then another person booed, and another, and another, and within a few seconds the masses began whistling, shouting abuse and calling out ‘Ti-mi-şoa-ra! Ti-mi-şoa-ra!’ 18. The moment a world collapses: a stunned Ceauşescu cannot believe his eyes and ears.

All this happened live on Romanian television, as three-quarters of the populace sat glued to the screens, their hearts throbbing wildly. The notorious secret police – the Securitate – immediately ordered the broadcast to be stopped, but the television crews disobeyed. The cameraman pointed the camera towards the sky so that viewers couldn’t see the panic among the party leaders on the balcony, but the soundman kept recording, and the technicians continued the transmission. The whole of Romania heard the crowd booing, while Ceauşescu yelled, ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ as if the problem was with the microphone. His wife Elena began scolding the audience, ‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ until Ceauşescu turned and yelled at her – still live on television – ‘You be quiet!’ Ceauşescu then appealed to the excited crowds in the square, imploring them, ‘Comrades! Comrades! Be quiet, comrades!’ But the comrades were unwilling to be quiet. Communist Romania crumbled when 80,000 people in the Bucharest central
square realised they were much stronger than the old man in the fur hat on the balcony. What is truly astounding, however, is not the moment the system collapsed, but the fact that it managed to survive for decades. Why are revolutions so rare? Why do the masses sometimes clap and cheer for centuries on end, doing everything the man on the balcony commands them, even though they could in theory charge forward at any moment and tear him to pieces? Ceauşescu and his cronies dominated 20 million Romanians for four decades because they ensured three vital conditions. First, they placed loyal communist apparatchiks in control of all networks of cooperation, such as the army, trade unions and even sports associations. Second, they prevented the creation of any rival organisations – whether political, economic or social – which might serve as a basis for anti-communist cooperation. Third, they relied on the support of sister communist parties in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

Despite occasional tensions, these parties helped each other in times of need, or at least guaranteed that no outsider poked his nose into the socialist paradise. Under such conditions, despite all the hardship and suffering inflicted on them by the ruling elite, the 20 million Romanians were unable to organise any effective opposition. Ceauşescu fell from power only once all three conditions no longer held. In the late 1980s the Soviet Union withdrew its protection and the communist regimes began falling like dominoes. By December 1989 Ceauşescu could not expect any outside assistance. Just the opposite – revolutions in nearby countries gave heart to the local opposition. The Communist Party itself began splitting into rival camps. The moderates wished to rid themselves of Ceauşescu and initiate reforms before it was too late. By organising the Bucharest demonstration and broadcasting it live on television, Ceauşescu himself provided the revolutionaries with the perfect opportunity to discover their power and rally against him. What quicker way to spread a revolution than by showing it on TV? Yet when power slipped from the hands of the clumsy organiser on the balcony, it did not pass to the masses in the square. Though numerous and enthusiastic, the crowds did not know how to organise themselves. Hence just as in Russia in 1917, power passed to a small group of political players whose only asset was good organisation. The Romanian Revolution was hijacked by the self-proclaimed National Salvation Front, which was in fact a smokescreen for the moderate wing of the Communist Party. The Front had no real ties to the demonstrating crowds. It was manned by mid-ranking party officials, and led by Ion Iliescu, a former member of the Communist Party’s central committee and one-time head of the propaganda department. Iliescu and his comrades in the National Salvation Front reinvented themselves as democratic politicians, proclaimed to any available microphone
that they were the leaders of the revolution, and then used their long experience and network of cronies to take control of the country and pocket its resources. In communist Romania almost everything was owned by the state. Democratic Romania quickly privatised its assets, selling them at bargain prices to the ex-communists, who alone grasped what was happening and collaborated to feather each other’s nests. Government companies that controlled national infrastructure and natural resources were sold to former communist officials at end-of-season prices while the party’s foot soldiers bought houses and apartments for pennies. Ion Iliescu was elected president of Romania, while his colleagues became ministers, parliament members, bank directors and multimillionaires. The new Romanian elite that controls the country to this day is composed mostly of former communists and their families. The masses who risked their necks in Timişoara and Bucharest settled for scraps, because they did not know how to cooperate and how to create an efficient organisation to look after their own interests. 21 A similar fate befell the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. What television did in 1989, Facebook and Twitter did in 2011. The new media helped the masses coordinate their activities, so that thousands of people flooded the streets and squares at the right moment and toppled the Mubarak regime. However, it is one thing to bring 100,000 people to Tahrir Square, and quite another to get a grip on the political machinery, shake the right hands in the right back rooms and run a country effectively. Consequently, when Mubarak stepped down the demonstrators could not fill the vacuum. Egypt had only two institutions sufficiently organised to rule the country: the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hence the revolution was hijacked first by the Brotherhood, and eventually by the army. The Romanian ex-communists and the Egyptian generals were not more intelligent or nimble-fingered than either the old dictators or the demonstrators in Bucharest and Cairo. Their advantage lay in flexible cooperation. They cooperated better than the crowds, and they were willing to show far more flexibility than the hidebound Ceauşescu and Mubarak.


Who, amongst us, wants to be the first one to Booooooooooooooooooooo?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

University Colleges - Universities of the future?

University colleges are not new. There are many in the United States, but they tend to be elitist schools. There is also one in Singapore - Yale-NUS College. It has just graduated its first batch and already reached its optimum enrollment target. 

But few know the Dutch are leading the way - in the non-elitist way. I had the opportunity to visit the Netherlands and was taken to see four of them - University College Roosevelt at Middelburg, Erasmus University College at Rotterdam and Leiden University College at The Hague, Leiden University is where Einstein once taught.

I was thoroughly impressed!

They basically teach Liberal Arts and Sciences. Classes are small, about 20 in size. (Total enrollment a year is only about 200.) The concept is learning with teachers, rather than being taught by teachers. Teachers appear to be a passionate lot; they instill creativity and curiosity. They become "thinkers" - culturally and intellectually. Such immersion will stand them in good stead even if they choose to pursue something more solid later. 

And unlike their American counterparts, they are not expensive, relatively speaking, of course.

Do consider this alternative for your children!




Monday, August 28, 2017

The Folly of Buying Stuff On-line

Friends may remember the nasty accident I had last year, when a reckless cab driver came straight for me even though I was crossing a road on “green”. I ended up spending 48 days and undergoing10 surgeries/procedures in a hospital. Even though the wound inflicted on my left heel pad has largely healed, I still need a cane to balance myself when standing or walking, lest I may fall over and being accused of outraging some sweet-young-thing’s modesty!

I am a sucker for good taste stuff. But the walking sticks or canes sold in stores here are quite plain. I saw my sister-in-law carried a very well-made one. My niece had bought it for her in Japan. I decided to google and was directed to MonotaRo’s website. This e-commerce company sounds Japanese enough. I quite liked the Royal Brown model (0401-558815), It said that “the product was made in Japanese standard”. I promptly effected my purchase through my credit card: SGD68.41, including shipping.




The one shown in the website

What was delivered

It took weeks before the product was delivered to me. But it was NOT what I expected to see!

It looked every inch China-made, and a very low-end joint for that! True enough, a little sticker confirmed it “Made in China”.

And the canes which I am presently using are made in Taiwan. They are at least few shades better in quality than this China-made one. None cost more than SGD20!

Is it wise to buy stuff like this on-line?


I wrote to MonotaRo to complain; it has yet to give me an answer.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Shanghai Jiao Tong University, global ambition with your type of English?

Chinese institutions and enterprises harbouring global ambitions ought to be more careful with their English when they publicise themselves!

I copied the following from an advertisement in my Facebook pages. I was trying to do a screen shot of it but could not find it after I posted a “Bad English” comment on it. Maybe they have removed it.

No prizes for spotting the mistakes…

想提升自己的学历获得文凭,在职场有更好的发展吗?Looking to deepen your skills and obtain an academic qualifications?

就业率连续4年全球第一,薪资增长率172%,上海交大安泰MBA,真正助您走上职业生涯的巅峰!注册参加分享会获得详情!Signup our workshop to learn about Shanghai Jiao Tong University Antai ASEAN MBA!

时间:826 下午3:30pm
地点:30 Allanbrooke Road Sentosa Island, Singapore 099983


Coming from a university that claims to be one of the top institutions of higher learning in the world, this is certainly unbecoming!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Confucius (Kung-tze) meets 21st Century Chinese

I read with disbelief that something like this can happen to the children of Lee Kuan Yew. Family feuds in Chinese tradition usually happen during the era of the third generation. But for siblings to fight over a seemingly small issue only two years after the passing of the patriarch is something earth-shaking especially if the patriarch was the founding father of a nation and known to be practitioner of oriental virtues.

Sibling harmony ranks high in the hierarchy of Chinese virtues. What has become of this family?

As far as I see, the siblings are NOT fighting over the 38 Oxley Road property per se! The inheritance and ownership matter has already been settled. It is true the late Mr Lee had wanted the house to be demolished after his passing, or if the daughter was still staying there, after her moving out. Many Singaporeans want the house to be preserved as a remembrance of the late Mr Lee. So, I understand, does Mr Lee Hsien Loong as the prime minister of the country. However, Prime Minister Lee is prepared to recuse himself from the cabinet committee that has been tasked to study the matter. Of course, in Singapore, cabinet committees’ recommendations are usually accepted by the government.

Through reading the postings of the siblings, Madam Ho Ching and one of the sons of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, I could not help but jump to this conclusion: A case of “second son” syndrome!

It is certainly not for a nobody outsider like me (a non-Singaporean to boot) to say who is right or who is wrong in this case. But the cynical me likes to lay the blame on China’s greatest sage: Kung-tze!

What an audacious thing for me to say, isn’t it?

My own family first: Yang came first; he was followed by Monica. Hwa and I thought we had achieved a perfect number and stopped thereon. And like most parents that have been brought up with some Confucian expectations, we are very happy that our firstborn is indeed a boy. When my daughter Monica gave birth to Kaeden, my son-in-law Konfir was on cloud nine. Less than two years later came Maxel, another boy. I had expected Konfir to be slightly disappointed. But not at all; he said he now had double-insurance! And Konfir makes it a point to love his two boys equally. Yang has three boys. I hope we don't have this "second son" syndrome later!

I was strict with Yang and partial to Monica. Fortunately, Hwa was more balanced in her love. I don’t seem to see much friction or rivalry between the two even when they were young. They are all grown up now, and I suppose they understand the true meaning of sibling love. On the other hand, when I was young, even though I was the youngest son and had all my parents’ indulgences, I always tried to find fault with my older siblings. My siblings are all very forgiving. Fortunately, as we age, we care for one another more than ever.

Families in the Confucian tradition have a patriarch to lord over things. Usually he is the grandfather. (Grandmother also holds sway in some.) If the great grandfather is still around, he is symbolically the patriarch, but chances are he might be too old or not too clear-headed to exert any authority.) When the old man passes on, the anointed one – usually the eldest son – would assume the “reign”. (If he has an older sister, he may also defer to her in many family matters.)

The anointed one would usually inherit the bulk of the patriarch’s estate. But he is also to look after
the well-being of his siblings and their families – as the new patriarch. But the 21st century truth is that few junior siblings are happy to play a submissive or subservient role. Many are as educated or qualified, and may even have done better than the anointed one in life. Sibling love and care for each other is usually there, no matter how diluted it has become. But when wives enter into the equation, all hell may break loose. Daughters-in-law are likely to suppress their own ambition or likes and dislikes when the older generation is still around. But few can see beyond the edge of their own dressing table when it comes to family issues. And how many cousins care for each other or one another?

Sibling love can hardly be built on Confucian dictates. Economic beholdenness breeds rebelliousness. It is nurtured through heart, not head. Parents should be able to see “aberrations” in their children’s behavior when they were young. Address the matter when it is still addressable!

LKY and wife in all their wisdom should have seen it coming long time ago. Surely, their rivalry did not happen overnight?


Monday, June 12, 2017

A Felda without Ungku, No wonder!!!

The public spat between Felda Global Ventures (FGV)’s chairman and CEO that is being played out may not be as gripping as the other SCC (state controlled corporates) in Malaysia. However, it does reflect the sad state of the affairs we are seeing in some quarters of the country today.

I do not know the two protagonists well enough to make any meaningful comment on the story that is breaking out now. If you want the superficial version, you can get it from one of the country’s mainstream dailies; and if you want the “dig-deeper” version, then Malaysiakini has got a good write-up on it.

But one thing is certainly true: the Felda (Federal Land Development Authority of Malaysia) today is a far cry from what it was during Raja Alias’s time. When FGV got listed and its CEO was bold enough to call himself a Dr So-and-so, even though his PhD was from a degree mill, you knew something was definitely not right. After all, success and failure of organisations hinge on the leader. And was he the key decision-maker in FGV? It appears that there was another supremo he had to answer to. His boss’s record has not been that exemplary either.

No wonder!

Felda, which holds the biggest stake in FGV, is an organisation that I had always looked up to during Raja Alias’s time. He was then, and even until today, reverently addressed as “Ungku” since he is a descendant of a branch of royal lineage in Negeri Sembilan. (He is also a real Tan Sri. You know what I mean with the bold highlight on the Tan Sri title, don’t you?)

I first came to know Ungku when he was an “executive” director of Highlands & Lowlands, whose first chairman was none other than Sir Frank Swettenham. The company, though a relatively small plantation house, had had the biggest cash hoard in any public listed company of the day, thanks to the compensations it often received out of the government’s acquisitions of its estates in fast urbanizing Selangor. (Its estates in the Klang Valley and around Port Dickson made everybody salivate! Shah Alam was basically carved out of its estates!) It was fondly called High & Low; shareholders loved the good dividends it paid out year after year. The company was controlled by four main shareholders: (a) Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), which is the body set up by the Federal Government to spearhead the country’s affirmative action to bring up Malay equities in corporate Malaysia, (b) Pernas, another “affirmative action” body but with “sogo-shosha” missions, (c) Kuala Lumpur Kepong, which was controlled by the late rubber baron Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng, and (d) Felda, which everybody is talking about today. (The background behind the setting up of Felda is also well documented. For starters, one van visit Wikipedia. There is not much more I can contribute.)

After High & Low was acquired by Kumpulan Guthrie and knowing that I would be sidelined in a bigger organisation, he was kind enough to offer me to head the IT unit of the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC); I did not take up the offer, since it would appear – to my narrow mindedness at that time – that I was accepting a lesser position. After I actually quit Kumpulan Guthrie and found that I was not able to make any headway elsewhere, Ungku came to the rescue again and made me a senior manager in Corporate Planning at MISC. But the overly ambitious me soon was enticed to join Tan Sri Frank Tsao’s IMC office in Kuala Lumpur.

My stint at High & Low and MISC gave me the opportunity to know Ungku’s leadership at close quarters.

I had to present papers to High & Low’s Board at its Executive Committee meetings from time to time. It was chaired by Syed Mahmood Syed Hussain. The other members were the late Tun Ismail Ali, the chairman of PNB then, the late Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng and Ungku. The chairman had little power. The members were there to protect their turf. What could a young “corporate planner” do in a world that was dominated by these three corporate and business titans? No decision was usually the best decision – when a proposal from lesser mortals like us were discussed.

But one man was always different. He was Ungku. I could see that he genuinely really wanted High & Low to grow! The others were more interested in form rather than substance.

Ungku read all management and board papers. He didn’t leave to the managers and functional directors to struggle to present during meetings. He would usually help lay out the case and then invite the officer involved to take on from there. This removed anxiety and allowed spontaneity and confidence on the part of the officer to make his presentation coherent and comprehensive. Good decisions were therefore made.

Because Felda was so well run, it generated huge cash surpluses year after year. Under the direction of Ungku, it took up substantial stakes in many public listed companies besides High & Low and MISC. Ungku was the chairman of Boustead by virtue of Felda’s stake there and a director of the largest bank in the country namely Malayan Banking, amongst many others.

A visit to his office would tell you how frugal the man was. His regular office was at Felda’s headquarters. His room was frighteningly spartan. At the appointed time, he would emerge from his office to meet his guest. Simple tea and light cakes would usually be offered. After a few pleasantries, it was all work-related talk or discussions.

Ungku’s office is on the first floor of the building nearest to the guard house. Apparently, he would always be amongst the earliest to clock in. I was told that he would sometimes appear at his office’s balcony at 8am, which was when Felda would begin its day officially. How dare one come late?

My colleague at High & Low, Hussein Jalil, who later became the managing director of Boustead had this to reminisce: He had just been posted to a new Felda scheme in the remote corner of Muar in Johor. On a certain Sunday, he decided to take his Land Rover for a round of the scheme, since there was nothing better for him to do. Sometime into his rounds, he spotted another Land Rover at the far end, he decided to “intercept”. To his “horror”, the driver of the other Land Rover was none other than the chairman himself! (Lady Luck certainly smiled at Hussein! His career was all well paved from then.)

Officers taking things easy just before the end of the day beware! On a rainy day, a chap thought it was time to take it easy since 4:30pm was just minutes away. He rested his two legs on the working desk and spread out the newspapers of the day to read. A gentle knock, but it was too late for him to retract his limps. The chairman was right in front of him! “Continue reading,” the chairman said calmly as he walked away. That must be the biggest regret he had ever had in his whole life!

Even though Felda was an affirmative organisation, which means it was founded to advance the wellbeing of Bumiputras in the country, Ungku did not hesitate to promote non-Malays to key ranks. Friends like Yong Moh Lim, Edmund Liew and a certain Mr Singh can testify to that.

He was also prepared to promote people who did not have “papers”. My mentor at High & Low Tuan Sayed Mohammed is a case in point. He started in Felda’s Audit Department and rose to become a senior officer in Felda before being sent to High & Low to be one of the two general managers there to manage plantation operation. When High & Low was taken over by Guthrie, Sayed lost his job, but was soon brought back to the Felda fold even though he was already past his retiring age.


I saw with my own eyes how aboveboard Ungku was. I was tasked with launching MISC Haulage and had to purchase a few hundred prime movers (the truck that hauls containers). Each would cost a few hundred thousand Ringgit. Ungku left it entirely to my team to evaluate and make recommendations. At no time did he interfere and try to influence anything!
Visiting him during Hari Raya is another humbling experience. Big shots or mall fry, everyone is welcome. The festival’s goodies are laid out for all to sample. Ungku would move from table to table to make guests comfortable. No one is left out in the cold.

These are just some of the snapshots of the great man. I have not in my career come across any greater entrepreneur-manager.

What is happening to Felda and FGV today must be heart for Ungku!!!