Saturday, December 27, 2014

In praise of "Kneah-su-ism"

When I first arrived in Australia, I found colleagues were very generous in showering praises even though what had been praised on was actually accomplishment or achievement of little significance. Everything little deed seemed to be awesome, or great, or excellent. I felt quite uncomfortable using these words. Friends and staff there must be thinking that I was not a very grateful fellow.

Some contend that showering praises is indeed a way to motivate your staff or your loved ones. I have no issue with this, provided the accomplishment or achievement is of substance. Overdoing it, like what I see in the Australian society, is counter-productive. This culture breeds mediocrity. Expectations become low. I can see that many Aussies cannot take pressure. Many would take "sickie" after a storm-in-the-tea-cup issue in the workplace. I always joke about the need to send some of these Aussies to South Korea to learn how to work harder!

Many parents also tend to suffer the “my children are the smartest” syndrome. Everything his or her child does is fantastic or extraordinary, when in fact it is NOT. I was and am still a "high bar" parent; nothing less than real achievement would satisfy me. I remember I would even get upset if my children did not observe good table manners. (My two children must have dreaded my high expectations of them when they were young. Although we have not spoken about these things since their coming of age, I suppose we don't have to feel too sorry about the past.)

Therefore when I saw parents showering praised on their children for no real achievements or allowing their children to run wild in restaurants, I naturally tended to frown a little. If you don’t make your children a little kneah-su (Hokkien term; meaning afraid to lose), chances are they will turn out to be mediocre individuals when they grow up. Many friends will not agree with me on this though.

I am an admirer of Harry Lee’s kneah-su culture. Most Singaporeans are no great shakes, but for a tiny dot in the map to stand out the way it does now, much credit has to be given to Harry for his efforts to steadfastly instil this culture since Singapore's Day One. I say Day One to elaborate a point about the need to start things early in a nation's formative years.

After its separation from Malaysia, Singapore was fragile, economically, politically and socially. Precisely this was the time to make or break a nation. Democracy in its superficial form would surely destroy, like what Yeltsin did to Soviet Union. Basically only a benevolent dictator like Harry can transform the country in that situation. And without Harry’s kneah-su approach, Singapore would likely grow to become a mediocre society in terms of competitiveness - just like Australia. Why do I say Australia’s mediocre?

Australia is indeed a lucky country. If we can quantify all its resources, on a per capita basis, its society must be the wealthiest on Earth. But because of its laid-back and “praises for no apparent achievement” culture, Australia has become an Average Joe in the developed world – a high cost and low productivity economy. The country is already in its adulthood; it has wasted its formative years which are critical for the successful introduction of this kneah-su culture.

Bringing up a child is no different. The best time to prepare your child to buy-in good values and face the competitive word is when they are young.

But too kneah-su a behaviour also makes one obnoxious to others. How do you strike a balance then? Ideally, one has to be internally kneah-su and tolerating or accommodating externally. Something maybe one can learn from Sun-tze?

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