My Personal Challenges Working in Singapore

photo credit: http://80000hours.org/

I’ve been living and working in Singapore for well over four years now. Its the longest period of time I’ve stayed in a single place/region/area since I graduated from high school. Naturally, people assume (rightfully) that I absolutely love it here, when actually, they couldn’t be further from the truth. I have never fit in here, and probably never will. At the workplace I’m fine…but I’m talking bigger picture here. As you get older and you try harder, rejection is felt more acutely I think…probably why people tend to just settle down the minute they feel moderately comfortable and make do. Takes too much effort (emotional, physical and otherwise) to change…

What keeps me here is a strange combination of fate and free will. Fate brought me here, and kept bringing me back everytime I nearly left (and left as well); but what kept me and still keeps me here is “free will.”

For years, I struggled to succinctly describe WHY I was struggling to fit in or even enjoy the place…after all, Singapore is a really cool, hip and happening city. Most people who come here absolutely love it. It lies at the crossroads of interdisciplinary cultures; is vibrantly growing and brilliantly surfing the wave of Asia’s incredible economic boom; people speak English; and it has superb infrastructure and all the facilities to rival any other modern city in the world. Yet I, an avid world traveller really struggle.

Then today, I saw a brilliant venn diagram from LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner that summarized my answer. Jeff says that three qualities define the people he most likes to work with…something I would most definitely agree with: people who “Dream Big”, “Get Shit Done,” and “Have fun doing it.”

Credit: Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn.com

Credit: Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn.com

What has made it extremely hard for me to live and operate in Singapore is that its been HARD to find people who fit in any of these three circles, leave alone at the intersections. You find lots who talk about it and try to sell you on why they belong in those circles. But few, if any, actually do. In Singapore, Its easiest to find people who “dream big”, but they usually stop there. Few work to make anything happen, and almost no one I know has fun doing it.

So there you have it in a nutshell…the fundamental reason I struggle in Singapore.

Two of the Most Important and Undervalued Skills for Success in the Workplace

Reading Constantly and Writing Well are by far the most important skills in the workplace for success.

A few days ago, I was giving my team a much-needed lecture on the importance of constantly reading and staying abreast of trends, as well as improving upon their writing skills. In Asia, where a liberal arts education is virtually unknown, few people have proper reading or writing skills. One might easily fault the language issue…and to be honest, I can be very forgiving of people from countries who were never exposed to English. Still, I don’t think that’s an excuse for NOT reading and keeping up with the latest trends, even in your own language, improving your writing and diction in your own language. That said, even of the countries with easily available English educations, and former British (or American) colonies - Malaysia, the Philippines, Burma, and Singapore to name a few, I find the South Asian countries (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) churn out people FAR better at speaking, reading, and writing in whatever language, including English (of course, English is the only language I can really judge in, but I can extrapolate that to a general interest in writing as well). I also find them to be much more driven. Heck…even the Chinese, who don’t grow up speaking English, are more motivated, driven and speak better English and write much better in English than their South East Asian counterparts. I’m honestly not sure why that is, but its certainly an issue in the workplace!

Why is reading and writing so important?? Well, they are the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for ALL business and work, generally. If you aren’t keeping up with the latest trends and reading constantly, you will soon become irrelevant; and, if you can’t write, you can forget getting very far in any aspect of your professional development.

Read constantly. Keep up with the trends in your industry. It is the only thing that will keep you sharp and growing at a rapid rate. This is a necessary key to success in the workplace, because to mentor and grow, you need to stay ahead of the people who surround you. Don’t believe me? Read this article about Warren Buffett’s success formula, and this one from HBR.

Write well – clearly and concisely. Today I was reading this post about Jeff Bezos’ leadership style. A trained engineer (like me), I was impressed by his emphasis on writing. To be honest, I find writing to be an extraordinarily important skill. It is the fundamental for all success in the workplace…documentation, letters, communication all involve writing, and without it, you can forget getting very far. How you write is how people will connect with you; how they will perceive you; its where all your speech starts, and your thought ends. And I find that clarity of writing correlates heavily with clarity of thought. If you write clearly, it means you are thinking clearly. And how do you write well? Start with reading…the more you read, the better you will write…

Lessons from Costco and Founder, Jim Sinegal

On someone’s excellent recommendation, I watched this MSNBC piece on Costco, which was absolutely brilliant. Despite being a seemingly no-frills operation, the documentary showcased the immense amount of work going on behind the scenes, that keeps Costco being as successful as it is.

Amongst other things, these were the key take-aways:

1. Level 5 Leadership is key:  Jim Sinegal is (and his successor are) another example of successful Level 5 leadership. To date, I had NO idea who founded or ran Costco. But my family and I love going there every chance we get.

2. Work hard to make it look effortless: What looks easy and effortless, really isn’t. An immense amount of research, and work goes on behind the scenes of this seemingly “no frills” business.

3. Word-of-Mouth is cheaper and more powerful, but it also means harder work. Costco relies on word-of-mouth. There is no advertising revenue. But that means more research, more dedication to making smarter choices. Toilet paper

4. Everything is about the Culture. Maintaining the Culture and Core Values of a company is key to any company’s success. It takes continuous work and commitment, but it has HUGE payoffs. Jim says that at around 20:00, and he even highlights why. Watch more to find out.

5. Know your Customer. Costco’s key customer is the middle-class and upper middle class. They know that their customers usually come shopping after a long day at work and don’t really want to spend a lot of effort making choices. Instead, Costco makes it easy to make decisions, and they stock everything within their customer’s price point, and to their taste.

6. Treat your Employees Well: This isn’t rocket science and yet I’m constantly surprised by how many people just DON”T get this. Find good employees and treat them well. They will stay. There is a reason why Costco boasts one of the lowest employee turnovers in the United States. They pay their employees well, provide good benefits, and keep them happy.

7. Stock a few items, but stock well: This is possible only if you know your customer well, which goes back to the need to research well. Costco usually stocks very few products in any category, but these are usually well thought out and win big…toilet paper and wine, to name a few, are BIG sellers. So they get the best in those categories and never let their customers down.

8. Even a small unknown company can be a BIG player: Who knew that Costco is the world’s largest buyer of fine wine? Well it is, and because it is such a huge player, they can even make powerhouse (sometimes egotistical) wine countries like France and Italy cater to their needs. Its similar to how California’s emission policy dictates world emission standards (because California is the world’s single largest car market), or for that matter how Gandhi brought down the British empire. Its not how small or unknown you are…its the power you can wield.

Where the heck have I been?

I know I’ve been very quiet on the blogging front, and I take full responsibility for this.

Not to make excuses, but I’ve just been insanely busy. Since January 2013, I’ve taken over the helm of a 20-year old boutique architecture firm in Singapore. This was done as a result of my passion for learning about design, really testing my theories of entrepreneurship, and having an impact on the language of sustainability and infrastructure development in Asia. Even though the firm has done extraordinary work over the years and has been a pioneer in design, architecture and landscape architecture, it seemed like it had lost its way, and like SO many architecture firms, had been badly managed for several years. Turning around an established company in an economy that is changing as fast as Singapore’s and Asia’s (where most of our clients are based), is NOT easy, and has taken an obscene number of hours of effort, energy and time.

Credit: http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/growing/stop-bringing-the-laptop-to-bed-20131109-2x849.html

I spend so much time talking to people and on the computer, on email, writing reports and memos and doing powerpoints all day long, that the last thing I want to do is sit on a computer for longer after a LONG day and type some more. I’ve started to compose so many different posts only to wake up two hours later, with a sore neck, a sleeping computer on my lap and three words on my post. Not surprisingly, two minutes later, I’m completely supine as is the computer, with three words still on the post. The next day, new thoughts come in and I do the same ritual everyday. Then I just gave up.

But in late July 2014, I realized that I HAD to make more of an effort. Too many lessons were being forgotten. I had stopped journaling and blogging, and it was affecting the clarity of my own thinking. So here I am, making another feeble attempt. I hope I do better this time!

Innovative Accelerator: Startup Bus

Startup Bus

Startup Bus is an innovative accelerator aiming to build a community of young entrepreneurs around the world, and succeeding in doing so. It started as a joke that became serious very quickly.

The concept is simple. You apply to be a part of one of the various organized bus trips (there are six that traversed Europe in Dec 2012; no plans announced yet for 2013). If you meet whatever they are looking for, you are accepted and assigned to a specific bus. Expect your peers to be from a variety of backgrounds, and hungry to dive into the startup culture.

The bus trip costs ~USD200, and lasts 72 hours. During this time you are encouraged to network and brainstorm and a number of tools are given to you; including talks and workshops. You stop enroute on a “startup tour” of sorts, meeting venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and incubators. By the time you get off, the hope is that you would have the beginnings of a company, with hopefully a couple of cofounders.

In the worst case scenario, you’ve seen Europe (or some other part of the world where the bus is). Not bad, eh??

Interested?? Apply here.

Here’s a peek into what its like:

And for a parody, check this out:

Innovation in Sanitation: Winner of the Gates Toilet Challenge…NOT SO CLEAR

The winner of the Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is…drum roll please…

WELL, not so clear.

(I have a lot of problems with the Gates Foundation including their inability to communicate clearly what’s going on…)

Gates has decided to give money out in the form of grants; and its not clear what happened with any of those grantees. They got the money, yes…but then what?? Have the toilets been developed? Are they being tested? Are they being deployed?? Does the Foundation really care?? Well who really knows…

One of the grantees was the National University of Singapore, a place I was stationed at from 2010-12 and working in the field of water policy (including sanitation) at the time. Even with all my networking, I never heard about the grantees, or the development of the project. So I was never able to follow or support the project as it developed; nor was there any chance of collaboration.

From this article, it seems like CalTech was the winner of the challenge. Their model and development is innovative, effective and deserving, but a little technologically complex. I could instantly see problems with operation and maintenance in the developing world. But I’m not sure again what happened with it.

More results of the challenge are available here.

Innovation in Sanitation: The Man Who Wore A Sanitary Napkin

Arunachalam Muruganatham at his desk working away on his award-winning sanitary napkin machine.

Lack of toilets and water during a menstrual cycle can mean huge drawbacks for women and girls. They can’t travel or get their work done on a regular basis; families that rely on a woman’s income will often starve during those days when she probably needs it most. Young girls often drop out of school because they can’t use the bathroom when they need, and this has lasting repercussions. Sanitary Napkins have traditionally been out of reach and too expensive for the poor.

Bring in Arunachalam Muruganantham, a poor handyman from a village in India and a high school dropout who was brave enough to take on the project to address the issues his wife was dealing with. It nearly cost him his marriage and made him the laughing stock of his community, but he stuck to his principles. Today, he has pioneered cheap and effective sanitary napkins for the poor in India and potentially the world. Watch his amazing story in his own words here:

Innovation in Sanitation: “She Toilets”

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New “She Toilets” are causing quite an uproar in South India

In India, a country with one of the worst sanitation crises, the Hindu (the most respected newspaper in India), reports on a new initiative started by one of the small towns in South India to address the issue for women (women suffer the most with lack of access to toilets).

The “She Toilets”

The smart toilets will clean and sterilise their environments automatically. They have coin-operated sanitary-napkin-vending machines and an incinerator to burn used napkins. The toilets have baby stations to help mothers change the diapers of their children and Indian-style commodes.

Electronic display boards will tell users if the toilet is occupied or not. The toilet operation is remotely controlled. The smart toilets will send automatic SMS alerts to its controllers if the septic tank fills up or water supply is exhausted.

 

There are also security features to ensure the safety of the users. The agency has put up the “she-toilets” as most public toilets lack hygiene and pose health and safety problems to women users. The “she-toilets” have been designed keeping in mind the welfare of women commuters. They will be able to find the location of the nearest public e-toilet by searching on their mobile phones.

 

Sensor systems inside the toilet trigger its cleaning systems. The toilets will have washbasins, mirrors and health faucets. They will have FM radios and provisions to stop intruders.

 

Like everything else in India that is a public entity, I worry about the operation and maintenance, and long term use of this wonderful pilot project.