10 Jan 2005

Power in Singapore

After having had a lot of comments to an article in which I mentioned an encounter that I had with Queenie, I have decided to try to ellicit a more academic discussion. Education is not an isolated institution, but is dependent on and interacting with other institutions in any society. So a very quick look at a very well known outline of power below, and applying it to Singapore might show why I am so concerned with Queenie and her lack of expectations for education.

"power must not only refer to the capacity to realize one's ends in a conflict situation against the will of others; it must also include the capacity to prevent opposition arising in the first place [...] in one sense power is most powerful if the actor can, by manipulation, prevent issues from coming to the point of decision at all." by David Lockwood.
(cited in J.Urry and J.Wakeford (eds.) Power in Britain, 1973)

Lukes Three Dimensions of Power (1974)

According to Lukes there are three different levels at which power can operate on.

Direct Conflict

This is also known as the ‘liberal’ view of power.(Dahl and Polsby)
One part has more power because they have been able to prevail in the face of other’s opposition. That an elite can impose their wishes against a majority opposition. Dahl and Polsby argued that in order to ascertain who has the power in American society you must also prove that they can impose their will.

Whether the oppostion parties in Singapore represent a majority of suppressed individuals would be an argument which would be difficult to provide empirical evidence in support of it, I do feel that the Lee family is, or at least the Lee's themsleves think they are, an elite group. The Lee family does seem to impose their will on a very receptive society. Why is the Singaporean public so receptive and agreeable with such an un-meritocratic, nepotistic political system?

This leads nicely to the next level...

Behind the Scenes

The two-dimensional view or the 'reformist' view (Bachrach and Baratz). Power is exercised by preventing certain conflicts of interest from coming into public play in the first place. This ability to ignore legitimate issues or areas of conflict is seen to require reform in order to over come this illegitimate situation.

In Singapore public demonstrations are a thing of myth and legend, the press is owned or controlled by the PAP. Legitimate questions, such as 'what happened to contributions made to the Suharto regime in Indonesia?' will be ignored by the press. Claims made by international NGO's are largely ignored or at least not followed up. To name but two, last year the Trafficking in Persons Report listed Singapore as being complacent, Reporters Without Borders slammed the lack of press freedom in Singapore. These are only two of the many issues that have been side stepped or simply ignored by the PAP.

So the PAP have power over these two levels but Lukes believes that this discussion on power needs to go further...

People’s Thoughts and Desires

"Is it not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the desires you want them to have - that is, to secure their compliance by controlling their thoughts and desires?" (Lukes , 1974:23)

The radical view

The processes of socialisation including education are part of the exercise of power in any society. This will result in a situation whereby those who are being harmed by this process will remain unaware.

As with many Education systems around the world, the government in Singapore shapes education policy from primary school to higher education. My article about Queenie was intended to highlight the level of success the PAP education policies have had over the last 45 years.

Primary school exercise books used to, or still do have the 5 values that the government holds dear. I believe that there are as follows:

The Five Shared Values:

Nation before community and society before self
Family as the basic unit of society
Community support and respect for the individual
Consensus, not conflict
Racial and religious harmony

Values One and Three seem to be contradictory, even if it is a shift from the word 'self' to 'individual'. It is a value system of consensus building and denial of conflict or criticism.

Pejorative is a word used to criticise Lukes three dimensions of power, but Queenie probably couldn't be bothered to look the word up in a dictionary, she would rather make her teacher tell her what it means.

First conceived by PM Goh Chok Tong, then the First Deputy Prime Minister, in 1988, the Shared Values ideology was nationally adopted in 1993. Spelled out in the first epigraph of this section, the ideology officially proclaims a set of beliefs as part of Singapore’s cultural heritage. The ideology thus proclaimed, as Gunther Kress and Bob Hodge might put it in a different context, has the modality of being real, natural, transparent, inevitable, factual, unquestionable, and doubtlessly true.[85]

With a propaganda machine supported by the mass media publicizing its launch and its ongoing regurgitation in public discourse, the ideology has a widespread, even hegemonic reach. When we did a Yahoo.com search on the phrase, “Shared Values Singapore,” we found e-domains that encompass target audiences ranging from “Singapore Kids”[86] to educators and students[87] to “Expat Singapore.”[88] The last website is meant for expatriates or foreign talents, living and working in the nation-state, including those who plan to do so. 12
Storeys' Secret World


AcidFlask said...

Aha, yet another opportunity to pimp my writings ;-)

I contend that we are not un-meritocratic. In fact, we are quite possibly the world's most meritocratic society. But meritocracy is a fundamentally flawed system, and our leaders certainly don't seem to realize its dangers. Then again, nobody paid attention to Lord Young when he published his seminal book coining the word itself. He lamented as recently as 2000 how his satire was taken as face value, and even his neologism was twisted into precisely the opposite of what he intended.

But what is meritocracy, really? The best rise to the top, but what defines 'best'? In Singapore, academic performance is king, but of course we know what kind of selection pressures that ensures, and what kind of idiots it creates. But of course, examinations were not created to judge sociopolitical success of individuals, yet once a meritocractic society chooses to use exams as a metric for goodness, the educational system rapidly converges to teaching the exam (v. teaching the subject) to optimize their rankings and statistics. Once such convergence is achieved, inertia mounts and resistance to the system becomes increasingly difficult over time.That's why I am unsurprised that nepotism can be generated in a meritocracy; in fact, I'd be surprised if such situations did not occur at all. The reason is simple: if the best lead, those who lead must be the best. Those who spend the most time with the leader should know best what the leader considers to be meritorious. These would of course be family members and close friends. Therefore, if they choose to exhibit such qualities regarded as 'good' by the leader, they are by definition meritorious. No doubt the logic does not lead to the inevitability of nepotism, but it seems to be a plausible route of development.

In relation to Luke's thesis on power, it seems clear to me that in a meritocracy, academic credentials offer ways to exercise all three dimensions of power. As argued above, academic credentials provide the basis of power in a meritocracy, exactly analogous to popular opinion does in a representative democracy or the 'Mandate of Heaven' in dynastic monarchies. The preceding argument can be interpreted as a mechanism for successful social engineering, but that is not all.

If one wants to talk about power behind the scenes, the entire public sector is one giant look-at-your-credentials-first machine. This manifests itself in the civil service with glass ceilings for diploma holders and different career tracks for scholars and non-scholars, just to name two cases. And it indeed lends credence to the entire scholarship system and explains why the system feels justified to promote junior scholars over senior non-scholars. Society is effectively stratified not by class, race, or caste, but by credentials. It's a vicious cycle, since in Singapore's education system one must attain credentials to unlock the educational opportunity that provides the next credential. And once one is senior enough, credentials are agglomerative. (Think honorary degrees and self-styled awards.)

An indeed, such a pecking order allows for direct exercise of power. How many times have rank been pulled to impose a manager's will over his subordinates? It is a system that we, as Asians, are well acclimatized to. Rank has always been part and parcel of Asian civilizations; and with regard to the Chinese civil examination system, the basis for that rank hasn't even changed that much, really.

But of course the execise of power is most obvious at the societal apex. The leader with the most credentials is king. Just look at the whole Senior Minister/Minister Mentor hierarchy, nominally subjugate to the Prime Minister but in reality form an overarching control structure. (The farcical presidency is not worth discussing.) With incidents such as the Minister Mentor (then Senior Minister) hauling up journalists for closed-door tekan sessions, let's have no illusions on who wields ultimate power in Singapore, still.

Do you still believe that the PAP only believes in 'pragmatism'? Power, thy name is merit.

KnightofPentacles said...

Given the success of the Singapore education system, then how would you account for the existence of critical thinkers who are successful in their own right (be it business or academia)?

If the system was so successful in selecting for compliance, how do you account for the numbers of highly-educated (in Singapore education system) who are still able to critise the issues in a logical coherent manner in direct conflict with the endorsed viewpoints?

Or from a more pragmatic slant: if I had to have kids in Singapore, how do I give them the best odds of emerging unscathed from the indoctrination of the Singapore education system?

Wowbagger said...


In my experience, it is precisely only a small number of highly educated people who are willing to critcise the government. Although vocal, they are far outnumbered by sheep, and often slammed by the authorities as being too "Westernised", thus precluding any discussion of the merits of their opinions. The existence of critics does not indicate that indoctrination has failed, but the impotence of such critics against an unsympathetic, or at most apathetic, majority does.

To answer your last question, it appears that a disproportionate number of these people have gone through what I would think of as more liberal subsystems within the education system, such as GEP, the Raffles schools, or JC humanities programmes. Before I get flamed, please note that I'm not saying you must have gone through those programmes to escape indoctrination, but just that it seems statistically more likely that those who have been through those programmes are more independent thinkers.

AcidFlask said...


How do you define success? If success means having the highest CAT points, the lowest L1R5 or the most points on standardized tests, then by definition creative and critical thinking escapes the radar almost completely. These two arenas are not mutually excusive, after all.

The educational system exerts its own selection pressure, but individuals going through the system have the choice to resist assimilation. It is precisely this kind of stubbornness that gets hones into business wiles and academic skills.

My contention is not that such rebels do not exist, it is that we need more of them in order to sustain a true democracy. However, repressive tactics

As to your last question, you can opt for Wowbagger's choices (the GEP, unfortunately, is no more). Or you could just send them overseas, even at a tender young age. ;-)

But seriously though, what makes a good education? To me, critical thought is definitely the most powerful weapon against indoctrination, as you have alluded to. Healthy skepticism and willingness to conduct independent research are excellent values to cultivate. Being streetwise and moral are also essential qualities for survival. (I mean moral not in holier-than-thou perjorative sense, of course, but in the context of having a basic tenet of right v. wrong and a decent ethical calculus to resolve dilemmas.)

I deliberately omit creativity because it is quite impossible to teach (although admittedly Singapore doctrine thinks otherwise). If I were infinitely patient, I would instead approach it from the contrapositive sense, by imposing as little constraints as possible on children as they grow up. Instead of berating them for making a mess, make them clean it up. Teach them how to, if necessary. Instead of complaining about noise, show them how quiet pastimes are enjoyed. Wide exposure and a lack of overbearing constraints will allow creativity to flourish without further imposition.

But above all, please don't deprive your children of carefree childhood days. No forced tirade of ballet lessons, piano lessons, swimming lessons, abacus lessons, mental sums lessons, enrichment lessons, and tuition. Unless they really want to, of course.

AcidFlask said...

"Repressive tactics" apparently also include not completing sentences containing those words. That should have read "However, repressive tactics such as legal intimidation or public ridicule cow the opposition into an ineffective shadow of its former self."

And kindly excuse the bad grammar in the post above. It's too much hassle to correct now.

True Flight said...

Perhaps I'm being unusually obtuse here.

But I'm going to challenge Steven to re-examine his academic discourse on power, bring the airy-fairies back down to earth and demonstrate, in simple everyday terms, how they relate to Miss Queenie.

Because I really don't see how.

What is your basic point, Steven? That the PAP has tremendous power, control and influence in Singapore - and therefore Queenie refuses to think in your class?

No, of course not. Let me try again. Your point seems to be that:

the PAP, possessing tremendous power, control and influence in Singapore, has deliberately and successfully shaped an education system where Singaporeans are trained not to think, and thereby prevented Singaporeans from ever criticising them or challenging the party's power (2nd level Luke), and has even implanted certain selected values in their heads and made them embrace party ideology (3rd level Luke) and thereby further entrenched their own power?

I am sorry, but I think you give the PAP way too much credit. In my opinion, the PAP's "Shared Values" have never caught on in Singapore, and never will. I have had a (much) younger cousin remark to me in perfect Singlish,

"This stupid National Education, Shared Values this and Shared Values that, eh hello, I got PSLE Maths and Science to study, don't waste my time lah! Think I so free ah!"

That is the true Singaporean speaking. I was going to draw an analogy from that example, to what Queenie might be thinking of your tutorial with her ... but nah, I shall not be rude.

I'll offer you quite a separate point to think about. Even in relatively "values"-free, hard-science-&- numbers subjects such as physics, maths etc, Singaporeans have been said to lack creativity, innovation etc. I'd urge you to think how a Shared Values paper and other party propaganda could possibly have caused such an effect (my view is that they could not have). You may say that an education system which tells students not to criticise and not to express opinions will ultimately lead to a state where students are unable to think deeply even about hard-numbers-&-sciences subjects. But I urge you to bear in mind that the former Soviet Union, at the height of its Cold War era, produced top nuclear scientists; the world's best chessplayers; not to mention a large number of excellent dancers, ballerinas and classical musicians.

Agagooga said...

Meritocracy is the worst way to allocate positions of power except for all those others that have been tried. (with apologies to Churchill).

If not meritocracy, how do we ensure that the capable use their capabilities optimally? The important thing is to try to level the playing field, and bear in mind that meritocracy is not the be all and end all, a magic word which, when chanted, will solve all problems (as seems to be the mentality sometimes).

Most of the top Scientists spent their formative years outside the Communist system (http://www.realuofc.org/libed/adler/wle.html)

True Flight said...

The problem with the Singapore brand of meritocracy is its criteria. For example -

score a bunch of A's in your A-levels, shine in your CCAs, speak intelligently at your interviews -

and they straightaway assume that you're going to be great in public policy-making; you'd love to serve the nation; and the upper echelons of the civil service is exactly where you ought to be.


AcidFlask said...

Greetings, GK, and welcome to blogosphere.

Now that I (hopefully) have your sense of skepticism armed and ready, let's get down to it. Since you take issue with 'airy-faires', I've tried to flesh out my arguments with more concrete details.

First, your skepticism of doctrines such as Shared Values and the Pledge is undoubtedly shared by many other Singaporeans. Such song and dance routines are indeed irrelevant, but the presence or absence of such propaganda ultimately does not detract one whit from the validity of the "3rd level Luke" argument. Much more subtle forms of thought control are still very much a fact of life in Singapore, with censorship (both external and internal) in the mass media; police repression of individual liberties; national service; consolidation of judicial, legislative and executive powers; and teachers spoonfeeding their students model answers. Although some rhetorical steps have been made in each direction, these situations are unlikely to change much under current conditions.

Second, I speak from experience that experience is essential to scientific and mathematical problem-solving. Practice is a necessary, albeit insufficient, prerequisite. Unrestrained creativity is a recipe for unmitigated disaster: science is ultimately BS-intolerant; math, immediately so. The key to success, paradoxically, is confined innovation, restrained to logical underpinnings. And personal experience would guide the way.

While it is silly to try to explain a lack of creativity in the context of propaganda, it is not hard to explain it when considering that a great many teachers teach the exam, not the subject. Students are led to believe their sufficient practice will guarantee an 'A': witness the thousands sitting at McDonalds' and Starbucks' all over the island come exam season, poring over ten-year-series. When a question is recycled on an exam, students' efforts pay off handsomely. But change some trifling detail and you may jolly well see students in tears after the exam. Being forced to make novel logical deductions on an exam is foreign to students weaned on practice. This is exactly analogous to a phenomenon called 'overtraining' by neuroscientists and computer scientists, where computer programs designed to adapt to new information can become to well adapted to their training data that they completely fail to recognize something that is not in their training set, even if the difference is infinitesimal.

So why do so many teachers teach only the subject? I contend that it is relentless selection pressure exerted by MOE on its teachers. Each year, teachers are evaluated on statistics such as the average improvement in exam scores for their students. Schools are judged by their mean L1R5 scores, and in turn. More than one top school has discourage or barred outright its students from taking English Literature, that being the one subject that teachers find impossible to teach the exam. And what is ultimately responsible for such pressure from MOE? Methinks it is an unshakeable belief in the validity of its assessment criteria at the very top. After all, this system produced the leader, didn't it?

And in fact, 'hard-science-&-numbers' subjects are not immune to political indoctrination. Teachers are currently require to incorporate such themes as 'National Education' into every topic that they teach. One day, some too-intelligent teacher may somehow make the inconceivable occur.

Third, the parallels drawn with the Soviet regime are misleading. More often than not, these singular geniuses thrived despite Soviet leadership, not because of it. The fine arts are an interesting case in point, because the Soviet government actively encouraged musicians and artists to promote the image of Soviet superiority and infallibility to the proletariats, but always within party-prescribed limits. Constructivists such as Tatlin have always had to wage war with the Soviet censorship office. Shostakovich is an exception that proves the rule, for he was not only a composer, but also a prominent figure in the Soviet government. His creativity in musical expression was therefore relatively unfettered. It is perhaps not so much an issue as why Soviet art flourished, but why Singapore art is so stagnant. Maybe the presence of 'facilitating' bureaucracy paradoxically hinders the growth of the very thing it wants.

Soviet science was a totally different kettle of fish. The Cold War was a technological stalemate where both sides innovated furiously just to keep up with the enemy. Soviet scientists suffered from the constant threat of annihilation (the US already had a suffient nuclear stockpile since WWII) and were thus spurred to greater heights of innovation. Immense military R&D budgets, coupled with threats to their (and their family members') lives undoubtely lubricated the wheels of the Soviet R&D system. Since we in contemporary Singapore have no archetypical enemy, we are therefore much more complacent relative to the Cold War-era Soviet Union.

The Soviet R&D system was not without its flaws, however: the civilian R&D sphere was practically nonexistent. It also had no checks and balances, particularly lacking the peer review system that seems to be working well in the comtemporary scientific world. In a world where top political leaders dictacted misguided avenues of research, crackpots such as Lysenko were allowed to pursue their megalomania as long as they were in line with their leaders' visions. It is not unfair to say that with his errorneous theories and support from political heavyweights such as Stalin himself, Lysenko singlehandedly drove research in the biological sciences to a complete standstill in the USSR.

Fourth, it is easy to fault to PAP for choosing the wrong criteria for selecting future civil servants, but what criteria should be used instead? How can one tell who is going to make a 'successful' civil servant, and who isn't? I can't think of a good answer, short of having all candidates try it out first. But of course such a system is impractical, to understate the obvious.

In fact, your singling out of the 'Singapore brand' of meritocracy is incorrect, because academic criteria (and IQ tests) were precisely those used in Michael Young's seminal novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, painting the resulting dystopia that sounds chillingly like contemporary Singapore. This flawed criterion is a fundamental issue with meritocracy as currently formulated and practice.

I've spent the last 2.5 years thinking, this seems to be the critical flaw, now what? I'd be happy to hear what you think about it.

And what does this all ultimately have to do with Queenie? Everything, because she is a product (victim?) of the system, and bears the flaws of the system that produces her. And nothing, because she is an individual who is free to choose to accept or reject the brandings of said system.

AcidFlask said...

Dear Steve,

I find your description of the Lukes theory of power to be rather opaque. I did a quick google search which turned up this page. The relevant bit is reproduced here.

Stephen Lukes (1974) has proposed a three level perspective of power which he refers to as the three dimensions of power.

At the first dimension:

* issues are identified
* power actions are overt
* there may be political participation and
* there may be overt conflict.

At the level of the second dimension:

* the scope for decision making is confined
* there is no 'alternative' so no grievance and no conflict.

A good example of Lukes' second dimension is the media.

As Chomsky puts it: 'The people don't know, and the people don't know they don't know'!

The third dimension is an important and insidious progression from the second level. It incorporates into the analysis of power the question of control over the agenda and the ways in which potential issues are kept out of the political/decision making process. That is, public exposure of the power is avoided.

Lukes says that at this level:

* issues are not observable, they are latent only
* the dimension is characterised by harmony ... there is no conflict
* those subject to the consequences of power being exercised are simply not aware that power is being exerted.

True Flight said...


Thanks for avoiding the airy-fairies, which I detest. Since you're kind enough to do that, I'll do the same.

I'm going to give you one concrete example of meritocracy gone wrong in Singapore. Once upon a time, I was a civil servant. I was a rather outstanding one at that. One particular year, however, my supervisor told me straight in the face that despite my excellent performance that year, I should not expect a promotion. I could expect an excellent bonus, but I could not expect a promotion. He would love to promote me, but he could not.

The reason, I was told in confidence, was that if I was promoted at that time, I would actually overtake one of my contemporaries in the same department, who was a President's Scholar. This was not permitted. Non-scholars could not be seen to overtake Scholars. Especially President's Scholars.

This is an illustration of Singapore's brand of meritocracy. No matter how well a non-scholar performs, he must not be seen to overtake a scholar. Civil service meritocracy becomes a question of how well you did in your A-levels and university, and whether you got a scholarship, and if you did, what kind of scholarship you got.

Those crucial factors, mostly decided at age 18, will determine your career success, not just for your initial working year in the civil service, nor for the first two years, but for your entire civil service career. If you are an ordinary 40-year-old non-scholar civil servant, and if somehow in a particular year, you magically, tremendously, massively improve your work performance (thanks to inspiration from God, Anthony Robbins, Adam Khoo, Stephen Covey or whatever) - you still won't fly. The system won't let you.

I could tell you a few other stories. I think that if you have not ever been a civil servant, you would be surprised. Do you know of something they call the Shell CEP system? It is a human resource appraisal system, used by the civil service, that can produce very surprising effects. For example, a scholar can perform VERY badly in his work for a particular year, and this bad performance can be OFFICIALLY reflected in his appraisal records, and YET, thanks to the peculiar workings of the CEP system, he can STILL be promoted that year. Amazing, right.

I have nothing against scholars personally. I know many of them. Most of them are nice people. It's the system that's stupid.

Also, there's a vicious cycle in it that hurts itself and practically creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. How does this happen? The very bright, capable non-scholars, encountering glass ceilings in the civil service, quickly get frustrated and decide to leave for the private sector. Over time, at the middle and senior ranks of the civil service, the ones who tend to remain are therefore (1) the scholars, and (2) the not-very-bright, not-very-capable, not-very-ambitious civil servants who are there mostly for the iron rice bowl. You look at group (1) and then you look at group (2), and then you conclude, "Oh my, it's really true, the scholars clearly perform better than the non-scholars!" Yes, it's true. Because the bright, capable non-scholars have all left for the private sector already.

Moving on to a separate point. I think that Singaporeans should not be overly embarrassed by these constant accusations of lacking creativity, not having an opinion etc.

This is not to say that these accusations are without basis. They do have some basis. However, the older I get, and the more I gain experience in working with people of different nationalities and cultures, the more I become aware that employees from every different country all seem to have their own characteristic strengths & weaknesses.

I currently work in an extremely global organisation; I deal with Singaporeans, Thais, Americans, Brits, Australians, Koreans, Indians, Honkies, Taiwanese, Indonesians, Filipinos, the odd Frenchman, amongst others. And I'm of the view that Singaporeans have nothing to be ashamed of.

Singaporeans have their weaknesses, but they have their strengths - these include being systematic, being responsible, being hardworking, being honest. Don't take these strengths for granted. They are definitely not universal.

We're not perfect. We need to work on some things. So do people from every other country. The Australians could learn to work harder; the Indonesians could learn to work faster; the Americans could learn to talk less when they know nothing; and the Brits could learn how to drink less on a Sunday night because it's quite awful the way they stumble in late for an early Monday morning meeting, incapacitated by a hangover.

soci said...

Thanks for the spotting of illicit, and I will forward your reply on Lukes power to my original source Anthony Giddens. It was written with undergraduates in mind, so he summarised it for reasons of simplification.

AcidFlask said...

Steve: from a pedagogical point of view, it would make more sense to describe Lukes theory first, then apply it to the Singapore context. Otherwise it takes several readings to separate the two.

GK: Thanks for sharing. Alas, these stories sound only too familiar. I have read on Sammyboy that even Shell abandoned their CEP quite some time ago as they
realized that it was a bunch of unreliable BS. If you care to read what I've linked to, you'll find that I am not disagreeing with you on what you have just written.

You may be interested to know that the systemic preservation of the pecking order exists even within the scholarship system. Non-President's scholars are expect not to outshine their precious President's scholars. That is why I no longer belong.

True Flight said...

The original Shell CEP system was not entirely bullshit. It had its defects, but was workable. Shell eventually dumped it because they wanted something even better.

Where did the Singapore government go wrong? They copied the original Shell CEP system. Then they added a few "refinements" of their own. The refinements were the fatal flaw.

To put it very briefly, this is what Shell does. When a bunch of new graduates are hired, they are treated on an equal basis. They are all given opportunities. And their performance is very carefully scrutinised, over either 12 months, or 24 months.

At the end of that 12- or 24-month period, each of them is given a CEP score. The CEP score is based on the management's assessment of their long-term potential. Their long-term potential is measured on the basis of seven or eight different criteria which are also believed to be long-lasting. In other words, they attempt to measure the inherent, innate strengths of the individual.

Now, if you have a high CEP score, it means that the organisation feels that you have a lot of long-term potential. So you will be groomed. Your personal budget for training will be increased. Your manager will be told to give you challenging assignments. HR will map a long-term career path for you into the upper ranks of the organisation. You may be assigned a special mentor. And you will be promoted, promoted, promoted.

If you have a low CEP score, you are more or less screwed for life. The organisation has assessed your inherent, innate strengths, and found you to be inherently, innately pathetic. The organisation does not view that you will change for the better, because the attributes measured are supposed to be long-term in nature, and fairly permanent. Therefore you cannot ever be promoted beyond a specific ceiling that will be set for you.

Now, this is obviously an imperfect system, but it is, in my view, still workable. The saving graces are that:

1. No one is automatically given a CEP score. You get your score only after one or two years on the job. So everyone has a fair chance to show how good he or she is;

2. During those one or two years, your performance is heavily, carefully scrutinised. This is fundamental to the Shell system;

3. At least two supervisors' input will be used, to derive your CEP score.

Let's look, however, at how the Singapore government screwed up and gave the Shell system a bad name.

The Singapore government does not assess you after you have spent one or two years on the job. The Singapore government gives you a CEP score STRAIGHTAWAY, in fact, even before you come in to work on your first day -

and the CEP score is based on your grades, qualifications and your honours class, and nothing else. In other words, if you scored 3rd class in school but at work, you somehow manifested exceptional brilliance, you're still screwed.

All scholars get a high CEP score automatically. President's Scholars get the highest.

This is really ludicrous, because if you look at the seven or eight attributes, you don't see "Good Grades" or "High IQ". Instead you see things like:

Helicopter Vision
Political Sensitivity
Leadership Qualities
Analytical Skills
Honesty & Integrity

Etc. Now, how the hell can you really know on day one whether ANY employee straight out of school is politically sensitive? Knows how to work in a team? Has leadership qualities? Has integrity and honesty? Etc.

You CANNOT tell these things based on academic grades. On the other hand, the Singapore government presumes that if you scored only third class honours, you must therefore be less honest; be less strategic; be less of a team player etc, in comparison to a person with 1st class hons.

How stupid!

Now, let me explain why a scholar who performs TERRIBLY at work still gets promoted; whereas a non-scholar who performs OUTSTANDINGLY at work will not.

The 2 fundamental principles of the system are these, pay close attention:

(1) Performance is rewarded by bonuses.
(2) Potential is the criterion for promotion.

So let's say a scholar really screws up at work. Absolutely screws up. He messes up so badly that his supervisor decides that he should get zero bonus.

However, the scholar will STILL get promoted. Why? Because promotion does not depend on performance. Promotion depends on potential. Since the scholar automatically has a high CEP score, he is considered to have a huge amount of long-term potential. And remember, CEP is long-term - it measures innate strengths which cannot change. Therefore a scholar can perform badly year after year, but still get promoted year after year - because his long-term potential is still regarded as very high.

Let's look at the non-scholar who performs outstandingly at work. Oh yes, he'll get good bonuses. Remember - bonuses depend on performance. Good performance --> high bonus. But no matter what, he cannot get promoted beyond a certain ceiling. Why? Because he has a lower CEP score. And CEP scores are permanent - they CANNOT change. Therefore the non-scholar can perform outstandingly year after year after year, and get big bonuses year after year after year, BUT he cannot be promoted. His fate was decided on Day One. The system assesses him to have no potential for any higher roles in the hierarchy.

As you might see by now, this system does not frustrate everyone.

(1) Scholars are happy. No matter how poorly they perform, they still get promoted.

(2) Stupid, inept civil servants blessed with self-knowledge are happy. Knowing that they are really not very talented, they are happy to stay on the slow track and in the meantime enjoy the iron rice bowl of a government job.

However, the bright, capable, ambitious non-scholars are unhappy. Once they realise how the system works, they quit in a huff.

When the bright, capable, ambitious non-scholars quit in a huff, they create a vacuum in the system that MUST be filled. SOMEBODY's got to do the job. Guess who. Yup, very often it is the stupid, inept civil servants.

That's why the civil service is so weird. You see some people who are really brilliant and clever. And you also see a large number of bumbling idiots who trip and fall over their own red tape. Between these two extremes, you hardly find a soul.

True Flight said...

And Steve may finally begin to understand why Queenie is so focused on knowing how to score for her exam, that she refuses to waste time thinking about anything else.

By asking his students to think too much, Steve is putting them at risk of hurting their career paths in the civil service, all the way from Day One on the job, right up to their official retirement age at 62.

Anonymous said...


My guess is that SAF has a similar system to Shell CEP system.
I have several friends who sign on with SAF.
We all know there are different "classes" of SAF scholarships.
I know people who get SAFOS, SMS, ATA, and LSA.
Coincidentally, the friends i know who are under ATA and LSA happen to be more capable than the friends under SMS. Capable in the sense of military leadership. Of course, LSA have no S papers. ATA has 2 S papers, but did badly for GP. SMS has excellent a Level grades. Don't know the person in SAFOS really well so i wouldn't comment.

ATA friend is suffering in Australlia, having to go thru a 4 years navy officers course training with the australlian trainees. This course includes his univeristy education too. His allowance is only 1.8K per month.

Whereas SMS friend didn't even complete the whole of OCS. He was commissioned mid way with the SAFOS, and is now studying in US with a full monthly SALARY, while ATA friend is training in Aust with an allowance.

How Ironic?

soci said...

sorry acid flask if I required more of your attention span. the point was application not mere regurgitation of Lukes.

And as for GK and me undermining the students future careers in the civil service. Yes an aspect of education in to equip the student with skills or qualification to enable them to do well in their careers, but it is not the only reason for undertaking education.

AcidFlask said...

I'd think it would be nice not to assume too much of your readers. Not everyone here who is capable of "a more academic discussion" is a sociologist or a sociology student.

True Flight said...

Steve, of course. The point is that I feel that you must not be so quick to denigrate Queenie. You are failing to understand the system which created her. Depending on the perspective taken, you could just as well argue that Queenie is a highly evolved & praiseworthy person, who has successfully adapted herself for survival in a tough, highly competitive environment.

Ironically, the Singapore education system offers abundant opportunities for the kind of education which you regard as ideal. Opportunities, say, to explore outside the syllabus; to be challenged to think more deeply; to pursue individual interests; to be involved in creative, innovative work outside the traditional classroom etc.

The failing is that up to today, the deep pool of such opportunities is open only to a very small selection of students, who are spoiled for opportunities. Almost everyone else is denied.

It would not be surprising to find an individual in the NUS Talent Development Scheme, who was also previously in the Humanities programme or the Science Research programme during JC days; and who was also in the Gifted Enrichment Programme during secondary school days; and who participated in the Creative Arts Programme; and was selected for student exchange programmes to some other country, at some point in time.

In other words, a large number of excellent opportunities are hijacked by a very small number of students. The other students go dry.

A minor digression - have you ever wondered why the (academically) top schools in Singapore are also overwhelmingly the best-performing schools, in sports, music etc? Do you REALLY think that there is a natural correlation between sporting prowess & academic performance? Heh.

Wowbagger said...

A minor digression - have you ever wondered why the (academically) top schools in Singapore are also overwhelmingly the best-performing schools, in sports, music etc? Do you REALLY think that there is a natural correlation between sporting prowess & academic performance? Heh.There is probably no genetic correlation, but obviously individuals who perform better academically are more likely than average to have had better nutrition or to have come from wealthier families, which would mean, respectively, better physical qualities and better access to sports training. But you are right, of course, that as a result of extra funding as a reward for producing academically outstanding students, the top schools are generally richer and more able to sponsor good extra-curricular programmes.

A more tenuous explanation that I suspect has some truth to it is that the top schools are just that little bit more obsessed with winning medals and other quantifiable awards, and hence more willing to pour money intensively into medal-winning activities instead of clubs that cater to casual leisure-seekers. I've experienced situations at two different top schools where CCAs that did not perform well medal-wise either had their funds cut or were asked to disband. This kind of intra-school competitiveness in turn leads to students being obsessed with winning medals, and on it goes in a positive feedback loop, with ugly results.

soci said...

Sorry GK, I must not have made it clear enough, but I thought that in both article I was blaming the system or culture that has dominated the last 45 years of Singaporean society. Queenie is an effect of the system not the cause of the system. However, she does possess free-will wnd can change her own context, and the context of those around her. WE do not simply reproduce the system that we are born into, we can change it. Would you agree that changing the system from below is possible?

True Flight said...

Wowbagger, my own view is that the education system works actively to prevent you from doing anything, if you cannot first handle your studies first.

If you can handle your studies well enough (eg take 9 O-level subjects and pass all of them with relative ease), then you can be permitted to try to excel in other areas such as sports and arts etc.

To give a more concrete example, let's say a bright RJC student needs to spend an average of only 15 hours a week on homework, to be fairly confident of being able to make it to university. A weak JJC student, on the other hand, may have to spend an average of 35 hours a week on homework, and yet be at risk of not making it to university.

Thus the RJC student has an advantage of an extra 20 hours per week, over the JJC student, which he can use, say, for sports training. That is why top schools excel in sports.

You may remember the fiasco last year about a very talented young soccer player who was denied a place in Singapore's sports school. Because his maths wasn't good enough. Heh.

From this, you can draw a parallel with the types of thinking which the system inculcates in our students. First, you must be able to memorise. Then you must be able to memorise even more. If you are better than 95% of your cohort in memorising, then and only then, we will talk about how you should also learn to be creative, innovative, critical, an independent thinker etc.

True Flight said...

Steve, my thoughts on individuals changing the system:

No. It is too difficult. There's nothing in it for the individual. Life in Singapore is tough enough, just trying to get by. You have to focus your energy on looking after yourself, carving your own niche, defending your own interests. Not on changing the system at large.

Singaporeans are often accused of being apathetic. I believe that one day, a contrary, and more informed, view will emerge. Singaporeans are NOT apathetic. In fact, they care deeply. About themselves. They work actively to better their own lot.

If memorising all those 10-year-series model solutions is what it takes, then that is what it takes. If emigrating from Singapore is what it takes, then that is what it takes. For an individual to take action, in those ways, is much more constructive than, say, trying to find innovative answers to an exam question, or writing useless letters to the Straits Times to complain about this and that.

internet marketing said...

Appreciated your thoughts.

Steve @