||Sunday, April 5,1998
The Straits Times : Sunday Plus Page 2
Fight heat at home, then soar the skies
SLOGGERS versus highflyers.
That was how my colleague Cherian George had interpreted the "larger underlying issue" of my last column (Sunday Times, March 22).
But that was not my point. I am all for high-flyers who can see a wider and farther horizon that others cannot.
A people who rein in their high-flyers to the mean will only suffer as a result because that mean will keep being lowered until the community can no longer compete with others.
A friend, who was not referring; to the two columns cited this as the reason why he thought China would never overtake America and become the next superpower. Because the Chinese prefer the mean, even if it means equal misery for all.
He related an account he had heard about in California recently to illustrate his observation. A Chinese got a high-paying job which was brokered by someone else. The broker of course got a cut out of it.
What happened was that when the Chinese found out that the broker's cut was higher than his first month's salary, he refused the job right away.
He chose instead a lesser-paying job, because he did not want the broker to have that cut. So what if he lost out, as long as the broker did too, because the latter did not deserve it.
The Chinese's act reflects a certain mentality: Hold someone back who is moving faster than you do, even as you are moving forward, and hold him back even if it means both of you end up moving backwards.
This mentality is pervasive among the Chinese, my friend said. Whether he was right or not about the Chinese is not the point here, but he was certainly right about the dangers of this kind of mentality.
So no, I am not a champion of sloggers who cannot bear to see high-flyers "soar beyond" all the poor sods.
Recently, there was a debate about whether or not 15-year-old violinist Lee Huei Min should ask the public to fork out $1.5 million for a violin which would help her aspirations to become an international star.
Here at Life!, I received many angry letters arguing that the $1.5 million could be better spent spreading it out among more budding musicians, or on the poor and needy.
l disagreed with those letters, because we are not exactly a poor nation, even if the times aren't too good, and because if a potential high-flyer could soar with some financial help, she should be allowed to seek it.
I certainly do not believe that a sum of money should be spread out among a group of people when you know that that sum can take one of them very much farther than the rest ever would. In helping that someone achieve his goals, you raise the level of the whole group.
As a supervisor, I believe in performers with their own strengths and weaknesses. I assign work according to the abilities of the individual, not according to a roster so that everyone gets a crack at the same job.
That is not fairness, but silliness.
What I did not like in the Huei Min case was the sense of entitlement and righteous fury her mother displayed when she accused the media of not helping her greatly talented daughter's cause (we carried more than three articles) and instead try to hold her back.
When my colleague Tan Shzr Ee gave Huei Min's performance at a charity concert a balanced review with some passages about her weaknesses, her mother acted as though Shrz Ee had committed high treason. She lobbied just about every important person she knew in townand she is wellconnected, aren't they all? to fight her cause.
The Straits Times is not in the business of publishing rave reviews just to be constructive and help budding local talent. Such an approach is myopic and will destroy our credibility as well as work to the detriment of those so cushioned against reality.
I do not believe in fights. I got to talk to her on the phone on my morning off. We spoke for more than half an hour.
She said her precious daughter was so upset by the review that she would never play in Singapore again.
She asked what kind of credentials Shrz Ee had to presume to review Huei Min. When I recited my colleague's "credentials", she first dismissed them, then conceded that those credentials were all right, but Shrz Ee was still "too young".
"She may become a good critic much later, but not now. What if I showed you reviews by other critics? Would you publish them?" Huei Min's mother asked.
Gladly, I said, if they were from the established papers like The Times Of London or The New York Times. No, she could send me a review by this retired critic.
I told her that if Huei Min was protected from a mild review by The Straits Times, how would she be able to survive the savage criticism those other papers could inflict if she were not up to scratch or was playing on her off-day.
How do you want to go global, when you cannot even take some heat on homeground?
THE problem with some young high-flyers in Singapore as I see it, is that they are all too impatient to soar, but at the same time they are not prepared to take a steep fall should they falter.
They feel not so much empowered as entitled, and so they want to be assured a comfortable fall-back position that comes with a cushy salaryHector Yee's "win-win" solution.
Why should they especially when that fail-back position is made at the expense of others who have slogged without expecting any protection from risks and failure?
The hot-house and fast track for the high-flyers are well and good, but these must not be risk-proof. Those who fail must be slowed down, or even sent back to where they started.
But what has happened in many instances is that unwittingly, as soon as a fast-tracker has been identified, all stops are pulled out, and no one along the way dares to point out his weaknesses as he "soars" past him.
Which supervisor wants to be accused of being insecure and protective of his job? So even if that fast-tracker is not cut out for the work he finds himself in, his supervisor will gloss over his weaknesses and hunt for strengths that he can highlight in his appraisal.
Meanwhile, the supervisor and his bosses feel safe to determine the finishing lines of those sloggers not identified as fast-trackers. Inadvertently, some with potential are overlooked.
Even if the supervisor identifies such people, he needs to prove that indeed these people can exceed the finishing lines already determined for them.
It is often easier to give up than to fight. A culture of careerism can then take over. Everyone looks out for himself. This is as bad as the culture of the ever-lowering mean.