Of Commissioning and work life balance

A couple of friends commissioned in the past weekend. They were from my batch together with me in Air Force Service Term. Due to some injuries they OOCed and then subsequently got revocationalised and went through OCS again. Hence the great delay in commissioning, but nonetheless they still made it. I thought it was rather interesting how we have people who never give up in the quest to become an officer, vs how we also have people from the other spectrum who go out all the way to have a good relaxed time out of NS.

It’s not my attention to compare and then judge on what is the right way to go for NS, or how a regular should be like. I just stated the comparison to show how there’s always the other side of the spectrum. Many a time we see people online complaining about NS and how lousy life is, but if we think about it, there is the other side where people are positive and enthusiastic and they choose to live their lives as meaningful as they want it to be. It’s like the normal curve, where you have people on this side, and also people on that side. It’s just normal.

But that’s not really the point I wanted to write about. I just think it’s amazing that they commissioned, 1 year later than us, but it’s better late than never. And to think of it, I have “passed out” of my training for 1 year already and it has been about half a year since my appointment, which is the ME equivalent of commissioning.

Throughout the entire journey, I learnt more about the organisation, and more about myself as an individual and leader. Many new experiences which shaped me and they are all valuable experiences. I can’t help but remember the very wise sentence, “to love what you do”. If not, you will get burnt out very fast.

Also, I read an article by a lecturer in NUS talking about Work Life balance and how it is complete foolishness to expect work life balance at the start of your working life. I can’t help but agree, but I bear in mind that critics might point out other countries as example where they don’t have to work as hard. I kind of like to think that schools do not teach us to be efficient and hence we end up working long hours to meet the requisite productivity. It just reminds me of how I should continually seek to improve myself. Just a thought.

Many random thoughts today which I’m not sitting down to review and pen down properly. Probably quite a gibberish article that reflects my tired mind. Onward!

The Retreat

I attended my very first office retreat ever since I started my full time occupation. For the uninitiated, a retreat is an event where people in your company get out of the work routine by going to some relaxing place and think about the future direction for your company/department/office. My very first retreat involved many of us presenting our ideas and to do list for the year ahead; we were expected to have prepared in advanced.

Nonetheless it was an interesting experience in which I gained some new insights and direction for my colleagues and I. Not to mention, the two tea breaks and catered lunch helped me to gain a little bit of weight. I really loved the eclaires that were provided.

Back to the main point, the out of office routine was a good break from the hustle and bustle of the daily workload. It was nice to talk about the future, and it is an exciting place to be for a young person like me. It must have been for any other young, passionate person. At least, that is what I felt.

A retreat allows you to suggest the way forward for the company. During the retreat, the senior management identifies the key concepts and direction for the company, and usually such concepts cover a wide range of possibilities from work to casual stuff like building a great working culture. I was pleased to note the emphasis that we had on people.

To some people, a retreat may sound like work. Why wouldn’t it be? Even though you are physically present in a relaxing place where you don’t have to bother about food and drink, you are still discussing work after all. However, thinking this way would make things boring and less interesting.

Instead, if one views it as a chance to make a difference, it would appear to be more appealing. I had the opportunity and the power to suggest initiatives and the way forward. I would get comments from senior management about my points and get their approval or advice for refinement. I had a voice to say what I wanted my work environment to be like.

However there was something that I stayed silent about. There is this initiative of mine which I wanted to introduce to my immediate work area first. It is an experiment to initiate a change in culture. I wanted to build a place where people contributed freely and spoke about the things that they are passionate about. I wanted to develop a place where people felt no fear or inhibitions; where they could share and be willing to receive critique. For that, I would need to learn more and plan the way ahead. I would need to start from myself, building the culture slowly while encouraging others to be like me. If it was successful, then perhaps it could be applied to a larger pool of audience. But for now, it would be my little experiment.

I think I might have found the hobby and passion in my workplace. Have you?

Spending some part of your work-day talking to someone

How many of you actually spend some part of your work-day talking to someone? I’m not talking about the mindless gossiping required for you to de-stress and cheer yourself up during a boring or stressed filled day. Rather it is making conversation that is important for your work, and it is not entirely about the technical nature of your work, be it analysis of businesses, engineering analysis, economic analysis, medicine etc.

What I’m talking about is the process of coaching, either for yourself or for your team. Or perhaps coaching might be too strong a word. Maybe you can call it building relationships and giving advice whenever required.

For yourself: Talking to bosses and superiors and asking quality questions about how you can improve yourself. Or even questions that consult them on how they did it. For example, how did they manage both work and life on such a dedicated balance and still find time for their other interests? Or things like, how did they manage to survive long meetings without day dreaming?

For your team: Did you speak to your team members individually on how they can improve and reach their own goals. Or do you talk about their goals at all?

I’ve been reading a book on execution, and one of the key tenets of executing is that you have to have team development. When something isn’t right, you have to speak to your team members, find out what’s wrong and guide them into the correct path. Only then can you have effective team members assisting you in your day to day jobs. Team development is such an important part of life that I feel it is worth that 30 minutes to 1 hour of your work day.

That frank opinion coupled with a sincere outlook helps the member to trust you as their leader. By being honest with them and allowing them to speak unabashed will allow you to probe into their deep inner self and find out their real goals – not those goals in which they want to be politically correct. It’s hard, but it will be more effective if the goals are their sincere goals. And the follow up must not be hindered. We need to help them set their own goals and work towards it.

I’ve recently had a short conversation with a newly posted in officer who wants to get a prestigious scholarship to study overseas. He is smart, yes, much more than me during my JC days. Plus he came from a good JC background that seemed as if he should get a scholarship. Yet a scholarship shouldn’t just be about grades. In a career like mine, what people are looking out for are more than people who can study. There is a wealth of knowledge that was not taught in schools – interpersonal relationships, working effectiveness, having a commanding presence, the ability to think strategically and not tactically, to name a few.

I’m not too sure how it went given my lack of experience at trying to connect with people on a deeper emotional level, but I sure hoped my words affected him somehow. Perhaps my expectations of a potential scholar is too high, but I cannot be blamed. For if I lower my expectations any more, I would be questioning why I wasn’t given such an opportunity. I know for sure that I am not of a high level, thus it wasn’t surprising that at the age of 19 I wasn’t awarded the necessary scholarships. Hopefully I will see a renewed sense of determination, a commanding presence as I go back to work tomorrow.

It would make my day if someone came in raw and unpolished, but left my workplace like a polished gem because I spent some time and effort polishing the areas that require effort with.

So, have you taken some time to communicate recently?

National Service

In the past couple of days, we have seen fellow Singaporeans get all riled up on various matters like the increasing numbers of mrt breakdowns, the underaged sex case involving 48 men, and the responses of a member of the female population on whether they appreciate guys serving National Service upon them. The last one struck me the most considering how I have always felt about the topic.

I feel that I do not require the random female on the street to appreciate what I have done for my country as a former NSF. After all, what I have done cannot be felt, and it cannot be talked about in greater detail. However, at the very least, do not belittle the many efforts that Singaporean men have put in over the past many years in order to build up a credible defence force capable of applying that sufficient amount of deterence so that we can all sleep peacefully at night. Do not, for once profess to understand the sacrifices each one of us made for our nation. Even operationally ready NSmen might not get the full picture of the real work the SAF does.

The SAF is a highly complex organization with many roles and responsibilities. Each person contributes in his way to ensure the smooth operation of the organization. Everything that is being done has its own reasons, and even those who served might not really understand higher intent. Besides, we comprise of citizen soldiers who might have encountered a bad experience with lousy commanders. Else, it might be that they thought they were right in certain opinion but there might be a different reason that exists, which might change their opinion if they know. Hence sometimes the Nsmen vent their frustration online and with friends. This is normal and can be expected. What we should do is to understand.

Additionally, even if such grown men whine, it does not mean that they are weak. Behind that mask might lie someone who never once ran away from any challenge. They might be men who you trust enough to go to war with. I do not know how to explain the feeling when you have people whom you can trust enough to go to war with. Sure, there might be people who try to keng and escape work and duties, but there are also men who finished their service without giving up. For the people who worked hard and didn’t complain, we owe it to them to give some basic formof respect that you would accord to another human being.

After 4 years of university, I rejoined the SAF as an engineer. There are about 19 of us who graduated before signing on. We are about 25 years old and we had to endure through tough, regimental training to be an officer. Sure, there were times we complained as a means to endure, but we all made it through. These are people who, despite complaining, manage to accomplish what is needed. This shows one simple thing, we may complain, but we still get the job done. Social media just made it easier for you to see our complaints, but that doesn’t make us any weaker than our forefathers.

I once saw a quote that goes like this: “No one can make you feel inferior other than yourself”. No matter what others may think of you, as long as we stand firm with our principles and values, no one can make us weak by claiming we are. Let us show them that as matured men, we are able to take the criticisms in our stride. Let no one ever feel that we are weak. Let them know, “I contributed to the safety of this country. What have you done?”. And one day in the future, perhaps we would manage to crossover from being neutral to being truly appreciated and respected. But first, we must not look down on ourselves.

Allocating blame

We blame others for our misfortune. We blame others for our failures in life. We blame luck when we make poor decisions. Allocating the blame to other things is always the easiest way out for ourselves. After all, when someone else is at fault, it’s out of our control isn’t it? There’s nothing we can do?

I think I’m rather fortunate to be in the position that I am today. Luck does play a small role in enabling the chances that I was awarded. Yes there are certain times where I could have done better, but still, it has been great.

But the difference is that I have chosen to accept responsibility for myself. If I fail, it’s because I didn’t study hard myself. Or I didn’t do my due diligence. I didn’t ask other successful people their method of achieving success. I didn’t read widely enough.

There are things we all can do to improve our lives and constantly upgrade to value add ourselves. Soft skills such as giving presentations, dealing with difficult people in our workplace or office communication. Other skills like improving our current trade, or even how to invest in stocks. We can read the news more widely or choose to read more books. There’s always something we can do.

Like I have always said, it’s about how hungry you are for something. If there is something you really want, you will go all out to do it, and sacrificing some of the other less important parts of our lifestyle. Like spending 1 hour looking at 9Gag. Like spending 1 hour on the train staring at the air. Life is a matter of balance and priorities. At the same time, we should not lull ourselves into a comfortable zone where we get used to being unproductive. Once we get used to reading and learning, it will always be easier to continue this lifestyle.

Perhaps we all need to start moving in the right direction.

Moral Courage

I thought I would just write a short post on moral courage, which seems to be sorely lacking in society today. I feel that Moral Courage is the courage to speak up against people in powers if you feel that what they did is not right. I specifically choose the words “not right” instead of “wrong”, as “wrong” seems too strong a word. Chances are there are times where the person might have done something which is not desirable, and can be improved, so I termed it “not right”.

What I think is this: Our lack of moral courage stems from how we are educated as kids, and our lack of basic responsibility that comes with maturity. If we were never encouraged to speak up in class, we wouldn’t speak up to raise suggestions to improve current processes, flawed as they may be; or just slightly cracked.

Case in point: We always do reviews on what happened in the day; how we can improve certain processes or dynamics. At these times, it is great to have participants speak out on what they thought were the bad points and how they thought it could be improved.

I once did raise a point up during such reviews, and the situation was this: As trainees, we have to maintain sufficient hydration to reduce the chances of heat exhaustion during physical training like runs and exercises. As such activities are usually conducted in the morning, we are always required to drink water the night before (at least 500ml). What usually happens is that sometimes you drink right before you sleep, and hence you have to wake up and go to the toilet; which is rather detrimental to good rest. Otherwise you can choose to hold it there, but then you wouldn’t be resting rather peacefully would you?

Would a suggestion of drinking water some time before we sleep be a good enough solution? I think it would, and it would definitely help everyone. If it was a valid safety regulation in your company, would you have raised the issue?

Or perhaps the question is: Would you raise the issue knowing that you might get condemned by peers whose mentality and maturity are different from yours? Considering how people who are usually more vocal gets sidelined from the “group”, I think most people are contented with just not speaking up.

What if the situation was more severe? If we couldn’t find the courage to speak up for lesser events, would we have the courage to speak up for other situations? Or would we just encourage the “suck it” mentality?

As future leaders in our respective fields, companies, and what have you, it is always important or rather imperative to have this reflection process within ourselves and within our groups, and to encourage people to speak up, so as to constantly generate new ideas and improve company processes.

I would just like to end off with something I thought:

It does not matter what position you hold in an organization, be it a junior staff or just a cadet, but the behaviour and actions that you carry defines you and defines how valuable you are to your organization. Like a small ant being able to carry 50 times its weight, a small staff can carry an idea improving productivity and morale that grows exponentially.

Of increasing university places in Singapore

Recently, there has been talk asking the Ministry of Education to increase the number of places in Singapore for undergraduates. MOE has chosen to not increase places at the moment, instead asking questions that make much sense, like whether there is enough capacity for more graduates in this country.

Seeing how some of my friends haven’t found jobs yet – I’m a fresh graduate, class of 2011 – I, too wonder if giving more places make sense. What if we increase the number of jobless graduates? Would one day the average graduate have to do work that doesn’t require the standard of a degree? Or the analytical skills that comes with it?

I saw a post today on TOC that asks a valid question. Why do we bring in so many foreign talent on degree passes then? Are they taking up spaces that could have been given to a local graduate from our universities? But then the other voice calls back, and asks, does giving people the chance to become graduates necessarily make one smarter? It is undeniable that people are different. Some are born smarter than others, or nurtured to become better. At the entry stage before they enter universities, they might have been smarter than us. If, after going through university, those foreigners are smarter than the additional X% that we allow to enter our universities, then what now?

As long as the additional X% don’t do as well as foreigners, it makes no sense to shut foreigners out totally and increase spaces for more undergraduates. And, seeing how some of my coursemates and juniors always scratch their heads and feel so demoralized whenever the semester ends, I wonder if people academically weaker than them would have a better time? It’s an exaggeration but, it does seems a little torturous to put academically weaker people in that position where they cannot grasp the concepts, get pass degrees and end up not finding a job.

If, these X% ends up working in lower paying areas comparable to before they had a university education, then where does the education benefit them? You pay fees but your pay doesn’t increase, does it make any investment sense?

This post sounds elitist, but I am not trying to be one. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it makes sense. Unless we realize that foreigners we bring in would be lousier than the X%, then we got a foothold to base our arguments upon. But that is a matter of perspective. In the interests of our nation, I think any foreigner who cannot do as well as our lousiest graduate ought to be send home – that is, after all, a matter of survival; survival of the fittest at work.

So then, will anyone write articles or do case studies to show that the foreigners brought in are lousier? Will anyone hit the argument where it is needed most? Surely if we continue whining, everyone would treat you as noise, and you have no one to blame but yourself?

And to show a different point other than the number of university positions, I want to raise an example. I didn’t get a scholarship, and lots of foreigners are getting scholarships. In a way I thought it was right for the companies not to offer me on when I had applied, as I was not as smart, mature or far sighted than those peers of mine that made it there. And if it was any comfort, I think I did better in life than I would have been if I took up a scholarship and got bonded. There’s always people smarter than me, I accept that. Time for us to face the truth too.