The Swiss Pilot



Davos, where I attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the end of January, is, of course in Switzerland. Switzerland is a beautiful country of snow and mountains, though I do not like the cold much. Driving me around was a wonderful Swiss who flies Lufthansa cargo planes but makes a point of taking leave every year during the WEF season to drive WEF participants around. So for a week he stops flying to New York and Atlanta, and instead drives between hotels and meeting places, because he finds it interesting to meet people and soak to some extent the excitement and busyness of Davos. I wonder if any Singaporean would see life in a similarly open, curious, and venturesome manner!

As we were driving to Zurich airport, I contemplated the inspiring scenery of the Alps and remarked that people have said “Switzerland is God’s country.” “How,” I asked, “could anyone see such rugged, powerful beauty, and yet believe there is no god?” 

“Yes,” my driver said, “And he did a good job!”  

We laughed, but how true: God does a good job!

I recall a meeting in Davos with a Swedish company. We observed how Sweden and Finland were so good in design and engineering: both countries are the home of SAAB, Ericsson, Ikea and Nokia, among other well-known international names. How did this come to be? Our Swedish friend said, simply, “Because we are Lutherans: we work hard.”  

The reference to Lutherans is a reference to what is often called the “Protestant work ethic” that states: “work hard, save well, do a good job.”  To me, it is a very interesting point, that the capacity and willingness to work hard defines the culture of a nation and paves the way for success.  

Perhaps there is something about small countries, whether it be small land mass or small populations, that the sense of vulnerability and need for sovereign independence leads to enterprise and the spirit of drawing together, studying hard, and working hard.

Some closing observations on Switzerland. Almost every three months they have a referendum on something or other, where every Swiss citizen gets to vote on some national issue.  Every so often they vote on whether to stop having national service: each time they have chosen to keep national service. And those who fail to perform their annual in-camp training of 21 days a year have to pay an extra tax amounting to three percent of their annual income – not a small sum! Such is the Swiss conviction that they themselves have to defend their land and their independence.  

Even more interestingly, recently they had referendums on whether to lower the number of working hours a week to the mid-30s, and to increase the number of public holidays a year. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the Swiss but surprisingly for the rest of the world, they voted against both the changes! My Swiss pilot explained that both measures meant less work hours, so who is going to pay the extra taxes to make up for the loss in productivity?

The mentality of the Swiss is one that we would all do well to espouse…for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for our country’s sovereignty. 

The “Digical” Revolution: Sharings from the World Economic Forum


I was in Davos recently attending the World Economic Forum.

One session I attended addressed the “digical” revolution, as meaning changes taking place in the digital and physical worlds, and how they interact with each other.

A speaker said that to get a sense of tomorrow, he recently took his family to Disneyworld, where electronics and robots have been cleverly brought together for surprising entertainment. Yet the longest queue was not for the rides, but the kids lining up for a hug by a princess. The point is that human beings live in the dimension of the physical and emotional.

As a signboard at Davos prominently said, technology does not change the world – people do. What and how to use technology is our choice.

Another speaker spoke very thoughtfully about how innovation comes into our lives. He remarked that looking back at history, innovations that take root are where they replace “non-consumption” rather than “consumption“.  

Take the example of the transistor. For a long time, engineers tried to re-engineer radios by trying to use transistors in place of valves. This did not succeed, whether it be for reason of novelty or reliability in the early days of the transistor. The transistor took hold as an innovation good for life when Sony introduced the transistor radio. Suddenly the teenagers could each carry around their own music, even though the sound quality was not that great in the early transistor radios – the important thing was it gave the youngsters mobility and independence. Improvements came later, and today valves hardly play a role in the life of any ordinary home. It was a case of a new innovation gaining acceptance by establishing a foothold in “non-consumption”, namely, consumers who never had radios, rather than by replacing valves for those who already had radios.

Another observation concerned electric cars. Huge efforts have been going into trying to directly replace the petrol-driven cars. Yet the most successful introduction had been with hybrid cars. No doubt, as the technology improved (especially with battery technology), newer models of cars would come about. On the other hand, like the transistor radio, if a consumer market could be found that required only short distance travelling and did not require cars to go at very high speeds, electric cars could be expected to “take off”.  Is there such a potential market?  Perhaps there is, if we think in terms of simply driving around in the immediate neighbourhoods rather than long distances with their demands of endurance and speed. Think about what is the most popular development in China today: motorised bicycles! Could we imagine the future as evolving from today’s motorised two-wheelers to three-wheelers and then the four-wheelers we call cars?

The speaker also mentioned how the steamships for cross-ocean travel came about. When the steam engine was first applied to ship propulsion, they were not found or perceived to be reliable enough for cross-ocean travel. So for many years the sailing ships held sway, while the steam engine became increasingly used for ships moving up and down rivers where issues of reliability were not so severe or life-threatening as land was always nearby. The steam engine was increasingly installed on cross-ocean ships as back-ups and auxiliary power for several decades, until engineering and technology caught up in terms of cost and reliability.

The point in these illustrations is that innovation has most succeeded where applications first induce or replace “non-consumption” rather than directly replace existing consumption.

Perhaps such an understanding also apply to organisational development, where the first changes are in “hybrid” mode rather than full replacement, and people get comfortable with change through an approach of “evolution in execution, revolution in results”…



I attended the Singapore Symphony Orchestra 35th Anniversary Concert recently. Conducting the SSO was Choo Huey, the founding Music Director and Resident Conductor of the SSO, appointments he held until 1996 when he became Conductor Emeritus of the SSO.  He started the SSO with 41 musicians in 1979 and laid the foundations for today’s excellent orchestra with just about 100 musicians.

Choo Huey is 80 years old this year. I was amazed at the agility and vibrancy he displayed as he conducted through the evening. Conducting is hard work!  We all should wish to be able to retain such energy in our old age.

Two thoughts struck me as I enjoyed the evening’s programme.

One was how the conductor’s “little stick” – his baton – could integrate a hundred musicians into beautiful music. I mentioned this in “The Leader, The Teacher & You”. There is a whole range of instruments in the orchestra. While each instrument makes its own sound, it is silly to say one is more important than the other. By joining the sounds together, we get wonderful music. Take out any of the instruments, and the orchestra loses something in its music.

There is the conductor. He is the one who brings the instruments together so that every musician plays his part well. The orchestra needs him even though he does not play anything during the performance other than wave his baton. Every player is an expert with regards to his instrument.  But he has to pay attention to the conductor, to see and hear what other members of the orchestra are doing, and to blend his instrument into the total effort.

In similar fashion, we should see our work in the office as though we are players in an orchestra.  Each of us must know what we are doing.  We must have the skills, expertise, and knowledge, and we must be prepared to keep learning and improving our abilities.  At the same time we must know what others are doing, so that we can blend our work with theirs to produce first-class total results.  We must respect others for their abilities

The second thought was recollection of an observation by a Professor of Music from Hong Kong, a relative of mine, who said that it is not necessarily a good idea for children to start learning music on the piano. The piano is a “solo” instrument.  He said it would be much better to start children with an orchestral instrument, like the violin.  Because the child would not only learn music, but also develop awareness of his surroundings, as he has to integrate his work into that of the rest of his orchestra. And if not the violin, then even starting on the recorder is better than starting on the piano. This sensitivity to others and consciousness of what is happening around us is critical not just to music, but to life. It makes for harmony in diversity, other-consciousness in the midst of individual effort.



My taxi driver friend was lamenting about passengers cheating taxi drivers. He quoted passengers reaching their destination, saying they did not have enough money to pay the fare, and asking the taxi driver to wait while they went on to get the money to pay, but never turning up again.  But he was especially grieved about being cheated by a primary school kid, grieved for the boy, not for himself. The boy had hopped into his taxi and asked, so politely, “Uncle, do you take payment by cash card?” as meaning, whether he could accept payment for the fare by use of an electronic bank-issued card.

The taxi driver replied, “Certainly.”

He took the boy to his destination, whereupon the boy offered him his cash card for payment. On swiping the card into the card reader, the taxi driver exclaimed, “There is no cash credit left in the card.”

The boy responded, “I only asked you whether you took payment by cash card; I did not say my card had money.”

Oh my! What are kids coming to these days? They are boldly smart? What happened to honour and honesty?

This incident reminded me of the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was once Singapore’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education. Chapter 6 of The book “The Leader, The Teacher & You” ( quotes Dr Goh saying in January 1982 that “when he was in charge of the army, he noticed that one common occurrence in battalion camps (of the Singapore Armed Forces) was that if you left your wallet or watch unattended for more than ten seconds, it disappeared. ‘So,’ he continued, ‘one day I told the Prime Minister that the schools are turning out a nation of thieves and that something must be done about this in our education system.’”

Summing up his views on introducing religious education in schools, Dr Goh said, “The aims of this exercise are modest. We don’t believe we’re going to make all Singaporeans upright. Every society has its black sheep. But at least when they’ve gone through a course on religious knowledge, most of them will leave school believing it’s wrong to lie, cheat, and steal. Many now do not.”

The policy of compulsory religious education in upper secondary school, however, did not last. It was reversed after six years out of concern that “it is essential for Government to be seen to be scrupulously neutral and even-handed in the handling of religious maters in Singapore.”

The responsibility for the teaching of religious beliefs remains that of parents and families. The home has the primary role for teaching children the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. “Train a child in the way he should go,” says the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, “and when he is old he will not turn from it.”


I came across this story of kids in first year of primary school discussing a picture of a family. A little boy in the picture had a different hair colour than the others in the family.  One of the kids said that he was probably adopted.  His classmate, a little girl, declared, ‘I know all about adoption, I was adopted.’

“What does it mean to be adopted?” asked another child.

“It means”, said the little girl, “that you grew in your mummy’s heart instead of her tummy!”

What a wonderful story!  We immediately understand what the little girl was saying.  Our hearts define who we are, not our minds.  As human beings, each with our own thoughts and feelings, what we seek above all else are relationships of love and trust, where we can feel safe to be ourselves and grow to be what we can be.

I am sure many of us would have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation,” hypothesized that the needs of human beings lie in a hierarchy where once one level of needs is met, the next higher level of needs gains prominence.  Maslow identified five levels of needs:

  • Biological and Physiological Needs (e.g. food, air, water, shelter)
  • Safety Needs (e.g. security, stability, law and order)
  • Love Needs (e.g. family, friends, a sense of belonging)
  • Esteem Needs (e.g. status, reputation, achievement)
  • Self-Actualisation Needs (e.g. the realisation of one’s potential)

Not everyone agrees with Maslow’s thesis, though most of the argument has been about whether the various needs actually fall in a hierarchy, or are in fact present all the time though in varying degrees for people in different circumstances or situations.  However, it is interesting to note that further research in this field concludes that human beings also have:

  • Cognitive Needs (e.g. understanding)
  • Aesthetic Needs (e.g. beauty, balance)
  • Transcendence Needs (i.e. helping others realise their potential)

Placed in order, the eight needs then stack up as:

  • Biological and Physiological Needs
  • Safety Needs
  • Love Needs
  • Esteem Needs
  • Cognitive Needs
  • Aesthetic Needs
  • Self-Actualisation Needs
  • Transcendence Needs

It is interesting that the highest need of all is the need to contribute good to other people’s lives.  May we all experience for ourselves this highest need for our hearts, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, to love our neighbours as ourselves. Image

As we move into a new year…

I hope with these comments to start a weekly blog, sharing my observations on life and leadership.

As we move into a new year, I wish that God will prosper everyone in the desires of their heart, the imaginations of their mind, and the works of their hand.  May we live lives of honour, where we seek always to do what is good and right, and where our family, friends and colleagues will know us as people of our word – men and women of integrity – and see us as responsible, trustworthy, committed and reliable.

The year past would have had its ups and downs, times of success and failure, happiness and disappointment.  The new year gives us renewed hope, and an opportunity to try new things, enjoy new experiences, build new relationships, and look to the future with hope and a new spirit.  In looking for success in our lives, may we also find meaning, purpose and happiness in helping others find success in their lives.,

As we move from 2013 to 2014, I am reminded of a poem by Marie Louise Haskins.  The poem is “God Knows”, though it is more popularly known as “The Gate of the Year.”  Its most famous extract reads:

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied:

‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”

These have been words of comfort, assurance and inspiration for many people.  I hope it will be for you too.