Sunday, January 21, 2007

Notes From Singapore – Dramatic Differences In Similarity

Singapore is hard to know if only because it gives you so many looks.

On the one hand it is a small island off the coast of Malaysia with four million people and no natural resources – not even water.

On the other hand, everything is here. Orchard Road is Rodeo Drive on steroids. It is materialism magnified -- Armani, Cartier, Fendi, Boss, Vuitton, Tiffany, Dunhill, Chanel, and the list goes on. If high-end retail is heaven, this is where you go if you’ve been a very, very good shopper.

Indeed, Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that is more materialistic than even the United States say the social scientists. And, like the U.S., materialism has not brought the people of Singapore more happiness. To the contrary, studies show that materialism here, as in the U.S., negatively correlates to life satisfaction.

So, it would be easy to write this place off as just another in a long list of societies caught up in the “Best Buy Syndrome,” but such a characterization would be neither accurate nor fair.

Singapore is different and it took me a while to put my finger on it.

Unlike most countries where more has become the point of living, there is comparatively little poverty here. Some attribute it to the excellent public education system, but I sense it may be more because Singaporeans are raised to understand that their special place in the economy of the east comes from their talent and their focus. Almost all are raised bilingual – English and Mandarin -- the two most important languages of world commerce. And many, if not most, speak at least one other language. Children on the subways study intently as they make their way to school. They are serious as a heart attack about success.

Singaporeans are also multi-cultural. While many developed nations are working overtime to keep immigrants out, Singapore has long had an open door to immigration. Chinese, Malaysians, Indonesians, Japanese, and Indians all come here for work and, until recently, few Singaporeans seem bent out of shape over that reality.

Even more striking is religious diversity here – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus have all figured out a way to get along. Perhaps it is because Singapore as a nation is only 50 years old and no one has yet staked a “claim” to the place. Or maybe it simply that there has been enough to go around, regardless of head wear.

And, it is safe, making it very different from most other places. More than one cab driver has bragged to me that a woman can walk down Orchard Road at three o’clock on any morning alone wearing expensive jewelry and nothing is going to happen to her. Statistics support that proposition.

The Singaporean’s view of government is likewise different from other reverentially materialistic societies. The average citizen here living in a four-room flat with three school-age children receives subsidies from the government of between $18,000 and $36,000 U.S. dollars every year, this to assist with the cost of housing, education, and medical treatment. Government-subsidized housing is the standard, not the exception, and even the most humble of apartments is well built, clean, and notably there is no embarrassment associated with receiving this government assistance. In other words, while Singaporeans may want the latest and greatest toys, they seem not to resent paying a high price to insure that others here enjoy a decent lifestyle.

From a customer’s perspective, Singapore works because employees here are service-oriented. They look you in the eye and they smile. Each morning at six I make my way to McDonald’s for coffee. If anyone on Orchard Road should have a complaint with the way things are it should be employees of a 24/7-hamburger joint tucked away below street level so the rich don’t have to look at it. Yet, I see the same young man every morning and he goes out of his way to say “hello” and “have a nice day.” Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I believe he means it. At my hotel, service has been superb – friendly, timely, and helpful. When I noted that fact to my host, she seemed surprised. “That kind of service,” she observed, “is not ‘above and beyond here.’ That is what is expected.” I don’t know where the desire to serve others comes from but it has given Singapore an edge up when it comes to global corporations deciding to locate here not to mention the 32 million tourists who come here to spend money each year.

All this said Singapore is not perfect. The difference between the have’s and have-not’s is becoming an issue. In today’s newspaper, the government announced a corporate tax cut and in the same breath a general sales tax increase that seems none to popular with the locals. There is no pretense that speech is free because it is not. Criticize the government with too much fervor and you may end up in jail. Democracy, little “d,” is iffy by western standards. There have been only two presidents in Singapore’s 50-year history, one being the father of the other, and there appears no viable minority party. The vaunted absence of crime here might rightfully be attributed to the swift and severe punishment for infractions, most of which involve being beaten with a cane, not to mention the long list of offenses for which death is the only penalty, to include possession of certain drugs and kidnapping. In fact, Singapore had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world between 1994 and 1999, more than tripling second-place Saudi Arabia. In short, there are a lot of rules and they expect you to follow them.

Like most places in the world, you can find that which you like and that which you don’t. Singapore is no different and, on reflection, I still don’t know very much about this island-nation except that there is much here the rest of the world can learn, and as I pack up to leave I know that I am better off for having witnessed it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

These People Do Not Build Toyotas (And It Doesn't Matter)

Narita Airport, Tokyo

Maybe it is me.

Maybe it is that I started today at 4 a.m.

Or, maybe it is that I don’t what day it is anymore.

All I know for sure is that it is not today. It is either yesterday or tomorrow.

Which is not the point.

Rather, the point is I expected something different when I arrived in Japan. Specifically, I expected efficiency. After all, these are the people who build Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans, and every other car that anyone wants to drive who is spending their own money. This is the land where high-def television is passé, where everyone packs multiple mobile devices in bandoleer belts, where everyone is supposed to be the mirror of efficiency.

That’s what they say.

But, I don’t believe it. Not anymore.

After a short, refreshing 14-hour flight from Houston, I unglued myself from my seat and entered not the land of Sony, but the land of Laurel and Hardy. Everyone is smiling but no one in the Narita airport, including the intelligent high-tech flat panel flight displays knows either where I am or where I should be. The people are not the same ones who build Toyotas, but whoever built this passenger warehouse should be put into prison for a long, long time. (Here’s a random thought on airport design: If you’re going to have two terminals, say, 6 miles apart, connect them in some way.) Standing in a forever-line waiting for a bus in the rain is not efficient and it is not safe, especially when you put 371 people in that line with nothing in common except being locked up for the better part of day in a 70,000 pound extruded aluminum tube and each of you feels somehow abused.

And, I can testify that no one here is in the mood for anymore helpful messaging, from anyone, including those ominous messages about our safety. “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” That’s my philosophy of air travel. If you want to be safe, stay at home and lock the doors and keep your Pit Bull on a gunpowder diet.

But, if you want to go somewhere far, far away, here’s reality: You may not make it. Pretzels may be your last meal. A flight attendant with fried hair the tensile strength of piano wire and disappointed in her career decision to be a waitress may be the last person who tells you to sit down and shut up. Or, you might be minding your own business in the lavatory and be sucked down that long blue tube in a moment of irrational exuberance. Or, your fate may be in the hands of someone who is unhappy with the air experience or your religion and wants to make a lasting statement. If so, you’re going to make one of those “water landings” they ramble on about in the safety briefing card, which I like to refer to as a “crash,” if only because that is what it is.

Adios, amigo. Vaya con Dios.

I know that sounds harsh even as I reread it but it is not meant that way. There is actually freedom that comes with risk because in the end, you realize there is no risk at all. The outcome has been pre-determined. You’re going to die. I am, too. The only relevant inquiry is "when?" Because we can’t know the answer, we can either fret about it and hope minimum-wage airport security workers are going to save us from high-tech guerrillas or we can get on the plane and stop whimpering. We can hope that Genentech comes up with a pill that lets us live with whatever it is we’ve got until the insurance money runs out, or we can understand and accept that death is not a risk. It is a guarantee, and I don’t mean like the one that came with your laptop computer. This guarantee you can count on. We can do anything to prolong our lives even if it means fear and misery, or we can understand we get no points for a long life, but only for a good one.

In the end, this experience isn't defined by inconveniences just like it is not defined by conveniences. Standing in the rain waiting for a bus in the middle of the night at Narita is, well, standing in the rain waiting for a bus in the middle of the night at Narita. It isn’t good. It isn't bad. It just is. If I need to fret over something, I need to make it something important, like love, for example. I need to spend less time angry that my head is getting wet and spend more time exhibiting care, compassion and concern for those who pass through my life.

Well, it is time to go. I’ve gone from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1, from Gate 28 to 59 and then back to 34 just in time to make the final leg, which means I won’t be sleeping on blue plastic chairs in the Narita airport tonight under a pile of newspapers, and for that I am grateful. My guess it will be two days ago when I arrive in Singapore eight hours from now but I’ll wait to be surprised when I wake up tomorrow, or yesterday, as the case may be.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

From Here To Singapore With A Story

Tomorrow morning will come early – a 4 a.m. shuttle that begins the long ride to Singapore. It is still hard to believe that one day you are walking your dog and 24 hours later you are on the other side of the world talking to people about challenges that neither of you really understand. But perhaps they are related.

Max, the German Shepherd, and I went into town today and stopped at a coffee shop that we have frequented since he took me as his owner.

“I’m sorry. We no longer permit dogs,” said Juan, the owner, hastening to add, “But you can tie him up outside and come in.”

I thought for a second, maybe less.

“No, Juan. If Max is not welcome, then I am not welcome.”

Juan looked sad but said nothing.

I walked further down the street.

“Café” is all the sign said. I hesitated but walked in, Max in tow.

“Excuse me,” I said nodding toward Max, “but do you accept dogs here?”

The young Mexican smiled and replied, “I love dogs. I have a German Shepherd, too. Come on in. Let’s talk.”

We spoke of our dogs over coffee for half an hour or more while Max had a butter croissant, which he later told me he enjoyed very much.

“Thank you,” I offered sincerely.

He nodded but said nothing. When he returned with my change, I left it in the copper vessel along with a note sent to me last week by a friend in Texas, a note I was carrying for no good or apparent reason until today when the reason became altogether clear. The note read:

A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.

He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.

After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight.

When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side

When he was close enough, he called out, "Excuse me, where are we?"

"This is Heaven, sir," the man answered.

"Wow! Would you happen to have some water?" the man asked.

"Of course, sir. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up."

The man gestured, and the gate began to open.

"Can my friend," gesturing toward his dog, "come in, too?" the traveler asked.

"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't accept pets."

The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.

After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence.

As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

"Excuse me!" he called to the man. "Do you have any water?"

"Yeah, sure, there's a pump over there, come on in."

"How about my friend here?" the traveler gestured to the dog.

"There should be a bowl by the pump."

They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.

The traveler filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself, then he gave some to the dog.

When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree.

"What do you call this place?" the traveler asked.

"This is Heaven," he answered.

"Well, that's confusing," the traveler said. "The man down the road said that was Heaven, too."

"Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope. That's hell."

"Doesn't it make you mad for them to use your name like that?"

"No, we're just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind."

I would like to return to that coffee shop tomorrow morning, but as I mentioned, it is time for me to work. Tomorrow I will spend a little time in Mexico, Texas, Tokyo, and Singapore, a trip whose genesis is to share the little I know about corporate America with those who know nothing about the way business is done on the other side of the world. And I admit without embarrassment that I feel I have little to offer. Perhaps the best I might do is to share this story as a metaphor that in business, as in one’s personal life, there is nothing more important than others, our relationships that we develop, treasure, and yes, even defend.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New Year's Resolution: Less Cyber-Life

In the first two working days of this year, I have spoken to exactly one client, no friends, and no family (except Kelly who occasionally wanders out of her office and nods at me).

Yet, I feel as if I have been "in contact."

How could it be? The answer was found in my e-mail box. I counted incoming and outgoing e-mails over the last 48 hours and find 200+ "cybermessages" flying back and forth like a never ending tennis rally -- memos, thoughts, proposals, advice, replies, replies to replies, New Year's greetings, including several e-mails to and from Kelly who works exactly 7 steps from my desk.

Get it?

Two people who could almost reach out and touch each other from e-mail instead of talk.


There are all manners of justifications -- the hassle of interruption, the lack of efficiency, the absence of a record that can be saved in the computer calendar/to-do list/address book, etc. And then there is the truth -- face-to-face contact is more difficult. You may have to address issues which are not on your "agenda." You may have to listen.

And I feel hollow from the experience.

I feel cheated even though I am complicit in the problem.

This morning the following article written by Charles Swindoll (which I have edited slightly) came to me from a friend and it speaks to the problem.

A few winters ago in Stockholm, Sweden, an eighty-four-year-old woman sat for two months on her balcony before a neighbor discovered she was dead. The woman was found sitting in a chair, dressed in a coat and hat, her forehead leaning against the railing.

A neighbor realized something was wrong when she saw the woman sitting on her balcony around the clock, despite freezing temperatures. "I accused myself for not having seen her earlier," she said later. "I hope this dreadful story makes us better at keeping in touch with our old neighbors."

Isolationism is not a Scandinavian phenomenon; it is a human tragedy. For fear of poking our nose in someone else's business or getting involved in something that could backfire on us, we have trained ourselves not to stop, look, or listen.

But in a fast-paced world where only the fit survive, it sure is easy to feel dehumanized. Our technological age has made us more aware of our insignificance. Our suspicion that we are not loved for who we are is confirmed daily by the impersonal nature of twentieth-century living. We make a phone call and "voice mail" takes over. If folks are not home, we can talk to an answering machine. If we need money at 2:00 A.M., we can drop by the local ATM machine.

Machines write for us, answer phones for us, get money for us, shop for us, think for us, rent cars for us. They can even sign our letters. And the result is scary. A subtle erosion of individuality, followed by a no-touch, don't-bother-me-I'm-too-busy coldness, leading to a total absence of eyeball-to-eyeball interaction, resulting in the ultimate: more loss of human dignity. This is excused because it saves time and keeps us from getting hung up on knotty things like relationships. They say that's healthier?

What's so healthy about becoming completely untouchable?

Machines can't hug you when you're grieving. Machines don't care when you need a sounding board. Machines never affirm when you are low or confront you when you are wrong. When you need reassurance and hope and strength to go on, you cannot replace the essential presence of another human being.

There's no substitute for the personal touch.

Whether it is one's neighbor or family, friend, or client, Swindoll's message rings true. We should talk more, but mostly listen more. And I am. Indeed, one of my resolutions for this New Year is not to "default to e-mail," but rather, to default to personal contact, if not face-to-face, at least by telephone.

In the end, there are results more important than efficiency.