Thursday, June 14, 2012

From Penang To London

A lovely essay by Danny Quah (excerpt; emphasis added):

OFA – Be a little foolish, be a little different

When I left Penang for university in the US, I also left Penang Free School before the school year ended. I felt I did so without disrupting much the life of the School: I wasn’t editor of the School magazine. I wasn’t Break Monitor, Class Monitor, Traffic Warden, House Prefect, or School Prefect...

…At PFS I hadn’t failed at everything. But I wasn’t a remarkable student at PFS. In the eyes of people in charge, I was in the middle of the pack. That felt about right to me as that’s where most people are, generally. Where I’d not done well at School, I figured perhaps those things didn’t matter.

I’m now Professor of Economics at the LSE. My CV makes plain what that involves. But compared to when I was a PFS student, I have also had to do a few things where I have felt a little more exposed — no longer so much middle of the pack — and that are less obviously associated with my job but perhaps more interesting. These are not typically things that come with being a Professor. So I undertake added risks when I take them on…

When I correlate the things I do now that draw for me the greatest sense of achievement with what I’d previously done well at PFS, I’m struck by how orthogonal these two sets of attributes are. At PFS I’d excelled in mathematics and science, but that is now only a small part of what I need to do to be a productive contributing member of the community. What matters more instead? A good sense of of what is artistically compelling and linguistically convincing. A political awareness of what ought to matter to people in international society. Articulatenesss in writing and speaking, and an ability to debate effectively. Physical acuity and a feeling of confidence and security in my own skin.

What is strange is that those characteristics I now find most valuable are the same as those where PFS had challenged me most and found me most wanting, exactly those areas I’d been most dismissive of when I’d been at PFS (they were only “soft skills”).

I’m obviously cherry-picking to make a point – please do read the whole thing, it’s worth the 10 minutes. But I would like to point out Prof Quah’s pearls of wisdom on what you really should be getting out of an educational system. Everyone needs the basics of knowledge, but the other things count just as much if not more. I think poor soft skills, not technical knowledge, are one of the biggest barriers to graduate employment in Malaysia. I’d venture to say that we’d have a more productive work force if non-graduates acquired those skills as part of their basic education as well.

But this is an old argument and I well know many won’t agree.


  1. I cannot agree more that the "soft skills" seem to be willfully set aside in Asian academic system. When I was at Purdue, I was amazed by the Americans not only knowing the calculations, but ably articulating them as well.

  2. I think where most people fail to realise is the importance of parenting. Social milieu and environment forms the person. By his own admission Danny himself thought the soft skills were irrelevant. I surmise this is due to the background he was. There are others who are involved in school society being a school prefect or a scouts troop leader in his own school who would have developed this soft skills.

    The difference is in parenting from young. If one exposes children to debates and critical thinking since small this will stay with the children when they're adult. But human being human it's easy to point fingers at other things but difficult to blame one self. Our root problem is the parenting method and values imparted. It's difficult for us to blame ourselves or our kins. So long as we don't focus on this, we'll be the same.

  3. Let's assume all will graduate with the soft skills needed. Then what?

    The present premise is that those skills will somehow trigger or activate the hard knowledge in the graduates which can then be applied more effectively at their place of work.

    Therefore the soft skills are not the hard knowledge. One is orthogonal to the other but both are mutually co-enhancing.

    What is dangerous with holding fast to the importance of soft skill as the panache out of our present situation is it may de-focus effort to build hard knowledge.

    I would have no problem accepting both as equivalently important for our manpower equation if our national manpower development platform has a policy on hard knowledge building.

    With slides in content and standards, we don't. The PFS of Danny Quah's time is different from the PFS today in much the same way the MCE of yesteryear is different from the SPM of today.

    The question before us then is this:

    shouldn't we be more concerned about the slide in standards and content vs-a-vs the relative competitiveness of our manpower in the international arena?

    Perhaps to answer that question we can review the contents in:

    If others in the world are already at that stage of hard knowledge with obvious applications while we are still looking for a self-evident explanation for why our graduates are underemployed, then something must be wrong somewhere in the way we are thinking about this challenge.

    Which would also explain how one can miss that the soft skills (artistically compelling, linguistically convincing etc) needed for technical staff are actually the hard skills for liberal-arts staff. It's just a transposition of foci.

    It would have been more instructive if Quah had explained step-by-step what he had learned in the US that had enabled him to write the program for the model that had led to his paper in which dots traced the movement of the 'centre of gravity' of economic importance from west to east of the globe.

    That's hard knowledge, hardly soft skills, and ostensibly distinguishing one head of an economics dept from another enough for him to be invited to Pemandu. For what it's worth.

    As for parental guidance on critical thinking, parents work whole day and come back too tired to even help with the homework what more they themselves are not well-read enough to provide good countervailing points for debates. It's schools and universities, and increasingly less the teacher, more one's equally clueless student peers.

    That's why standards and content must not slide. They pin where we are compared to where the progressing world is. That's why every critique of all the economic and transformation policies of this country dovetails down to the education factor.

    Perhaps it's all because we think it suffices for us to only compete amongst ourselves in order for our nation to be really competitive and relevant. Could this be because the policy formulators themselves are sub-par?

    For those who would like to draw on our international rankings, remove the oil and gas contribution first, itself becoming less relevant by the day, then repeat what is said.

  4. Walla,

    As always, apposite comments.

    I'm not of the opinion that soft skills should replace hard knowledge in education. Nevertheless, sliding standards don't undermine the basic argument for enhancing the acquisition of soft skills in the education system, especially public speaking and social interaction.

    I once attended a leadership course with IMD of Switzerland - while we got the usual management teaching and methodologies, we also had a whole day of working with a professional actor on how to speak, how to present and how to carry oneself. The difference between a good manager and a good leader is soft skills, not technical knowledge. When I began primary school in the US, everyone is forced right at the beginning to speak in front of the class at one time or another.

    Professionally, my personal experience mirrors Prof Quah's (not that I think I'm anywhere near his level) - soft skills are critical. Hard knowledge gained in university is just a foundation, not the be all, of learning. A necessary foundation, but not the totality or even the significant majority.

    Much of the knowledge I use day to day has been acquired post-university and on the job, and mostly on my own. My observation of academics suggest a similar path - much of their value-added comes from individual effort, not what's gained in the classroom. My bet is Prof Quah's paper isn't something that he received from a step by step guide in university, and more from being able to come up with an idea, and finding a way to visualise it in a way that people intuitively understand. It wouldn't be unique otherwise. The important lesson from this is not the acquisition of knowledge, but rather the two interrelated points of having the confidence that one is able to learn, and acquiring the ability to learn. Having these two attributes means education becomes a life-long process, not something that abruptly stops at university level.

    If all we get out of an education system is knowledge, then I think we're in deep trouble.

    Acquiring knowledge is therefore one thing, learning how to use it, apply it, expand on it, and just as importantly, convey that understanding to others is another. Take that site you linked to - where would it be if those authors did not also acquire the skill to present their knowledge in a way accessible to other people? Isn't that also, in a big way, the essence of learning and educating and teaching?

  5. Hishamh,

    As always, your arguments engage.

    However, the crux of my entire comment is repeated here:

    "I would have no problem accepting both as equivalently important for our manpower equation if our national manpower development platform has a policy on hard knowledge building. With slides in content and standards, we don't."

    From that, you can conclude i wasn't unaware of the importance of soft skills per se. My argument pertained to what is happening here, in our country, in the midst of the minds of our manpower and the policy formulators, with regards the hard knowledge factor.

    Are our people accumulating enough hard and relevant knowledge fast enough for them to extend their choice of applications and development while working?

    I'm still searching for a local version of that website.

    While we may say education centers anywhere only provide basics and foundations and it will always come down to individual effort at making a difference, we will still have to ask ourselves the question - after one has developed confidence and motivation for self-improvement of personal soft skills, on what may those skills be applied that will make a real difference in the world we live in which has already progressed far ahead in the hard knowledge aspects? You can take it 'far ahead' is very far beyond our level of 'basic'.

    If we take the stage actor analogy, the actor may be oscar material in his presentation skills but he will still need a pre-written script when he walks onto the stage. For that matter, his finest performance will also come to nought if his audience themselves do not have both soft skills and hard knowledge to be able to appreciate what he is trying to deliver.

    So it remains to ask - where are our scripts? Who has been writing them? Who has been building on them to push the envelope so that we can build a pool of knowledge workers to engine a high-income economy?

    I think this is important. Otherwise Prof Quah would not have mentioned askance that SEAsia only contributes 4 percent to the global supply chain. Which also tells us not to comfort ourselves too much for being 'part of the global supply chain' as nerves relief for the hollowing of our industrial capabilities. That's why if someone asks us "how big can that 'part' next be?" we should have some idea what we potentially can deliver? Do we?

    If we just think that having basic knowledge and improving our soft skills and even making use of self-acquired work know-how are adequate to increase our share of that global supply chain, then we will be in deeper trouble than thinking an education system should just deliver knowledge, wouldn't we?

    If the answer to that is still a no, why are we not showing Prof Quah how he has underestimated the prowess of our education system which last anyone checked is not that hunky-dory in the first place in SEAsia? Right?

    And if real relevance is know-how acquired personally in the world of work after coming out from the world of education, then after over fifty years of billion-ringgit budgets and generations of open-market personal career building, we would have had at least something to show for the money spent and the effort invested not to say the lives expended. Where are the examples?

    As an aside, i was once told that many years ago our legal team had gone overseas to negotiate on GATTS. They were savaged for not knowing what they were talking about. With all the soft-skilled legal finesse and basic knowledge of international trade, one would hardly think their performance should occasion such feedback, yes?

  6. 2/3

    Does it take a lot to admit our standards and content are perilously down? One of these days, overseas admissions offices may just devalue our certificates or lower their accreditated level because those places have better, more and richer candidates from other countries whose qualifications have eclipsed ours. Combined with all the four issues i had mentioned in an earlier post, and other issues which i have not stated, we will have an implosion trigger in our midst, won't we then?

    Penultimately, when i mentioned that Quah should give step-by-step instructions to his celebrated paper, i just wanted to know how-he-had-done-it. If he had not used any hard knowledge of US-origin, fine. I only mentioned what 'he had learned in the US' to probe whether it was there that enablers were made available which had nurtured his unique ideation. That would have been more instructive, wouldn't it? Otherwise, why was that particular, unique, paper picked to illustrate my point?

    So it remains to ask - what do we need to recompose a fertile environment here? Maybe too late for our pioneer flash drive inventor, but given the prevailing easy-street confidence, there could be others awaiting to bloom. Just that.

    Lastly, life-long learning and essences. Basic knowledge from an education system is fine. After that, all on your own steam is also fine. But in our case, in our environment, as matters stand, as cards are currently stacked, what enablers do we have that will prime our manpower, even if they already have soft skills, confidence and motivation, to go ahead and do unique things? If those enablers are already in place, where are the unique things?

    No one in the world is going to teach us new knowledge on mobile apps so that we can get a bigger share of the iphone/pad supply chain. We will have to depend on our technicians and engineers out of our education system. Tell me in the 18 hours they are awake 365 days in the year including the biggest chunk of public holidays in the world, how are they going to get that special post-education knowhow to design new mobile apps that will send the investor over the moon about our capability? Just stare at the blank sheet of paper?

    So we are back to hard knowledge, aren't we?

  7. 3/3

    Whether basic or vocation-al, knowledge is accretive, accumulative and add-on. One generation to the next. If our basal knowledge is sliding, the journey back to norm will consume the energy, time and resources that would have instead been deployed to go the next stage if the norm had not slided. Furthermore, the final target gets shifted upwards every second. And with every new year, new players join the race and game to take a bigger chunk for themselves. And in doing so, the entire environment and holistic motivation for us to get even to come back to norm will slide even more.

    Then the slide will not only be by the components but also the entire entity forming the components.

    That's recipe for a vicious cycle, no?

    The last junior maths international olympiad at UM, already a dead-duck campus, was less about our students showing their mettle produced by our MOE-inspired system, and more about the food arrayed at public expense for the event, reduced to another jom-heboh.

    I am under no illusions that the next batch of walla, hishamh etc will still be talking these points.

    So i'll stop here.....although i am still wondering how corruption does not affect an economy...

    Take the case of A wanting to buy from B some overseas hardware. B is happy to sell at competitive market price but A insists B should pay him USD1 Billion to clinch the deal. Like cancer, the word for that also starts with a ‘C’. Now, B is not stupid. He thinks no matter what the price, A will buy because he wants something for himself. So B adds that amount to his market price and tenders. A then instructs his underling D to pay the inflated sum. D takes the money from the national pool and pays through A to B who subtracts out that amount to A in some offshore account. Meanwhile, the national pool has been denuded by that amount which D could have used to build highways and schools and new industrial estates so that new industries can make to export to earn new income for the economy. Prove that C does not afflict the economy (5 markah).

  8. Walla,

    I think mobile app development actually helps illustrate my point. Every platform (iOS to Android to Windows Phone) is effectively a separate "language" with its own "grammar" and "idioms". You can learn the habit and skill of programming in university, but applying it in the real world means effectively almost starting over, because the "languages" you learn almost don't apply within the specialised world of mobile apps.

    Neither are we talking engineers or technicians here - software programming has long since been divorced from hardware, as operating systems have developed interfaces which segregate communications between programming and hardware. That makes programming effectively hardware independent.

    I would also add that you don't necessarily need to have an education system geared solely towards the sciences and mathematics to be an industrialised country, or to be an industrial leader. Perhaps 10% or less of the work force needs to be fully technically educated. But that leaves the rest to do all kinds of other things.

    To illustrate, in my family I have a brother and three sisters. My first sister has a degree in business and a masters in psychology - she works as an free-lance market researcher. My brother's degree is in political science, but his job description involves creative work on Astro's streamed radio channels. My second sister did Mass Comm, but for years her job was multimedia design work. For myself, I started my career with a degree in economics but worked ten years as a banker - only in the last ten years have I been devoted to economics. Only my youngest sister has stayed on in the profession she began in. I know umpteen lawyers and accountants who work in very diverse fields completely unrelated to law or accounting. Under those conditions, it's not what you know that counts, but developing the habit of learning.

    I sat through a World Bank presentation on China the other day, and their recommendations were to apply to Malaysia as well. The key point of moving up the value chain? It's not in manufacturing, because that actually adds the least value in the supply chain. The highest value-added areas are in the ends of the spectrum, beginning with design and ending with after sales service. Do we need proficient engineers to come up with new exciting gadgets? Yes and no. Most of the parts in the iPhone and iPad are standard or slightly customised off-the shelf components made by someone else. Apple's value add is in interface design and selling a dream, and for that they get 90% of the profits.

    I think if you look hard enough, it's not hard to find creative people passionately doing their own thing in Malaysia. Upin and Ipin are a good example (huge hit in Indonesia, I'm told). Sunday, we took our daughter for horse-riding lessons, taught by a very knowledgeable and experienced young man. A couple of months back, my wife dragged to me a positive thinking seminar, with a very effective young speaker.

    The recent rebasing of GDP is instructive - 2011 GDP is now 3.4% bigger than we originally thought it was. Effectively, the rebasing exercise takes into account industries and products that previously didn't exist before.

  9. Digression into corruption:

    Here's one problem. If the money is spent offshore, that would indeed be a net loss. If it is not, then you're only looking at the difference in the expenditure choices of D and A. If the marginal propensities to consume and invest are the same, there would be no difference in GDP with or without corruption.

    Paradoxically, that means pervasive venal corruption ought to be better tolerated than the rarer grand corruption, because venal corruption is more likely to involve domestic expenditure.

    Second problem. As big as the sums are, and as big as the government is in absolute size and budget expenditures, it's still small relative to the size of the whole economy and procurement is even smaller still. Unless you're assuming every procurement procedure is corrupt and involves kickbacks and that all those kickbacks go overseas, then the impact of corruption won't appear to have any real impact on GDP because it's not significantly big enough.

    The only cases where corruption appears to affect GDP is where corruption is both systemic and personal, as well as right at the top - as with some African dictators, who grab all economic advantages for themselves. That isn't the case in Malaysia or in the other countries of the region such as Korea or Taiwan. Even the Philippines under Marcos and Indonesia under Suharto had growth rates comparable to today's less corrupt regimes.

    Two possible reasons for this: corruption comes in many forms, and the effects are not all the same; and GDP is not an appropriate indicator to measure the efficiency loss from corruption.

  10. strong growth would create more opportunity for corruption practice, very unlikely the other way round. i don't know what empirical data can tell the impact on gdp, and i have no idea how economist measure misappropriation of fund or resources, and injustice of society against economy growth.

  11. That's the problem - if there's no money trail, for example corruption in the form of favours and preferment, it's really hard to measure.

  12. "soft skill" can only work on the foundation of hard skill. that is why many leaders from the asian industrialised nation are mostly technocrat with hard skill knowledge like engineering, they don't have to spend a big chunk of their time to interpret and debate the piece of paper call constitution.

  13. Thanks, hishamh.

    If your sis in market research needs reports, literature and data - any topic, field and geography - feel free to contact me; assuredly pro bono.

  14. Thanks Walla, I might take you up on that.

  15. To be fair, the skills needed to enter a profession and to progress in it are entirely different. And while soft skills are important for a person to become an effective leader in his field, i'd be willing to bet that no employer really cares about that debate stint you did while in school when you are applying for an entry level job. It will be a distinguishing criteria if both applicants have the same academic qualification but would be pretty worthless otherwise.

    I'm sure you've either read/ come across this article before, and while it provides no hard data on the matter, i think its narrative is pretty accurate.

    people work on incentives, and given that academics/hard knowledge i.e. grades can be quantified and is therefore a widely used benchmark for jobs, i don't find it surprising that Prof Quah and the bajilion other students who have gone into uni or schools for that matter, chose to maximize their time and efforts in getting that A in whatever class they are taking versus going out to participate in non academic activities, which is essentially where you learn and develop your soft skills.

    And while the Malaysian education system is obviously less than perfect, i would argue that unless the disconnect between what employers look at at the point of hiring versus the actual skills needed to become a productive lifelong learner is mended, there are no real incentives for students to take time off from studying/memorizing formulas to learn to become a better writer or public speaker, given the opportunities or otherwise.

    Because let's be honest,unless that graduate has at least a 3.5 GPA, he will not be called in for an interview at most big banks or major consulting firms.

  16. Ladybug,

    You're right that employers don't care much about extra-curricular activities, but that's not the point.

    I had the good luck to be sitting next to a guy from JobStreet at a function on Friday evening. Naturally the conversation turned towards employment and job opportunities. The conclusion we reached was the same - soft skills matter. Not in the sense of being in the debate society, or the language club, or showing leadership abilities or organisational skills.

    But in the sense that having crossed the hurdle of getting into an interview on the basis of your qualifications, you can only get through the second hurdle of being able to give an articulate, coherent answer when the interviewer asks, "Tell me about yourself" and "Where do you see yourself in five years?". If soft skills didn't matter, interviews wouldn't be necessary at all.

    At my previous employer (a big fund manager), we didn't care much about hard knowledge, except as an indicator that you have the capacity to learn. More important was the raw material you represent - how you think, how you speak, how you present yourself. Qualifications is just one of the many criteria being scored.

    And in my job before that (an anchor bank), the interview process also included writing and public speaking. It's not just about test scores. Qualifications might get your foot in the door, but to get through it other things matter.

    Don't you see the dichotomy between the story in the article you linked to, and the wonderful ability of the writer to construct and present the narrative? Would any of our kids have the social awareness of Mao, the high school student in the article, thinking of his place in society?