Marbles And Sweets



I spent last weekend in Beijing as a speaker at an event for selected students of Peking University, and as a facilitator in their small group discussions. I was asked to speak on the topic of “Life of Integrity”, which I began with a story on sweets and marbles:

“There was this boy who had a great collection of marbles and this girl with her collection of sweets. Each looked at what the other had and was envious. So they agreed on an exchange:  the boy to give the girl his marbles, and the girl to give her sweets.

On the night before the exchange, the boy went through his marbles to pack them off in a bag.  He came across a marble which was particularly attractive. He decided to hide it under his bed.  Then he came across another marble, and again decided to hang on to it.  He packed off the rest of his marbles.

The girl also went through her sweets and put them all into a bag for the next day.

The day of the exchange arrived.  Each gave to the other what had been packed.

That night, the girl was so happy with her new collection of marbles. She went off to a pleasant sleep. 

The boy looked at his collection of sweets and said, ‘I wonder whether she had given me all her sweets.’ He could not get to sleep, weighed down by the thought that the girl might not have been honest with him.”

Thus ends this story about integrity: Oftentimes, what we wonder of others is basically a reflection of ourselves. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the wonderful golden rule taught by Jesus Christ. “Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you” is the wisdom of Confucius.

Integrity runs in the veins of those who want to have peace of mind in a trusting relationship with others.


Little Red Dot

On my recent quick trip to the United States, I had the opportunity and privilege to meet Singaporeans in San Francisco and speak about Singapore’s Financial Reserves and GIC. I had given much the same talk in the past to Singaporeans in Shanghai, New York, and London. There is no escaping knowing them to be Singaporeans once they begin to speak: It is the expressions and the welcome of home. All the Singaporeans invariably think of home, not just their memories of their childhood but their hopes for Singapore to be a great place – the best place – for Singaporeans. Singapore is a point of honour for them, an idea to defend, a home to protect, and a future to secure.

To understand why financial reserves are so important to Singapore, we need to understand geography and history. Less than 20 years ago, a foreign leader referred to Singapore as the Little Red Dot, a point Singaporeans should not be forgetting. If we look at a map of the world, Singapore fits into the letter “o” in its name, unlike many countries whose names fit nicely into their geographical boundaries on the map. And unlike some other small states, we have no natural resources. We are a little dot among states with large land areas and large populations. While Singaporeans may not like to be reminded of this, it nonetheless holds true that “no one owes us a living” and “no one else is responsible for our security.”

And to understand more deeply the need for large financial reserves, we need to remember history. Not everyone learnt history in school, and many who did stopped learning Singapore history in Secondary Four, if not earlier in Secondary Two. While there is the annual reminder on National Day of Singapore’s independence and sovereignty, what an adventurous and risky course Singapore took to “leapfrog” the immediate neighbourhood to link up to the whole world as our economic hinterland is often unspoken, perhaps little understood or even unknown by many Singaporeans.

The point about history is not to hold us back and hold us to the past – it is to give us context for what we need to do to make Singapore a great place for Singaporeans. We cannot escape our geography, but we can make good use of history to create a worthy future for ourselves and our families. It is a whole tapestry about Konfrantasi, water, sand, granite, and food.

When we know our history, we can be clearer about requiring our children to grow up with the capacity for thought, enterprise, and self-confidence to make a Singapore for their time.  In addition, we will understand why business in Singapore needs to have its unique capacity for competing on the world stage founded on values of integrity, quality, reliability, imagination, responsiveness, and an unending drive for excellence.

I explained GIC as the fund manager for Singapore’s financial reserves, with the task of preserving and enhancing the value of the reserves, and of helping to contribute towards the government budget each year. The government is allowed to use up to 50 percent of the Net Investment Returns, calculated on the basis of expected long-term real returns multiplied by the net assets (that is, after deducting the liabilities like the special government securities that have been issued to the Central Provident Fund Board). For the next Financial Year, the government is taking into the expenditure budget a sum of $8.1 billion from the Net Investment Returns, which amounts to two percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

GIC ranks among the large sovereign wealth funds in the world with well over USD100 billion under the management of GIC. It invests in a whole slew of asset classes – equities, debt, real estate – in both the public and private markets, and in both developed and emerging markets across the world. It is headquartered in Singapore with eight overseas offices in Beijing, London, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, and Tokyo. A ninth office is also about to open in Sao Paolo.

An important question is how much of foreign reserves is enough. Obviously, the greater the needs and the more Singapore buys from the world, the larger the foreign reserves need to be. Thus an appropriate balance needs to be struck between spending on the current generation and keeping resources for future generations. The way this is done at present is the Singapore Constitution allowing the government to use up to 50 percent of the long-term real returns for ongoing expenditure, with the rest retained for continuing investment for the benefit of future generations.

Geography and history dictate the wisdom of Singapore maintaining a significant level of financial reserves in order to assure the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and independence of Singapore. 

For GIC to do its job well, we need a continuing flow of talent to perform the investment functions with skill and competence, and also to support the investment operations with efficiency and effectiveness. To this end, GIC offers about five scholarships each year for undergraduate studies anywhere in the world, and also runs an annual GIC Professionals Programme for up to 20 new who have just graduated from university or who have worked for up to 3 years after graduation.

In addition, GIC offers internships for large numbers of undergraduates each year so that they may get familiar with what GIC is about and can then decide whether they wish to consider a career in GIC.

More information is available on the GIC website: Enquiries from students and parents on the GIC Undergraduate Scholarships, GIC Professional Programme and GIC internships are always welcome:



I just read a book “Loving Our Kids on Purpose – Making a heart-to-heart connection” by Danny Silk. The book makes many good points about raising children. I thought it would be useful, particularly for those with children of any age or those hoping to have children, to quote just a small selection from its pages.

“Taking good care of our children begins with learning to take care of ourselves. This is what we learn every time we get on an airplane. When flight attendants go through their spiel, they are explaining what to do if there’s a drop in cabin pressure: Put your oxygen mask on first and then help your kids and neighbours get theirs on. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t last long trying to take care of another person. You have to have a high value for taking good care of you! Somewhere along the road, somebody taught us that a worn-out, burnt-out, frustrated, bitter parent is a good one. Somehow that’s holy and noble. Actually, it’s a sign that you’re not getting enough oxygen.

“In order to take care of ourselves, we need to learn how to set up healthy boundaries with our children. We need to put a fence around our yard, complete with a gate.

“Passive parents have no fence around their gardens because the passive relational style says, ‘Your needs matter; mine don’t.’ Often, these parents struggle to get a respectful response form their children because they’ve done a good job communicating to their kids that they do not respect themselves. Their own needs are not important to them, so why would the children value what their parents need in the relationship? 

“There are also parents who are more aggressive and teach their kids that it’s the children’s job to keep a safe distance from them. They have an electric fence around their garden. Get too close and you’ll get zapped.Their aggressive style says, ‘My needs matter; yours don’t.’ 

 “But neither of these styles is what we want to teach our children because in both cases, someone is being disrespectful. We want them to learn that in a healthy, respectful relationship, the needs of both of us matter.

“Another key to setting healthy boundaries is telling those around you what you will be doing instead of trying to get others to do something for you. As parents, it is easy to get into the routine of barking out commands. ‘Pick that up!  Come here. Stop being so noisy. Be nice to your brother!’ Our homes are filled with the illusionary practice of controlling each other. But since we no longer believe in that hocus pocus, what then shall we do? Begin telling others what you will do instead. Practise being powerful by controlling something you do control, namely, yourself. Say things like, ‘I will listen to you when your voice is as soft as mine. Take your time.’  Or, ‘I will manage your fight with your brother, just like a referee. Only I charge ten dollars each for each fight I referee.  Ready?  Go!’ When we make these statements, we have the ability to enforce what we say is important to us, and it doesn’t require other people to give us control over them.  We simply control what we can control.”

It seems to me the idea of simply controlling what we can control can be applied to many more situations at work and at home than how to deal with quarrelling children. Other-centredness does not mean simply giving in to others. Other-centredness is fundamentally about mutual respect.   



My 5-year old granddaughter asked me, “What is chewing gum?” She had picked up the word “chewing gum” from a book.

How am I to answer the question? I could show her pictures. I could describe to her what it is like. But the most basic point is that chewing gum is the experience? How could I adequately teach her what chewing gum is without including the most important point, which is the experience of chewing gum? But chewing gum has been banned in Singapore for more than a decade because of the public nuisance it was causing with irresponsible people putting the gum on seats, throwing them on the floor, and even disrupting train services when the doors could not shut properly when gum was inconsiderately placed between the train doors.

Thinking about this made me think about trying to bring about change in organisations. Often there is resistance to the change because people consider it unnecessary, inappropriate, or impossible to achieve. Most often it is due to an inability to visualize the benefits of the change. We can imagine what we would lose much better than we can imagine what we would gain. The benefit of change is about a new better experience. But how do we explain the experience when the change has not been done? Much too much energy is wasted arguing about the unsuitability or impossibility of a change, instead of getting on with the change, and then evaluating the worthiness of the change through actual experience. Companies that entertain such argument for too long can never be winners or leaders.

As pointed out in the book THE LEADER, THE TEACHER & YOU, Change is a matter of Leadership and the role of Leadership is Change.  Leadership us about making (good) things happen that on their own would not happen. Organizations should adopt a “learning by doing” approach. Make progress by trying rather than arguing.

Of course change is a challenge. Machiavelli said about change and innovation: “And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful of success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have as his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new until they have seen it proved by the event.”

On the other hand, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, once First Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, has said, “The only way to avoid making mistakes is not to do anything. And that, in the final analysis, will be the ultimate mistake.”

The only way to really know what chewing gum is all about is to chew gum, just like the only way to really know what change is all about is to change!