The Penguin, The Wild Goose, and The Eagle

Penguin  vs  Wild Goose  vs  Eagle

It is not unusual for parents to go out of their way to sacrifice for their children’s education.

There are many children from South Korea, for example, studying in Singapore because Singapore offers a safe and secure environment, an Asian cultural mix, a good place to learn both English and Chinese – languages much prized in Korea as parents think about the future for their children.

Often the mothers are with their children in Singapore, while the fathers stay back to work and pay for the cost of their children’s studies in Singapore.

This is sacrifice, forgoing other things to pay for their children’s education; but I have learned that the sacrifice is very much also an emotional one.

South Koreans reflect this, in jest, by saying there are three kinds of fathers who sacrifice for their children’s education:

  • The Penguin
  • The Goose
  • The Eagle

The Penguin: The “penguin” is the father who cannot afford to “fly”. The “penguin” works hard but cannot afford to pay for family reunions.

The Wild Goose: The “wild goose” flies at set seasons to reunite with his family, just like the literal wild geese migrate southward for winter and northward as summer approaches.

The Eagle: The “eagle” is the father who is free to fly at any time because he has the money to afford to do so.

I commend all these fathers and mothers who sacrifice in order to seek to secure their children’s future the best way they know how.

What is the ultimate mistake in life?


I had the privilege to be the guest speaker at the SAF Leadership Dining-In last week, where the theme was “Our SAF – For Singapore, For Singaporeans”.

It was a generation of SAF leadership I had had no opportunity to work with during my 22 years in the Ministry of Defence, the last 13 of which was as its Permanent Secretary.  Preparing my speech for the evening was a time of pleasant reminiscence of the opportunities I had serving first under Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, and other Ministers for Defence thereafter.

In my speech I recalled Mindef as the place where I brought in various initiatives which later proved highly valuable for the larger public service.  These included introducing:

  • Total Defence, comprising Military Defence, Civil Defence, Economic Defence, Social Defence, and Psychological Defence, as the framework for defence and deterrence to maintain the security of Singapore;
  • Promotional advertising by government agencies, starting with Total Defence using the tagline “There’s a Part for Everyone” and moving on to promoting the SAF and the three services of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force;
  • The Currently Estimated Potential (CEP) system, learnt from Shell International, as an organised way to assess the career potential of everyone in the SAF
  • The MINDEF Productivity Movement to promote initiative and ideas at every level in the SAF;
  • The Block Budget System of financial budgeting with its attendance mechanisms of budget control and resource allocation within a non-negotiable budget limit.

I also described how these concepts were adopted to wider effect in the public service, namely:

  • Promotional advertising for teaching and education, with the taglines of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” and “Moulding the Future of Our Nation”;
  • Introducing the CEP system throughout the public sector as a way to develop officers according to their abilities and for managing their careers;
  • The PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century) movement to promote quality service, organizational excellence, and initiative and innovation;
  • The Block Budget System throughout the public service.

And I said the most important point I learned from Dr Goh in starting the SAF from virtually nothing was his imperative to try unceasingly as the only way to succeed. Indeed, not to try would be irresponsibility.  He said, “The only way to avoid making mistakes is not to do anything.  And that, in the final analysis, will be the ultimate mistake.”

As my mind surveys these past events, I am reminded of what Steve Jobs had said in June 2005 in his Commencement Address to the Stanford MBA graduating class when he started by talking about connecting the dots in life:

“I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

“It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

“And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

“It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I find the point about only being able to connect the dots in our life looking backwards and not being able to do it looking forward, to be both instructive and inspirational. 

Whenever I am asked what advice I can give to young people contemplating their next steps in life, I tell them not to chase the rewards but to chase the opportunities. 

At a graduation ceremony of the University of Adelaide in Singapore in April 2012, I had said, “Seek to be the best you can be. Anything less is less than fair to yourself and to your capacity to contribute to the well-being of the people around you. Build a reputation for hard work, integrity, trustworthiness and reliability. Opportunity comes to those who are able, ready and prepared. Use your brain, use your hands, use your heart. Your degree today is not the end of your hard work. Your degree gives you a new starting point to apply hard work to bigger ends and higher ends. Enjoy today. Tomorrow brings you new possibilities and more work.”


Mother Theresa

Leadership is making good things happen that on their own would not happen. 

This requires courage to stand out from others and to stand out from the past.  It requires conviction and a determination to do good that overcomes the fear of criticism and opposition.

A poem, which is attributed to her and is reportedly is to be found on the wall of Mother Teresa’s children’s home in Kolkata, offers particular encouragement and enlightenment.

There are reports that there is an original version of the poem by Kent M. Keith, but while the form is the same, the words are not altogether the same.  What is most critical is for us to benefit from the wisdom and the inspiration.



People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centred;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

HK students demonstrate self-organization

Hong Kong China Tension

I was in Hong Kong last weekend, and made a special point of going to where the demonstrations were happening.

The demonstrations had closed off main thoroughfares and created traffic congestion in many places.  I was told that 90 percent of the university students in Hong Kong were taking part in the demonstrations, and that the students managed it through a process of self-organisation at the micro level.

The students had organised themselves in groups of three or four. One of them would be on the street in the company of other protestors. When anyone gets tired, he or she would call another person in the group to take their place, while they go home for a shower and sleep. The students also organised for one member of the team to attend university lectures, which carried on right through the time of the demonstrations, to take notes and share with the others!

To me, this is a remarkable example of spontaneous leadership and team creation! While this would have been very difficult to organise and coordinate centrally, it is effectively executed when members of the team are tied together in a common purpose, and go all out to help each other in a relationship spontaneously established in trust and respect.

This is how effective leadership and teamwork can spring up at every level in an organisation, if only there were a strong enough sense of purpose and interdependency to achieve a worthy end.  Self-organisation and empowerment is much faster, responsive and flexible than any centrally organised effort can be!

Photo acknowledgement:



I had the good fortune of watching the show Cavalia, which displayed horses in action, all well-trained and well-groomed, as well as wonderful acrobats whose energy, courage, and flexibility was simply awe-inspiring.

Watching the horses reminded me of two quotations.

The first was a quotation of the late Dr Goh Keng Swee which I mention in my book “The Leader, The Teacher & You.”  Dr Goh was Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister, who had variously been Minister of Finance, Defence, and Education. He had said, “It is better to have stallions, which we occasionally have to pull back, than to have donkeys you have to kick to move.”

What Dr Goh looked for was energy, initiative, and imagination. Many supervisors will tell you what they want are people with energy, initiative, and imagination, but in reality, they feel threatened by people who have different views from theirs, and thus discourage or diminish those who carry bad news or make mistakes. Those who expect to harness the power and muscle of stallions must be self-confident, open-minded, intellectually honest, and also humble.

The second quotation is from the book Jeremiah in the Bible.  It goes, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”

This is a call not to grow weary but to persevere and to be resilient in the face of difficulties and setbacks. If we would learn from failure, that is how we grow in wisdom and understanding, courage and resourcefulnessdump the fat and grow the muscle.