Being given official licence to eavesdrop on a conversation is an interesting experience – especially when it involves an ex-Nominated Member of Parliament (ex-NMP), in the form of noted author and intellectual Simon Tay, interviewing an outgoing NMP who’s arguably made the most of her time in Parliament speaking up for the young and disenfranchised with electrifying effect.
The conversation ranges from the expected – politics – to the unexpected, like personal faith and family expectations. At all times, the 41-year-old Kuik, co-founder of social business group The Thought Collective, comes across as both candid yet careful, her statements thoughtful and considered.
Concepts like “collaboration”, “communication” and “community” undergird much of her narrative. It is apparent she is a connector, a bridge-builder, someone passionate about tearing down barriers and finding common ground – whether among competing political parties, for her corporate clients or between different sectors of an increasingly polarised society.
SIMON TAY: I’ve really enjoyed reading your speeches – there have been things you’ve brought up in a 21st century way which echo with me in my 20th century experience as an NMP. Do you see Singapore at a crossroads? Not just in terms of leadership or economy, but more deeply at a societal level?
KUIK SHIAO-YIN: Yes, I think it is. SG50 was probably the major psychological turning point for many Singaporeans, and its significance doubled when founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) passed away that same year. The moment we hit year 51, the question opened up for our country: Who do we want to be in the next 50 years? The people are having their own conversations on the ground about what it means to build a country that we want to see. There is a conviction that the country’s story is now for us to write.
“The country’s story is now for us to write.”
Let’s take the last part of that insight – Singapore’s story is for us to write. Is this a national question? And what do you see as the key areas of debate?
I think for those people on the polar ends – pro- establishment and anti-establishment – the stakes have been raised so they are escalating the fight. One side wants to double down and protect the legacy; there is a genuine fear that if the old guard is gone, we may not be able to keep everything together. On the other end of the spectrum, for the anti-establishment, I don’t sense much clarity or confidence that they are ready to take over the country or propose a different style of government. So I think over the next 50 years, the big question will be: Do we have another alternative to put in place?
You painted a picture of anti-establishment and pro- establishment. Is there a centre?
Yes. There’s a growing group of people in the middle who would not want to label themselves either way. LKY’s passing provoked a lot of interesting, reflective pieces of writing online, and that’s when I started to see a lot of middle voices coming out. Oxley was another one, because it got people to start questioning their loyalties. For those in the middle, it was a very sobering moment of figuring out whether they were supportive of Singapore the country, or particular people in power. I don’t think that has been resolved on a national level but I think the middle will start to articulate themselves more and more.
Let’s shift a bit – besides the ideas, people want to know why you have these ideas. What were your experiences growing up?
I was pretty much a typical 18-year-old, in that I didn’t think too far into the future. But I was aware that none of the pathways set before me were interesting. I wanted to do fine arts but my mum thought it was a horrible idea and said she wouldn’t pay, so I compromised and did architecture. I enjoyed it but, even from Day One, I knew I didn’t want to practise it. But I never questioned the possibility of doing anything else. This is what adult life is, right? You just do the thing that you don’t particularly fancy, and learn to like it.
At this point, half the audience reading this will sigh, thinking: “Yes we know what you mean…”
The game changer was becoming a Christian, when I was 20. It was like a light bulb went on. It changed the entire framework of how I lived, because it was a conscious decision to adopt a pretty massive paradigm shift. It was the very first time I actually sat down and thought: “What do I believe in? What do I think life is about? What do I really want?” I made a decision that this life is going to be about a larger purpose, but it is definitely not supposed to be about my own gain.
This is very insightful… it helps people understand that some fundamental belief is important.
I’ve always been fairly open about my faith. It’s allowed me to be very comfortable with uncertainty, because I have a faith that gives me certainty in uncertainty – I’m quite ok with not knowing what is going to happen next. Which has pretty much been the theme of my life. Sometimes, I look back, and wonder how on earth did I end up in strange places like Parliament, and all that? But it’s just been a general call and response. I just know I have to answer a call and walk towards that bigger purpose that has opened up for me and just go at it.
Sometimes, life only makes sense backwards, but it has to be lived forwards. I think it was Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who said that. When was the first time in your life you took a step that surprised you?
I did an internship in the United States and had a conversation with an American colleague which led to everything becoming clear. I called my mum and told her I was ditching my degree. In 2000, I came back to Singapore and became creative director for two dot.coms. After I quit the dot.com thing, I was seriously debating whether I should become a missionary. Then my friends said to me: “We notice an interesting problem – kids graduating out of the education system are indifferent to what’s going on in Singapore and the world, and unsure of who they are.”
And they continued: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to set up this experimental tuition programme where we ‘incept’ kids with a bigger picture of what society is all about – under the guise of tuition?” It was always meant to be just an experimental group but, whatever we were doing, it multiplied very fast. We started 16 years ago, so the very first 18-year-old I taught is 34 now; it’s quite scary. We were 100 kids-strong by the end of that first year.
“There’s a lot of insight that the younger generation can bring but the only way you can access that insight is to be willing to dial down on your power.”
Can I ask about your mum? By this time, what was her view about the path you’d taken?
My parents felt like I would be ok, only when I appeared in the newspaper. Because the newspaper is confirmation that your child is not doing something strange. (laughs)
In my world, there is a lot of negativity about the millennials. You don’t share that.
Oh no… that’s because we have taught them and seen them grow. We’ve seen them and what they care about, so I definitely don’t have a pessimistic view of them.
What are some of the key tips you can share about millennials and how they work?
The first thing is to not use labels, like “strawberry generation”. Those are not useful. Are there generational differences? Yes, but they are still individuals. If you want to engage with people, you have to see that they are individuals and there’s a whole undercurrent of emotions that cause them to act in certain ways. The only way to work with them is to get really curious about what’s going on underneath and not work on your own assumptions.
What’s the one thing most CEOs should do differently with millennials?
Understanding emotions is very underrated. It’s dismissed as soft stuff but emotions and stories are the key blocks of all relationships – and organisations. It’s a fallacy to say “Leave your emotions at home” – that’s nonsense, because as long as you are dealing with humans, they come with emotions. It becomes dangerous when you tell them not to get emotional at work because it means “I don’t want to see it”. But it’s there and you can walk into an organisation and see the emotions everywhere – the resignation, the frustration, etc. If you have leaders who don’t want to look at it, then they are blindsiding themselves.
Are there any soft skills you think CEOs should cultivate, in order to communicate better?
There’s a lot of insight that the younger generation can bring but the only way you can access that is to be willing to dial down on your power. There is still a very strong cultural narrative of “the boss knows the most, so, even if I think he’s being stupid right now, I’m going to shut up”. And every boss could benefit from having as many eyes on the situation as possible, and a good boss is one who knows he has blind spots. Sometimes, a younger person may see something from the perspective of their generation that is invisible to you, simply because you are just not one of them. Many people in top leadership do not understand what the young people see, and the risk is that the young may keep it to themselves, may leave the organisation and take all of those insights with them.
To find those out, you need to take off the hat of power, which means to take off the assumption that you are always right. It’s a humbling position to go and talk to some intern and say: “What do you see that is going wrong in the organisation?” That’s a huge question to ask someone who is less powerful and younger, but organisations are far stronger when people who feel less powerful are invited to share their perspectives.
You seem to have a lot of optimism.
I have a lot of optimism in people, especially in the young, as they give a damn about the country.
DEEP DIVE FOR CHANGE
Besides teaching young people and running restaurants, Kuik also works with companies that need help with effecting cultural change within the organisation. She insists, however, that The Thought Collective is not a consultancy but a facilitator.
“We don’t strategise on your behalf. We help you to realise your own agency and power. We give you the framework, the scaffolding you need, to make better choices. We help you deep dive into your human system.”
This change through change- within approach is in response to an emerging demand for such solutions, she says. “How effective a person is in his relationship with other people comes down to how much he understands what’s going on inside himself. Whatever change you’re looking for – systemic, organisational, or relationship-related – it has to start with yourself.” Kuik gives an example from a project The Thought Collective carried out for the Singapore Institute of Power and Gas.
The purpose of the four-month long Energy Managers Programme was to help middle managers from different energy companies address discomfort with change and learn how to collaborate with one another across the sector. A participant wondered why he was always dissatisfied with groups he worked with. After the training – which also includes overseas exposure and group project work – and one-on-one coaching, he discovered he was very good at giving orders, but he didn’t feel he had the right to make requests of his team. Once he realised that, he was able to modify his behaviour to create a more collaborative environment.
“We agreed to help create, and prototype this type of solution,” says Kuik. “So far, the outcomes are quite decent. All 30 participants in the programme expressed significant shifts in the way they behaved or the way they saw themselves as leaders.”