“Sorry” shoudn’t be this hard to say.

“Over the past five years, we have made great progress but also some mistakes. Regardless whether our issues are viewed by others as inherited, structural or cultural, we make no excuses. I take full responsibility for all that has happened under my watch as the overall Group’s chief executive”

– SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek, on 16 Oct 2017

Nine days after the North-South Line was brought to a standstill due to flooded train tunnels; SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek stepped forward to deliver a public apology. To his credit, he took full responsibility for the disruption.

Unfortunately, this was not without significant caveats. Of the 718 words in the statement, 404 were devoted to listing out the positive changes made by SMRT since the Dec 2011 breakdowns. 124 words were spent bemoaning “deep-seated cultural issues within the company”, and a mere 98 words were used to apologise to the public. Emphasis was placed on mitigating and diffusing responsibility for SMRT’s failings, before Mr Kuek saw fit to accept blame.

We have seen this pattern repeat itself whenever Singapore’s governing-managerial elite find themselves under pressure. When confronted by the sale of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) to a French firm, former CEO Ng Yat Chung argued that “we haven’t been able to cut costs fast enough to offset the collapse in freight rates.” Mr Ng blamed a litany of external factors, but at no point admitted that he was at fault. In fact, even though NOL lost $1.5 billion over the course of his ill-fated tenure as CEO, Mr Ng pocketed compensation worth more than $16 million during this period.

When asked why the NSL train tunnels flooded, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan informed the press that the Land Transport Authority and SMRT had, on 29 Sep, already made a decision to replace the faulty flood-prevention pumps. He then added this gem of an afterthought:

“So we are late by a few days. Had they proceeded to replace (the pumps) this thing might not even have happened.

“But I suppose that is life.”

But, of course, SMRT didn’t proceed to replace the pumps on time. It didn’t perform the requisite checks. According to Mr Khaw, that isn’t his fault. That’s the fault of the SMRT maintenance team and their supervisors. The buck doesn’t stop here; it stops way over there.

The culture of non-apology

Why is it so difficult for our governing-managerial elite to say sorry?

Simply put, it’s because they genuinely see themselves as superior human beings. From cradle to grave, they have been the beneficiaries of our dogmatic meritocracy: They attended the best schools, because they received the highest test scores. They were awarded the most prestigious scholarships, because they attended the best schools. They got promoted the fastest because they were awarded the most prestigious scholarships. They were given the most important civil jobs because they got promoted the fastest. They came to lead large government-linked corporations because they once held the most important civil service jobs.

From time to time, our scholar-mandarin classes are reminded to remain humble and grounded. But even this advice is framed against the backdrop of elite meritocracy. Stay humble, because you are destined for leadership. You are special, and part of being groomed for greatness is to remember not to parade your virtues in front of the common man.

In fairness, most of our civil service – and our nation’s scholars – are not like this. Many of them work hard to see Singapore go from strength to strength, and are extremely well-intentioned. This is not to say that all civil service talents or all scholarship recipients are arrogant elitists who cannot bring themselves to apologise. I know people currently working in the civil service, and I have many friends who took up government scholarships. They are remarkable individuals; people who embody the spirit of leadership and service.

It is those who travel the furthest along this talent pipeline who come to believe they can do no wrong. The higher they soar, the more they fall prey to the justificatory myth at the heart of Singaporean meritocracy: That those who succeed deserve their success. Over time, our system creates leaders who are prone to a “self-serving bias” – the tendency to attribute positive outcomes to one’s own superior leadership while attributing negative outcomes to external factors outside of one’s control. If I have achieved so much success early on in life, the argument goes, surely any accomplishments later on must be a natural consequence of my talents. Any failures must be an aberration; a product of exogenous circumstances that can be explained away.

Because these people have flown high for their entire lives, they have no idea what to do when they come crashing back down to earth. Ng Yat Chung was appointed Chief of Defence Force of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) at the age of 42. He was likely fast-tracked through the military route of advancement throughout his career, helped along by the fact he was an SAF Overseas Scholar. When parachuted into NOL, he was caught woefully flat-footed: Even though he had no experience in the shipping industry, he somehow decided that he was the right man for the job. Of course, he wasn’t – four years of cost-cutting measures and consecutive quarter-on-quarter losses later, the company had to be sold.

The importance of humility

This is eerily reminiscent of how, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, not a single CEO in charge of a financial institution was willing to apologise for their actions. Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld Jr. steered Lehman deep into the business of subprime mortgages, bankrolled lenders making questionable loans, turned these loans into toxic debt, and over-leveraged the firm. To this day, he refuses to accept any responsibility – not for bankrupting Lehman, nor for the global financial crisis.

An arrogant leader becomes slow to recognise they are failing, slow to respond to their failings, and slow to leave office when they cannot fix their failings. Refusing to apologise is a sign of hubris – the irrational belief that, despite all the evidence that you are not the right man for the job, you can somehow turn things around because you have done it before.

Maybe it’s not the fault of your workers. It’s not the fault of “deep-seated cultural issues”, or the “slowdown in global growth”, or “life”. Maybe, just maybe, it’s you – because the buck stops here.


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