Education 2.0 in Singapore: The Bitzu’istic Bamboo Innovator

Education 2.0 in Singapore: The Bitzu’istic Bamboo Innovator

By KEE Koon Boon

12 March 2013

“Can my kid watch how you milk cows?”

“Can my kid see how you print the newspaper?”

As a young boy, Gil Shwed was taken on learning adventure trips by his loving mother – to dairy farm, to printing house, including to his father’s office in 1972 where he saw a computer for the first time when he was five years old. Enlivened, and grounded in the values of sacrificial love since young, Gil pursued excellence in an “education” in computer skills by signing himself up for an afternoon computer class in a religious community center at nine, embarking on a summer job coding for a language-translation software company at twelve, and taking computer science classes at the Hebrew University while in high school.

While his high-profiled peers boisterously chased fashionable dollar-seeking career strategies with their well-endowed grades and holistic CV, Gil diligently and silently persisted in building a computer security software, an idea that he had cooked up during his four-year mandatory military conscript in which he strung together military computer networks in a way that would allow some users access to confidential materials while denying access to others. After leaving the army service, Gil, together with his two friends, Shlomo Kramer and Marius Nacht, would work together on borrowed computers in the cramped and hot apartment that belongs to Kramer’s grandmother without much extrinsic reward, and without the psychological security of a “proper” real job, until 1 a.m., then comforted themselves with companionship and Japanese food or went for a drink on the beach.

Gil’s “education” was made market-relevant when plugged into the unique self-organized ecosystem that constantly searches for and supports innovative ideas and new products. A VC fim shared in Gil’s vision and gave him technical and business assistance. The trio unveiled their product at a computer show in Las Vegas in 1994 and won the best software award. That product was called FireWall and their flagship product has never been breached. Their company, Check Point Software Technologies, went on to list in NASDAQ in 1996 and its market capitalization had since multiplied 12-folds to around US$10 billion presently.

“Education” with that bitzu’ism quality was at the heart of the pioneering ethos that connected not only the trio together but also into the global marketplace, adding on to the social capital that higher “education” brings to society when resilient “Bamboo Innovators” are created. A bitzu’ist is a Hebrew word that loosely translates to “pragmatist” with a resilient quality, like the bamboo that bend but not break in the wildest storms that snapped the mighty resisting oak trees. The bitzu’ist is “the builder, the irrigator, the pilot, the gunrunner, the settler” – all rolled together into one.

Gil thinks of his home country Israel as a “startup nation”: “We managed to create a country from zero. We’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit for over 100 years. Brought in immigrants. Fed them. Created a legal system. Built cities. Set up farms in the desert. Invented techniques like drip irrigation. One thing that really helps us here is that we don’t have a local market. We are thinking of customers who are 6,000+ miles away from home.” Adversity, like necessity, breeds inventiveness. Surrounded by hostile neighbors that makes regional trade impossible and endowed with little natural resources, Israel has the highest density of start-ups in the world with one for every 1,800 Israelis from its population base of 7.4 million with seventy different nationalities as Israelis think globally to create international products. These physical constraints ironically positioned Israel for the global turn toward knowledge- and innovation-based economies and companies. After the US, Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any other country in the world, including the entire European continent, as well as India, China, Korea, Singapore combined. These agile startups darting between the legs of multinational monsters are hungry global champions, with some long-term entrepreneurs who looked not for the tempting quick flips but stayed the painful course to build and last for the long-term, such as Gil’s Check Point, scaling up to become world leaders, brick by brick.

Warren Buffett, the world’s greatest investor and the apostle of risk aversion, broke his decades-long record of not buying any foreign company with the purchase of an 80 percent stake in Iscar Metalworking, the world’s second largest maker of cutting tools which is founded in 1952 in a wooden garage, for US$4 billion in May 2006 – seemingly vulnerable assets in war-torn Israel. Buffett’s view is that if Iscar’s facilities are bombed, it can go build another plant. The plant does not represent the value of the company. It is the “intangible” – the talent of the management, the international base of loyal customers, and the brand – that constitute Iscar’s value. As Iscar’s founder Stef Wertheimer puts it firmly, “We do not miss a single shipment. For our customers around the world, there was no war.” By responding to threats this way, Wertheimer and his team have transformed the very dangers that may make Israel seem risky into evidence of Israel’s inviolable assets. Israelis, by making their economy and their business reputation both a matter of national pride and a measure of national steadfastness, have created for foreign investors a confidence in Israel’s ability to honor, or even surpass, its commitments.

What is striking about Israel is that the development of human capital is the key to growing the economy. Its “education” was made relevant because it was plugged into the unique ecosystem such that the combination of sacrifices and competence has a performance-based outlet to be converted into longer-term relevance for the global marketplace in building a “Bamboo Innovator” company such as Check Point.

In the growth of Singapore 1.0 since its self-governance, the system in education is rightly about forging a meritocratic and highly-competitive “standardized” education system to lift the technical competence and social mobility of the masses to the plateau where they will be able to get the rays of the sun emitted by the multinational companies in its export-oriented economic strategies. This is augmented by higher valued-added services from logistics, shipping and maritime support to legal, finance and accounting, generating high-wages to beat inflationary pressures. This was masterful strategic grand-positioning amidst the geopolitical forces of power in the “hard times” era to meet the exigencies of the global forces in order for the population to stay employed and survive.

In other words, Education 1.0 is about plugging in to the needs of capable MNCs, who, in turn, connect the small, open economy of Singapore to the real marketplace. Along the way, short-term transactional-based tangible wealth was collected amongst the individuals through industriousness in work, and passed on when invested in private assets that have the potential for long-term capital appreciation, such as property, to foster a sense of ownership and stability. As the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, the indefatigable economic architect of Singapore, elucidated: “The way to better life was through hard work, first in schools… and then on the job in the work place. Diligence, education and skills will create wealth.”

Yet, the highly-skilled workforce is not able to house whatever of their “intangibles” in know-how into building and even owning “Bamboo Innovators”. The capitalization of tangible “profits” that accrue from these intangible know-how are housed in and owned by the MNCs vehicles. In investing lingo terms, a high-salaried worker in MNC has a “Price-Earnings” (PE) ratio of one while a MNC can have a PE value of 20 times. A productive “Bamboo” worker is one who, when a wind blows away his or her MNC title and position, can still remain resilient innovators to create value because they have that indestructible “intangible” quality. Interestingly, it is the hollow “emptiness” in its center – the “intangibles” – that gives the bamboo great strength and flexibility in a raging storm. In addition, there are growing concerns expressed by the MNCs that the Singapore workforce lacks the initiative and innovativeness that the knowledge-based industries desire, imposing a barrier to a breakthrough in wages and productivity.

Making further economic and social advancements from this blockage by putting guile ahead of industriousness, their “retained earnings” are deployed into scalping, speculative and hedonic activities which can be socially destabilizing. Their accumulated wealth and assets for its own sake evolve to a sense of entitlement, festering into a dangerous liability that erodes character, moral values, and social cohesion. And healing attempts or reform through efforts in “character education” and “creative thinking” alone is not only difficult but also decidedly off-track. As economist David Landes puts it aptly, nothing is more dilutive to drive and ambition than a sense of entitlement, ingraining in the minds of the elites and the population that they are superior, which reduces their “need to learn and do”. This kind of distortion makes an economy inherently uncompetitive.

Thus, even though America consistently ranked far below Singapore and the East Asian nations in educational metrics such as standardized test scores or prizes won in math and science competitions, the U.S. “education ecosystem” with that bitzu’ism quality continuously enabled the emergence of long-term entrepreneurs with a sense of mission, such as Sam Walton (Wal-Mart), Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger (Berkshire Hathaway), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Ray Kroc (McDonald’s), Jim Sinegal (Costco), Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), the “Google guys”, and so on.

Instead of getting diminishing marginal returns from repeating the strategy of Education 1.0 that treats educational achievements as instrumental, the education system in this “complex uncertain times” era requires enabling the population to grope and reach directly into the global marketplace, to be sensitive and alert to existing anomalies and paradigms of how things ought to function and behave in the marketplace. It is this sensitiveness and alertness that lead to their discovery through their strong conviction and belief that they can do it significantly better by creating “Bamboo Innovators”. A nation of long-term entrepreneurs who are able to burst asunder the limits of existing knowledge to find and exploit the niches of relative advantage when they introduced their new innovations to positively create value for the customers and society.

At the heart of the educational curricula in any discipline and subject is for the educators and teachers to connect and sensitive the students to the chaotic global marketplace. The disengaged students, upon seeing the reflection of their foggy and incompatible images in this grand mirror, would see inside themselves, embarking on a self-discovery and self-learning journey or Work to equip themselves with both the knowledge and character to once again see themselves more clearly in this mirror. They will experience the uncanny: the raw sensual data reaching their eyes before and after are the same, but with the pertinent framework of meaning, the chaotic features and anomalies in the marketplace are visible. Visible for them to experience the burning sense of mission to sacrifice in undertaking the lifelong Work of building durable enterprises with compulsion, persistence and a sense of urgency. The sacrifices and, at times, pain, can break the heart, but doing anything else would be unimaginable. There will be no idle time to waste for every moment has a strategic importance. Sensitized students will be constantly attentive to the possibility that they may be mistaken, and they will be enlivened by a sense of responsibility towards the Work, internalizing the well-working of the Work as an object of passionate concern and personal committment. This is an ethical virtue.

And being rich or poor is irrelevant in the bitzu’istic education ecosystem without that delusive and destructive chase towards instrumental educational achievements, such as creating “input” in “grades” or “output” in “checklist-based holistic CV” or “high graduation salary”, for it is now plugged into the marketplace. This experience of the uncanny does not reveal itself to idle spectators; to “get it” is an ethical virtue. The poor can beat the rich because they can be more virtuous. Both the poor and the rich can rise through the marketplace by staying productive as diligent builders of enduring enterprises, “Bamboo Innovators” such as Check Point which remain relevant no matter how the uncertain world around us changes as they hold fast to the resilient principles in value creation.

In a rendition of Dr Goh’s view on the spirit of education as both “a search for truth” and “the way to better life”, the mother of purpose and progress in Education 2.0 is to center around the understanding of how and why resilient companies continue to create value in uncertain and difficult times – and educating students to dare greatly to become “Bamboo Innovators” at an individual level like Gil Shwed in building enduring creations can originate that “indestructible intangible” quality which they carry within themselves as an inner compass to navigate the world. After all, as former Israeli President Shimon Peres puts it, “the most careful thing is to dare”, which also articulates the pioneering definition of the Singaporean trait of kiasuism to scale new heights, just like the expression “the bamboo blossoms at ever higher nodes”.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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