Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Fabulous Night Out @ Bras Basah and Bugis

At the kind invitation of Alvinology from, I was invited for a Trishaw Night Tour as part of the Night Out at Bras Basah, Bugis Precinct activity organised by the National Museum of Singapore. Part of the overall effort to inject more buzz and excitement into the Civic District, the activity showed us how much more vibrant and fascinating Singapore's cultural hotspots can be after dark.

Helmed by the DJs Jianwen and Kemin from the Radio Station 100.3 FM, the three-wheeled tour was an interesting blend of whimsical fun and wonder through the brightly lit nightscape of Singapore's cultural hub. Commencing at the Bugis Trishaw Park (between Albert Centre Hawker Centre and Fu Lu Shou Building on Queen Street), it ended at the Settler's Cafe at SMU where food, drink and friendly conversation capped off the night on a high.

Here's a photographic account of our journey. No prizes for guessing who the real stars of the night were. :)

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Our nocturnal adventures began at the Trishaw Park area in between Fu Lu Shou Complex and Albert Court. Here's DJs Jianwen and Kemin urging everybody to cheer out loud.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
"Ready? Lights, cameras, and everybody say cheeeesee..."

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
And away we go..."Gentlemen, start your 'human' engines!"

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Along the way, we spotted these famous 'pasar malam' or night market stalls at Singapore's famous (once infamous) Bugis Village.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Here's our domestic tourists making a dash in their trishaws through Queen Street, with spanking new shopping centre Illuma on the left. Notice the whipping out of cameras to capture the action.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Friendly banter and chats betwee trishaw riders and passengers alike help to make the time pass by breezily. It was interesting to note how amusingly animated our three-wheeled "captains" were, despite the sweltering while peddling away in the tropical heat and humidity.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Careening down Middle Road with decades old architecture on the right and another dazzling new contemporary edifice called Wilkie Edge.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Along the way, real tourists - the non Singaporean kind - had a small chat with my wife Tina on what we are doing out in the middle of the road on three-wheeled human powered vehicles. I think she did a convincing job telling them how fun it was!

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Our curious carriages trundled on to the colourful and charismatic "Little India" area along Serangoon Road and Campbell Lane, where we saw these interesting shops offering garlands of yellow flowers for sale.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
It isn't just 7-Eleven which is "always close but never closed". These little green grocers were open at night and bursting with fresh vegetables like brinjals, long beans and carrots.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
We also passed by a serene group of monks and nuns who were walking through the night - a picture of calm in a cacophonous sea of nocturnal bustle.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
I wondered if they were having dinner in one of the many fine vegetarian restaurants in the region, like this one here.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
We also passed by what's probably the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple located along in the middle of Serangoon Road. Talk about a spiritual experience!

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Turning off from Serangoon Road to Rowell Road, we saw a few interesting sights. They include representatives of our foreign workforce, some "ladies" of the night, as well as a karaoke pub located alongside the POST Museum - an oasis of artistic incubation.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
On the way to Bras Basah Road, we swung by the Sungei Road area (on the left) which is one of Singapore's oldest "outdoor" market where vendors proffer cheap second hand goods for sale during the day.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
A shot of one of the stall keepers hidden behind his wares. He is either keeping his merchandise or preparing them for the next day.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Back along North Bridge Road, with the regal old Raffles Hotel on the left and towering skyscrapers including Raffles City in the foreground.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Our trusty trishaw riders - who were the real stars of the ride - dropped us off at Waterloo Street outside the entrance to the new Bras Basah circle line. There, our DJs took over the show yet again and helped organise the crowd.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
As we crossed busy Bras Basah Road, I couldn't help taking this shot of Singapore Art Museum at night.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
We next descended into the "underground city" at the Singapore Management University and had some supper and games at Settler's Cafe.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
A wide assortment of more than 200 board games in all shapes and sizes were available for rent or sales here.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Even the menu looked like it came from one of the most famous board games in the world - Monopoly!

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Some of the event's guests accepting interviews from the roving reporters from as well as the radio station 100.3 FM.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
At our table, my wife Tina showed that she was quite adept at the game called Ugly Doll, where you had to turn over cards and grab them once three of the same patterned "dolls" emerged.

Night Out at Bras Basah and Bugis
Our wonderful night out ended with DJ Jianwen going through a lucky draw where winners could win tickets to the splendid Egyptian mummies show Quest for Immortality at the National Museum of Singapore as well as free vouchers to Settler's Cafe.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Que Sera Sera?

Courtesy of College Recruiter

On careers, dreams and aspirations, I think that one's route in life is predicated on a mix of seredipity, sweat and strategy.

Serendipity because much of it is rather accidental and unpredictable. Nicholas Nassim Taleb argues this point very well in "Black Swan" when he wrote about how the unknown unknowns may actually exert a greater influence on everything (including life) than the researched and tested. What comes your way eventually may sometimes be an outcome of luck, chance and opportunity, rather than intelligent design or choice.

Sweat of course is the other predictor of fulfillment, actualisation and success. While one can hope to strike TOTO or try one's luck at "chance oriented" enterprises (like property speculation, shares, funds, and the IR), the truth is that most people who are where they are now just work extremely hard. Having seen how most of you guys go at whatever you are pursuing in life - 24 by 7 - I am confident that we probably don't lack this element here in the modern and hectic world!

Strategy, the final "S", is probably what my previous leadership coach (NHB engaged coaches for senior management about 4 years ago) would have said. I still remembered him asking me what my final career destination would be. I told him that I would like to be a consultant, trainer and a coach - somewhat like him. He then said that I should thus look at how I can embellish my learning and career journey to fit that path, something which I am constantly doing.

In a nutshell, its a concoction between what life throws at you, how you take it by the horns, and how you steer it with your eyes still firmly on the end goal. The journey may take surprising twists and turns - sometimes you end up in the most unexpected places - but so long as you are in the driving seat, you can be sure that the outcome will be sweet.

As a pragmatist who dreams (an oxymoron?), I believe that what one makes of one's life at work or at play should be more a function of influencing one's surroundings and peers as opposed to being influenced. We can all wait for the perfect job, perfect boss, perfect organisation and perfect colleagues. Or we can make that happen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Free Ideas to Boost Productivity?

Courtesy of Learning By Doing

To heed the country's latest call to increase productivity, help entrepreneurs and managers everywhere, and satisfy my own need for intellectual stimulation, I wonder if its useful to start an online forum to discuss ideas to increase productivity.

This could be a way for all of us to contribute our share of ideas, innovations, and suggestions towards the national cause. Such a forum could also be used to clarify misconceptions on productivity (for example that we should all work 18 hours a day), or to build upon each other's plans in a (hopefully) constructive manner.

We can approach this from various perspectives - as entrepreneurs, managers, workers, shareholders, consultants or customers. Over time, it could form an avenue for the vigorous and robust discussion and debate on the productivity question in an objective and professional manner.

To kick off this idea, let me start by proposing two ideas of my own on how productivity can be boosted in the office:

1) Reduce the number of meetings that you have to attend a day to those that are absolutely critical. If you do have to attend one, ensure that you contribute to the discussion rather than fall asleep during the lengthy discourses!

2) Follow up rigorously after discussions with clients, work associates, or suppliers, with a short email on the key succinct points of the meeting and next steps immediately (or as soon as possible) after the meeting. If possible, nail down deadlines and timelines as precisely as possible, as well as specific accountabilities.

What do you guys think of this idea?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why You Should Listen First

Courtesy of papershine the art of learning

The fine art of listening seems to be one that is fast becoming lost. It is ironical that in an information overloaded world, people actually has a lower propensity to absorb feedback and act on them.

I suppose that this could be an impact of the numerous digital distractions that plague one. With so much available at the tap of a screen and click of a mouse, who really needs to pay attention to the person in front of you anymore?

Unfortunately, purely relying on digital sources of information just isn't enough in effective management or the formulation of good policies. You need to have your antennae in the right places, at the right time, with the right people.

To be an effective leader and manager, you need to not only put your ear on the ground, but your heart on your sleeve. Whatever you are going to put in place needs to not only get the firm nod of your board members, executives and shareholders, but also your customers and employees.

As such, where possible, try to suss out what their views are and to listen actively. This will mean talking far less and paying a lot more attention.

According to Wikipedia,

Active listening is a structured way of listening and responding to others. It focuses attention on the speaker. Suspending one’s own frame of reference and suspending judgment are important in order to fully attend to the speaker.

To be an active listener, you need to put aside distractions as much as possible and to focus on the person in front of you. You also need to try to let him or her air his views as much as possible in a freewheeling manner first. This also entails picking up not just the facts from the conversation, but more importantly, the feelings that go behind it. Body language signals are also important cues to observe.

The next time you want to enact a new policy, strategy or edict that will result in a "quantum leap in performance", do consider spending a couple of hours just listening to what people say. By doing so, you can gain the buy-in of your stakeholders and pick up critical points that are crucial in ensuring the effective implementation of your plan.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Capitalising on Celebrations

Courtesy of eTour Singapore

Festive holidays have always brought much cheer to those in the retail and service businesses, especially seasonal ones like Christmas, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Hari Raya Puasa. Considered peak periods for those in the consumer and lifestyle industries, festive holidays are peppered with numerous promotions and special deals by shops in order to trigger purchases both impromptu and planned.

Many retail outlets are dressed to the nines during these occasions, decked in splendid eye-catching and attention-grabbing hues.

For small businesses, trying to shout louder and harder the big boys during such festive periods is probably a suicidal mission in marketing. An old mom-and-pop shop located in a sleepy HDB estate just doesn't have the funds to outblast the biggest boys in the business.

Are there ways then for small retail and service outlets to survive (and thrive) the festive blitzkrieg?

First, focus on providing personalised attention. Caring for your customers is easier for smaller outlets where the volume of foot traffic is less massive than a Carre Four or NTUC Fairprice hypermarket. For example, if you know that a particular customer has a thing for abalones, try to interest her in the latest range from Mexico or Australia. Don't hesitate to give customers a call if you came across a dress, shirt or outfit that they may find intriguing, especially if it suits their body shape just right!

Next, look at nicking that nice little niche. Offering a bewildering range of merchandise won't do when you have limited shop space. Instead, think about providing a unique value proposition that the big boys can't do as well. For example, a neighbourhood hair salon could offer a unique "Tiger Year" hair cut, while a convenience store could stock up on favourite heritage brands of food products that grandmothers and aunties favour.

One can also look at guerrilla marketing techniques to generate attention. Too many shops focus on price as their main selling point, failing to enchant and amuse their customers in the process. Do something out of the ordinary, like giving out candies to kids when they least expect it - this just happened today to my family today when a hokkien noodle seller gave my 6 year old son two chocolate candies and wished him "Happy New Year". Warming a parent's heart is a far better marketing technique than any amount of advertising.

Finally, one should look at building customer loyalty and longevity when looking at providing festive "extras". Give your most valuable customers reason to continue shopping at your place by giving them nice little holiday surprises now and then - an extra neck massage to go with a hair cut, a small packet of Indian curry spices when Deepavali is around the corner, or a few red packets just for regulars.

Seek to surprise and delight your customers with the little things that matter - ones that only a neighbourhood shop can achieve - and ride that festive wave!

Friday, February 12, 2010

3 Ways to be Good, Better and Best

Teamy the Bee at NHB's Love Me Love Me Not Exhibition (Courtesy of

Anybody who has been around long enough would have heard that old anthem for productivity helmed by the mascot "Teamy" the Bee . Perpetuated by the National Productivity Board in the 1980s (now SPRING Singapore), it goes something like this...

"Good better best,
Never let it rest,
Till your good is better,
And your better best!"

Of course, improving productivity isn't just about a catchy jingle, now about working 18 hours a day. It is finding strategies to maximise the total value added generated by one's employees while still ensuring that they have enough work-life balance.

While mechanisation and automation have been frequently cited as ways to strengthen efficiency in the manufacturing sector, how can one improve output in the service sector? After all, tourism and lifestyle businesses like hotels, restaurants, and retail outlets depend very much on the high-touch element to engender customer delight and repeat business. Will making everything self-service necessitate an improvement in one's bottomline?

Well, here are three ideas that you can consider:

1) Increase the value of each transaction. When customers at a retail shop enquire about a particular product, don't hesitate to provide your fullest support and following that, to recommend additional products that she or he can consider. One of the chief reasons for the phenomenal success of the Hong Kong retail industry is the understanding amongst retail sales assistants there that one should upsell wherever possible. Of course, this should all be done politely and not in a way that harasses customers.

2) Encourage staff to multi-task and reward them accordingly. While Seng Song Supermarket may not quite be the paragon of prestige, they do have some of the most hardworking staff I have seen in the supermarket business. At any one time, staff will be moving around, packing, filling in shelves and ensuring quick turnaround of their inventories. From what I understand, workers there are handsomely compensated by their boss.

3) Invest in designs that maximises customer productivity. Other than conveyor belt sushi joints like Sakae Sushi and buffet lines, service outlets should ensure that directional signages are placed in the correct manner. Carparks at shopping complexes could have clear indications of where that lift or escalator to the retail floors are located, while attractions should have common amenities at locations that are intuitive (as opposed to infuriating).

What are other ways can retail and service businesses improve their productivity?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Understanding What Productivity Means

Courtesy of The Right Time Is Now

Productivity, the old panacea of economic goodwill, is making a comeback yet again. Several of our leaders have cited its importance, and the latest budget to be unveiled on 22 Feb will announce measures to boost productivity. I am certainly excited about this outcome as it may be the only way forward in a natural resource constrained economy like ours.

In order to understand what productivity is about, let us look at its basic ingredients, which is Value Added. According to Wikipedia,

...the difference between cost of materials and labor to produce a product, and the sale price of a product is the value added. In national accounts used in macroeconomics, it refers to the contribution of the factors of production, i.e., land, labor, and capital goods, to raising the value of a product and corresponds to the incomes received by the owners of these factors... (emphasis mine)

In very simple terms measured in dollars,

Productivity = Total Output/Total Inputs (land,labour,capital, etc)

The computation of Value Added can be done in two ways, the addition method and the subtraction method.

In the addition method, total value added in any organisation is calculated as follows:

Value Added = Net Profits + Wages (including CPF, training costs) + Taxes + Depreciation + Interest

In the subtraction method, value added is derived as follows:

Value Added = Sales Turnover - Cost of Goods Sold - Operating Expenses (non manpower) - All Third Party Costs

To find out how productive your organisation is, you should divide the total value added over the resources employed. The most commonly used measure is labour productivity or Value Added Per Worker, ie

Labour Productivity = Value Added/No of Workers

The next category of productivity would be capital productivity, which is a measure of how efficiently your capital assets (land, building, factory, machinery) are deployed.

Capital Productivity = Value Added/Total Capital Costs

For those operating in the retail or service sectors where rentals are a premium in land-scarce Singapore, space productivity could be another measure. This could be calculated as follows:

Space Productivity = Value Added/Gross Floor Area (ie value added per unit area)

Naturally, there is a lot of flexibility in how precisely you want to measure your firm's output relative to its inputs. For example, some may argue that measuring labour productivity in a highly automated and capital-intensive business like wafer manufacturing may not be accurate as the bulk of investments are in machinery. The application of these measures should thus be adapted depending on one's business.

Having understood how productivity is derived, one should then look at ways to increase one's total output relative to one's inputs. Gunning for sales growth alone isn't enough if that increase comes at the expense of disproportionately higher third party costs (like rentals or utilities).

Similarly, cutting wages isn't the solution - in fact, the whole idea behind the productivity movement is to improve the quality of life for workers and not reduce them. As such, worker salaries and benefits (training, skills upgrading) are considered outputs rather than costs.

In my next post, I will attempt to tackle some of the possibilities in raising productivity as well as the issues involved in them.

Update: Check out this easily digestible book by my friend Chun See on how employee ideas can yield better productivity. He was one of the pioneers of the productivity movement during its heydays and should know a thing or two about it.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Art of the (internal) Start-up

Courtesy of A Fresh Start (up)

As some of you may know, I am in the midst of switching portfolios in my organisation and heading to the National Art Gallery, Singapore to lead the corporate services function. Unlike my previous role at the National Heritage Board, this one covers a broader spectrum of responsibilities - from HR, Finance, Admin, Strategic Planning, Policy, Marketing & Communications, to IT. You can say that it stretches from conceptualisation, development, funding, and staffing to communication, reporting and implementation.

Due to the start-up nature of the institution (which just celebrated its first birthday), many things need to be put in place. It has certainly been an exhilarating couple of weeks thus far, and I look forward to more excitement ahead.

With the switch in focus of my day job, the contents of this blog would also take on a more expansive feel. While my principal chatter still remains largely focused on marketing, branding, PR and social media, there would be occasional forays into the wider dimensions of business like finance, strategy, and people management.

Perhaps the first area I would like to explore is that of Intrapreneurialism.

Ummm... what is that tongue twisting word all about? Well, according to Wikipedia:

..."A person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation". Intrapreneurship is now known as the practice of a corporate management style that integrates risk-taking and innovation approaches, as well as the reward and motivational techniques, that are more traditionally thought of as being the province of entrepreneurship...

To do so, several factors may be necessary:

First, executive and senior management sponsorship is critical. You need to ensure that top management buys in to any new scheme or idea so that experimentation occurs in an environment that is supportive and encouraging.

Second, one needs to seed new initiatives while limiting the risks that big hairy audacious projects may fail miserably. Intrepreneurship doesn't mean betting the house (factory or museum) in return for a potentially disproportionate gain. However, it does mean making small gambles now and then when perfect information isn't forthcoming.

Third, an organisation needs to have the right culture which encourages empowerment, independent thinking and accountability. Some degree of flexibility is needed in any ideation exercise, and traditional hierarchies need to be subverted to some extent. While a certain degree of control is still needed to mitigate failures, employees should be nudged to venture into new territories subject to budgetary limits.

Fourth is the ability to focus on the outcomes of the business as opposed to the processes or inputs. In other words, what is the raison detre of your firm or organisation as opposed to its traditional functions. For example, one could say that a hospital's role isn't just taking care of critically ill patients per se but also promoting long-term health and well-being.

Fifth is the encouragement of teamwork and cross-functional efforts in spearheading new initiatives. By promoting heterogeneous groups, diverse views and perspectives are sought. This cross-fertilisation of ideas and experiences could be useful in generating something more radical and game changing. However, special care must be taken to ensure that participants can contribute equitably.

Finally, the creation of an intrapreneurial culture can only be done by celebrating successes without despising failures. Inadvertently, there will be some projects that will fare better than others and this is a given. As the saying goes, "failure is the mother of success", and one cannot expect to have one's cake and eat it all the time.

To learn more about intrapreneurship, check out this excellent paper written about it.