Thursday, July 24, 2008

Asking stupid questions

Recently I received an email advertisement to join a training workshop on How to Ask Stupid Questions. I dare not comment on such training programmes because I don’t know anything about them. But I do know that some friends at the National Library Board adopt this motto/practice and they seem to be doing fine.

But I know one gentleman who doesn’t need to attend such a workshop. He is the famous Philip Yeo, former chairman of EDB and present Chairman of Spring Singapore.

It was reported in the papers today that, he once asked a potential scholar: “Have you been to a bar? A red light district?" To both questions, the answer from the young man was: “No.”

“This guy spends all his time at the library!” commented Mr Yeo. I am guessing that he would be blunt enough to make that comment in the face of the hapless young man; and no doubt, to the laugher of his fellow interviewers.

This report really disturbs me. I fear that other CEO’s of government departments will emulate the famous ‘civil service mandarin’ in asking interviewees such ‘out of the box’ questions. I hate to picture our decent young men being ‘sexually harassed’ by interviewers like Mr Yeo. Therefore I would like to offer a bit of advice to all the young people reading this blog. If you ever encounter this type of stupid questions from an interviewer, please remain calm and stand up to the bully.

In reply to the first question, say; “With all due respect sir, I don’t think that’s any of your business. (Even in Singapore, you do have some human rights you know) But if you really must know; no, I have never been to a bar or a red light district.”

To his funny comment; ask; “Sir, you mean you like to frequent such places?” Then shake your head is disbelief.

Young men. Stand up to your beliefs and convictions; especially if they are based on your Christian faith. Never let any top civil servant tell you that you need to sin to succeed in the secular world. Never let any senior army officer tell you that if you don’t drink, you cannot be an officer. And never let any so call ‘business honcho’ tell you that if you don’t ‘yan chew’ (smoke and drink), i.e. ‘entertain’, you cannot do business in China.

It’s really sad to see this state of affairs in Singapore. There was a time when people in high places would tell young people; “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”

Nowadays, it seems ‘godfathers’ find it more appropriate to say, “Let him that does not like to sin be the first to be stoned.”


peter said...

I didnt know such questions can be asked at interviews, even in the government sector. Times must have changed!

BTW what sort of questions should be directed at female scholars to test them if they think out of the box?

Victor said...

Peter Yeo's leadership style comes across as very unconventional and direct. I mean which leader would engage a blogger about a controversial subject on a personal level or ask our scholars to go and wash test tubes?

To the other Peter - I guess your namesake will ask the female scholars when did they... (I think I better not continue as it might be considered as sexual harassment.)

Zen said...

I remember a very famous political figure in Singapore said that if you ask a stupid question you deserve to get a stupid answer. So a stupid answer can be like this: "Sir, I had gone once into a bar by mistake, thinking that it was a restaurant. As for a red light district, I had passed through it many times". It is not surprising to find a brilliant guy in high position sometimes has no common sense, and lack a sense of propriety. His subordinates in the interviewing panel may laugh and condescend with him, but inside them, there could be a cry of: "what a crude and an unpolished fellow!"

sgporc said...

I haven't read the article and don't know the details of that encounter. But I must say that Philip Yeo definitely is no where near your typical civil service mandarin... He is exceptionally direct, many times bordering on rude... But I believe his intentions are good. Civil servant are known to be staid and he is precisely trying to break that mould. I don't think he's really interested in whether one has been to a bar or brothel, but more how one reacts to the question. He'll probably be more impressed with how earlier commenters said they will answer him, or even more forceful answers, rather than a simple "no"... He doesn't like yes-men who simply agree with their superiors without thinking...

Icemoon said...

I have not read the papers.

But I guess I differ from the majority here 'cos I don't really see him asking stupid questions.

Because Philip Yeo wants hungry leaders, the questions posed to the potential scholar makes sense. Note Yeo does not only want brilliant scholars (he was AStar chief), he wants leaders. Scholars, in general, are not leaders.

The young man probably forgot what was taught in his primary school days about handling oral exams. A "no" in response to the examiner's question would be a borderline pass at best.

How about my imaginary reply:

"Sir, which bars are you referring to? My usual watering holes are Eskimo Bar and Equinox. I've even been to gay pubs at Tanjong Pagar. When I was in the States for my internship, I frequented the Coyote Ugly bars. Oh, by the way, I don't drink 'cos my religion forbids me and I drive. I visit the watering holes 'cos my subordinates jio me and I usually foot the bill because I'm their nominal boss.

I passed by the red light district 'cos I love the hawker food at Geylang! Sir, have you tried the durians there?"

Icemoon said...

I think the real stupid questions are posed in parliament -
Why are there prostitutes in Duxton area?

DINNER in the Duxton Road area turned out to be an eye-opener for MP Christopher de Souza.

He told Parliament he was surprised to see prostitutes lining the streets.

As this was not a red-light district, he felt something had to be done to protect our heartlands from an invasion of street-walkers.

The kopitiam uncles, the taxi drivers etc. must be wondering why the politicans are so detached from life in Singapore.

Victor said...

And they say that there's no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers and stupid people.

Lam Chun See said...

Victor. I think you got the gentleman's name wrong. He's Philip; not Peter.

I think we have clarify the meaning of the word 'question'. MP De Souza'a question in parliament is like a GP question, for discussion. NLB's stupid questions are deliberately 'stupid' to stimulate creating thinking.

Of course my article is about interview questions where the asker is in a position of authority and superiority and the interviewee is in submissive and nervous state.

My real concern is for young Christians. I don't want any young Christian to have his faith shaken by people like Philip Yeo. I want the young Christian; such as my son who is considering applying for some government scholarship, to have the courage to tell Philip Yeo; "My faith is more important than your twisted stereotype of what constitutes leadership."

Victor said...

Oops sorry. :p

(That just goes to show that I don't care 2 hoots about his name or the person, however famous he may be.)

Zen said...

Sometimes authority, fame and wealth can stroke a person's ego skywards, making him losing his original self and has a feeling of invincibility. Under the broad label of creativity, he chooses to use provocative remarks freely 'downwards', but would he dare to do likewise to those on top of
him ?

Icemoon said...

Zen, I think the focus should be on the interviewee. If Yeo is looking for leaders, then those who sits for his interview in a submissive and nervous state most probably wouldn't cut it.

I understand Chun See's concern. If anybody is going to sit for Yeo's interview, he better be prepared to think on his feet.

As a leader, it is important to know how to manage people below and above you. Right?

Zen said...

I can understand that an interviewer should ask searching questions, finding out the innate potentials of the interviewee, but the words used should be proper and relevant, not something that can sink the confidence of the young man sitting opposite him. How does he (the interviewer) feel when his own son goes for a job interview and receive the same type of treatment that he gives others. For a seasoned interviewer, there many correct ways to find out whether the interviewee has leadership quality or not.

sgporc said...

"but would he dare to do likewise to those on top of
him ?"

haha... don't you remember the row that erupted when he once "asked" an MP to resign... this guy is exceptionally direct... his logic is often good-intentioned... but his delivery... no comments...

Icemoon said...

Zen, the working world is a brutal world. If a young man's confidence can be sunk by those stupid questions, then maybe he isn't ready to be a leader.

Also as AStar chief, Yeo has grown bored looking at whatever fantastic academic results or leadership positions on the resume. Oh, prefectorial head. Big deal?

I wonder about his conversation topic when lunching with his scholars in the States. Hope they're not discussing coyote ugly bars. Haha.

Lam Chun See said...

Icemoon. I think you may have missed my point. Or perhaps the discussion has veered into another area; namely, PY's style and so on.

My main point has to do with values. I am sure there are many parents who teach their sons that places like bars and brothels are 'bad' places and they should stay away from them. Of course there are other parents who would disagree. I am sure Peter is one of them. And yet there are others like blogger East Coast Life who would employ rather controversial tactics like actually bringing her teenage son to a red light area just to make the same point - you should visit her blog and read for yourself.

Now my question is this. Why should a young man who doesn't go to such places be bashed, rediculed, laughed at by somebody who is powerful and influential? If you have worked in a government agency before you can easily picture the scene in that interview room. When the chairman makes a wise crack like "this guys spends all his time in the library', all his lieutenants will burst out laughing. In fact, you don't even need to go to the boardroom to witness such a phenomenon. You can sometimes see it in restaurants.

If his school buddies or army friends laugh at him in a coffee shop, I can understand. But the chairman of statutory board, in an interview room? No. I think it is wrong. He owes the young man and his parents an apology.

My second point is that to use a yard stick like whether a person goes to naughty places or not to gauge leadership qualities is rather simplistic. I am sure among our top leaders, there are at least a few that never visited a bar or red light area in their youth. But this point is not important. Who am I to question a successful man like Philip Yeo about leadership. If I were still working in Spring, he would be my boss' boss' boss.

Icemoon said...

I agree with Chun See on his point about values. A leader who doesn't respect other people's values is not exemplary.

I hope Yeo is not expecting his candidate to reply yes ("been there done that") to both questions.

But then I'm not sure whether one should stand up to the bully like a suggested reply - ".. twisted stereotype of what constitutes leadership."

Imagine the whole room goes into dead silence. The young man will probably piss in his pants man!

peter said...

I think the issue is not about "leadership qualities" or trying to uncover "hidden talents", if the case maybe. I have seen similar bashful techniques used in Top US 500 MNCs (I shall not mention the name of this company which is based in Singapore). It reflects the corporate culture and ultimately the company leadership at the top, in the middle and at the bottom.

Have you ever sat in any interview where the HR Manager asks you "Are u cocksure that you.......?" (because you need that job). OR

Sat in the CEO's senior management meeting during conference-call and expletives like "FXXKing idiot ..." is as common as Good Morning"? I gather this kind of practice is to belittle managers in the presence of other senior people. It could be one way of telling someone "who's the boss". BTW this senior person hangs Christian posters like "According to John X.XX" in his office, tells his staff everyday he will bring his family for Sunday Church and greets his Christian staff "God Bless Brother".

fr said...

If you don't know there are prostitutes at Duxton area, I don't think it shows you are detached from real life in S'pore. I think many people don't know. There are many things which we don't know, even things which are assumed to be common knowledge.

Visiting a bar or a red-light area doesn't mean you are immoral or up to no good. On the other hand, someone who doesn't may not be the goody type.

A question may seem stupid to others but if you interpret it from the questioner's point of view, there are reasons for him to ask it.

thiram said...

I agree with fr.

I don't see the observation that PY & his lieutenants laughing as a form of ridicule, although it is tempting to construe it as that. Even if the answer to both questions were to be no, there isn't any reason to feel bad about it, right? Unless of course, one TAKES IT as a form of ridicule. So what, really, when people laugh?

PY is known to select his scholars based on how 'out-of-the-box' and confident they can be. Like it or not, the questions at work that are thrown at the candidate will be even more difficult to answer. And if one cannot answer and defend his/her person & position, whether Christian/Jewish/Hindu, it shows a weak constitution, which I'm pretty sure is not a desirable trait in a future leader.

Oh, and I've been in a bar, but not a brothel. Walked past a few before, on my way to beef hor fun in Geylang.

fighting fit said...

Chun See,
Some leaders see things in black and white only--no shades of grey for them. Maybe PY is one such person. I am not saying that is wrong; it's just a personal style. IMO, it is short-sighted to be so--or to be so only in appearance.

And yes, I agree with you about young men and women having to courage to stand up for their beliefs--esp. when something runs counter to their conscience or religion. Or when it is against the law or ethics. But I also hope the young ones learn the art of diplomacy--saying no without having to say yes. Some situation demands that. If facing PY, perhaps the plain-talk "Sorry sir, but my personal beliefs and practices have made it either unnecessary or incorrect to visit either places, unless of course, you mean going to Geylang for some of the excellent food." Who knows, PY might just think "I LIKE this dude. He's got chutzpah!"