In 2020, when I was talking to younger friends who asked me about career advice (see link for earlier thoughts), I shared an episode in my CIID experience that I have not written about thus far. The episode made me realise that there’s this thing, which I call “the Singaporean conditioning“.

The TL;DR answer is this: the Singaporean conditioning is about doing what you should do, for your material well-being, for conventional success (which is often defined in Singapore as “makes you monetarily rich”).
It is about “being disciplined”.
It is about “doing your duty”, “being responsible”, “being an adult”.
It’s about “being pragmatic”, about making choices that are “reasonable”.
It’s about making choices that Singaporean society deems “successful”, “good”, “conventional”.

So if you decide to go for a government scholarship that sends you to Oxford to study PPE, that’s “good”.
If you decide to drop that offer and instead learn to play the guitar in a bar in Orchard Towers, that’s “bad”, “dumb”, “ill-advised”.

If you get to go study economics at an Ivy League on scholarship, that’s “good”.
If you drop that to go do plumbing, nursing, or any other thing, that’s “bad”, “dumb”, “ill advised”.

You probably get the idea.

If there is a single word that summarises the Singaporean conditioning, it is “should”: you “should” choose wisely, you “should” choose a stable career, you “should” have career progression, etc.

It is a conditioning filled with societal obligations, judgement, and responsibility.

The episode that made me realise I was subject to this Singaporean conditioning happened in the final project period of CIID, when I was in the final weeks of the design process. But before I go there, a short explanation of context is required beforehand.

Friends and colleagues who have known me for a while, all know that I often obsess about my diet. This probably stemmed from my childhood when I was clinically obese (I was so fat that I literally couldn’t dive in the swimming pool: my sister still laughs at that memory). In recent years, though, the focuson diet has been because of performance: I experimented with the ketogenic diet when I was in Strategic Planning, and that helped me survive the extremely tough work period (at one point, I was double-heading two teams, with my Director and co-Head both on maternity). So when I went into CIID, I tried to keep to the ketogenic diet for the bulk of the year: it helped me survive the late Thursday nights.

In the last few months of the IDP, though, I was off the diet, as I was travelling around a lot: it’s quite hard to stay on the ketogenic diet, especially when I’m staying as a guest in people’s homes.

So one evening, when I was working on my final project till 3am at CIID (with Amit and Mitsu also working on their final projects), I was quite surprised to find myself very energised. As I headed home, I was still super energised and wide awake, even though it was 3am in the morning! And this was despite being off the ketogenic diet for a while.

I asked myself why this was the case, and realised that, this was the first time in my life that I was doing something that I actually wanted to do. It wasn’t something I “should” do, it wasn’t something that I should do for my parents, my family, my team, my boss, etc. But it was something that I really wanted to do: I chose my project subject, did the research, etc.

And that’s when I realised that I have been subject to this Singaporean conditioning all my life, frequently doing things for others, or seeded by others.

It’s not as simple as “doing what you love”: I think Paul Graham has elaborated and articulated it far better than I can in this essay, “How to do What You Love”. But it is about discovering what does not feel like work, but feels like fun and play for you. Increasingly, I am of the view that there is really only one feasible way to become so damn good that people cannot ignore you, and that is to find that activity that you can play with for hours on the end without it feeling like “work”.

This also has implications on leadership. Again, Paul Graham captured this super well in his essay on What Business can Learn from Open Source (

But most recently, I just finished reading Rutger Bregman’s book “Humankind”, and he makes the same point. In the psychology literature, this is about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, with the latter including things like monetary compensation. In chapter 13 “The Power of Intrinsic Motivation”, he has a case study on Dutch healthcare giver Buurtzog and French company FAVI, which have operated on the principles of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.

A chair, bed, in a darkened room at a retreat center.My “meditation cave” at Jhana Grove Retreat Centre.
It’s all well and fine to compel people to do stuff, and they will get things done. But the level of commitment, energy, inspiration, etc., will be a fraction of the energy, commitment, creativity that people put in, if it’s something they WANT to do. To use Silicon Valley-speak, the difference is between ‘missionaries vs mercernaries’.

And the Singaporean conditioning is really the latter.

And in a way, breaking out of the Singaporean conditioning might actually be a good argument for SkillsFuture: as a structured programme that lowers the cost for Singaporeans to explore and learn new skills, that increases the likelihood that Singaporeans might actually discover what they actually WANT to do.

Bregman ends the chapter with the powerful words “It speaks to a new movement- a new realism. Because nothing is more powerful than people who do something because they want to do it (Note: author’s emphasis).”

Majulah Singapura.

Written date 10 Aug 2020, Photo & Links added 28 Jan 2023