The tourist who seeks out book clubs

Indian tourist Vijay Gupta at the Central Public Library.
Indian tourist Vijay Gupta at the Central Public Library. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

New Delhi lawyer Vijay Gupta is the latest tourist to pop by The Big Read Meet

However well-attended they may be, even the best book clubs are absent from any listing of a country's must-see attractions.

But Indian tourist Vijay Gupta, 63, turned up at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday evening, after writing in to this newspaper on Monday to ask if he could join in the discussion on British journalist Gillian Tett's book, The Silo Effect.

Mr Gupta, a lawyer from New Delhi, is here visiting his daughter till Jan 11. A regular at book clubs in his home city, he contributed quite a bit to the lively and involved discussion.

He said later: "It was very nice. During my two months in Ethiopia, I sought out book clubs there, but could not find any."

Among other things, Mr Gupta has been a trade policy adviser for the United Nations Development Programme in Ethiopia.

As he told readers at Wednesday's Meet, he was stymied by how resolutely the Ethiopians refused to help one another, and so thwarted the progress of his project there.

"They were under the silo effect; it was all about pride," he huffed. The silo effect refers to the oft-adverse impact on organisations from employees who do only those tasks that their immediate boss assigns them and so refuse other requests for help.

From the late 1980s, this attitude was said to be like toiling in a silo, that is, a concrete tower for storing only one type of grain at a time.

Mr Gupta is not the first tourist at the meet. At least two other tourists have popped by, beginning with sight-seeing Japanese nurse Megumi Iwasaki, who was at the inaugural meet on July 17, 2013.

She listened in on a heated discussion to empower working women, based on Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sand- berg's book Lean In.

Another tourist was young Malaysian mother Cynthia Lim, who crossed the Causeway in May 2014 to discuss A Bigger Prize by American author-entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan.

Many among the 45 readers on Wednesday debated why most people focused only on their duties even if doing so was detrimental to their company's overall progress.

Meet regular George Tan, 68, recalled how American electrical engineer W. Edwards Deming identified such a detriment as "sub-optimisation" of labour, where you did your very best work, but the work contributed little to how the company needed to grow.

Finance lecturer Lee Teck Chuan, 50, called the way that work has been organised since the Industrial Revolution "dehumanising" because while human beings were sociable by nature, division of labour actually discouraged them from helping others at work.

To top it all, he added, while bosses kept making their colleagues work in teams, in the end, they assessed every employee only on his individual performance.

Belgian economist Bart Remes, 50, pointed out that the culture of any workplace was usually so intractable that one could not reverse bad practices.

But reader Vincent Loo, 57, who is a commodities sales and relationship manager with financial software, data and media company Bloomberg, noted that even corporate culture was changing.

For example, he said, companies such as Zappos had found that if they fired the managers, the innovation and productivity of other employees shot up. That, he added, was part of a new way of working, dubbed holacracy, where every employee managed himself.

Mr Tan, a former president of high-IQ club Mensa Singapore, said afterwards: "It was one of the best, if not the best, meet so far because everyone participated more than usual and shared a lot of useful knowledge."

The next Big Read Meet is on Jan 27 at 6.30pm at the Central Public Library (100 Victoria Street). It will feature Sherry Turkle's new book, Reclaiming Conversation, which you can get from Books Kinokuniya at $33.12 a copy with GST. Sign up for the meet at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary and follow the steps there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2016, with the headline 'Tourist who seeks out book clubs'. Print Edition | Subscribe