Look to pioneers to prepare for the future

Their grit and quest for excellence helped them overcome the odds and not only survive but also thrive

Over at the Education Ministry, the experts are cracking their heads over how to prepare kids for a VUCA future - that's volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, for those not yet familiar with the term.

And that future is likely to see a great disruption in jobs, with computers and robots set to replace humans in many mid-level, skilled roles that used to provide people with a good living.

However, the disruption, while destroying jobs, will also create new ones. The problem is that the new jobs are difficult to prepare for, since many of them do not yet exist.

In his speech rounding up the Budget debate last month, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said: "No one knows for sure what jobs are going to be around in 20 or 30 years. And that is why we also have to focus on developing obsolescence-proof skills."

Defining such skills as those "that will apply regardless of the job", he said: "We know roughly what they are but we have to keep sensing the skills that are in need in the future economy. Being inquisitive, thinking in original ways, being in the habit of continuous learning. And importantly, the ability to interact with and respect others."

He said those were the skills the Education Ministry would focus on, from the early years and all the way through the school system.

But I wonder if we as a society may also want to distil lessons from the experiences of an earlier generation of Singaporeans who lived through the VUCA years of the Japanese Occupation and the first decades of independence.

They were "Singapore's greatest generation", former Straits Times features editor Sonny Yap wrote, when he dedicated his book on the PAP, Men In White, to them.

In his dedication, he wrote: "To Singapore's greatest generation, who grew up in untold hardship and privation, suffered under British colonialism and Japanese Occupation, experienced social and political upheaval, and yet picked up the pieces to rebuild their lives, get married and raise families while laying the foundation for the peace and prosperity of a new nation."

Many of you will no doubt have your own tales to tell of the pioneers in your lives, and their unique traits.

In this column, though, I would like to focus on two qualities that typify many members of the pioneer generation, and which remain relevant today.

The first is grit, the second is an internal measure of excellence for the work they do.

Let me start with grit.

A couple of months ago, a young journalist in her 20s returned from an interview with a Samsui woman, shocked that the 87-year-old had nothing to say when asked about her favourite songs, movies and leisure pursuits.

She did, however, have quite a lot to say about her work putting up staircases in buildings around the island, and her competitive streak shone through when she revealed that she worked faster than some of her colleagues and was paid more.

This woman reminded me of my late paternal grandmother, a grand old Teochew Peranakan bibik who died last October at the age of 101, having raised five children more or less on her own, working as a cook to support them.

She was the kind of woman who, when on holiday overseas in her 80s, would offer to help darn other people's clothes as a way to keep herself occupied.

I can understand the disconnect between people of her generation and the young of today. We live in a culture saturated with entertainment options, around which our social lives revolve. It is also a culture replete with sources of instant gratification - with a fast-food joint, coffee or ice cream bar around almost every corner.

When it comes to work, we also enjoy choices. Jobs are plentiful and there is even an option to not work, because families can afford it.

My grandmother and her peers did not enjoy such abundance. For many of them, their options were limited. They took whatever jobs came their way, ate whatever food they could afford.

Take, as an example, Mr Danny Ong. By the time he was 16 in 1947, he had lost his father, survived a war and worked three different jobs.

He dug tunnels for the Japanese, overhauled British torpedoes, repaired bicycles and made tyres to help support his widowed mother and 10 siblings. "Those days, if you have a job, you won't let it go. You worked triple hard just to please the boss," he said in an interview with The Sunday Times.

Pioneers like him denied themselves short-term ease and pleasure for the sake of long-term goals, namely, supporting their families and giving their children the opportunities to do better for themselves.

That became a way of life for them, a life focused on work, saving for the future and breaking out of poverty.

The thing is that recent groundbreaking research by psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has found that such focus on long-term goals is today a better predictor of success than IQ or family income, in fields as diverse as school performance, military training and even careers in sales.

Dr Duckworth calls this quality grit - the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards very long- term goals. If you go online, you will find numerous articles and videos on her research and findings.

So if grit can help us thrive in a VUCA future, enabling us to persevere in the face of volatility and complexity, then maybe we should look to our pioneers for inspiration. Maybe they can teach us how to stay focused and to carry on in the face of what may look like daunting odds.

Besides grit, another quality worth celebrating is the pioneers' standards of excellence.

I tasted this in my grandmother's cooking, which I struggle to replicate. Modern appliances are of little help.

When she made traditional Chinese New Year pastries, such as kueh baulu and kueh belandah, she would first buy coconuts, extract and cook the oil, and use that to bake her kueh because the oil imparted a distinctive flavour.

That is the kind of attention to detail that makes handmade crafts stand out from those churned out by machines.

And I believe that if we hold fast to such standards of excellence in what we do, then we too can remain irreplaceable, as are my grandmother and her kueh baulu.