Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Special Column: I will always be 'Made in Singapore'

I was invited to write this special column in the Straits Times for National Day in Singapore.

I HAVE been living in California for the past 10 years. Years of living away from Singapore has given me a much deeper appreciation of my own heritage.

Like every good Singaporean boy, I was Made in Singapore (just check the label on my back, I often quipped).

I grew up watching SBC and, like every kid in my class, knew what the letters stood for in Hokkien (something about a lack of fragrance in the air). I went to school and college in Singapore (Catholic High School, Hwa Chong JC, and Nanyang Technological University). I spoke fluent Singlish.

And when I grew up, I had a nice Singaporean job, married a nice Singaporean girl, settled in a nicely expensive government apartment, and moved ourselves from point A to point B in a small overpriced car. And everybody lived happily ever after.

Except I didn't entirely live happily ever after.

See, I wasn't entirely a good Singaporean boy. I was a bit of an iconoclast (still am, but don't tell my daughter).

I appreciated humour in a way slightly different from that of people in authority. When I was a kid, I would often make a funny remark in response to something a teacher said, except that unlike the kids, the teacher seldom found it very funny. ('Are you trying to be funny, boy?' 'Yes, Sir.')

I delighted in creativity and idealism, and I often felt tied down. I didn't fit entirely into this society, and I didn't feel I had the right opportunities to fulfil my full potential.

I made the final decision to go abroad on the morning of Jan 3, 1997, right after the General Election.

I figured it was time I lived and studied outside of Singapore for a few years to expand my intellectual and experiential horizons, before I became too old and collected too much inertia.

So I began the painful process of applying to graduate school and, in August 1998, found myself on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, attending graduate school in the Club Med-like campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where the weather is perfect, and my engineering lab was right across the street from the beach.

One thing led to another and, soon, I was beginning what would become a very successful career in this small Silicon Valley company with a funny name, Google. (That company didn't stay small for very long, by the way.) Sometimes, I think my life is very funny.

Many things about Americans fascinated me, especially when seen close-up.

I was struck most by their entrepreneurial energy and optimism. I kept running into serial entrepreneurs here. Two recent ones I've met are an audio/visual guy starting a solar business, and a bus driver starting an information business. I see entrepreneurial people, they're everywhere, they walk among us, they don't know they're amazing.

As a society, Americans are very open to experimentation. They are willing to fail and accept the failure. They like to have fun. They have a very healthy disregard for authority.

In my opinion, these cultural strengths are major ingredients of America's success in science, technology and entrepreneurship.

To create a scientific breakthrough, for example, one often has to demonstrate that something everybody else believed in was wrong in some major way.

To bring something innovative to market, one must be willing to fail miserably. And to sustain a start-up through its initial struggles, founders and initial employees often need to have fun with each other. Americans as a society do these so well because of their cultural strengths.

These are some important things we can learn from our American friends.

I didn't have trouble adjusting to American culture. I was already creative, iconoclastic and funny, and I already drank Coke and watched Friends. I fit right in, like an old cliche involving duck and water.

Over time, however, my experience studying and working in America gave me a deepening appreciation of my own Singaporean heritage. I realised that being 'Made in Singapore' prepared me for success in many important ways.

Singaporeans are blessed with many advantages.

The most obvious is the quality and rigour of our education, especially in maths and science. Our maths syllabus for primary school, for example, is widely reputed to be the best in the world. In addition, we all studied hard as kids, because we did not want to end up cleaning longkangs (drains) when we grew up. That's why we grew up with very solid academic foundations.

I realised that many cultural values I picked up as a Singaporean also prepared me for success.

The obvious ones are thrift, diligence and the willingness to make sacrifices for the future.

In addition to all those, I grew up observing how careful my elders were with nuances involving words and subtle social gestures when interacting with each other.

It used to annoy me a little, but once I started living in a foreign land, I realised that underlying all that was a very healthy respect for inter-personal relationships, and that respect has unconsciously been passed on to me.

One reason I'm successful is my ability to build solid relationships, and my heritage provided the foundation.

Finally, being fluent in an Asian language is a boon, not just because it gave me access to Asian markets that monolingual Americans find less accessible, but also because it gave me familiarity with powerful ways of thinking, such as the philosophies of Lao Zi and Sun Zi, that are different from but complementary to Western systems of thought.

As I spend more time outside Singapore, I increasingly appreciate how much it had nurtured me in my youth.

In a way, Singapore is like Mum. No matter what you have achieved in life, a lot of it goes back to what Mum gave you and taught you. At the end of the day, wherever in the world I am, I will always be Made in Singapore.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Meng in the News: 谷歌首名新加坡雇员陈一鸣 名人访谷歌都要同他合照


谷歌首名新加坡雇员陈一鸣 名人访谷歌都要同他合照

陆彩霞 (2008-08-03)




  今天,他已成为这个网络巨擘的“亲善大使”。每位到访谷歌位于加州山景市(Mountain View)总部的名人政要都会同他合照,而这个有趣的习俗,也让他上了《纽约时报》的封面。


  “我觉得自己就像阿甘(Forrest Gump)一样,但我是聪明版的。”



  1998年,他决定暂时离开新加坡,到加州大学圣塔芭芭拉分校(University of California, Santa Barbara)修读硕士课程,没想到这一走,竟为他的事业和人生开拓了一片新天地。

在外国生活如鱼得水 在新加坡感觉到拘束











两名新加坡人 参与研制Gmail

  谷歌的许多产品,都是在这个时间内诞生,如谷歌资讯(Google News)、电邮(Gmail)和搜索引擎的英文拼写更正(spelling corrector)。陈一鸣不忘提到,研制出Gmail的三人小组中,有两人是新加坡人。


  在谷歌,管理层职衔里都有“Fellow”一字,相等于一般公司的副总裁。有一回,陈一鸣想幽此名衔一默,于是申请把自己的职衔改成“Jolly Good Fellow”。没想到,公司竟然批准他的申请,而这个职称从此就出现在他的名片上。

  在谷歌的工作生涯进入第八年,陈一鸣如今已卸下软件工程师一职,当起培训公司员工的灵魂工程师。他和《情绪智商》作者科尔曼(Daniel Goleman)合作设计一项课程,教导谷歌员工提升自己的情趣智商。



  他一脸认真道:“我的最终目标是要为人类贡献,不一定要拿诺贝尔和平奖(Nobel Peace Prize),但要做到一件值得拿到这个奖项的事。”






  对于新加坡是否能够制造像硅谷(Silicon Valley)一样群英汇集的环境,他说:“是能够尝试的,但尝试往往是最难的部分。



  谷歌的总部有一面特别的墙壁,叫做“鸣”人墙(Meng's Wall)。

  上面挂满一张张到访过谷歌的名人的照片:国际金融家索罗斯(George Soros)、西藏精神领袖达赖喇嘛、美国前副总统兼诺贝尔和平奖得主戈尔(Al Gore)、美国民主党总统候选人奥巴马。他们的身边都站了同一个人,而他就是发起这个特殊传统的陈一鸣。

  话说2003年的某一天,陈一鸣看到美国前总统卡特(Jimmy Carter)来到谷歌,兴奋地拿了相机上前要求和他拍照。这张照片和另一张同戈尔的合照,之后就贴在他办公室外的墙上。


  荣登“鸣”人榜的人,还包括美国共和党总统候选人麦凯恩、美国前总统克林顿、拳王阿里(Muhammad Ali)和好莱坞喜剧明星罗宾威廉斯(Robin Williams)。