New Guinea Commerce

Governance, growth and next generation leadership in the Indo-Pacific

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Rhodes, student politics and a small warning for PNG

Papua New Guinea has no place for hollow belligerence

Sean Jacobs, Online Opinion, 3 June 2015

Earlier last month South African students from the University of Cape Town rallied, threw excrement and tore down a statue of the historically prodigious businessman and politician Cecil John Rhodes (1853 – 1902). Rhodes is most clearly remembered for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which has sponsored thousands of students globally – many of them African – to study at one of the finest universities in the world.

At around the same time similar public taunts emerged around South Africa against symbols of white colonialism and imperialism. These acts are clearly distressing in a number of ways but, to audiences in former colonies like PNG, they clearly express warnings of symbolic ignorance.

Among a list of vague grumblings from the students, for example, were empty suggestions for more black academics and thoughts that the university was too Eurocentric. ‘Nothing was suggested about a more African curriculum or more African modes of learning,’ observed Andrew Kenny in The Spectator. ‘Quite the opposite: there was an important silence about making any real changes at all.’

But, even among such ‘modes of learning’ and the worries of faculty complexion, this is hardly the most optimal way to look at tertiary education, especially in a poor nation trying to push forward in a globalising and highly competitive world. PNG, like many other growing economies, is undergoing seismic economic changes that require real skills and a real education. ‘If you want to know how to build bridges,’ says the economist Thomas Sowell, ‘you need to know something about maths.’ Accounting or finance, in turn, requires knowledge of numbers in the same way that medicine requires an obvious intimacy with hard science.

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Principles first, methods second

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

What I’ve found over the years, from a career bouncing across sectors and countries, is the importance of core principles. What do I mean by principles? I simply mean a set of beliefs, values and, in a good old fashioned way, actually standing up for something.

I feel that young people today have the idea that principles are only for the rigid self-righteous types or aren’t useful for an innovating, modern world. But, looking at things more closely, principles are actually essential in two areas – navigating complexity and responding to change.

After a few years of working across a number of policy areas I soon discovered the importance of teasing out my own set of instinctive beliefs. In government, in particular, I found myself bombarded with complexity – facts, figures, tables, opinions and other information was placed at my feet, which was all designed to help me arrive at the best decision on what path to take. I found that, on any complex issue, it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

But principles can help. It was said of former Prime Minister John Howard, for example, that he broadly approached new policy ideas with the following three principles: does it strengthen the family, expand the scope for private enterprise and encourage individual choice?

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Hygiene, self-respect and public appearance

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

I’ve always thought it’s strange that ‘hygiene’ rates a mention in many older self-help books.

‘I sometimes feel that almost the most valuable lesson I got at the Hampton Institute,’ reflected the former slave and American educator Booker T Washington, ‘was in the use and value of the bath.’ Thus basic hygiene, clean teeth, a good haircut, and general presentation, became core themes of Washington’s education to ex-slaves at his infamous Tuskegee Institute.

‘Hygiene’ itself certainly seems like an odd topic today. But public health, of course, is nothing like it was in the late 1800s. Polio, Tuberculosis and other diseases cut through entire populations in the then-developed world.

While diseases have abated, however, the appearance aspect of ‘hygiene’ remains incredibly important. ‘In order to get a job in today’s tight economy,’ says one writer in the Tuskegee Observer, ‘a healthy smile and a professional appearance can mean the difference between being hired and being passed over for another candidate.’

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Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

A few years ago a blunt and stunning passage by the late Australian philosopher David Stove caught my eye:

If you are recruiting potential basketball champions, you would be mad not to be more interested in American Negroes than in Vietnamese… Any rational person, recruiting an army, will be more interested in Germans than in Italians. If what you want in people is aptitude for forming stable family-ties, you will prefer Italians or Chinese to American Negroes. Pronounced mathematical ability is more likely to occur in an Indian or a Hungarian than in an Australian Aboriginal. If you are recruiting workers, and you value docility above every other trait in a worker, you should prefer Chinese to white Americans. And so on.

Stove’s words are typical of a thinker truly committed to discussing ‘the things we think but do not say.’ Critical, witty and clearly direct, not everything he wrote earned him prominence or broadened his legacy. ‘Stove,’ as American art critic Roger Kimball reflects, ‘would not have been made to feel welcome at many American colleges or universities.’

But his point didn’t ruffle me or stimulate offence – as so many are keen on doing today. It got me thinking about the idea of ‘aptitude’. Clearly, just by way of being human, we’re all born with an orientation toward some things over others. ‘Of course,’ writes the psychologist Carol Dweck, ‘each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training, and personal effort take them the rest of the way.’

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Why ‘taking on big business’ is a poor idea

Dropping tax is an effective but underappreciated revenue maker

By Sean Jacobs

‘Some regard private enterprise as if it were a predatory tiger to be shot,’ said Winston Churchill. ‘Others look upon it as a cow that they can milk. Only a handful see it for what it really is – the strong horse that pulls the whole cart.’

Thirty-one year old ALP Senator Sam Dastyari is clearly not one of the handful. A recent profile of Dastyari exposes not only an alarming ignorance of tax and economic growth but everything that is slowly becoming wrong with Australian politics, which catapults people with little knowledge of the wider world (and commerce) into positions of power and responsibility.

Dastyari is currently Chair of the federal Senate Economics Committee, and has used his position not to generate ideas on economic growth but to attack companies like BHP and Leighton while leading the so-called Coalition of Common Sense that has blocked much-needed reforms to reduce Australia’s debt.

He wants to talk about ‘tax avoidance’ in Australia as a priority issue. But this is at a time when the list of more urgent economic reforms is getting longer – unemployment and debt are becoming fused parts of the Australian landscape, regulation and compliance is increasing, productivity is dropping and China’s internal attributes, upon which Australia heavily relies, aren’t showing the same enchanting metrics of dynamism. This is on top of an older Australian population that is increasingly evacuating the workforce.

I feel that Australians, especially future Australians, need to reacquaint with the pivotal role that business plays not just in a free market economy but a free society. Australian companies, both small and large, already pay tax. They also provide capital and jobs, while adding to innovation, lowering costs, enhancing productivity and stimulating economic growth. The government does not do this – business does. And the penalty of higher taxes simply makes these great outcomes harder.

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Becoming decent at writing

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

In 2006 a university lecturer told us that if there was anything to ‘get’ out of a university degree it was to become a decent writer. Doing so, he added, would make our professional lives much easier.

Almost a decade into my career I’ve seen his point validated more times than I can recall. From writing policy briefs for Australian Prime Ministers to slide presentations for Fijian swimming coaches, I’ve seen that reaching a decent standard of writing is a key skill in many professional (and even personal) arenas.

Getting there, however, is tough. At least I found it so. Submitting assignments and other written pieces over the years I always believed I had delivered world-shifting prose matched with unique insight. My tutors, I thought, simply didn’t know what good writing was. Like the fool driving down the wrong side of the road, and thinking everyone else was crazy, this process was an example of ignorance at its finest.

Taking feedback about your writing is hard because, quite simply, it means putting your ego in the back-pocket. And it means a sobering reflection on current capacities. But it’s here when you can start to get better. ‘Once I realized how little I knew about writing,’ says the prolific writer and economist Thomas Sowell, ‘I could start to learn.’

Despite being a hard path to follow I’ve strangely found that, perhaps more than any other skill, writing is incredibly easy to work on – you don’t need a swimming pool, a running park or a gym. From sitting on a bus to lying in bed writing can be worked on at any time. Here are a couple of simple things that have helped me so far.

First, I’ve found examples of decent writing and cherished them. We all have passages, writers and turns of phrase that tug a chord with us. I say ‘cherish them’ because, without recording them, you will inevitably forget. I tab up each book or article I read with mini post-it notes (or the highlighter on kindle), then take notes and save them on my computer.

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Resilience: why you need it and how to get it

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

In 1984 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in the fight of her political life. In 1979 she inherited a Britain divided not only by crime and terrorism but with the twin challenges of astronomically high inflation and unemployment. This meant that, each day, people’s money was becoming increasingly worthless and there were no jobs for millions of Britons.

Pinnacle to her challenges, however, was a coal industry that was unproductive, costing huge amounts of taxpayer money and acting as a drag on the British economy. Each time Thatcher proposed putting more people into work, or shutting down an unproductive mine, she encountered furious union opposition and ‘outrageous displays of union muscle.’ In 1984 she wanted to shut twenty (and eventually seventy) mines but came across the same expectations of union friction – picket lines, disruptions to businesses, mass strikes and police clashes.

A stalemate ensued but eventually the unions – used to having their way and bringing down previous governments – voted to return to work. Thatcher, as many say, eventually won ‘the war of attrition’ and turned around the British economy by her free-market reforms, tax cuts, privatisations and reigning in government spending. She is a pivotal figure in world history not just for these reforms but for helping to defeat the Soviet Union – hardly a small feat – and crushing Argentina’s military aggression in the Falkland Islands.

Her performance during the 1984 miners’ strike is an instructive lesson in adversity but not in the way you might think. Thatcher clearly needed huge amounts of personal resilience to deliver the reforms she believed in. However, central to her strategy in the 1980s was to build up coal reserves in advance. This meant that the unions could strike for as long as they wished but they could not hold Britain hostage.

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Testament to power: remembering Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew

Power is what gets things going

Sean Jacobs, Menzies House, 14 April 2015

‘We start with self-reliance,’ said the late Lee Kuan Yew in a 1994 interview. ‘In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.’

On 22 March 2015 Lee passed away at age ninety-one. The end of his remarkable life offers a sobering reflection on what it takes to actually build an economic pie and not just cut it up – a practice many of today’s democratic practitioners appear exceptional at.

Singapore now thrives alongside the Silicon Valleys and Tel Avivs of the world. Back in the 1960s, however, Malaysia effectively dusted its hands of the small nation by forcing it to break away.

A future of poverty and desperation appeared likely until Lee, warding off communist subversion and the revolving emergence of security threats, turned Singapore’s slim fortunes around. ‘He did not just pilot Singapore to prosperity,’ added Margaret Thatcher, ‘he became the most trenchant, convincing and courageous opponent of left-wing Third World nonsense in the Commonwealth.’

In his revealing memoir The Singapore Story Lee admits to flirting with socialism and Marxist theories of development – a legacy, perhaps unsurprisingly, of his Cambridge years. When taking the reins of Singapore, however, at just 35 years of age, he shed the vogue fascination of government-sponsored egalitarianism. He came to ‘realise’, unlike his post-colonial African peers, that individual self-agency and not government largesse was the true ‘driving force for progress throughout human history.’

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The interesting case of role models

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

For young people, role models can be powerful and inspirational figures. They help us to look down the road and see what it takes to reach the high plateaus of success.

Around three years out of high school, when just starting my undergraduate degree, I finally stumbled on the realisation that, to get ahead, I had to actually get better. This may seem obvious but it meant more than I anticipated – I had to improve my writing, listening and presentation skills. This, in turn, meant I had to get better at attention to detail, concentrate harder and be better organised.

This was helped considerably by ‘thinking with the end in mind’ and looking closely at the achievements of successful people. What characteristics did they exhibit? What did they do to get ahead?

But I didn’t set my sights on the Richard Bransons or the Bill Gates of the world – I examined relatively quiet achievers like White House Fellows, the candidates of the most competitive graduate programs and people close to me that had done well. All toiled away without the glare of the public spotlight. Their lessons were clear: apply yourself, achieve fine benchmarks and build skills. Doors open just that little bit further, it seems, when you do these things.

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Staying power

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

In my late teens my Mum gave me a book titled The World at Their Feet edited by Australian writer Claire Halliday. It has some great insights from young actors, doctors, specialists and writers that have built and enjoyed success early in their careers. One contribution is from the fashion designer Kit Willow, then aged just 28, on creating her own fashion label. Here she is worth quoting at length:

I worked on it for a year – just me in my spare bedroom. It was really very lonely because I was working on a concept and an idea all on my own and there was no one there to support me. Every day I’d wake up and walk into the office and I’d be the one who was instigating every little thing that was going to happen that day. That can be really confronting and really exhausting. It doesn’t give you chance to sit back and rest, or to reflect on what you’ve been doing, or even the way you’ve been doing it. The phone’s not going to ring without you making it. You just have to keep plugging away every day.

Through hard work and passion Willow created a global brand – great success for someone in her late twenties and in such a competitive industry. But, in 2012, after spending time at international prominence, she was dumped from her own label.

Willow’s story is typical of the temporary nature of success. She may not have lost any of her passion or desire for hard work but, as any young professional will learn, what gets you to the top may not necessarily keep you there. Circumstances change and new challenges arise but it’s important that you stay ahead or on top of them.

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