The Legacies of Empire

I am neither historian nor sociologist enough to comment definitively on the legacies of empire but it’s obvious even to the most superficially observant traveller that affection and resentment jostle uncomfortably for dominance in the relationship between former colony and former colonial power.

Around fifteen years ago I visited Zimbabwe. Even then it was an unhappy country, ruled by a man in whose mind the battle for independence still raged, even though the real war had been won many years earlier. The white population, resented, increasingly uncomfortable, ever less prosperous and ever more insecure, was dwindling as the black population gained possession, rightly or wrongly, by decree, of the country’s agricultural and industrial infrastructure. And yet…at the Leopard Rock Hotel, somewhere in the Eastern Highlands, an institution resembling an English country house hotel, I played squash, a British Public School game, with one of the country’s ambassadors, presumably a man dancing to Mugabe’s ideological tune. Affection for some of the habits of the colonial past and resentment at the same time, a damaging, impossible, hypocritical, confusing, psychological condition.

Malaysia is another former colony but a different case in point. It was the extravagance of the affection for the old ways that surprised me, not resentment (of which, I think, there is little). This advertisement, below, for a ‘British Boarding School’ caught my eye at the airport. It’s Harry Potter in the tropics, at least judging by the lower half of the picture.


Have a look at the Prince of Wales Island International Independent School website. It’s an uncritical anthem of anglophilia, and a paean of praise to a school system that throughout its illustrious career has been more often brutal and damaging than beneficial.

The fabric of the school certainly  looks impressive. Its architectural, as well as its educational values, are overtly colonial, though perhaps the building is actually more New England than England.


In its Welcome on the website the school claims ‘The school was designed, equipped and built to bring the very best of the British education system into an authentic Malaysian context.’ If that isn’t squaring the circle, then what it? Surely you can’t be both authentically Malaysian and British at the same time. As for ‘best of the British education system,’ it seems to be assumed that what they’re peddling must be a very good thing indeed.

On the topic of boarding, which is generally what made British boarding schools the awful places that they were, the school states, ‘We know that children who board become more self-sufficient and independent...’ Does anyone stop for a moment to consider if that is a good thing?

There’s another cringe-making sentence that reads: ‘The Principal makes new boarders promise to sound miserable when they ring home for the first time; some parents are disappointed that they are not missed as much as they would hope.‘ As well they might be.  When a child is not missing his or her parents, something has gone badly wrong.

Education is big business, and, properly regulated, I suppose there’s no harm in attracting private finance for the construction and operation of schools such as this one. This school, for 800 pupils, has been going only since 2010, and must have cost millions to build..

But it seems odd to me that admiration for the British boarding school tradition should be so blatant and so unqualified. It’s surely memories of colonialism that have inspired this wish of the local elite that their children should acquire the talents of ruthless leadership that their former masters possessed?

I went to British Boarding Schools myself between the ages of 7 and 18. I concur with much of what the POWIIS claims for the system, except that I don’t agree it’s good that children should learn independence too early, that they should be denied the comforts and affections of home, that they should become distant from their parents, and eventually so deracinated that they can pop up anywhere in the world and rule.

If the British Boarding School is now a thing to be admired, it certainly wasn’t always so. Although during my time the excessive brutalities of Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall were a thing of the past, unchecked paedophilia, bullying, whimsical corporal punishment, discomfort and atrocious food still prevailed. I wouldn’t do it to a dog!

It has been said that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ And vast populations within the Empire were subjugated by a handful of braying schoolboys. But I see neither of these claims as any kind of recommendation.



The Burrowers

Life in the capital cities of tropical Asia is largely lived underground, or, at least indoors. When I first visited Singapore twelve years ago, I mistakenly set out from my hotel, map in hand, to do some sightseeing, at street level and in the open air. I was quite unused to the heat and humidity and within minutes I was drenched in sweat and nearly in need of first aid. If it had rained, which it very often does, in sudden drenching downpours, it wouldn’t have made much difference to how I looked and felt.

What struck me as odd, though, as I crossed the roads, and trudged along the immaculately clean pavements, taking care, of course (this being Singapore), to do so only at the designated crossing points, and without chewing gum, was that there was no one there. The streets were empty. I’d thought that Singapore was one of the most crowded urban areas on the planet.

What I didn’t know, until a colleague pointed it out, is that everything happens underground. There’s a vast network of passageways, mostly doubling as shopping malls (with just the same shops that we see in Europe), that take you from metro station to hotel, to office block, to gym, to airport, and so on. These are teeming with life. You can live entirely away from and beneath the heat, the humidity and the glare of the midday sun. You could probably walk the entire length of the island without leaving the comfort of air-conditioned passageways. Many Singaporeans never leave the island, and perhaps nearly as many have never been outdoors. Only mad dogs, and foolish Englishman like me, venture into the elements.


Of course it wasn’t always so. My mother taught for the Royal Air Force in Singapore in 1955, whilst my father was obtaining a divorce. It took her five days to reach Asia by aeroplane, with stops for the night in Rome, Aden, Karachi, and Calcutta – so much more civilised than my 13-hour dash on Monday night. But there was no air-conditioning on arrival and she tells me that clothes and shoes would simply moulder and rot if you didn’t light a small candle in every wardrobe and shoe cupboard. Somehow, though surely at great risk of immolation of contents and owner, this dried the air sufficiently so that clothes remained wearable. The tropics before mod-cons must have been challenging, and not only for the colonists who weren’t used to the weather.

Kuala Lumpur is the same. A warren of cool passages take you from one place to another. These Asian cities, at least the ones in the more prosperous countries, are like vast airports, and nature is partially tamed. I’m flying to Jakarta now (no passageway beneath the Straits of Malacca) and I shall probably find the same shops and pretty much the same way of life.



Flying the Binliner

One forgets that an airliner is a workplace for its crew and that conditions differ markedly from one type of plane to another. I was amused, on Monday night, when I flew on a Boeing 787 (Boeing’s latest), from London to Kuala Lumpur to hear that the cabin crew call it the Binliner, rather than the Dreamliner. A dream it may be for the passengers but for the crew, they said, it was cramped, ill-equipped and prone to break down (though not in life-threatening ways).

‘It is our workplace,’ one of them said. ‘People don’t seem to realise that.’

Don’t get them confused…



It reminds me of a line in Alan Bennet’s withering monologue – Bed Among the Lentils – which excoriates the pretensions of an ambitious Church of England vicar. A sympathetic flower-arranging parishioner goes on about how the altar is, after all, his workplace, and must be treated with the utmost respect.

Monday’s flight to KL was my first in the new 787 (the 787-9 model, in case it matters), and I enjoyed it, inasmuch as one can enjoy a 13-hour flight. Air pressure is apparently set at about 6,000 feet in the 787, lower than for most other commercial long-range jets except for the A380, and that, the Boeing publicists tell us, means that you don’t feel like a wrung-out rag on arrival. I took a well-known prescription sedative before I slept, so I actually felt more cheerful than I usually do on a Monday night (I only take these particular pills once or twice a year for overnight flights). The plane is also quieter than most, though the wings, I notice, bend upwards alarmingly, equally on both sides, so probably as planned.

I chatted, as I usually do, with the crew (how they must hate passengers like me when there’s so much to get done in their workplace, especially when there’s inadequate space and equipment to do it in and with).

If I’m on British Airways, as I was, I tell them how I once heard the Captain make that fateful announcement ‘Will a senior member of the cabin crew please report immediately to the cockpit.’ Even as I heard this, some years ago, on a Boeing 777 somewhere above the mid-Atlantic, I sensed from the strain of the Captain’s speech that we were in trouble. There was smoke in the cockpit, we were told later, when it was safe for us to know it, and we were diving down in preparation for ditching the plane in the cold December waves of the north Atlantic Ocean.

We didn’t ditch, as you might have guessed, else I think it unlikely that you would be reading this, but it was a scary procedure. And the crisis didn’t end there. Once the smoke had dissipated and all the electrical equipment in the plane had been switched off (no hot breakfast on that particular flight) it turned out we only had just enough fuel, at low altitude, to limp into Shannon airport.

I tell this story to all the cabin crew. So often, in fact, that a few months ago I found I was telling it to a crew member who’d actually been working on that flight. She confirmed that it had been touch and go. Most crew, though, have never heard these awful words (and I hope you haven’t either), though on Monday night, one of them had heard it just once in 25 years of flying when some sausages had burst into flames. Most of them hoped they’d never hear it.

I’m always cheering for Airbus when it comes to the passenger airliner wars. There isn’t much of the patriotic Brit or European in me, but I like us to beat the Americans when it comes to the order book for larger commercial aeroplanes. And in my experience, there is no better plane for a very long flight than the Airbus A380. It is quiet and so spacious that you can hear passengers chatting, even sotto voce, ,from a distance of ten metres. But whether it is good to work in, or fly, I have no idea at all.

Hamburger Wars


Hamburgers are much on our minds at systems@work these days. I don’t mean the hamburgers that my colleague, Mario, eats wherever he goes (he’s planning on eating a hamburger in every country in the world, but I tell him to make sure he’s carrying some statins!).

No, this is the kind of hamburger we’re talking about:


You probably see them every day, but I’m sure you don’t notice them. Doesn’t ring a bell? What about this?


Or this?



Now it must be clear. The hamburger wars are all about whether this little sandwich thing is a good way of providing a navigation tool in a browser on a mobile device. It’s certainly the prevailing convention. When menu options are too many to fit down the left or across the top of a mobile browser window, then most systems will crush them into a list that’s only visible when you click on the hamburger icon.

We’re redesigning the browser interface for all our systems@work products at the moment (time@work for professional services management, expense@work for expense management, and forms@work for forms workflow) and we’re rewriting the interface so that it works well on any device – a PC, a Mac, a tablet or a mobile (we’re excluding smart watches from consideration for the moment).

We’d all agree on using the hamburger, but when I went to look at what the programmers were doing yesterday, in the office, Ivan suddenly said he didn’t like hamburgers, and would I read an article he’d found that makes a very strong case against them. Couldn’t we have a scrollbar instead?

Kill the Hamburger Button!

Now the scrollbar he showed me didn’t look very elegant, so I put on a stubborn ‘we’ve already decided this issue’ face and said no. But he sent me the article anyway and when I read it I saw that he had a point. Hamburgers conceal their content, and experiment shows that people don’t click on it or tap on it because they can’t see what’s underneath it, in the filling, as it were. Better, apparently, to lay your options open with a scroll bar. The only thing is, how to make it look good?

So, I’ve lost the hamburger war, and we’ll work on our scroll bars instead. When I began my computing and programming career, computer terminals were green, and you just typed a command and it appeared where the cursor was blinking. You pressed enter and very little happened. Sometimes it just came back at you with ‘command syntax error’ (in green). Now it’s not enough to be a programmer. You’ve got to be a graphic designer, a psychologist, and an ergonomicist (is there such a thing?) and keep abreast of rapidly changing fashions. I commend Ivan for his watchful eye.

We’re hoping to release our up-to-the-minute new interface in June, so we’ve got to get our icons, scroll bars and options in order very soon.

Anyone want to argue in favour or the hamburger, or warn me of some other errors of taste we might inadvertently make?

Hot dogs? Panini? Crostini? Minestrone?


What is it that they know?

I’m rarely prone to panic, and despite the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, I pass through railway stations and airports without anxiety. It’s true that if I’m on a train, or on the Tube, an unaccompanied bag or box will nag at me until I see it repossessed, and I admit that I glance with a little apprehension at backpacks. I try hard to avoid racial stereotyping when I’m assessing the suicidal intent of my fellow passengers. But most of the time I’m entirely blasé about risk, not bravely uncaring, but unconscious or it. After all, the more we give in to fear, the more the terrorists are winning. And, as we all know when we do the arithmetic, the risks are greater from road traffic, mad cows and falling masonry.

That said, I don’t like to see well-armed soldiers patrolling in a shopping mall. Our LLP Group offices adjoin the seldom-visited Harfa Shopping Mall in Prague. The mall, built around four years ago, has been, I suppose, a commercial disaster, and as I pass through it every day between the metro station and my office, I note that yet more shops have closed and others, selling ever trashier trash, have taken their place. Tragically, Marks and Spencer closed a couple of months ago and I miss their biscuits terribly. Shoppers are sadly few and far between, except on those evenings when there’s an ice-hockey match in the O2 Arena next door.

So, why, suddenly are there gun-toting soldiers on the prowl? What do they know? It’s hard to imagine that Prague’s Harfa Shopping Mall would make a good target for terrorists. Or perhaps, that’s its very attraction. It’s such a soft target that it’s a perfect one. But if not terrorists, then what is there to fear? Even rival shopping malls have no good reason to provoke an outrage here. They’ve nothing to gain.

harfa soldiers

Far from being reassuring, the presence of soldiery makes me nervous. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. It’s like seeing the cages and walls that surround US Embassies all over the world. If they’re needed, then something must be wrong. I walk on the other side of the street whenever possible.

And on my way home on the metro yesterday, six soldiers on patrol at Florenc station, boarded my carriage at the very last moment. They didn’t seem especially alert. I stood next to them, almost crushed up against a semi-automatic rifle, terrified that an inadvertent movement might be misinterpreted. Everyone tried to look relaxed about their presence, without entirely succeeding. I studied their uniforms (parachute regiment), weapons (real, and each of them with two) and demeanour (cheerful).

Perhaps they’ve been put on the streets to reassure us, but they have the opposite effect on me. If anything they make me more anxious. It’s the thought that we need protection as close as this. And it’s the knowledge that if a terrorist gang sprang into action, there’s little these brave soldiers could do about it.


The Art of Following – Being open about what you want


I’ve written two posts about following in the hope of redressing the balance on LinkedIn that’s currently vastly in favour of tips on leadership. Followers make up the majority of our human population and the professional population LinkedIn addresses, though sometimes in some contexts we lead and in others we follow.

The Art of Following

The Art of Following – Obedience

I’ve suggested that in following we don’t always have to do what we’re told. Even in the military, and even in war, there are limits to obedience. But how we deal with uncongenial demands is important. A good follower criticises constructively, but is capable of compromise and compliance when led reasonably and openly. Sulking, sullen non-compliance is an unwise strategy. Better, if compliance is impossible, to get out of the situation entirely.

I’ve led two companies for more than twenty years – LLP Group, a regional consultancy and software reseller in Central and Eastern Europe, and systems@work, a software author specialising in professional services and expense management systems. If there is one thing I’ve learned about management it is that there aren’t any failsafe formulas.

I’ve worked extensively for international companies as a consultant and I’ve been impressed by how methodical they are in what they do – in marketing, finance, HR, and operations. When they arrived in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s they brought their procedures and manuals with them. And to some extent these work, but they must always be interpreted rather than blindly followed. Standard procedures must be adapted to local contexts and cultures.

If there is one area where I’ve always seen procedures fail it is in the are of motivation. What works in Manhattan doesn’t always work in Moscow.


In my experience you must understand each of your followers individually if you’re to motivate them well. Some staff need constant attention and reassurance, even, in some cases the kind of micro-management that others abhor. Some want to belong to a well defined team, whether it’s the whole of or only part of a company, and love team-building activities, and other kinds of company jolly. Others want to be left alone and have no interest in the ‘group’. Some need public recognition, through a job title, others want more money. Some must be allowed to be creative, others just want to do what they’re told. The variations are as many as there are human beings in the world.

Leaders must be sensitive and percipient. Followers must be open both about what they want and what they don’t want. A good follower can help his or her leader by saying or showing what he or she needs. Nothing is worse than hidden resentment. Resentments so often end with terminal crises.

Some years ago I visited one of our subsidiaries and spoke to everyone in the company. There was a feeling that morale was low and I wanted to understand what was wrong. What I found was that our employees didn’t feel appreciated, and that in many cases rewards had been promised but not delivered – a car, a salary rise, a more generous bonus, a promotion. But everyone wanted something different.

If you’re a follower, think about what you want, and make it clear. Don’t demand. Ask nicely! And if something has been promised to you and not delivered, remind your leader gently. He or she may, albeit unforgivably, have simply forgotten.