Beyond intelligence

By Toh Xun Qiang

In an interview with The Straits Times in February, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung advised Singaporeans to develop skills such as creativity, empathy and leadership to stay relevant in the age of artificial intelligence.


These qualities that make us human are associated with Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which represents the capacity for individuals to manage their own emotions.

While success is often tied to IQ, or the intelligence quotient in Singapore, it would be dangerous to overlook the importance of nurturing EQ as well.

The importance of EQ

Stress and anxiety hound us both in school and at work.  

“(Stress and anxiety) affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?” Mr Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, was reported as saying by the New York Times Magazine in 2013.

EQ, which consists of self-awareness, self-management, empathy and social skills, is the crucial quality that helps us handle these emotions.

Contrary to the belief that such qualities are innate, Mr Brackett says they have to be honed.

“It’s like saying that a child doesn’t need to study English because she talks with her parents at home,” Mr Brackett explained.

“Emotional skills are the same. A teacher might say, ‘Calm down!’ — but how exactly do you calm down when you’re feeling anxious? Where do you learn the skills to manage those feelings?”

Developing EQ in schools

Experts believe that the learning starts in school.

In a book titled Emotional Intelligence, science journalist Daniel Goleman wrote that self-awareness can be improved through self-reflection questions. Asking ourselves questions such as “What could I have done differently?” or “How did I feel when it happened?” allow us to step back, observe and revisit our experiences.

It is akin to “being accompanied by a second self” and realising the nature of our anger, rather than being “murderously enraged at someone” without knowing how or why, he wrote.

In an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, it was found that the use of one’s own name during self-reflection amplifies the effect of self reflection. Critiquing the experience from a third-person point of view helps us distance ourselves from the cause of our stress and anxiety, making it easier for us to overcome the anxiety and stress when we are caught in similar situations.

Take our participation in co-curricular activities in school, for instance. When we win matches, lose awards, or survive gruelling training sessions, these are the moments when we develop our EQ, learn to engage with others, and become more empathetic.

EQ at work

Unlike the school environment, where we have a teacher to tell us right from wrong, the workplace demands independent learning. Being able to manage our emotions keeps us level-headed as we work to meet demands and expectations.

Moreover, we rarely work alone. Learning to manage the emotions of others and cooperate as a team is vital for success.

I remember an argument I had with my groupmate during class. We could not agree on an approach towards solving a question, resulting in a heated debate. However, when I took a step back, I realised that we could each compromise on our approaches and combine our answers. By being aware of our emotions, we can become better team players and produce results through an exchange of ideas.

Recently, home-grown hedge fund manager Danny Yong started an initiative called Tangent, which hires candidates based on qualities such as having a creative personality, team orientation and EQ, instead of academic achievement.

To him, these qualities are better determinants of job performance than a university degree.

This was motivated by his personal experience, where his first-class honours did little to prepare him for his job as a financial trader. Instead, he felt like the “dumbest person in the company” on his first day of work in 1997, he recounted to The Straits Times in February 2018.

Many organisations have realised the benefits of such non-conventional hiring practices. Tech companies such as Google hire people based on their ability to solve problems under stress, while consulting firms such as McKinsey & Company hire candidates for entry-level jobs based on IQ, but promote them by assessing their EQ.

This is an indication that we should place more emphasis on our personal growth, even as we continue to complete our undergraduate courses.

As we head into the age of artificial intelligence, skills such as leadership, critical thinking and empathy will differentiate us from robots.

“If you work like a robot, you will be replaced by a robot,” said Education Minister Ong. In Mr Ong’s words, it is time we start to be “more human than ever”.