For all CNY (Chinese New Year) festive breaks, I always stayed home. When most activities come to a standstill, it's a great time to catch up with family members, relatives, friends and those with stories to tell. It's a time to listen in, discuss, debate and argue to seek out gems.
This year needs no provocation. The consistent rumbling was with the Population White Paper. Instead of white, it was bloodied. The 66 pages, feature rich with explanations and statistics, were completely obliterated by people fixated with this magic 6.9 mil population, crystal balling 18 years down the road. Most people have to navel gaze, concern with the immediate and now, be it housing, transportation, healthcare, child care and yes, jobs. I am merely going to focus on jobs.
In the PME (professionals, managers and executives) space, I learned people are job displaced at a younger age, often times by non citizens. Just weeks ago, I persuaded a friend to be interviewed for a CIO (Chief Information Officer) position with a foreign MNC (Multi National Corporation). He said this: "Most will position younger folks and this is truly the biggest challenge for many middle age professionals. Such jobs have been going to foreign talent and our country men are seriously at the losing end. This Chinese New Year alone, I came across a number of friends and relatives in such situations".
Last May 2012, I wrote a piece entitled “three stories, same tale”. This same person gave me one story back then. Within weeks after being hired, his foreigner boss forwarded some CVs of fresh graduates from France with "highly recommended" ratings. So what would you do if you were in his shoes? To keep his own job, he did the “politically right thing”; hired some fresh French legs.
At one CNY dinner, I was seated next to a well-regarded lady banker who retired early. She was overseas trained, tertiary educated at London School of Economics, worked in London, came home and then rose to a senior position in a local bank. She witnessed the sea of change in the banking sector in the past 15 years. In her words, our own chaps were "hollowed out", posted overseas for experience but never make it back to shore.
Why? Whilst they were away, their positions were back-filled with many from abroad. Bring in one bright chap and half the village presents itself as brilliant too! And it comes as no surprise that “birds of same feather, flock together”.
This same person tells me that on weekends or long weekends, the banking sector these days would empty out by early evenings, thanks to pubs and low-cost carriers. Assembly in pubs is now classified as good work-life balance. Thanks to low-cost carriers, we now have a segment of people having their families rooted outside Singapore, 4-5 hours away. I personally met a Brit working for a local telco company in Singapore with family based in Perth. One of my staff relocated his family back to India, citing high cost of living here. While such arrangement is not for every family, with LCC, it becomes viable. So here is another category of mostly white-collar PMEs with virtually no chance of planting next generation Singaporeans here.
Turn the clock back 12 years. Western talent back then in the local banking sector was “flavour of the month”. Starting from foreign talent CEO, it cascaded down to many levels including many technical positions. After 50 years of computerization and a good head-start with National Computer Board, I am baffled we cannot produce CIOs for the banking sector?
Some of our brightest were schooled in top notched universities in the US and UK. We use the same western computers, the same programming languages, the same databases, the same working language (English) and probably the same banking solutions. Yet none could cut it. I thought we short changed ourselves.
Do allow me to cite a more recent example. As part of global grooming/training, a large IT MNC seconded a European lady to head the Singapore office displacing a local incumbent. I am told there is at least one other local who could cut it.
Of course, one can argue this is a global company. Then again, what special skills, technical or otherwise, is she able to bring to the table? What local knowledge does she possess? What new know how can she bring to her local team?
In another situation, I got to know the head of Asia Pacific of an MNC with operations in Singapore for many years. The company has significant presence including manufacturing, R&D and marketing. After years of operating here, the role of local MD (Managing Director) vacillated between foreign and local talents and eventually disappeared. Given the present local sentiment, there is recognition that having a qualified local face is good for the company. As part of HP Alumni, I was asked if there are suitable candidates within our flock.
I was put in touched with a HR director for details. He is from the Netherlands. We corresponded and sometime later, another person popped up. A newly recruited Brit, put in charge of talent scouting for Asia Pac. His last posting was in the Middle East. I scratched my head (got to be careful not to do so on same spot!) and ask myself aloud. Could such positions be filled by locals (Singaporeans and PR)? I mean those who lived here for some time and probably have better understanding of the landscape here and of neighbouring countries. What special skills do they possess? What knowhow can be transferred? What domestic knowledge do they possess to manage these jobs?
All the same, I tried to be useful seeking someone from within our flock to be more than mere 'mascot'!
This story came from a school mate who already made his money. He would be classified in the super league. Even he lamented saying the super rich we attract do not understand our culture. He was pissed with another neighbour from afar in a high-end condo. Apparently, both were entangled in a parking incident where many fingers were shown and things nearly came to a blow. He said: “these new migrants have no respect for our bumiputras". Then, he added. Maybe the Malaysians are smarter than us since day one! Then he checked himself and said no, no. He then advocates every foreigner working in Singapore should be given a booklet that spells out our local norms.
This reminded me of a simple encounter with an overseas neighbour two years back. In measured tone, I pointed out to this bloke who plunged into our communal swimming pool without a wash. It was no surprise he talked back with a stiff upper lip. I smiled, pointed out specific clause from a prominent notice next to the pool.
Saving best for last, there is hope still. The most heartening story came from a HR Director of a large educational institution. She promises a level playing field for Singaporeans, PR and overseas talents. She said: “I came from Malaysia, my husband from Hong Kong. We met in the UK as students. We got married, worked in HK and had our first child in Hong Kong. After some time, by choice, we relocated to work in Singapore. My children grew up, went to local schools. My boy chipped in, served the nation. We too were migrants. While I do have many relatives in different parts of the world, I now call this place home”.
She summed up her mantra succinctly saying: “All things equal, if we are not willing to take care of our Singaporeans first and then our PRs second, then which country will?” Putting one’s citizens first is nothing new. Upon graduation in 1979, I was offered a two year London posting with ICL, UK. Coincidentally, Margaret Thatcher came into power that same year. I was booted out of UK without working a day. Trust the Brits to be gracious. They paid me one month salary; no hard feelings.
I had wanted my piece to end here. However, I am cheered to add this extension, contributed by a Dr X in childcare. Ironically, it took a foreign talent to prick a local to wake up, stand up, and speak up if something is amiss. She offered this famous quote and I like it.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)