Monday, August 15, 2016

The Value in Leaving.....

Perhaps it was purely a coincidence but on the very evening that Singapore was celebrating it's first ever gold medal in the Olympics, I had a conversation with a young lady who mentioned that while Donald Trump may not have put things very eloquently, he had a point when he discussed immigration. Her point was simple, if a person is really valuable, a country would not let him go - the Mexicans who are leaving to America were the drug dealers and rapist.

I bit my lip because she was young and trying to the plaything of a friend of mine. However, its something we should look at especially in light of Singapore's first ever gold medal winner. Mr. Joseph Schooling at the age of 21 is the living example of what every person in the world should be - mobile.

Let me state for the record that I am often guilty of parochial xenophobia. While I spent a good portion of my life as an expat kid (thanks to my stepfather's job), I've returned to Singapore, the land of my birth, wondering and refusing to understand local sentiments about race and geographical treatments. Contrary to what my fellow Asians might believe, being someone's colony is something to be proud of.

Having said all of that, I actually believe that migration and mobility are actually good for the human condition. Staying in one place and mixing only with your own kind is unnatural and bad for you. Whatever, I may have said about the expatriate community, you have to give them points for getting out of their homelands to raise themselves up the corporate ladder. Moving shows that you have enough ambition to want to change your life. As a friend of mine often reminded me, "You can't blame the Ang Moh's (local Hokkien slang for red heads - reference to Caucasians in general) for wanting to move here. Would you rather stay and be an ordinary person or move to somewhere, where the people worship you?"

If I respect people at the higher end of the social scale for "moving" from their homeland in the expatriate class, I have nothing but admiration for the poor and unwashed masses who come in from poor, underdeveloped countries to wealthier nations to do shit work so that they can do right by their loved ones. It takes guts to move to place where you have nothing and are most likely to be spat on as part of a sport by the natives. It's tough enough going to work everyday to make a living. Now, imagine doing it when you are far away from every emotional support that you've ever had.

Migrants develop a certain sturdiness to them because they don't really have a choice. It's called "Make or break." They do the lousiest jobs that the natives would rather not do and contrary to what Donald Trump would tell you, they end up using less social services because they simply don't want to get into the radar of the authorities.

I don't deny that there are migrants who commit crimes (rape, murder, robbery etc) and I don't deny that because they are vulnerable, migrants can be easy prey for criminals, the migrant community throughout the world will usually be harder working and more law abiding than the locals.  

When I lived in the UK, the "Pakis," "Niggers" and "Rastas" were too busy doing things like running corner shops and driving mini-cabs, while the White Anglo-Saxon got drunk and begged you for small change. Walk down my old haunt in Soho and you'd find that the guy asking you for spare change was inevitably a native of the absent colour.

Now that I've moved to Singapore, I notice something similar. In the restaurant, I work alongside Pinoys, Koreans and Taiwanese, who simply want to earn their coin by working. By contrast, I have met too many local born Singaporeans who have simply decided that there's far more pride in asking for treats than in being seen to make a living in a lowly job.

The guys who move are the guys who make things happen in the country they move to. They are the guys who form better people-to-people ties between nations and cultures. Put it simply, every Indian expat and Indian worker who comes to Singapore, becomes a link between Singapore and India, a market that Singapore will need to be in.

I think of my friends in the Indian Expat community. There's Girija Pande, the Chairman of Apex-Avalon who is building "made in Asia" management talent. There's also Suresh Shankar of Crayon Data, who set up a data analytics firm in Singapore that got bought out by IBM and now, he's building another firm that will revolutionize how we choose things.

People like these gentlemen, have shown that the world is a big place. You don't need to be limited by geography for some antiquated vision of nationalism. Suresh for example, is taking advantage of Singapore's legal infrastructure and global reputation for stability and combining it with the large talent pool that is available in India. Modern technology allows you to do make the most of what various countries have to offer.

Which brings us back to Mr. Schooling, who was born here and raised here. This is home for him. Yet to further his ambitions, he had to be sent for further education in the USA, where he had access to the coaches and the facilities to bring him to where he is today.

Had Mr. Schooling not left Singapore and stayed here for the sake of being Singaporean etc etc, its unlikely he'd be able to do what he did for Singapore. He left Singapore and ended up bringing the type of value to Singapore that we had not been able to achieve despite the millions spent on trying to import talent from elsewhere.

Let's ditch ideas about what constitutes a good citizen based on birth. Let's look at what people do by their sweat and let's give people credit for taking chances in moving out of their comfort zone. Let's salute people like Mr. Schooling's parents who understood that opportunities are global and sent their son overseas so that he could win us glory on the international stage. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

A thought for National Day

It's Singapore's birthday today. As a nation, we will be getting together to celebrate 51-years since we were booted out of the Federation of Malaysia.

It's going to be quite a celebration and I believe it's something worth celebrating. Although I have my complaints, the nation I've chosen to call home for the last decade and a half has gotten much right despite the odds. It's worth remembering that we are celebrating an accident of history. The man who is credited for creating Singapore as a successful independent nation, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, started his political career by campaigning very hard for us to be a state within the Federation of Malaysia. Mr. Lee started out by arguing passionately that Singapore was too small to survive on its own and yet his greatest of success was proving that very idea wrong.

Perhaps it took fatherhood to make me realize it but Singapore has gotten the key things right. We may not be the hippest place around but we've got the basics right. We are what a nation should be. We are rich, clean and green. As a father of a teenage girl, I can't stop thanking my lucky stars that I live in a city where safety exists - I don't worry that something will happen to my little girl if goes out at night (not that she does - these days smart phones keep the kids at home).

Singapore is a great place to be in so many ways. As someone who was born in Singapore but raised in a small town in Southern England, I also found myself in a unique position in terms of East-West relations. I may have looked exotic in a sea of blonde and red heads but I was amazingly un-exotic in almost every other respect. I sometimes wonder if my classmates were disappointed that I wasn't a bit more exotic. I spoke English at home and my Dad didn't run a take away or a laundry mat. My Dad also shelled out for school fees that most ordinary English people won't have paid and he did so with money made in Singapore rather than through the generosity of some NGO that the school was running charity drives for so that we could help people in the third world.

If I look back at my life in the West, I think the most amazing thing that being born a Singaporean gave me, was a feeling that living in the West wasn't better than living where I came from. My parents sent me to England because they felt this was where I'd get the best education rather than we needed to move there because life was so much better there.

I do acknowledge the good in Singapore through the eyes of my wife, who comes from rural Vietnam and has experienced hunger (defined as not having enough food on the table). This place is paradise to her.

While there's much to be grateful for, I do think there are areas of Singapore that need to be changed. One of my pet peeves remains how we treat people who have come from developing Asia. Yes, Singapore isn't the worst place for people to be but there is something wrong when everyone in a well to do society doesn't seem to think its dreadful for people work at the princely rate of S$18 a day (12-hours) and not get paid for several months because ....hey its apparently better than what they're getting back home.

I recently felt this through a new friendship I've made with a Bangladeshi worker, who's trying to collect money owed to his brother his previous employer, who had been wound up by an order of court. I remembered agreeing to meet this worker in person. A few my colleagues were actually worried that something might happen to me.

Well, I did meet the man, who insisted on buying me tea. We spoke about his life in Singapore and he asked if I could help his brother find another job in Singapore. He was so touched that I actually came down to meet with him.

I find this unusual for a normal society. What do we have against treating other people like people, especially when they do all the hard work that we won't do.

I know people who feel differently, but as we celebrate years of incredible success, I do think that we need to find a way of remembering the people who did the hard lifting. 


Friday, August 05, 2016

Falling in love with your profession

I've been thinking of a way of making one of my biggest weaknesses on my CV into something of a strength, namely the fact that I've never really worked for a multinational (the closest being an internship in Citibank and two weeks at RappCollins) or the government (the exception being two and a half years in National Service and three months as a school teacher.)

I've thought of it and its tough because I live in a society where anyone with a brain cell would have made it a point of serving in either of these entities by the time they reach my age - the grand old age of 42 (well not quite until November) and they would be established in their careers. Normal people my age would be able to call themselves an "Industry" person.

Since I've not reached that stage in life, I think the approach should be to avoid it altogether and be grateful for what's not taken place. This is not to say that I don't have a skill that makes me marketable. I believe that more than a decade in PR and meeting the most socially diverse range of people I could ever imagine (street walker and jail birds to ambassadors and central bankers), I have enough people management skill to get me through most jobs.

What I mean by the blessing of not having "multinational" or "government" work experience, lies in the fact that I've never had the luxury of falling in love with a particular profession to the extent that I see everything in life through the prism of my chosen profession, which I believe is one of biggest failings of many working professionals. We become so involved in the "industry" where we build our "careers" than define our "lives."

I like to think that I've never fallen into that world view and I like to think that I've managed to stay human and therefore grounded. I think it was my Uncle Jeffrey, who was also one many bosses, who would drum it into me that I was my own best judge of what was newsworthy.

Too many PR and Comms people get obsessed with the fact that they are PR and Comms people. They spend so much time with a client or product that it becomes the centre of their lives and they expect everything to evolve around it. This becomes very worrying when they pitch to the press and discover that the press won't write the story as they think it should be written. Erm, sad fact of life - the press isn't paid to write the story you want them to write. If they did, the client wouldn't need you, the persuasive PR person - they'd get the ad sales people to take care of things.

We forget that we're also consumers of the media as well as the people who plant the stories in the media. We are part of the process of news creation and to be effective at that, we need to know the people what people watch and read and want to watch and read.

Being obsessed with your profession isn't limited to the PR field. In the restaurant game, you get to chefs who forget that they exist for the customer's taste buds. Yes, the customer likes your cooking and eating at your restaurant but they need to taste something that they like to taste. A good chef instinctively knows what appeals to the pallets of the customers because ...well, he or she inevitably someone who eats the food as well as cooks it.

At the end of the day, we're all human beings with the same needs. We live in the same ecosystem doing our part within that said eco-system. Unfortunately too many of us become so obsessed with our part of the system that we forget that we are part of the larger system.

If you fall in love with your part of the system, you tend to lose sight of the larger picture and ironically, you lose sight of the value that your part of the system contributes to the wider system. Advertising people used to be accused to being obsessed with winning awards (among themselves) that they forgot that their industry was merely a part of the larger business cycle. Today, agencies are struggling to find relevance and revenue.

Remembering your insignificance can be a blessing because it makes you more aware of everything else. You become aware of what the other sides of you think and do, which makes you more effective. I write for the press because it makes me more effective at pitching stories to them. I eat at the restaurant I work at because it makes me see things from the customers view. I am a consumer as much as a producer, which actually enhances things. -