14 Aug An open letter to polytechnic and university career counselors, loving parents and best friends
The world is a rapidly changing place and the global and local economies are entering deep and protracted recessions. For the past 8 years, primarily because of the government’s tightened foreign talent controls and, secondarily, the rise in affluence of the middle class in Singapore, the economy has been a Singaporean’s employee’s paradise. High starting salaries, inexorably rising wages, job pickiness, job-hopping, bargaining power for special benefits, and ability to take ‘graduation holidays’ without fear that opportunities will be lost.
The time for all that is over.
I may be at risk of colouring with broad strokes three communities who mean well but also have the greatest influence on the professional behaviour of our young graduates — career counsellors, loving parents and best friends. My observations and advice arise from more than 20 years of work experience, 10 of those with authority as a hiring manager in both the public and private sectors. In that time, I have detected certain patterns in behaviour and attitude that, because they are so frequently occurring, I can only assume emerge from a background of advice and coaching rather than individual instincts.
This letter is not intended to be pejorative but constructive to better prepare the young for the workforce and the economy as it is already becoming and will remain for at least half a decade if not more.
Build A Reality, Not A Dream
First, ‘YOLO’ or ‘chasing dreams’ by indulging in travel, taking ‘non-jobs’ like ‘side hustling’ instead of really focusing on getting into the workforce and building up experience is destructive to the future prospects of both the individual and the aggregate economy. Singapore has a small population and no natural resources. We have only two endowments — the first is our location, which in a digitalized global economy means less than it has historically, and the second, the quality and discipline of our workers.
We cannot do much about the erosion of the first, but we must do everything we can to uphold the second. Do your part and inject a sense of reality into young graduates that no one owes them, or Singapore as a whole, a living. There is no ‘perfect job’ and no ‘perfect time’ to find one. The approach should be to work in an area of interest and make it as ‘perfect’ as possible through individual attitude and effort. Building a reality, even if imperfect, is always going to matter more than eternally chasing a perfect dream.
The Fatal Divide
Second, treating the economy as a dichotomy between working in multinational corporations (MNCs) or small and medium enterprises (SMEs) has been the most destructive and self-defeating psychology over the past two decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, yes, Singapore had to rely on foreign direct investments (FDI) and MNCs to create employment and for skills transfer. We did so at the expense of ignoring and allowing the shrivelling of the indigenous and vibrant SME economy we historically had from the 1800s.
We also developed, for all practical purposes, an officially sanctioned philosophy that working for an MNC represented success while working for an SME represented failure. In recent weeks, the mainstream news has been flooded with pictures of Ministers visiting workplaces – count how many of those locations have been MNCs and how many have been SMEs. (hint: you do not even need to bother to do any rounding).
This has to change.
Yes, SMEs vary in size, culture, degree of professionalism and many are family-owned, which can be interpreted as career limiting. But here is the essential thing — SMEs are Singapore businesses, founded and led by Singaporeans and they create employment for 70 per cent of the resident workforce. They are us and have a stickiness to the country and to the economy, without the need for the economic incentives which the Economic Development Board (EDB) perennially and expensively have to repeatedly offer to MNCs to come to Singapore and stay here.
This is not an indictment of the EDB, whose efforts have and will continue to be vital, but it is an appeal to career counsellors, loving parents and best friends, who are the greatest influence on young minds faced with making choices. Help them to choose their country, choose to make its enterprises the basis of Singapore’s future success, and to accept the challenge that if these workplaces are imperfect — to join and help to make them better. That is how we truly built our success in the 1970s-90s, not only just by relying on MNCs.
The pay? Yes, it will almost certainly be relatively lower than that at an MNC and there almost certainly will not be a billiard table or free snack bar. But our best and more progressive SMEs need the talent to power them upward and onward. Is it a sacrifice? It depends on one’s perspective. In a large business, you are in a pigeon hole with a nice brand and title on your card, but you are also just a cog in a machine. In an SME you as an individual matter, but the brand and title on your business card (or QR code) may not have resonance with your peers. In reality, is the decision pivot about MNC or SME or about your personal priorities, biases and preferences?
The choice of our young people matters, and without them injecting their energy and talent into the SME sector, Singapore will remain an economy captured by the choices of others and we will have to pay an increasing cost in inducements to attract and retain investments as our regional neighbours catch up.
Time Matters, Not Just You
Third, I, and many of my CEO peers, have compared notes and agree that there is an entrenched pattern of a combination of job-hopping and ‘resume manufacturing’ that is corrosive and wasteful. What this means in practice is applicants claiming to have vast experience because of a combination of internships and short stints — typically a year — at different companies. In businesses which are truly professional and where human capital really matters, it takes two to three years to master a single role, let alone become a ‘master of the universe’.
Real companies, as opposed to ‘let’s give it a try’ start-ups and short ‘hackathons’, are not just about what you think you know now and your current skill level as an individual. Genuine experience comes from learning business culture and about the applicable regulatory requirements, absorbing institutional norms, working as a team, building client and partner relations, and making mistakes and learning from them. 7 jobs in 7 years, to me, equals 1 year of working experience not 7. But it also means 7 employers and companies which wasted time and effort in onboarding and training.
Fourth, the ‘I deserve it’ culture is perhaps the most disappointing, self-indulgent and repugnant yet most ironic feature of our culture today. We have become so successful that our young (and slightly older people too) assume that having climbed to the final rung of the academic ladder, they ‘deserve’ recognition, high wages, travel, exposure and endless praise. News flash – you deserve nothing, expect to be treated professionally and respectfully. The rest is up to you to earn by proving your value to your employer through real business results not just by showing up or with your effervescent personality.
The World Is Not Your Oyster
Perhaps the cruellest twist to the tale of our affluence and cosmopolitanism is the bitterest but most truthful medicine from Covid-19. For 2 generations, since PM Goh Chok Tong’s ‘Second Wing’ economy drive we have encouraged our best talent to go overseas and conquer. But COVID-19 has shown that when it comes to the real crunch, each country takes care of its own. The current Prime Minister of Australia, put it plainly to the foreigners in Australia – “it’s time for you to go home”. So, my fellow Singaporeans the world is not your oyster, at least never permanently and never with any guarantee. But your homeland, with all its imperfections and limits, will always be your home and safe haven. It is up to you to keep it so for the generations to come.
Our Best Is Yet To Be
I am an optimist, an employer, a father and a patriot. I truly believe that our best days lie ahead of us, not behind us. But I think that the assumption that the hard grafting was done in the first 50 years, and that we are now guaranteed affluence and ease, is mistaken. The next fifty years, and very certainly the next five, will be as tough as anything we have faced before. Money is not the solution to our overcoming the odds. Attitude and efforts are.
And this is why I appeal to career counsellors, loving parents and best friends, to first change your attitudes and perspectives, and then help to guide those whose futures lie before them as roads not yet taken. Help them to pick the journey that brings both them and Singapore into a better and stronger place where we, like the third little pig in the old fairy tale, build our house of stone and that ‘stone’ should be quarried here on our own land and with our own hands. Then no ‘big bad economic wolf’ can blow us down, no matter how hard the huffing and puffing. Our best is yet to be.
Devadas Krishnadas served two and a half years in the Singapore Infantry and ten years as a Senior Police Officer, including as a Commanding Officer and a Head of Operations. He served for three years as Honourary Aide-de-Camp to the President of Singapore (the then President S.R. Nathan). He also served five years in public policy in multiple Ministries including the Ministry of Finance. In 2012, he founded and has since led, a boutique consultancy, focused on public policy and corporate strategy.