Friday, December 18, 2009

The Joys and Sorrow of Going Ex-Patria

It's the slow season now and not much new business is coming my way, so I thought, what the heck - might as well spend a bit of time trying to rant a bit. I get the feeling that I need to rant more because, well after I've gone the way of the dinosaur, my rantings may be the only left of me and the thoughts that I leave may be the only thing left to irritate people for generations to come.

Anyway, I noticed an article in the papers on how Singapore continues to be a favoured destination for the Expatriate community and I have to say my initial reaction was - Well, why shouldn't it be? If you're a Caucasian, Singapore is a tropical heaven where you get your colonial fetishes indulged by well educated people as opposed to menial workers in other colonies. For the Indian and other Asian professional, Singapore is a bastion of stability and peace - neatness and order when compared to home. Speaking as a Singaporean, there seems to be an official policy to make the place so good for the expat worker that sometimes one wonders why the citizen bothers being a citizen at all.

It's easy to be a rather pissed-off Singaporean when it comes to the topic of expats living here. First the gripe was about the White Man - "Bastards come here and think they can lord it over us...." and now similar gripes are being heard about the new expats from other parts of Asia - "What the F***, these guys are pricing us out of the market..." The expats will always be better paid and live in swankier accommodation. The only thing that we, the locals don't envy them for is when they pick up local women - I remember a Malay friend of mine saying, "I'm happy for the girls who meet Ang Moh guys....they are from POOR families."

But let's leave aside the government's policy on "foreign talent" and the swank lifestyle offered to expats and try and see if we can understand things from the expats point of view. Is expat lifestyle everything that it's cracked up to be. And although my blog may give the impression dislike expats, the truth is I don't dislike anyone in particular. I'm merely unusual in the sense that I don't find expats (Particularly the Caucasian variety) particularly interesting or stimulating for being expats and I'm not afraid to make my views public. Some of my favourite drinking buddies are Caucasian and my favourite business associates are more often than not Indian Nationals or Arabs.

Further more, my mother will remind me that I was once an expat kid. My stepfather, Lee, a high ranking creative director of what was then called Lintas but is now Lowe, had the type of job that moved the family around every two years. It was thanks to him that I ended up living in Spain and then Germany and then the UK. Thanks to his job moving him all over the place, I got to spend time in Milan and Dubai.

My childhood was an exceedingly comfortable one and I hung out with kids who were from equally comfortable backgrounds (I only started becoming a street prostitute once I left the nest so to speak). International schools were fun and the houses we lived in were exceedingly cozy.

But let's look beyond the material benefits of being an expat. Life as an expat can be lonely. It's not for everyone - you somehow have to get used to the idea that you need to move around every so often. Unfortunately, expat contracts are always designed to move you around just when you've settled in (2-5 years). Just when you think you have settled down into the community .....oooppps, it's time to get going.

For some adults, this is necessary. My stepfather was one of them. The man could not settle down and for him the constant moving helped keep his mind much so that he was a 60-year old that was more productive than many 20 year-olds in his department. But some people cannot take the uncertainty of never knowing when you get home. Moving around is fun when you are young but once you settle it becomes tougher. Kids need to be moved and the wife who may have sacrificed a career for you needs to be pacified. I've known top-level bankers in Singapore who were from Citigroup who moved to the local banks (though in higher positions) because the upward ladder meant going international at Citi.

For kids, this lifestyle can be particularly tough. You settle into a school and then you leave and you need to make a new set of friends. You tell yourself you'll keep in touch with old ones but in the pre-Facebook era, somehow things fade away. The moving was fun and it always made me a talking point at school because I was one of these weired people from elsewhere who had a life outside Hampshire. But on the flip side, I'm probably the only one who has never had a life before Public School. If you look through my Facebook profile, my earliest friends come from Public School era (11+) for the simple fact that I actually stayed at Public School beyond more than 2-years. By contrast, life at International Schools was all about moving every so often and losing touch with your friends.

Furthermore, you also change systems. When the family was in Spain, I was a British Prep-School. In Hamburg, I was at the International School (which had some of the best chicks) which was supposed to be a mixture of the Anglo-American system (Brit American not South African ;) It's not just the social life that gets screwed but you have to adapt to a different culture. After Public School, my next cultural adjustment was the army but I was over 18 by then and that's a different story from doing it at 10.

The there's the fact that the locals will never really like you. It's not just in Asia where they look at you as an outsider but even in Western Europe. It's easier in Europe in the sense that for the most part people are usually not at that much of an economic disadvantage but you still feel it. So, guess what, you got to work harder to make friends amongst the locals.

So there you have it. Life as an expat is not always what it's cracked up to be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Say What You Like About Terrorist.......

The Other Half is fed up with living in Singapore. This morning she proclaimed, "I want to move back to China, where there is freedom of speech." To my Western or Western trained readers this might come as something of a surprise. China, despite the rapid economic growth and social advances of the last decade remains a communist dictatorship (the world's largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union) So given this fact, how can anyone describe China as having,"Freedom of Speech?" Leaving aside the fact that I'm talking about my other half, I believe the girl.

Leaving aside the Western expatriates and the Indian Nationals, one will find, more often than not, that Singaporeans are a fairly docile lot when compared to their brethren from Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and China. Things are changing, the AWARE saga was a case in point. However, chances are, if you read about protest these days, you'll find that it usually involves a group labourers from China protesting outside the Ministry of Manpower over unpaid wages. Singaporeans as a group don't do things like protest or set-up noodle stalls. Why is this so?

To be fair to Singaporeans, there's actually not too much need to think, protest or even speak. As a friend of mine often says to me,"Does it concern you? Why bother, the majority is happy and so leave it be?" He's right. Life in Singapore many not always be good but it's fairly comfortable. There's no need to think or to question why things are the way they are. Singapore is Confucius's wet dream, a place where the bureaucrat rules. The path to success is simple. Study hard, get good grades and a government scholarship to one of the world's best universities. Within ten-years you'll be without fail an exceedingly senior civil servant, paid an enviable amount of money to run the life of the nation. Of course, if you can't get a plum scholarship, at least get yourself into university and into a secure job in the civil service or a multinational company.

With the exception of street hookers like myself, everyone is exceedingly happy with the system. The people are happy because they are comfortable (no one starts a revolution of a full tummy.) The foreigners, particularly the Western Expatriates are happy - leaving aside company perks, they live in a society where the local population reveres them for being, well Western and therefore better (which to be fair, is true to a certain extent - they're allowed to do some thinking - which is in favour of the powers that be). The government likes it because the foreigners keep investing and the population remains docile. Like I've said, when you hear a Singaporean grumble about this and that, there will be a foreigner (ranging from the Bangladeshi construction worker to the well paid American Expatriate) to tell the Singaporean that they're sheltered and don't know how good life is in Singapore. As one US Navy boy said to me,"If Geylang is your worst area, wait till you see an American Inner City."

If you think about it, Singapore is the Celestial Kingdome in just about every way you can think of. If you don't like it, you can just bugger off - and guess what, there are those who bugger off but come back - I should know I was one of them. Why does anyone need to think or even speak out?

The truth is, this happy situation won't last forever. The day of large cohesive structures like governments and multinational corporations coming in and giving prosperity to the obedient masses is long over. Just look at the world's geopolitical situation today. In the old days, there were two big superpowers (USA and USSR) and everyone belonged to one camp or the other. Today, you have a big hyperpower that is bigger, stronger and richer than everyone else (USA) versus terrorist who are for the most part a group of individuals with nothing in common except an ideology. In the good old days, there were pitched battles with two opposing armies. These days, you can bomb a country to oblivion only to have one nut case stroll into your country and cause the same damage in one of your cities.

What's happened on the battle field is taking place in the business world. You have a big corporation that "owns" the market. Suddenly a few loan individuals from the big corporation leave and do their own thing and before you know it, the "big" corporation is facing extinction because the market it thought it owned is either obsolete or it turned out to be bigger than the single corporation. Remember, the computer market was all about IBM and it's hard wear. Today, IBM has sold off the hardware to Lenovo from China and is trying to compete in IT services.

Let's return to the ideology of terrorist versus soldiers. Singapore is a nation of conventional soldiers. We await for "Opps Orders" from our HQ and then we execute as we have been trained to do. We've been drilled into doing things in certain ways and that's how we'll do them. You don't question because, well that's how it's always been.

A terrorist on the other hand is a lone individual linked to a group of other individuals. The only thing uniting the people is an ideology. A terrorist gets an objective from HQ but the execution is up to him or her. He or she has to get creative to get past highly advanced security systems, while the person in question has limited resources. Much to the horror of law enforcement agencies throughout the world, terrorist are amongst the most effective users of the internet for their purposes. Like it or not, the effective terrorist are quite ingenious in their execution of their activities.

Now apply the terrorist analogy to the entrepreneur and you get the situation that you do in the USA and dare I say Communist China. In America the ideal is not to become an established politician or keg in corporate America. Americans have always worshiped the loan individual taking on the big boys and winning. The same thing is happening in China - hence the irony that the most capitalistic nation today is in fact a communist dictatorship. America is actually quite messy and China is worse but individual Americans and Chinese are highly effective thinkers. The Chinese government is quickly understanding that it can no longer control individual Chinese like it once used to. The people have tasted a certain way of life and removing it will cause a revolution. The Communist Party is searching for an ideology that it can share with the people.

Say what you like of terrorist groups but they've proven to be very effective at doing what they do. The Israeli Army crushed the combined might of several Arab armies in the 60s. Today, a more highly trained IDF has problems taking on groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The organisation structure of these groups allows them to activate resources at the most unusual of times and it's hard to cripple them. Bomb this place and they'll pop up at that place. It takes brains to come up with such a structure and it takes emotional intelligence to get people to gladly do something that will get them killed.

Now apply that to business. Loan individuals and companies can only do so much. But when they unite and form alliances the results are amazing. You can do multinational business without spending a multinational's budget. The Chinese diaspora in South East Asia has prospered precisely because of this system. You help your clansmen and they help you. Wealth is shared and everyone benefits.

An effective businessman needs to think and that's the same for artist and scientist. Brilliant artist and scientist are constantly thinking about their objectives and thinking about how to create.

In Singapore we are very comfortable. There is no need to think, which is why we can only operate in Singapore and we can only go abroad if it's under the umbrella of the government or a multinational. Hong Kong Chinese by contrast can travel and settle overseas and thrive. Why? In Hong Kong, thinking is a necessary part of life. Communist China produces internationally sell able writers in English, a langue China is not known for being proficient in. Singapore has yet to produce a writer Singaporeans find readable.

Does this matter? Well, let's put it this way, more and more of us need to go overseas to seek a living let alone become a winner in life. The rules of the game change when you don't have big brother to think for you and throw resources your way whenever you just call for it. Then look at what happens at home. You lose to either an Indian or Caucasian at the higher end of the market or to China born labourer at the other. Why do we end up losing at home? The answer is simple - the other guy thinks and can see things we are drilled not to see. The other acts, we don't because we've been drilled into understanding that acting without permission is bad for you.

Yes, I get irritated with foreigners coming into Singapore and somehow getting jobs just like that. A lot of them are shit people. But instead of asking for a government - lead solution, let's look at why these guys can beat us on our own ground and let's see if we can work together as lone individuals united by shared ideas and a willingness to cooperate when we need to. My favourite litigator, has done something for the small law firm community in Singapore. He's set up something called Open Law, where Singapore's 600 plus small law firms can share resources and expertise to take larger cases. The idea is based on the analogy of bee-hive where small bees and can gather together and make a bear run. So, 600 plus lawyers can unite accordingly and share cases that were traditionally only available to the big boys. Everyone wins.

Thinking and cooperating individuals are good for society. Sometimes thinking individuals get out-spoken but surely this is worth nurturing if the society is means that society can prosper?

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Exactly is Governance?

Singapore's Law Minister mentioned in a speech to Harvard Alumni that "Good Governance" had helped Singapore weather the economic storm and would provide for an optimistic future for Singapore. That got me thinking - what exactly did the Law Minister mean when he talked about good governance?

Say what you like about the Singapore government but it's exceedingly efficient and for the most part effective at doing it's job. You have to give credit where credit is due. Singapore is not just an economic miracle but a social one too. The streets are clean, the atmosphere is green and you can walk along streets that are mercifully free of beggars. Most of the population lives in decent accommodation and you can do very un-third world like things like drink from the tap. Singapore does not feel like the Isle of Weight with four million people - it feels more like a pleasant suburb of London or New York. Ironically, Singapore seems to be the only place I've lived in where the foreigners are happier than the locals. We, the local population are constantly grumbling about this and that. It's the foreigners who tell us that there's no reason to complain, life is pretty darn good here as compared to elsewhere - and I'm talking about Bangladeshi construction workers, highly paid senior executives from the US and Europe are the ones expressing these sentiments.

Infrastructure is not the only thing the government gets right. By and large, you can do a lot of government transactions online. You cannot just bribe officials and the government acts pretty quickly during crisis. During the SARS period, the government had an emergency plan, which it unfolded when H1N1 came into play. It was also quick to announce a host of measures to ensure the vulnerable were able to bear the worst of the economic crisis. I agree with the basic idea the government has when it comes to helping people - helping them help themselves rather than giving out right cash donations.

Having said all of that, I'm still wondering what exactly the Law Minister meant when he talked about governance. Yes, the government of the day runs exceedingly well, baring that incident of not having a basic window grill to keep number one terrorist in jail. However, one has to ask if he's implying that this government is going to be hanging around for all eternity?

Let's live in the real world here. The government of the day will only last as long as it's ministers and civil servants are somewhat capable. This will not be forever and although the system is seemingly so well designed to get people of a similar calibre into parliament, there is no guarantee that the governments of the future will be as capable as the one we have today. So the question remains, can Singapore deal with an "incompetent," let alone "rogue" government?

In this respect, the answer would have to be a depressing no. Singaporeans are dependent on government decisions to get moving. The civil service is a large employer as are the Temasek Linked companies. You get young Singaporeans like my favourite Young Politician who says,"You need the government to PLAN the economy." - He's not wrong. Singapore's government actually gets involved in selecting "economic winners" for the economy. The situation has been a case of so far so good. But what happens if the government were ever to make a mistake?

There is a frightening lack of checks on government power. The Elected President in theory has the ability to say no when it comes to unlocking the reserves but the theory falls short when the Elected President is a consistently unopposed government servant who does as he is told. Furthermore, the government always has the option of going to the people should the President say no (government has a machinery, the point of having the elected President is that he does not).

The less said about the press to act as an independent watch dog on government power, the better. Editors for the most part are political appointees and part of their function is "knowing" what is "acceptable" news about the powers that be.

Once again, this situation is acceptable as long as the government gets at least eighty percent of things right. But then again, is it getting as much of it right as we like to assume. I mean so far things work so why should complain right? I mean does it really affect me if the top terrorist in Singapore waltzes out of jail and the government's main holding company loses money in dubious investments?

Well, perhaps these things don't matter in as much as they have yet to hit the pocket of the average Joe? However, one has to look at the government's response to these events and if you look at them carefully, there are worrying signs of arrogance and complacency? During the Mas Selamat incident, there was actually a feeling that the Home Affairs Minister should have offered his resignation as a sign of accountability from the top. He didn't and funnily enough the tax paying and voting public got scolded for being complacent for expecting the government to do a job it was elected and paid to do. Then when it comes to the performance of our Soverign Wealth Funds, you find the Finance Minister coming up with spectacular accounting ideas on how the funds actually made money even though a primary school kid can calculate the value of the shares when the government bought into the companies and the shares today.

Surely as a member of the public I have every right to expect honest answers from the government that I help elect and pay for? If the government does not think that it has an obligation to be honest to it's voting public, what does that it say about the government - do they have something to hide and if they do have something to hide can it be a sign of competence? If this how the competent and honest government of the day behaves when it comes to accountability, who knows how future governments will behave, particularly they have the current role model.

Then you have the obvious fact that governments cannot control everything. This is the day and age of the internet. Technology has made top-down, we know it all systems obsolete. It was former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan who said it best, "Our choice was liberalise or die." Back in the 60, it was easy to build economic prosperity. All one had to do was to create the conditions for multinationals to set up shop and employ the masses.

But these days, Singapore is fighting in a different market. China will always be able to make things cheaper and India will always do the outsourcing work better. So what is there left for places like Singapore? Even the edge of physical infrastructure is not what it used to be. Cross to Causeway and you may find, contrary to what the Singapore media may tell you, a place that is fairly modern and slick too. I have never felt unsafe in Johor.

Is there a top-down solution to all of this? I think the best top-down approach is to prepare the people to think for themselves. Singaporeans live relatively well because there are decent enough paying jobs from the government and multinationals - all you have to do is to accept a foreigner as your superior. We accept foreigners here because they seem to have the skills we don't have. But then again, why don't we have the skills necessary for the modern economy? It's a question that good governance needs to answer for.