Sunday, March 13, 2011

Quick Thoughts on Sunday Times, 13 March 2011

"Not just an 'ordinary' girl from HDB family" - Think p.37

This article profiled Rachel Eng, a managing partner from the top law firm WongPartnership. Interestingly, Ms. Eng said little, if anything, about social mobility in her interview, but the Sunday Times chose to put a spin on it that way, billing the article as "Rachel Eng: Top Lawyer is a study in social mobility" on the front page sidebar. The writer, Wong Kim Hoh, also started his article by citing her as a prime example of social mobility.

Ms. Eng used the word "lucky", "blessed", and "alignment of the stars" in her interview. Granted, none of the these were in relation to her transcending her humble background to becoming a high-powered lawyer, but more in relation to her current living and working situation. But clearly, this is a woman who knows and counts her blessings.

In contrast, in today's edition, the quote from Ng Eng Hen on social mobility can be found on the next page, Think p. 38, "You are the one who can determine your own success - yes, life might be hard for you, but if you try, you can succeed, and other have."

To relate to a previous post of mine which resonated with many readers, I've found that people who transcend their backgrounds tend to fall into one of two categories. One is exemplified by Ng Eng Hen, who takes the view that "If [insert underprivileged person here] can do it, anyone can." In recent parliamentary proceedings, he used himself as an example.

Ms. Eng fits more closely with the second category. Such a person tends to recognize that while their own talent played a major role in their lives, luck, chance, opportunity and just being in the right place at the right time are also very important. They are more likely to, on seeing someone less privileged, go "There, but for the grace of...".

Ms. Eng's example drew from her own pioneering experiences in the then growing WongPartnership, now one of the largest law firms in Singapore. That must have been a remarkable opportunity for her, and she probably realizes that.

Is there a "correct" view? I am not wise enough to answer that, but I am without question more sympathetic to the latter view, that luck and opportunity are just as great determinants of a person's success as talent. The former view has always struck me as being somewhat narcissistic and presumptuous. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ms. Eng is a woman, while Ng Eng Hen is a man. Make of that what you will.

Needless to say, whichever view a person hews to will have implications on their opinions on what kinds of public policies should be implemented. The fact that we have ministers such as Ng Eng Hen (and Mah Bow Tan) in government who come from very humble backgrounds is no guarantee that they will look out for the little people from their perches. Indeed, the opposite may be truer than not.

"Google Looking for a Bigger Town" - Home p.19

Google Singapore is expanding. But as I realized years ago when I first graduated as a freshly minted engineer, you have a better chance of working for Google in Singapore if you're an accountant or a top sales and business development person than if you are an IT professional.

The same goes for any number of technology and engineering MNCs in Singapore. There are engineering jobs available, but the really interesting engineering jobs are simply not here.

If your ambition is to work in manufacturing, quality assurance, batch testing or any number of technical, ok-paying (and perhaps not even that), but relatively dull jobs, you should have no problems.

But if you want really interesting work, the kind that happens in the Googleplex, you can stop hoping right now.

It's a vicious cycle. Because the interesting jobs aren't here, good students are increasingly not taking up engineering. In my time, engineering was a relatively sought after choice (but many engineering graduates did not end up in engineering). Today, as my interns and psychology experiment participants (recruited from local universities) tell me, engineering is a "dumping ground". It is not even a popular choice of study now, much less working in engineering. Popular majors now are economics, business, banking and finance and information systems.

And because good students aren't taking up engineering, there is little reason for companies to relocate high value work here. Not that talent alone is enough to ensure that; there are a multitude of other reasons why high value work does not come here to Singapore.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? Well, it's bad if you're hellbent on being an engineer. But, than again, this is a situation that artists, musicians, writers and designers have long had to live with in Singapore. And they cope with it as best as they can, either venturing abroad or moderating their expectations here on this island.

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