Sunday, February 19, 2012

The remarkable Singaporean work ethic

In a space of 2 weeks, I had 3 different friends, in separate conversations, relate how hard it was to find Singaporeans to work with at work, and what a shame it was, because oftentimes, the foreigner colleagues they had to deal with had a poor ethic, were more concerned with political machinations in the office than getting things done, or were simply incompetent at what they had been hired to do.

And in many cases, they felt that they had to pick up the slack in order for any headway to be made at work. One friend was a manager at an IT firm who still had to do coding himself on occasion for lack of available expertise. Another was an IT recruiter who could see the consequences of his boss relying too heavily on a Filipino colleague, a colleague who was extremely political, clannish, and who would, he surmised, eventually leave the company for a better offer, taking all his Filipino cohorts and accounts en masse with them. Yet another friend was a doctor who frequently picked up after her less meticulous foreigner colleagues because, "otherwise, it's the patient who suffers".

Now, I have to stress that these 3 friends of mine all stated that not all foreigners that they worked with are thus so, and that they knew on a personal level examples of great people from various nationalities that they would be happy to work with. So, these 3 friends of mine were neither the xenophobic nor the ultra-nationalistic type.

The interesting thing was that despite their misgivings of some of their...less professional colleagues (and just as a sidenote: Indians from India and Pinoys tended to the most frequent targets of their venting, perhaps because of these nationalities' propensity to talk up a good show but not actually delivering), my friends all seemed much more focused on getting their jobs done, and done properly, than suing for some fairness at work, or for their less professional colleagues to be forced to live up to higher standards.

I could understand the logic behind such thinking, since as my doctor friend did put it, if she didn't pick up the slack, the direct result might well be a poor patient outcome, which nobody wants to see. Still, I couldn't help but marvel that Singaporeans, on the whole (and exceptions of course do exist everywhere), are quite hardworking and responsible, and perhaps to our own detriment, generally respectful of authority and non-confrontational.

No wonder those friends of mine who were in a position to hire lamented that they could find relatively few qualified Singaporeans to hire! And those that were not hiring managers did state that they would prefer to work with more Singaporeans.

I used to think that more foreigners meant more competition for locals at work, that Singaporeans would have to up their game, and perhaps end up working longer and harder. Now, I guess, the picture can be much more complex than that.

Having more foreigners may also mean lowered productivity, as not all foreigner hires are quality hires, and the resulting burden of greater work stress may fall disproportionately onto the responsible Singaporean shoulders.

It's interesting to speculate how much our diminished productivity growth in recent years has been due to our insourcing of cheap, unskilled labor, and how much of it has been due to the lack of quality people that we bring into the country that nonetheless take up middle class and middle income jobs.

If Singaporeans were once lauded as the world's most hardworking and productive workforce, it should hardly come as a surprise that as the proportion of Singaporeans that comprise it reduces, the quality of the workforce correspondingly diminishes