Sunday, January 03, 2010

Why foreign talent will trounce your asses.

The next book I completed over the weekend is Daniel Pink's Drive.

This book could well be the best piece of work on motivation so far and I recommend a read for anyone who wants to understand people develop the motivation to succeed in meeting their goals.

For particular importance to most Singaporeans is the concept of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is motivation by external factors like bonus payments, increments and various company perks. Intrinsic motivation is motivation by inner forces, such as the personal willingness to work because one wishes to master a skill or find meaning in one's life.

In the old industrial world, problems may be manual in nature so extrinsic motivation used to be effective. Pay a bonus to get more widgets manufactured and you'll likely have a more productive company.

In the knowledge-based economy, workers are there to solve complex problems which may require creativity coupled with some deep domain experience in something. In this economy, once fair wages are established, more extrinsic motivators actually lower the quality of the work and the focus becomes less that of problem solving but getting more rewards instead. All these findings have been proven in psychological studies.

After reading this book cannot help but start thinking about how disadvantageous Singaporeans put themselves in the workplace when competing against foreign talent.

Here's my train of thought.

Foreign talent willingly came over to our shores to seek a better life from their old regimes. They are unencumbered with mortgages. Many rent their homes here and saving a mere 20% of their take home pay may mean earning 6 months in living expenses back home. Working here itself is already the highlight of their lives so they are intensely motivated to work even for a small SME. They can bet their lives on their stint here because failure means that they just get sent home where everything is often 3 times cheaper anyway.

Singaporeans, on the other hand, desperately need to find meaning in their work and daily lives but are encumbered with mortgages, family upkeep and car loans. They need to retire here so their savings rate is generally not enough to have a reasonable retirement. A combination of rampant consumer and mortgage loans ensures that most Singaporeans are obliged to step into the workplace to get their jobs done. As a consequence of this Singaporeans are forced to go for extrinsic rewards and bonuses to keep on living their lives. Compounding the matter further is that our education does not really teach people how to accumulate money or develop a philosophy of life. For these things, Singaporeans need to be self-taught.

When you have a foreign talent population who can afford to be less motivated extrinsically against a local population who has no choice but to crawl into the office, you get exactly what is happening in Singapore today. Many local entrepreneurs like Adam Khoo have even started speaking out against Singapore workers, calling them fussy and less willing to make personal sacrifices for their companies. The Government is torn about the foreign talent policy because having foreigners keeps costs down and business people happy.

I think there are several ways for Singaporeans to turn things around:

a) You need to develop a new plan. The old plan : get a degree, get married, buy a flat and car, have kids then retire and die amidst a sea of consumer goods cannot work anymore with foreign talent in our shores. As foreign talent is unencumbered with costs, you cannot take on more debt and remain competitive at the same time. The workplace demands a dynamic worker who have little mental burdens to solve the most pressing problems for the economy.

b) Do not be afraid of unconventional solutions. If you are single and think that marriage is a financial burden, go ahead and cohabit once you find the right person. If you do not want kids to slow your career down, make that choice and stick with it until policy makers change the rules to make it easier to be a parent. The French have a natural replacement rate because they allow both fathers and mothers to take 9 month leave to look after their kids, Singapore will have to become that that sooner or later. So called old-fashioned Asian values will become a luxury for many of us who struggle to make a living everyday.

c) Once you become unburdened with a Singapore life plan, the tables get turned. You become more motivated to work complex problems and become and asset in the office. You do not need your boss to be always trying to manage you and can even demand better standards. You can set up your own business to hire cheap foreign talent, even compete with Adam Khoo!

But more importantly, you're on HOME ground.

When Singaporeans are as equally dynamic and motivated as foreign talent, Singaporeans can start kicking asses. You know your own home country, can get the best deals and have a network of fellow locals to pick on to meet your career and personal goals. Nothing gives you a bigger network than a stint as a reservist soldier.

But wait, there's more...

Unburdened Singaporeans have a large CPF stash. We can become mobile and attractive workers for any economy. Singaporeans can choose to uproot themselves to work in a different regime. You can work for a more relaxed economy like Australia or New Zealand and find ways to qualifyb for welfare, or you can join a cheaper economy, like retreat to East Malaysia to spend the rest of your retirement days paying in Malaysian Ringgit.

The fact that thousands of Singaporeans who cannot bear that existential angst are leaving the country forever speaks of the effectiveness of this strategy.

Choose the right regime and you'll not only have your savings, your entire CPF fund will be at your disposal.

Now is'nt this a dangerous idea?


  1. Oh wow. I'm glad I stumbled on your blog. A lot of things that you say resonate with me, and maybe this is the reason I feel happier living in a small town overseas than back in Singapore. Everytime I'm back home for a holiday, the materialism of friends and family send me scurrying back to the US. Keep writing your articles and I'll be following you!

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