Sunday, January 10, 2016

Singaporeans want an Australian Singapore, not a Singaporean Singapore.

G'Day readers !

If you really think about it, these days Singaporeans want an Australian Singapore, not a Singaporean Singapore. The story in the public is that these days is that Singaporeans are clamouring for more work life balance - what is thought to be abundant in Australia. New workers joining the work force are starting to engage the HR departments differently than the Gen-X workers in the past. Gen-X workers like myself want rapid progress and pay escalation, they just want to claw their way up the ladder. The Millenials tend to be more balanced and want to have leisurely pursuits.

Things got into a spin when NMP Chia Yong Yong replied to a query from a polytechnic student on whether the Employment Act should be amended to give workers more work-life balance.

While I personally do not agree that amendments need to be made to an act to limit working hours of Singaporeans, I actually found Chia Yong Yong's tone quite patronising. While her short reply was logical, it lacked pathos and ethos. Personally, I found her speech distasteful not just because it showed a flagrant lack of understanding of why Singaporeans now want more work-life balance, it is particularly disturbing when a lawyer can go up to a polytechnic graduate and and position his request into that of a trade-off. Chia's message was that if a polytechnic graduate works less, they will lose their competitiveness and cites her clients comments to back her reasoning.

Lawyers work punishing hours. Casualties in top law-firms are real - terminal illnesses and broken families and relationships are aplenty. My seniors who doing their training contracts are working up till 5am in the morning and have to return to the office at 9am the next day. But the legal industry is also one with huge barriers to entry. To get admitted to the bar, you must have a law degree from a limited list which is approved by the Ministry of Law. My seniors who are on-track for equity partnerships know that there is a heavy personal price to pay for success, but there is a genuine possibility of success. More importantly, in my opinion, lawyers are very much insulated from foreign competition compared to polytechnic graduates.

On the other hand, polytechnic graduates expect different life outcomes. Statistically their salaries have only increased recently after being stagnant for two years. Starting salaries are about 40% that of the starting salaries of a lawyer. More importantly, most polytechnic graduates along with other university graduates face a market with very aggressive competition. He can be working alongside Malaysians, Chinese and Indian counterparts - many with Masters degrees willing to do the same work for lower pay.  There is no guild in Singapore restricting workers to a list of just a few polytechnics. In the same way, we Engineers have the same problem. Does IES ever tell the government that engineers must graduate from a list of 15 universities to work in Singapore ? No, we've always had to deal with foreign competition that keeps us drawing lower salaries.

My second argument which I think Chia Yong Yong really needs to think about is that while Singapore workers are competing with foreign workers, Singapore must also compete to keep it's own people from leaving for places like Australia and New Zealand which may levy more taxes but provide more work-life balance.

I had a deep meaningful chat with a classmate weeks ago. I was actually in admiration of his personal success. He married earlier than me and had secondary school-going kids. He has a decent 6-figured annual salary which is government backed and his children are doing one to two standard deviations higher than the median in school. But he feels that he does not have adequate reserves to retire and is contemplating emigration. His figures out that if he contributes a decade to the Australian economy, he might be able to get welfare for the rest of his life.

Chia Yong Yong needs to understand that it is the folks who are doing statistically well are thinking of bailing out.

My third argument is that the nature of work-life balance is that we need it as we get older and reach major milestone in our lives. Yes, the polytechnic fresh graduates wants to consider more work life balance but so does the married person who just had kids. Older folks can't pull in 16 hour days. Based on what I have googled so far, I can't seem to find evidence that Chia Yong Yong has a family of her own.  Is Chia Yong Yong implying that, for the same reasons, a female lawyer who just had a baby would also make Singapore less competitive if she wants more work-life balance ?

So what is the solution ?

I hope readers appreciate that legislation is not the best way to solve problems. Given that I do not work and chose to spend 12 hours a day reading legal textbooks and cases, I might know a thing or two about cutting time spent in the workplace.

The solutions actually lie with ourselves.

As it turns out, the Stock Market can give your your Australian Singapore.

The Australian welfare system provides about $1,000 SGD a month. A portfolio of $150,000 yielding 8% can provide this payment. A Singapore worker can calculate what his taxes would be in Australia and start building a portfolio with the difference in amounts as our taxes are much lower. If you are a fresh polytechnic graduate, you might wish to consider spending your 20s struggling a bit to build a career and establish this portfolio, get some overtime down your belt before you become encumbered by a family and mortgages. All you have is energy and youth.

A young person can forego your work life balance short term and achieve your Australian Singapore goals over the long term.

Ultimately, work-life balance does not occur at one point in time.

There is a time to work like a mad man, and there is a time not to work at all. If you look at your lifetime in totality, you will probably achieve the work-life balance you deserve.

My seniors suffering at the office pulling in 20 hour days may one day just spend 3 hours golf in the future when they hit my age. But that would depend on whether they can resist the lure of conspicuous consumption which we would talk more about one day.

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