Singapore’s Got Talent (Challenges)

It seems the greatest talent challenge facing Singapore we most often hear about is “there are too many foreigners working here.” Clearly, it is not good for a nation to simply cave to the desire for more foreign workers because it could result in denial of good job opportunities for local Singaporeans, especially when higher paying jobs are involved. Why is this? In this post, I attempt to identify some key contributing factors to this challenge and suggest some helpful approaches for students, workers, bosses and even parents. I will explore the following four factors:

  • education system focus
  • no time to work as a kid
  • not enough time to play
  • availability of foreign management talent

Foreign Workers versus Foreign Talent

Let me make an important distinction: there are foreign “workers” and foreign “talent”. Not to say that workers lack talent, or that talented people don’t work, but there is a distinction between foreigners who come to Singapore due to lack of Singaporean workers (people willing to do the job) and those who come due to a lack of Singaporean talent (people able to do the job). In the case of foreign workers–those in construction, retail, F&B, hospitality or manufacturing operations–the challenges are quite different from the challenges surrounding foreign talent, who are the professional, technical and managerial “experts”. (I did not mention creative talent, because it appears to me Singapore is now quite abundant with creative talent.) While both groups have an upward impact on housing prices and impact certain population trends, the similarities stop there.

So let’s focus on foreign talent.

Foreign Talent

Why is there a shortage of Singaporean talent in the management ranks of non-Singaporean companies? Why do the MNCs rely so much on foreign executives, managers, marketers, and decision makers? Now I know of many very talented Singaporeans in these roles, so don’t be offended. I did not say there is a “lack” of Singaporean management talent, I said there is a “shortage” of it at non-local companies. There are many excellent SME bosses whose acheivements compare with any MNC boss, and who would even outshine them. But it just seems there is a limit to how high local talent can go in a lot of MNCs. Partly it’s because some expat bosses tend to hire “in their own likeness” and only pretend to be grooming a local successor. But still, while there are many talented Singaporeans capable of performing executive roles in large global companies, there are not enough. Not nearly enough. I feel Singaporeans are significantly underrepresented among the top positions at MNCs, and that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Factor #1: Education System Focus

Singapore’s education system is ranked within the top 5 worldwide, and striving to improve even more, with greater emphasis on fostering creativity, innovation and imaginative thinking, and not as focused on memorisation/recall as in the past.

Singaporean students studying at a Starbucks
Singaporean students studying at a Starbucks

Knowledge is power, but it may not be enough when job requirements include developing new approaches to solving complex challenges–innovation. Performance of an assigned task does not usually require innovation. However, taking responsibility for resolving problems, doing more with less (productivity) and finding breakthrough product or service ideas requires the ability to synthesize knowledge of related or unrelated areas, and curiosity to explore non-traditional options as potential solutions.

Learning without thought is labor lost (Confucius)

For many leadership or advanced roles, it is not enough to have “skills” or “knowledge”. What is needed is the ability to apply knowledge and skills (including “soft” skills… EQ as well as IQ) in the right way, at the right time, and to know when a different method should be used. We need to know the desired outcome and the range of acceptable options to determine how to do a task. I once heard a noted management consultant named Daniel T. Carroll put it this way:

The people who know how work for the people who know why. (Daniel T. Carroll)

Rising to career heights depends less on knowing how to regress numbers or to speak a language well. Skills and “how to” knowledge are essential and should not be lacking in a workforce. But those who would aspire to greater achievement need to learn to question the status quo in constructive ways and ask “why”, “what if”, believing there’s a better way to do something, including not doing it, having someone else do it, outsourcing, insourcing, crowdsourcing, offshoring, simplifying, breaking up the job, etc. We too often assume 90% of something is ok and try to fix the 10% we think can be improved. Maybe the thing we’re fixing needs to be replaced or reconceptualised altogether. Instead of improving things from version 1.0 to version 1.1, we should think about what version 2.0 looks like it and fast forward to a much better solution. Beyond thinking outside the box, we also need the ability to influence others to agree. Selling skills are vital, even in non-sales roles.

I believe the Singapore education system now has it right. But can Singaporeans who are already in the workforce unlearn old habits and learn new ones? Can people who were educated to listen and repeat, and whose work attitude is therefore to listen and carry out assigned tasks, as instructed, per correct procedures, learn to be innovative and creative, considering new ways to do things? Can those trained to accept the boss’s instructions as final, learn to engage their boss in constructive discussion of alternatives?

Can bosses reward and recognise those who demonstrate creativity, who try new things and take reasonable risks to test their new ideas, and not punish them for deviating from traditional methods and correct procedures, when they do so for the benefit of the company and its customers? Can employers shift the emphasis from standard operating procedures and focus more on required outcomes, allowing people to think about why things are done the way they are?

Can Singaporean professionals and managers become the big bosses at the MNCs, or will the MNCs continue to bring their expatriates into Singapore for “development” purposes, with the belief that “besides, we haven’t identified any local talents with the leadership skills, creativity and EQ we need in that role?”

Factor #2: No Time to Work as a Kid

I enjoyed earning my own money as an American kid. I’ve had jobs since age 10, mainly during the summers, but even throughout the school year I worked. My dad was an artist and I was one of five children. Few artists make a lot of money. But fortunately, the “American system”–not perfect in many ways–allows ample time for a kid to work and make some money. But it’s not just about having pocket money–I picked up work skills that have powered my career succees over the years.

At age 10, I would get up at 6 a.m. and deliver newspapers on my bicycle to my subscribers around my neighborhood, before going to school. Every month, I went door-to-door to solicit new subscribers and to collect payment from my existing customers. Once a month, the district manager would come by to collect from me the cost of the papers. I kept the rest of the money. If my customers found their newspaper in a puddle of water, they would call me to complain. I would apologise and I could decide not to charge them for it, and perhaps bring them a new (dry) paper. Before I was a teenager, I knew how to sell, serve customers, calculate and collect revenue, handle complaints, work for a boss and I also learned a lot of people skills and self-discipline.

By age 16 I was working summers and weekends in hotels and restaurants as a busboy–setting the table, clearing the table, washing dishes, pouring water for guests, making and serving coffee–and sometimes worked as a dishwasher, or delivering room service, helping the bartender, gathering the laundry and even helping the cooks in the kitchen. I first learned the concept of “performance” and “pay for performance”, because the busboys received 10% of the tips given to the table servers. So I was always very courteous and attentive. I could fold the table napkins in five ways to please my customers. I also had a lot of fun on the job. We had a dishwasher named Jerry who was always grumpy. So me and the other busboys would allow the dirty dishes to accumulate in the dining room, then all at once we’d bring them in to Jerry to wash. It really ticked Jerry off, but it was great fun for the rest of us. We only did that once or twice then we apologised to him, so there would be no hard feelings.

Ages 17 and 18, I worked in a nearby food processing factory, making pudding, pie filling, canned fruit and other food products. I drove a lift truck, operated expensive machinery, fixed glitches (machinery breakdowns) using various hand tools. I cleaned up huge messes, often ones I created by spilling material. My bosses never fired me if I made a mistake, they just made me clean it up and expected me to learn not to make the same mistake again. One day I lifted 20 tons of frozen cherries, manually (an 18kg tin every 10 seconds for 8 hours). I was part of the Teamsters Union and made friends with the shop steward, a black man. So, I earned a lot of money, became physically fit, learned about safety, productivity, cleanliness, union relations (and hence learned about wage, benefits and working hours issues), learned to respect co-workers of a different race, and learned about management styles. I distinctly remember one day seeing a stack of large cans fall over, and without a word, the Plant Manager simply walked over and restacked them. That was leadership by example, and a lesson no business school could ever teach me. We also had some fun. When the boss wasn’t looking we would have some glorious cherry fights. Nothing quite like getting hit in the eye by a ballistic black cherry.

Before graduating high school (age 18), I had operated a newpaper delivery “business”, been a service worker (busboy) and a manufacturing worker. I learned how to work alongside others of different races and foster mutual respect and teamwork. I had seen a variety of management styles and learned good work habits in environments that allowed for a bit of fun while remaning accountable for performance. As a consultant I can understand why I hear about “jobs Singaporeans don’t want”, but I think many of those jobs teach vital lessons, impart many valuable work skills, can be great fun and they are good ways to earn “an honest living”, or put yourself through school, as I did.

I also worked at the high school auditorium as a lighting technician, and learned the importance of having three-phase wiring (two prongs plus a groundwire). Lack of a ground circuit led to several small but exciting experiences with 2,000 watts of electricity coursing through my body. Perhaps it was those unpleasant “shocking” experiences that resulted in my decision to pursue business, not electrical engineering! That was a bad work experience, but I learned from it.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. (Ron Ghormley, former President, Townsend & Bottum Construction)

Let me be clear, I am not anti-education. Although I was a Store Manager of a natural food store by age 19, I decided to finish my degree in Business Administration at Eastern Michigan University, at my own expense. My parents felt their kids should find their own way in life, so it was 100% my decision to get a degree in Business. No pressure from mom and dad–encouragement, yes; pressure, no. My point is, it’s a great thing to get a good education, and I am where I am today because of my educators. I made the right decision to push myself, do the work and get the diploma, because having “the paper” is very important in terms of what career choices you have.

Having the opportunity to work in my early years taught me technical skills, business skills and people skills. I gained loads of knowledge about a lot of things, that the education system is not well equipped to teach. Schools mainly use classrooms, books and testing. Jobs teach through bosses and co-workers, by doing, by trial and error, by getting paid, getting raises and getting thanked by happy customers which is the richest reward there is. These are lessons that stick with you for a lifetime, and they have helped me achieve more than I ever imagined in my career.

If students had time to take a part-time job and still keep up with their studies, would they be worse off, or perhaps better off, when they take their exams, or when they enter the workforce? If work experience for young people is a good thing, what changes would be needed?

Factor #3: Not Enough Time to Play

I’ve been reading the biography of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and others in their geeky teenage circle would spend hours outside school hours tinkering with electronics and seeing if they could come up with cool inventions. When they came up with something, they would immediately show it off to their friends and show them how they did it. Eventually, Steve Jobs learned to the commercial value of protecting intellectual property. But what later made him rich initially made him happy. He and his friends were initially opposed to the “greedy corporations”, being anti-establishment in their beliefs. It was all about having fun. Even Bill Gates, Microsoft founder, built a $63 million home for himself, and he did not finish college because he was having too much fun playing with computers. Good call, Bill.

Thomas Alva Edison is regarded as the fourth most prolific inventor of all time. Besides inventing the light bulb, the phonograph (storing and retrieving music on a physical device) and the motion picture camera, he held patents on a total of 1,093 inventions. Here’s what he says:

I never did a day’s work in my life; it was all fun. (Thomas A. Edison)

Here’s what others have said about the importance of fun, in relation to work:

People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing. (Dale Carnegie)

If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play. (John Cleese)

I have a friend who works for Ford Motor Company, responsibe for leading a large team of Six-Sigma black belt quality experts. My friend never earned an Engineering degree. So how could he be a senior quality leader at Ford Motor? The answer has to do with the way he learned about cars. You see, my friend spent his summers tinkering with cars. It was (and remains) his passion. Even before he was 16 (legal driving age in the U.S.) he had owned several cars. Not only did he own cars, but he took them apart, cleaned the parts, refinished or refabricated worn parts, put the cars back together, then sold them for a profit. He tried replacing steel parts with aluminum parts, aluminum parts with plastic or carbon fiber parts, tried different fuel mixtures, nitrous oxide speed boosters, and every imaginable modification he and his friends could think of, to make the car better, faster, lighter, more awesome. So in meetings at Ford, the engineers would propose answers based on what they learned in school. My friend would then explain why it would or would not work, based on his real world experience. It’s one thing to say “it should work”, it’s another thing to say “I’ve done it before and no it doesn’t work. But here’s what I find works…”

Playing is not all a waste of time. I play Sudoku and Mahjong to sharpen my observation and analytical skills. Physical sports can teach teamwork, leadership, focus and effort, and how to push yourself through discomfort (or pain) but avoid injury.

Can you think of any companies where fun is part of the company’s culture? I think we have heard of such companies. When “fun” companies post an opening, they get hundreds of applicants. Do employees complain about having fun at work? If they could have a little fun, maybe they’d enjoy going to work and be in a better frame of mind.

If fun is important at work, how can employers create an environment where their people can try “cool” things that would benefit their customers, reduce costs, improve quality or make the company a better place to work? How can Singaporean kids get more time to play, find their passions, dream dreams and set their sights on what they want to be when they grow up?

The fourth major factor is the one we are more familiar with:

Factor #4: Availability of Foreign Management Talent

On the high end of the talent hierarchy are the foreign bosses, of which I was one not too long ago. Expatriates, with their expensive compensation packages, are brought in by the thousands each year by the multinational corporations (MNCs) to perform work. There is currently no “labor test” requirement in connection with an Employment Pass application. A labor test would require employers to attempt hiring a Singaporean first before concluding there is no available local talent. If such a test were required, 1) in some cases, a qualified Singaporean would be found, and 2) if not, the MNC could proceed to bring in an expatriate or transfer someone here who is willing to take the role on an open-ended local or “local plus” contract.

Besides lack of a labor test requirement, foreigners are entering to take high-income roles because they feel their career opportunities are better here than back home. Unemployment rates remain very high in western countries (U.S. is at around 7.6%, with many people simply leaving the workforce discouraged, while much of Europe stands at unemployment rates of 15% or more; Singapore’s unemployment rate is around 2.5%). Local recruiters often receive hundreds of applications from foreigners for high-level roles, and fewer applications from Singaporeans.

Should Singapore restrict the inflow of foreign management talent by introducing a labor test, the same way it uses foreign worker levies to restrict foreigners taking lower-paid jobs? If this happens, how many management jobs will be filled by Singaporeans rather than going to foreigners?


The Singaporean education system is producing a nation of well-educated, hardworking people with in-demand skills, mostly at the technical and professional level. Additional efforts and funding are aimed at enhancing Singaporean talent for service jobs and for management roles, positions too easily given to foreigners. But little time is left over for work or play. Available time is often consumed by private tutoring/tuition–more of the same. It is my view as a 28-year HR veteran that formal education should be rounded out with other experiences, including work experience and hobbies or pursuit of other personal interests. This is how people discover their gifts, and can be a means of inspiring them to excel in their studies, relevant to thier own personal ambitions. I knew at an early age I wanted to study business management, so I worked in order to pay my way through business school. I was working as a line manager on the weekends and as a personnel (HR) clerk two days a week. I excelled in all my classes, and was awarded Outstanding Management Student by Eastern Michigan University. Why? I had connected my schooling to my strengths and my passion, which I had discovered through work experience.

Could adjustments be made that would result in a better match-up between the jobs available and the Singaporean talent available? I believe that allowing for some work experience at an early age might enable more young Singaporeans to gain service skills and experiences that might suit some of them on a longer-term basis, and even help some excel in service industries, earn good incomes and make their families proud. Likewise, could time for work and time for play help young people find their passions in life, learn from experience, try new things, and learn how to innovate in areas they naturally find interesting?

My Advice to Parents

Let your children discover their talents and nurture them without applying too many filters. I tell my daughters (18 and 21) to “engage your mind but follow your heart.” In other words, chose an occupation you can put your heart into, but be sure to earn a living at the same time. My father was an artist who could take a pencil and paper, look at a person and draw a sketch that looked more like the person than the person himself. He had no pressure to achieve a certain social status or to make a lot of money. He figured out on his own that he needed to earn a living, so he bacame a Commercial Artist, designing over 500 company logos over the course of his career, and winning many awards for advertising art. He followed his heart AND used his mind to consider how to make a living. Sure kids will do foolish things and need some direction and pushing to achieve their potential. But let’s make sure they push themselves in a direction they can be excited about also. Having a little experience and exposure through work or hobbies can be sufficent to provide the motivation needed to find one’s calling, make smart decisions and chase hard after a career goal, whatever that career may be.

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