TL;DR – “I had a culture shock. I was sure they would fire me at the end of the first week.”
Recently, the debate about foreigners versus locals, citizens versus permanent residents came up again. Some people asked some questions in Parliament. And some people had to answer as a result.
One particular speech resonated with me. Minister Chan Chun Sing’s:
Suppose a Singaporean worker is earning S$5,000 today. We bring in a new investment that can create two new jobs — one paying S$7,000 and another S$10,000. The Singaporean can only get the S$7,000 job today, because he does not yet have the skills or experience for the S$10,000 job. Should we take the investment?
The Singaporean may feel frustrated. He may think he is being unequally treated because the foreigner earns more than him now.
We understand these sentiments, and we also want the S$10,000 job to go to the Singaporean. But if we do not accept the investment for this reason, it will go elsewhere and both the S$7,000 and the S$10,000 jobs will disappear. The Singaporean will continue to earn just S$5,000, and he will have fewer opportunities to rise to a higher-paying job.
What is even more important, his son or daughter, currently in school, receiving one of the best educations in the world, will not be able to aspire to both the S$7,000 and the S$10,000 jobs.
This resonated with me because of my personal experience.
For various reasons, I had to make a drastic career transition. With no formal training in programming, I made my way into the tech industry. I spent three months in one of those programming bootcamps, where I picked up some programming skills. At the end of that bootcamp, I was well aware that I was still quite a noob. Sure. I could create my own website without using WordPress or Blogspot. Sure. I could create a “To do” web app. But I was far from being an “IT professional”.
I was despondent. How was I supposed to get a job in the tech industry? Who in their right minds would hire me?
Thankfully, someone did. A bunch of foreigners.
For whatever reasons, a bunch of foreigners decided to start a tech company in Singapore. They had a good product going. They managed to get customers from all over the world, generating a decent revenue. Sure. They were still burning cash like mad. But because their product showed promise and it’s a high-growth sector, they were able to close a few rounds of investments. And that allowed them to expand, setting up offices in other parts of the world. And also hire more in Singapore, which remained the HQ of the company.
And they hired me. A noob programmer.
The company had a lot of foreigners. The management team was made up of foreigners. The most senior software engineers were foreigners. But there were Singaporeans too. A few fresh grads from our local universities. And a few people like me, whose formal training was only a programming bootcamp.
I had a culture shock. Not only because there were so many foreigners in the company, but because I was probably the oldest, yet probably the lousiest at my job. I was sure they would fire me at the end of the first week.
But they didn’t.
Instead, they taught me. They coached me. No, don’t get me wrong. They didn’t take things easy with me. They expected me to pull my weight. But they were willing to put in as much effort in teaching me as I was willing to learn.
The engineering manager in particular. He is… an amazing person.
He is from a war-torn Middle Eastern country. By some strange twist of fate, he ended up in Singapore. And I can’t express how grateful I am that Singapore opened our doors to him. He really knew his stuff. And he genuinely cared about developing people. And he was so good at teaching and coaching people. In short, he was a unicorn.
In addition to the informal pairing sessions, where he would work through a problem with the less experienced engineers, he would also conduct weekly lessons for those of us who had no formal programming training, to help strengthen our foundation.
That engineering manager was one of those foreigners who had the $10,000 job that Minister Chan spoke about. But he helped someone like me. He made it possible for someone like me to learn and become a better software engineer. No… I didn’t earn $7,000… but I did see my salary grow as I got better at my job.
Not only did I see my salary grow, I was also given opportunities.
I had a few short stints working in the company’s offices in other parts of the world. I got to see how a startup transition into a company with global operations. I got to play a part in that transition, which was a great learning opportunity.
And I wasn’t the only one who benefitted. Other Singaporeans did too.
The company hired a few fresh Computer Science grads from NUS. Singaporean citizens. They all learnt, and became better software engineers. In particular from that engineering manager. But also from the other foreigners too.
One of those Singaporean Computer Science grads went on to work in Facebook. Another landed a job in Google. Not Google in Singapore. But Google HQ. In California. That’s right.
As a result of Singapore welcoming foreigners who are more talented, Singaporeans benefitted, learnt, grew, and became good enough to become foreign talents in USA.
Of course, my experience isn’t statistically significant. For all I know, my experience could be the exception rather than the rule. Yes. I am well aware that there are less than qualified foreigners masquerading as “talents” in Singapore. I agree that we should do more to ensure that the foreigners we bring in are indeed talented. More importantly, we should do more to ensure that the companies who bring in the foreigners have in place systems to train and groom Singaporeans.
But ultimately, because of my personal experience, I firmly agree with Minister Chan:
We cannot open the floodgates and drown Singaporeans. But neither can we close our borders and reject foreigners in our workforce…. The real competition is not between the Singaporean versus the permanent resident (PR) here versus the foreigner here.”
“The real competition is Team Singapore, comprising Singaporeans, PRs and foreign workers here, competing with the rest of the world to give our fellow Singaporeans the best chance possible to win, not just in Singapore but across the entire globe.”
And I certainly hope that we continue to have a strong Team Singapore, of Singaporeans, PRs and capable, foreigners workng here. So that Singapore has a good chance of staying ahead.
Not just for my generation.
But also for the generation my daughter is in, and the generations after that too.
Read more stories from Team Singapore
1. Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh asked for workforce breakdown. It’s good but it’s not enough
The real competition is not between the Singaporean versus the permanent resident (PR) here versus the foreigner here.
2. Singaporean man fell in love with Thailand, gave up expat offer in Germany for a local job in Thailand
This is a story about a Singaporean man who worked in three different countries and came back to build a startup for a market research app.
3. Watching SpaceX launch a rocket and other adventures while living over 1000 days abroad
This is a story about a Singaporean woman who ventured overseas in the States and lived to share her adventures.
4. The Employment Pass (EP) holder who helps underprivileged women into jobs
Meet the EP holder who is not here to steal Singaporeans’ jobs, but to help the underprivileged and contribute to nation-building. She also has some advice for us!
(Featured image via)