Cover Image: Gerald Ang (2nd from the left) with his colleagues.
TL;DR – The Culture, The People, The Opportunities.
People travel for many reasons. Some want to see the world, some want to “eat the world”, and others travel to take some pictures all over the world to add to their OOTD collection. Some travel to escape, and some travel to find ourselves and to learn new things.
While I personally enjoy travelling because of my love of travel photography, CEO and Co-Founder of market research app, Milieu, Singaporean Gerald Ang travelled with the intention of gaining enough experience to start his own business.
“I wanted to quit my job and just travel around the world.”
I knew I was true-blue-blooded Singaporean when my first reaction was to ask Gerald how his folks reacted to that.
Gerald was 26 then.
He was in his first job for slightly under three years. He approached his then-boss with a resignation letter. His reason for leaving the company ? Because he wanted to travel around the world. It took his then-boss less than 24 hours to make him a counteroffer which would keep him with the company and also allow him to travel.
“My parents were very proud of me. They felt that the company really valued me considering that they offered me such an amazing opportunity just to keep me in the company. Being typical parents, they were also worried about my well-being and safety. That being said, they knew it was a very good opportunity for my career progression.”
Even at 26, Gerald knew that was exactly what he needed at that stage of his life. He knew that all the experiences gained from working and traveling around the region were going to help him in his future.
“I always knew that I am going to be an entrepreneur someday. And the experience of working overseas was what I needed to help me to fulfil my plan.”
The original plan was for him to cover four countries, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and the last country which I do not remember. That might partly be because he did not manage to finish the fully intended tour of four countries, or maybe I just forgot some details since we were talking over beer. Fine, it’s Indonesia. I think?
So what happened?
“I love the Philippines. People were warm towards me. They were so nice.”
“I did my part as well to integrate myself with my co-workers. I made friends with the locals, learnt their culture, and lived their lives to the closest possible. I went for an expats event and gave up after just one event. Why would I want to do that? The reason why I felt the need to travel was to meet locals and learn different cultures. I am not going to just stick with other expats. It defeats the whole purpose of working in other countries.”
He was in the Philippines for around a year and next stop was Vietnam where he spent six months.
Things were different in Vietnam as compared to the Philippines, partly because of the situation in the Vietnam office and partly because of their inherent culture. Gerald said in his office in Vietnam, he was not exactly the most popular person. The Vietnamese were very wary of him. They did not like having foreigners in the company. They were guarded and did not trust him. Although it was just a relatively short six-month stay in Vietnam, they did some good work together nevertheless.
“I soon left Vietnam and headed over to the land of a thousand smiles!”
“I had a very good time in Thailand. I met really nice people. I fell in love with the place, with the culture, and the lifestyle. The company wanted me to move to Germany where the HQ is after my tour in Thailand, but I rejected the offer. I told them that I wanted to stay in Thailand.”
With that decision, Gerald gave up his expat status and benefits to become a local hire in the Thailand office.
At that point in time, he was a director of the company. He spent a few years with the company before leaving to start his own business.
“I knew the time was right. I felt that I’ve what I needed and sought. I saw an opportunity, a gap in the industry, and I wanted to seize that opportunity.”
He eventually came back to Singapore and founded Milieu.
“I came back to Singapore. It was a strategic move. I knew it would be better for me to come back to Singapore, considering the fact that Singapore is a regional hub and many businesses have their HQ here in Singapore. I still love Bangkok a lot despite the complicated political scene. It is just different.”
He also shared how he started to appreciate Singapore better after being away for those years. Singapore is stable politically and he really appreciates Singapore for its system. Everything just works!
“The biggest difference in all these countries has to be the culture. It is different everywhere. Every country has its own culture and things that matter to the people. You have to understand and respect that in order to survive out there.”
If there is something that I want to share with the readers, it will be the benefit of working overseas that Gerald shared with me and told me not to tell anyone. Okkkk, he did not really say that. I only put it this way to make it sound more convincing.
“My horizon expanded so much from these experiences. You will look at things differently and think differently.”
“You will learn to think out of the box and look at the economy from another point of view. Singapore is small and what we are dealing with here can be a lot less complex as compared to a developing country where consumers’ consumption patterns are very different.”
Milieu is currently is into four markets with 21 staff and looking to expand to a team of 40 in the next few months. The Singapore-based team has a staff strength of nine, including a Canadian COO and another colleague from India.
“It really doesn’t matter where they are from. It doesn’t matter what age, what gender, what colour, or how good looking they are. It is merit-based. We hire the right person to do the right job.”
“Most importantly, it has to be someone who fits into our culture. A company’s culture is something that I value a lot. You can’t work effectively in an organisation where people do not buy into their culture. I will hire anyone who can do the job right regardless of who or where he is from.”
Before we called it a night, I decided to be cheeky and threw him a curveball since this is currently such a buzzing topic this past week.
Have economic growth and job creation benefited Singaporeans more than foreigners?
“I think that Singapore being a meritocratic country, the benefits and access are almost equal for everyone if you put in the effort to seize the opportunity. This might be an unpopular opinion but benefits have to be seized by the individual, one cannot have the entitled mentality that things should be given to them simply because they are Singaporeans.”
“Regardless of where you are from, Singapore has a very good system that allows anyone who puts in the effort to benefit from. There are already a lot of Singaporean-centric policies and programmes to more than level the playing field for Singaporeans.”
“I think that our Government has done its part and we as citizen should do ours too. If one thinks that foreigners are benefiting more, one should use it as a form of motivation to do better instead of just asking for more help.”
The walk back home
It was amazing catching Gerald that evening over beer. Some of his words were still in my head.
I got curious and checked out the number of Singaporeans living and working overseas. The number has not changed significantly in the past few years, and I also cannot tell from this table who many are overseas for work, for study or other reasons.
Anyway, back to Gerald. Where do I even start with sharing these experiences of his?
After we parted ways that night, I started thinking about his journey and looking back at my own. While I cannot say that my story is half as interesting, but I too have my share of experience dealing with people from different countries. It is not always easy as culture and norms differ.
Singapore is a global city, and while we attract foreign talents, we should also encourage Singaporeans to venture beyond our shores to gain experience. Our Lion City sees many MNCs set up shop here, especially regional offices. And to work in these HQ or regional offices, especially at the more senior level where it involves overseeing the regional or overseas markets, experience is necessary. Without the overseas or regional market knowledge and experience, Singaporeans lose out when competing for positions in these MNCs.
The chance to live and work overseas also expands one’s horizons and builds adaptability and resilience. All these are important soft skills in life.
From Gerald, I can see all of these actualise, And this is why he is doing what he is doing so well, and this is why he is expanding his business outside of Singapore. His previous experience had taught him deep market and domain knowledge and helped him pick the right markets to penetrate. His previous experience of working with people of different nationalities is also helping him when he hires, builds and manages the local teams.
At the risk of sounding mushy and clique, now that we appreciate our own country more and see how the policies and the systems work so effectively, we also lead happier and more positive lives.
Life is not a bed of roses.
We cannot expect things to always work out the way we want to especially when we do not even want to do our part and put in the effort to make things happen. Plan for what we can anticipate, play your part, give it your best and seize all the opportunities. Even if you are going to fail at the end of the day, at least you can tell yourself that you have tried your best and not put the blame on the cards we are dealt with. Using the same analogy, we cannot change the cards we’re dealt with but we sure can play our cards right. Don’t just expect things to happen for us simply because of where we are born or who our parents are.
We’re all responsible for our success and failure.
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