Singapore’s widening income gap – From an employment perspective

I was tuning in to the radio (938Live) on my way to work, and there was this discussion hosted by Keith De Souza and Bharati Jagdish on the problem with Singapore’s widening income gap.

Hearing the comments from our fellow Singaporeans (I assume they are), it leaves me wondering if we’ve missed the elephant in the room.

All of us (in Singapore) had benefited from the ambitious, aggressive and spectacular progress of Post-Independence Singapore. And “Yes”. I do mean all of us – the citizens, permanent residents and foreign talents.

Just think of the numerous amounts of employment opportunities that are available in this tiny island nation. Think about the speed of recovery that got us out of the recent economic crisis. Compare that with the other developed nations. We should be smiling.

Accept it – A “dollar” yesterday is not equal to a “dollar” today and will never be the same as a “dollar” tomorrow. Ten years ago, 1 US Dollar will get you 1.7917 Singapore Dollar. And today’s exchange rate? (1 US Dollar – 1.293 Singapore Dollar) **

What about our unemployment rate? – 2.1% in Sept 2010.

What’s the real problem?

Are we seriously complaining about the cost competitiveness of the foreign workforce? A few of the comments were centric around the low wage structure which these workers are brought in to Singapore on. Seriously?

Remember not too long ago. In the early 80s. We used to be competitive. Our wage structure was low and that presented a strong value proposition to the foreign investors in bringing their business to Singapore. We became a strong manufacturing hub.

As we progress, our cost structure increased, causing a certain amount of manufacturing capacity being transferred to lower cost regions. Such as Malaysia, Thailand and China. We probably can remember that we used to have a large number of PCB board and Hard Disk manufacturers. Where are they now?

We’ve changed ourselves to adapt. Moving up the value chain, we focused on high tech manufacturing. In came the Semiconductor, Pharmaceutical, and Solar industries. At an industry level, that’s skills upgrading!

There are many jobs with low skills requirements we see today that employs a large number of foreign workers. Are we really saying that they’re taking work away from us?

How many of us can put our hands up and say “I want that job!”?

Ask the HR managers of companies in the construction, shipping, retail, F&B and hospitality industry – “How difficult is it for them to hire?”

Remember – 2.1% unemployment rate! – Are there that many locals to hire from in the first place?

Alright. Let’s just say that we have enough unemployed local workforce to fill ALL those positions. Are we seriously willing to work at those wages?

Ok. We have the unions and there are talks about “minimum wage structure”.

Let’s revisit the point on overall national competitiveness. Are we prepared to lose more jobs to our more cost competitive neighbors? Think about it. If the cost of port services goes up, the cost of manufacturing goes up, and etc etc. How long do you think it would take for the foreign companies to start spreading their eggs in other baskets?

The majority of us had been too focused on cost. Singapore’s value proposition is in its complete package – Well regulated business environment, political stability, developed infrastructure, efficient banking facilities etc.

What we really need to do is to look at how we as individuals can develop and move into the jobs that contribute at a higher value chain. When an entire nation functions in that model, we will be able to progress with time and improve our earning in that process.

Lastly, there will always be the less privileged group who will struggle to cope with the effects of low income. Let us tackle those issues separately. When the majority of the workforce is pushing themselves up the value chain, the number of people falling into that less privileged group will naturally decrease, thus more focused attention can be placed to helping those truly in need.

**Ref (Exchange rate for 05.01.2011)


The Mathematics of Human Resource – The Anorexic Organization

I work in a manufacturing plant. I’ve been working in the manufacturing environment for the last 7 years.

In the manufacturing environment, there is a fundamental concept of “capacity”.

I’m not a guru in this field, but what I find interesting is that:
1) the output is directly proportional to the input
2) the throughput is somewhat a constant, unless:
2.a) the line is setup differently, resulting in a more optimized setting, or
2.b) there is an increase in equipment/ station, which increases the capacity
3) last but not least, if a production line has a 1000 units output, than 2 production lines would have a 2000 units output

What a simple concept. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out. I thought I knew this when I was in primary school! I was made to write lines for not doing my homework. I had to write 500 lines of “you know what”. If I can do 2 lines a minute, that would take me 250 minutes to complete. That is a whopping 4 hours of writing!

I figured that if I want to catch my favorite cartoon on the TV, I would either have to:
1) Write faster, or
2) Get my brother to help

In the end, I got to watch my cartoon and I’m sure you knew what I did.

That’s the basic, that’s Manufacturing 101.

Let’s move one to Advanced Manufacturing 201.

In a manufacturing line, it is essential to have periodic “preemptive maintenance” (PM). This is to ensure that the line is calibrated and the constants are maintained. Or rather, to ensure that there is no mistakes. We also know that equipment has a certain tolerance level, by which would require servicing.

How could we not know that? Even the car we drive needs an oil change. Ok, I’m guilty of squeezing another 20% more mileage before sending my car in for servicing. But, the fact remains. The servicing is essential.

We also know that the wear and tear for our “high-performance” and “highly-utilized” parts is generally higher which requires more frequent servicing. For example, a car which has run more miles daily would require a servicing at shorter intervals, and a turbo engine breaks down easier than a normal engine.

Hold that thought.

Now, let’s take a look at how organizations plan their human resources. I’m not taking about how the HR team is setup. I’m referring to how organizations setup its department and the people in these departments.

It is safe to assume that with the technology advancement we’ve seen in these 2 decades, the pace and volume of work had increased many fold. The expectations of the employees had increased accordingly.

I was just talking to a someone who’s been putting in many nights’ of work and his complain was that he’s been made to work at 120% of his capacity from the day he joined the organization. And recently, he’s been working much harder as there’s an urgent project he’s been put in charged of.

He’s burned out.

He felt that in the real world, the volume of work can never be at a constant level, there should be a high period and a low one. However, why can’t he be operating at 80% for most of the time and 120% at the high period?

Maybe he’s not that hardworking, and he deserved to be replaced. Maybe.

Have we gone over board with cost cutting measures as such that it really cuts to the bone? Try losing weight to the point that you become anorexic. I bet it isn’t fun. Not to mention that it is not very healthy.

Fat helps regulate body temperature, store energy, and cushion and insulate organs.

According to an article from, the American Dietetic Association recommends that men have 15-18% body fat and women have 20-25% body fat. Healthy male athletes might be as low as 5-12% body fat, and healthy female athletes could be as low as 10-20%.

With that in mind, shouldn’t an organization stop being anorexic and start putting on some healthy fats?

Where are the “PM”s and where are the “servicing”? Have we gone from preventive maintenance and servicing to just replacing?

Last I checked, “Size 0” is so passé.

By Eric Wong – 22 Apr 2010

Strategic Talent Management

Three big words. Put them together, and you’ve got a topic for an article. I’ve always taken a simple approach to management theories. Call a “spade” a “spade”.

Try talking to the HR practitioners in today’s market and you’ll find that the term “Talent Management” is grossly misunderstood and misused.

In some organizations, we often find the Talent Management function focusing mainly on Training and Development. Maybe a little pinch of succession. Perhaps a bit of recruitment.

In other organizations, we would probably find an over-elaborated version of the “Buy-Make-Sell” model. Ok, let me clarify. “Source-Acquire-Develop-Retain”.

Is “Talent Management” really that complicated?

We often hear comments like “It’s a Talent War out there”, “Talents are scarce”. Take a step back, if they’re aplenty, than the bar would have gone up! Albert Einstein’s law of relativity at play here.

So, let’s just call “Training” “Training” and “Recruitment” “Recruitment”. Moving on.

“Talent Management” should be about the business, not the organizational structure. We are talking about “people” here. The beauty is in the uniqueness of the individual, not the conformance in entirety.

If you need to hire and “stock-up” a team of employees to perform a set of operations, just go out there to recruit. You don’t need to fill these vacancies with the Einstein-s of the world.

We acknowledge that the business paradigm changes and if the business’s ability to maneuver this new environment is paramount to its survival. To put it simply, “changing slower than what’s changed is regression and changing faster than what’s changed is progression”.

This means, we need the creative, innovative, thinking, and maybe crazy “talents” to add the unknown “X” factor into the equation. If you get it right, you lead the pack. If you get it wrong, file for Chapter 11.

So, what exactly is “Talent Management”?

Well, it’s the Management of Talents!

Ok, I’m sure you did not read this much for me to tell you that.

Talent Management should be about the strategic deployment of “Special Talented Individuals” within or outside the organization to maximize the chance of creating a winning formula for success.

In simple, proper English, the following must be observed:

1) A good understanding of the business and its directions. (You read it correctly. It’s directions with an “s”. How many times have you seen organizations change its focus and directions? Shouldn’t the Talent Manager be aware of the different potential directions?)

2) Knowledge of which function and role matters.

3) Ability to visualize the impact of the different type of “Talents” under different circumstances.

4) Know who matters in the organization and who matters outside the organization

5) Build a strong network of talents within and outside the organization. (Talent-Pool is a thing of the past.)

6) Track. You can’t own the world. Let your competitors train, develop and maintain your talents. Why can’t we apply the J.I.T (Just-in-time) concept in Human Resource?

7) Understand that a career path can be “In the company” – “Out of the company” – “Back into the company” – “Out again” – “Back in again”. We all know that it’s healthier to have a “wider gene pool”, so why are we making it so hard for employees to return? We should even plan and facilitate employee’s move out of the organization for him/her to further his/her development in a different environment before returning.

Basically, “Track”, “Track” and “Track”. There’s always a time and place for a deployment to achieve best results.

You need to hire when you need to hire. The key is: “Knowing where that Talent is will win you the race”.

Good Night everyone.

Eric Wong.

Where have all the retail superstars gone?

For the last couple of day, having to burn some time at the retail stores, I made an interesting observation.

A large part of our retail workforce comprises of very “fresh” inexperienced personnels.

This may had been the effects of having a lower entry requirement, coupled with the fact that the salami-like profit margin.

Are excellent retail experience only limited to luxury brands?

A close friend of mine had a retail store selling some fashion accessories and stuff. It wasn’t something that’s got a huge margin. It was a small time business with a monthly revenue of just about 30 to 40 thousand.

Having to hire someone to be put in charge of that particular store, my friend decided to go with a young, energetic and innovative chap. The decision was made for a very different reason, but it did pay off. She practically picked the cheapest of the lot.

He cost about 20% cheaper than the rest of the applicants!

However, it was a right decision. He was different. Having no previous experience, he practically tried numerous “interesting”concepts and the revenue improved by 40%.

The first thing this chap did was to connect with his customers. It helps that he had a chatty personality. He practically asked his customers for their preference, and the contact info. In no time, he had a small database of customers and their likes/ dislikes.

This allowed him to place varied the orders according to his customer’s preference. In that first few months, he’s successfully dropped a couple of ill performing products and added a range of new ones.

Further to that, his free time were filled with informing customers of new stock and arrivals via the phone.

To top it off, his customers liked him. They thought of him as a friend and enjoyed chatting and catching up with him.

The story didn’t end well. He’s left for a much better job, and eventually moved out of the retail industry. The revenue growth wasn’t sustainable as the replacement wasn’t like him. She was an experience cashier, but that’s all there was to it. Eventually, my friend closed down her shop.

For every successful retail business, we do need smart chap like him. Not one that just tend the store. However, we often find ourself not willing to pay to retain such talents!

Or, is it because that the retail assistance ranks at the bottom of the food chain? Thus, they were never important or critical to the business?

Either way, this chap did made a difference to the business. It wasn’t a great deal of money that he’s made. But from an operational and business performance point of view, he’s world-class. Immense amount of potential to be groomed as a very strong retail manager. But the retail industry lost him.

I believe that the retail industry is a challenging one. Not only does it face a talent drain issue with talented people choosing other industry over the retail business. Also in its justification of putting someone really good at the job, which in turn will cost more.

So, my question to you today is – Where have all the retail superstars gone?

Ps. Do drop me the contacts for any retail superstars you’ve came across and let’s see how many we can identify!

Eric Wong

When “a dollar there” is no different from “a dollar here”

I am not addressing the economic crisis, nor am I trying to define the value of a dollar.

A few years ago, as an in-house HR business partner, I was conducting an exit interview with a line technician (Let’s call him Simon). I’ve known Simon for about a year or so, and we’ve had lunch on several occasions.

In that interview, Simon was very truthful and straightforward in his answers and I was somewhat brought back to reality on the importance of a good manager and a warm friendly environment.

Simon brings home about a thousand dollars every month. Considering that he’s had a new born baby, I know that he’s been putting in extra overtime hours whenever possible. He is a smart and diligent individual and was given extra responsibilities in his area of work.

However, I knew that he wasn’t getting along well with his department head (Let’s call him John). Not that he’s having any direct confrontation with John or anything. It’s just the environment that was created by John. He practically micromanages every single detail.

John is not an easy going person as well. At times, talking to him can be rather intimidating. Simon doesn’t report to him directly. In fact, there are two other persons in between Simon and John. An engineer that Simon reports to, and a manager that the engineer reports to.

In the exit interview, Simon shared with me his plans. The company that he’s going to is much smaller in size and the salary’s about 20% lower. The overtime may be good, but it’s due to the fact that they’re running a sweatshop. On the whole, Simon will be putting more hours for pretty much the same pay.

How does all this equate to a better opportunity? I am not convinced by the fact that he’s taking a pay cut to join a smaller company and he’s feeling good about it.

He refers to his career move to being released from prison, saying that “a dollar earned there” is the same as “a dollar earned here. I put in the hours and I get my pay at the end of the month. The difference? I don’t have to put up with all this!”

I was sad to see him go. The last I checked, he’s still at that smaller company. He’s a much happier person now. He’s gotten his promotion and had been rewarded with a slightly better package.

I guess we all know that the environment is important, and most people quit on their managers and such. But it will be a while more before we can put all this knowledge into practice. There is no silver bullet to creating a superb working environment, but what I do know is – “A happy employee is a productive employee”.


Eric Wong

Where do you want to go today? – Part 1

I know it is an old Microsoft slogan, but it is indeed the most important question that everyone of us should ask ourselves.

So, where do we want to go today?

How many of us are in our career of choice? And, how many of us eventually grew to love our jobs?

Think back to the days when you were five, did you have an ambition? – How has that changed?

I wanted to be a rice farmer. I picked that up from a storybook and I thought planting rice was fun!

What about when you were 12? – Did that childhood ambition changed? How did it change?

And, when you were 18? – Did you get more realistic? Or, did your dream get bigger?

Did you give up on what you had always wanted to do? Or, did you grow out of it?

The permutation of questions are aplenty, but the point I am driving at is – “Every one of us, at one point or another had a dream on how we wanted our life to be”.

Notice that I did not use the words “Dream Job”, “Dream Career”, and whatsoever. That is because, it is not important at that point of time when we began dreaming. What we had dreamt of is the actual feeling of what we wanted to do.

It could had been the feeling of “greatness” as a scientist discovering the next breakthrough, or the feeling of “nobleness” as a doctor saving lives, or even the feeling of “bravery” as a fireman putting out fires.

What had we lost? Or, what had we gained?

Some says, we had lost our ability to dream, some says we’ve gain a perception of reality.

I had interviewed my fair share of fresh graduates and I felt sad to hear that many had not looked at their lives carefully and plan their career seriously.

Many choices were made basing on the basis of stereotyping expectations, and many were by peer pressures. Others were on the basis of short termed vision and the rest on chance.

To have invested all those years of their life studying, only to jump onto the wrong bus when the time has come to do what they’ve always dreamt of is a case of poor planning and terrible decision making.

Which brings us back to our question – “Where do you want to go today?”

Eric Wong

Where have all the engineers gone?

From the past few years of engineer recruitment, I noticed a common career choice among them. Most of my hires want to move up to a managerial role and not want to perform an engineering role in the long run. Why is this so? Am I looking in all the wrong places or is it a career misconception that in order to move up the ranks, you have to be a manager or director. 

It could have been somewhat of an Asian culture that holding position with certain managerial capacity is sign of accomplishment. Or is it the way engineering jobs are being marketed? Perhaps it is even the way engineering careers are being designed. I sometimes hit the wall when an engineering candidate asks me the question on what’s next after I become a Principal Engineer? What’s the job title after that? Is there such a title as Senior Principal Engineer? When do I get to be a manager? 

Are these title-chases healthy? Do they really know how an engineering career should be charted? Are they really taking charge of their careers? It is quite scary to think that engineers eventually want to manage and not engineer, causing the lifespan of an average engineer to be in the region of 8 to 15 years. The amount of experience that goes to waste when these experience folks take themselves out of the real action, focusing on people issues rather than engineering issues. 

Are there too many engineering folks wanting to “take the easier path” by being a manager? Even that, is a misconception on the role of managers. Yes, we do need good engineering folks who know what exactly is going on to lead, but not all are is cut out for that role! 

How many times have we come across managers whom are promoted beyond their capabilities? How many times have we seen managers not managing but “over doing”? The list goes on! In my opinion, the crux of the problem lies in:

1)      The cultural upbringing which resulted in an over glamorized role of being a manager

2)      Lack of an integration of the different engineering jobs to form a logical career path. This causes most engineering jobs to be rather ill position for long termed sustainability, resulting in a misconception that the end of the road is to be a manger.

3)      The product/ service life cycle of the high tech industry is getting shorter, causing a rapid aging of technical skills. This results in a push for engineers to switch to a more evergreen pasture, rather than looking at skills upgrade.

4)      Lastly, the industry growth and market demand for engineers creates a vicious cycle where a shortage of skilled engineers in a given area is deprived of the opportunity to cross train for other areas. This result in engineers being stuck and over specialized in a single area, thus resulting in lowered market value and volatility as compared to their counterparts in the “management” capacity. 

Thoughts anyone? Cheers

Eric Wong.