Notes from Singapore

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I am writing this piece in Singapore, venue of a summit for human resource management professionals in Asia which I am attending. The last time I was in this island republic was in the 1990s. I remembered being awed and amazed at the kind of progress this country was making then. When I arrived here last Tuesday, I almost wept with envy. Singapore has clearly left the Philippines behind in so many ways.

The reasons Singapore is so successful have been written about and discussed extensively. Of course a large part of its success is attributed to Lee Kuan Yew who provided Singaporeans a compelling vision and steadfast stewardship.

But Singapore’s success story boils down to one key factor: A human resource management agenda that put people development at the center of its national development plan. Singapore acknowledged very early on that people—Singaporeans—were its only lasting source of competitive advantage and consequently put in place a comprehensive program of action that aimed to develop the competencies and cultivate necessary values such as love of country and discipline. They invested heavily in the education of their children and spent a lot of effort teaching them the right values. Malaysia copied the same strategy and even India has jumped into the bandwagon.

I met up with a number of Filipinos who occupy middle-management positions in various companies here and validated two things. First, that many of our competent middle managers and information technology experts are being siphoned off the Philippines quicker than we could train them—no wonder we’re having difficulty filling up middle management positions in the Philippines. Most of our competent managers are in Singapore. Second, there are too many job openings in this country—they have tens of thousands of jobs that they are unable to fill.

Singapore’s laws are without doubt employer-friendly; they don’t believe in protectionism. The net result is that employers are not scared of expanding operations, which results in the creation of more jobs. Truly, if people have jobs and there are more job opportunities out there to choose from, people stop complaining about labor conditions— when they become disenchanted, they move to another company that offers better, friendlier, more competitive working conditions. Companies are forced to come up with better compensation packages and benefits plans to hold on to key talent.

This is something that our lawmakers need to think about: The solution is not to pass more laws that restrict employers and impact negatively on our competitiveness because what these do is simply tighten the job market some more. What we need is to create more jobs so that people have more options. Unfortunately, many of our lawmakers cannot see beyond their noses to see things from a more macro and strategic perspective.

I went to a McDonald’s store for breakfast last Saturday and was heartened to note that the restaurant’s crew included senior citizens in their 60s or 70s. I also noted that senior citizens were hired in many stores and restaurants in the city; many of the cab drivers are in fact people in their fifties or sixties. I was told they are better drivers because they are more careful and more solicitous. There are jobs even for senior citizens!

Let’s repeat this in the hope that our leaders get the message: If we focus on enhancing our competitiveness, everything else will follow naturally.

Anyway. Just to illustrate the vast differences in the way Singaporeans conduct their business compared to how we do it, the news items that hogged newspaper headlines here all week here were the efforts of government to reduce noise pollution emanating from their MRT trains, the outrage over the “rude” treatment two Singaporean women received from Malaysian guards at the Singapore-Malaysian border, the announcement of a former Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister that he wasn’t running for President of the country, and the Pink Dot mass action of the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people in Singapore.

Sure, there were also other “sensational” stories about conflict of opinions over an infant who supposedly died of “shaken baby syndrome” as well as stories that would qualify as tabloid material. These stories were buried in the inside pages of newspapers—not splashed across the front pages like they were matters of grave national import.

Singapore’s Land Transport Authority announced that it was putting in place measures to reduce the noise that emanated from the trains that crisscrossed the island from the early hours of the morning to midnight everyday. One can only wish that our authorities manifest the same level of concern for Filipinos who suffer from far worse aggravations.

I live a block away from the South Superhighway in Manila and quite near the railway of the Philippine National Railway Corporation. I am an authority when it comes to the level of noise pollution inconsiderate drivers and dilapidated railways and trains can generate!

Many drivers honk their cars unnecessarily even late at night and often for no reason really. Drivers here honk their cars when the light turns green, when they want to call the attention of another vehicle, when they have to summon an ambulant vendor, or when they are frustrated or exasperated. People don’t seem to realize that doing so adds up to noise pollution. And then there are the sirens of police cars, ambulances, firetrucks, etc—that are played up at maximum volume even when there is no need to do so such as when there is no traffic on the road! Those who live near the railways of the PNR and even of the LRT and MRT system can attest that these trains generate noise that can be reduced if only the authorities have empathy for those who reside nearby the tracks.

Many Singaporeans were outraged over the rude treatment two Singaporean women received at the hands of Malaysian border guards recently. The two women inadvertently crossed the border without having their passports stamped and they were handcuffed, made to strip, and do squats. The incident ignited a swift diplomatic action from the Singaporean government. Compare this to the way the Philippine government had to be pressured to do something about the treatment of two Filipina women who were mistaken for drug couriers in Indonesia.

What really caught my attention over the “withdrawal” of George Yeo from Singapore’s presidential contest was that he made the announcement in his Facebook account. He did not grant interviews to media nor subject himself to a public grilling. This illustrated the power of social media in countries like Singapore where everybody owns a laptop and has access to the Internet.

Finally, Singapore seemed to have made major progress in terms of being more tolerant of diversity issues. Last Saturday, the Singapore LGBT community and their friends and supporters gathered at a park to form a giant pink dot as a form of protest for government repression of their rights and liberties.


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