Tag Archives: Columns

When the Going Gets Tough, Turn Around!

Elton John is right, sorry is the hardest word. It is hard to admit that one has been wrong. Harder still is to find a way forward, a way to correct one’s past mistakes. It often involves backtracking.

But when it comes to hard-headed business decisions, backtracking may often be the only thing to do. It makes sense to cut further losses when there is little point in throwing good money after bad. Such containment efforts are routine events in most establishments.

The biggest loss containment effort that I had a personal stake in happened in the US in the early nineties. I began noticing its worrying escalation in a hotel room in Washington DC. I was student delegate in the annual conference of the American Physical Society (APS). Despite the happy APS atmosphere (where many graduate students find their future placements) and the beautiful pre-cherry-blossom weather, I was a worried man because I had just seen a TV commercial that said, “Ten billion dollars for a particle accelerator??!! What the heck is it any way?”

The ten billion dollar project under attack was the so-called Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas, which was eventually shut down in 1993. The cancellation came in spite of a massive initial investment of about two billion dollars.

To me, this cancellation meant that more than two thousand bright and experienced physicists would be looking for jobs right around the time I entered the job market. This concern represented my personal stake in the project; but the human impact of this mammoth backtracking was much deeper. It precipitated a minor recession in the parts of Dallas to the south of the Trinity River.

Similar backtracking, though at a much smaller scale, may happen in your organization as well. Let’s say you decided to invest two million dollars in a software system to solve a particular business problem. Half a million dollars into the project, you realize that it was a wrong solution. What do you do?

It may look obvious that you should save the company a million and a half by stopping the project. This decision is exactly what the collective wisdom of the US Congress arrived at in 1993 regarding the SSC. But it is not that simple. Nothing in real life is that simple.

Corporate backtracking is a complex process. It has multiple, often interconnected, aspects that have to be managed with skill.

If you decide to backtrack, what does it say about your business acumen? Will it trigger a backlash from the top management accusing you of poor judgment? In other words, will your name be so much in the mud that you would find it impossible to secure a job and support your family?

Let’s say it really wasn’t your fault and you had valid arguments to convince everybody of your innocence. Would that make it simple enough to pull the plug on the project? In all probability, it would not, because all big projects involve other people, for no man is an island. Stopping a project half-way through would probably mean sacking the whole project team.

This human cost is something we have to be aware of. It is not always about dollars and cents. If you are kind soul, you would have to move the team to some other (potentially unproductive) project, thereby eroding the savings that would’ve accrued from stopping the project. Wouldn’t it have been better to have continued with the original project, doomed though it was?

In most corporate cases, it will turn out to be wise to shutdown doomed projects. But don’t underestimate the costs involved. They are not always counted in monitory terms, but have human dimensions as well.

It is far wiser never to embark on dubious projects. When you must get involved in uncertain projects, review your exit options carefully. For instance, would it be possible to reshape the project in a different but still salvageable direction?

And if and when you do have to shut them down, do it with decisiveness. Do it with skill. But most importantly, do it with decency and compassion.

Sophistication

Sophistication is a French invention. The French are masters when it comes to nurturing, and more importantly, selling sophistication. Think of some expensive (and therefore classy) brands. Chances are that more than half of the ones that spring to mind would be French. And the other half would be distinctly French sounding wannabes. This world domination in sophistication is impressive for a small country of the size and population of Thailand.

How do you take a handbag manufactured in Indonesia, slap on a name that only a handful of its buyers can pronounce, and sell it for a profit margin of 1000%? You do it by championing sophistication; by being an icon that others can only aspire to be, but never ever attain. You know, kind of like perfection. No wonder Descartes said something that sounded suspiciously like, “I think in French, therefore I am!” (Or was it, “I think, therefore I am French”?)

I am amazed by the way the French manage to have the rest of the world eat things that smell and taste like feet. And I stand in awe of the French when the world eagerly parts with their hard earned dough to gobble up such monstrosities as fattened duck liver, fermented dairy produce, pig intestines filled with blood, snails, veal entrails and whatnot.

The French manage this feat, not by explaining the benefits and selling points of these, ahem…, products, but by a perfecting a supremely sophisticated display of incredulity at anyone who doesn’t know their value. In other words, not by advertising the products, but by embarrassing you. Although the French are not known for their physical stature, they do an admirable job of looking down on you when needed.

I got a taste of this sophistication recently. I confessed to a friend of mine that I never could develop a taste for caviar — that quintessential icon of French sophistication. My friend looked askance at me and told me that I must have eaten it wrong. She then explained to me the right way of eating it. It must have been my fault; how could anybody not like fish eggs? And she would know; she is a classy SIA girl.

This incident reminded me of another time when I said to another friend (clearly not as classy as this SIA girl) that I didn’t quite care fore Pink Floyd. He gasped and told me never to say anything like that to anybody; one always loved Pink Floyd.

I should admit that I have had my flirtations with bouts of sophistication. My most satisfying moments of sophistication came when I managed to somehow work a French word or expression into my conversation or writing. In a recent column, I managed to slip in “tête-à-tête,” although the unsophisticated printer threw away the accents. Accents add a flourish to the level of sophistication because they confuse the heck out of the reader.

The sneaking suspicion that the French may have been pulling a fast one on us crept up on me when I read something that Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) wrote. He wondered what this ISO 9000 fad was all about. Those who secure the ISO certification proudly flaunt it, while everybody else seems to covet it. But does anyone know what the heck it is? Adams conjectured that it was probably a practical joke a bunch of inebriated youngsters devised in a bar. “ISO” sounded very much like “Iz zat ma beer?” in some eastern European language, he says.

Could this sophistication fad also be a practical joke? A French conspiracy? If it is, hats off to the French!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Francophobe. Some of my best friends are French. It is not their fault if others want to imitate them, follow their gastronomical habits and attempt (usually in vain) to speak their tongue. I do it too — I swear in French whenever I miss an easy shot in badminton. After all, why waste an opportunity to sound sophisticated, n’est-ce pas?

Human Virus

On one poignantly beautiful autumn day in Syracuse, a group of us physics graduate students were gathered around a frugal kitchen table. We had our brilliant professor, Lee Smolin, talking to us. We held our promising mentors in very high regard. And we had high hopes for Lee.

The topic of conversation on that day was a bit philosophical, and we were eagerly absorbing the words of wisdom emanating from Lee. He was describing to us how the Earth could be considered a living organism. Using insightful arguments and precisely modulated glib articulation (no doubt, forged by years of intellectual duels in world’s best universities), Lee made a compelling case that the Earth, in fact, satisfied all the conditions of being an organism.

Lee Smolin, by the way, lived up to our great expectations in later years, publishing highly acclaimed books and generally leaving a glorious imprint in the world of modern physics. He now talks to global audiences through prestigious programmes such as the BBC Hardtalk, much to our pride and joy.

The point in Lee’s view was not so much whether or the Earth was literally alive, but that thinking of it as an organism was a viable intellectual model to represent the Earth. Such intellectual acrobatics was not uncommon among us physics students.

In the last few years, Lee has actually taken this mode of thinking much farther in one of his books, picturing the universe in the light of evolution. Again, the argument is not to be taken literally, imagining a bunch of parallel universes vying for survival. The idea is to let the mode of thinking carry us forward and guide our thoughts, and see what conclusions we can draw from the thought exercise.

A similar mode of thinking was introduced in the movie Matrix. In fact, several profound models were introduced in that movie, which probably fuelled its wild box-office success. One misanthropic model that the computer agent Smith proposes is that human beings are a virus on our planet.

It is okay for the bad guy in a movie to suggest it, but an entirely different matter for newspaper columnist to do so. But bear with me as I combine Lee’s notion of the Earth being an organism and Agent Smith’s suggestion of us being a virus on it. Let’s see where it takes us.

The first thing a virus does when it invades an organism is to flourish using the genetic material of the host body. The virus does it with little regard for the well-being of the host. On our part, we humans plunder the raw material from our host planet with such abandon that the similarity is hard to miss.

But the similarity doesn’t end there. What are the typical symptoms of a viral infection on the host? One symptom is a bout of fever. Similarly, due to our activities on our host planet, we are going through a bout of global warming. Eerily similar, in my view.

The viral symptoms could extend to sores and blisters as well. Comparing the cities and other eye sores that we proudly create to pristine forests and natural landscapes, it is not hard to imagine that we are indeed inflicting fetid atrocities to our host Earth. Can’t we see the city sewers and the polluted air as the stinking, oozing ulcers on its body?

Going one step further, could we also imagine that natural calamities such as Katrina and the Asian tsunami are the planet’s natural immune systems kicking into high gear?

I know that it is supremely cynical to push this comparison to these extreme limits. Looking at the innocent faces of your loved ones, you may feel rightfully angry at this comparison. How dare I call them an evil virus? Then again, if a virus could think, would it think of its activities on a host body as evil?

If that doesn’t assuage your sense of indignation, remember that this virus analogy is a mode of thinking rather than a literal indictment. Such a mode of thinking is only useful if it can yield some conclusions. What are the conclusions from this human-viral comparison?

The end result of a viral infection is always gloomy. Either the host succumbs or the virus gets beaten by the host’s immune systems. If we are the virus, both these eventualities are unpalatable. We don’t want to kill the Earth. And we certainly don’t want to be exterminated by the Earth. But those are the only possible outcomes of our viral-like activity here. It is unlikely that we will get exterminated; we are far too sophisticated for that. In all likelihood, we will make our planet uninhabitable. We may, by then, have our technological means of migrating to other planetary systems. In other words, if we are lucky, we may be contagious! This is the inescapable conclusion of this intellectual exercise.

There is a less likely scenario — a symbiotic viral existence in a host body. It is the kind of benign life style that Al Gore and others recommend for us. But, taking stock of our activities on the planet, my doomsday view is that it is too late for a peaceful symbiosis. What do you think?

Rumour Mills

Employees seek insights into their organization’s heading. And they should, because what their organization does has a direct impact on their well-being. If your organization is planning to retrench 50% of its staff, for instance, you’d better start looking for new job right away.

Who do you turn to when you pine for information? Your management would have you listen to them. From the employee’s perspective, this may not be the smartest move. But fret not, there is an alternative.

There is a city underground. Parallel to the world of corporate memos and communication meetings, this rumour city trades information, often generating it as needed.

Employees flock to the rumour mills, not out of their inherent malevolence for their employers, but because of a well-founded and mutual mistrust. Management tends to be cautious (and therefore less than candid) with their announcements, while over 80% of office rumours turn out to be accurate, as some studies show.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Suppose five years ago, your CEO took to the podium and declared that there would be absolutely no retrenchments. How many of you would have believed it? Those who believed would almost certainly wish they had listened to the grapevine instead.

This credibility gap that a typical management team suffers from can be addressed only though open and candid communication. Therein lies the rub. The management cannot always be as candid as they would like to be. And, they certainly cannot afford to be as candid as the employees would like them to be.

Lack of candour in an atmosphere of uncertainty breeds rumour. Rumours, as defined in psychology, are hypotheses with widespread impact. They abound when the management refuses to trust the employees with strategic information. This lack of trust and information leaves them with no choice but to interpret the developments themselves. In such interpretations lie the origins of office rumours.

Rumours are not to be confused with gossip. While rumours are based on conjecture and are presented as future, corporate-wide eventualities, gossip can be idle or with malicious intent directed at individuals. And gossip is usually presented as fact. In highly competitive settings, gossip can inflict irreparable damage on unsuspecting victims.

Once a rumour attains a high level of credibility, the top brass will be forced to talk. But the talk has to be candid and serious. And it has to be timely. If they wait for too long, their attempts at a tête-à -tête would resemble feeble attempts at damage control. And if the talk is a mere torrent of clichés and rhetoric, it will be taken as an effort to gloss over potentially catastrophic changes. In fact, such weak communication fuels more rumour than it quells.

Given that critical job-related information usually flows down the grapevine, the employees are going to talk. The only sure-fire strategy for any management is to make use of the underground rumour millthe classicif you can’t beat’em, join’em paradigm.

If you are a part of the top brass, here is what you can do. Circulate as much accurate and timely information as you possibly can. If you cannot do it officially through formal channels, try informal ones, such as lunches and pantries. This way, you can turn the rumour mills to serve your purpose rather than let them run amok.

Do not underestimate the power of the grapevine, lest all your corporate communication efforts should come to naught.

Stress and a Sense of Proportion

How can we manage stress, given that it is unavoidable in our corporate existence? Common tactics against stress include exercise, yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, reprioritizing family etc. To add to this list, I have my own secret weapons to battle stress that I would like to share with you. These weapons may be too potent; so use them with care.

One of my secret tactics is to develop a sense of proportion, harmless as it may sound. Proportion can be in terms of numbers. Let’s start with the number of individuals, for instance. Every morning, when we come to work, we see thousands of faces floating by, almost all going to their respective jobs. Take a moment to look at themeach with their own personal thoughts and cares, worries and stresses.

To each of them, the only real stress is their own. Once we know that, why would we hold our own stress any more important than anybody else’s? The appreciation of the sheer number of personal stresses all around us, if we stop to think about it, will put our worries in perspective.

Proportion in terms of our size also is something to ponder over. We occupy a tiny fraction of a large building that is our workplace. (Statistically speaking, the reader of this column is not likely to occupy a large corner office!) The building occupies a tiny fraction of the space that is our beloved city. All cities are so tiny that a dot on the world map is usually an overstatement of their size.

Our world, the earth, is a mere speck of dust a few miles from a fireball, if we think of the sun as a fireball of any conceivable size. The sun and its solar system are so tiny that if you were to put the picture of our galaxy as the wallpaper on your PC, they would be sharing a pixel with a few thousand local stars! And our galaxydon’t get me started on that! We have countless billions of them. Our existence (with all our worries and stresses) is almost inconceivably small.

The insignificance of our existence is not limited to space; it extends to time as well. Time is tricky when it comes to a sense of proportion. Let’s think of the universe as 45 years old. How long do you think our existence is in that scale? A few seconds!

We are created out of star dust, last for a mere cosmological instant, and then turn back into star dust. DNA machines during this time, we run unknown genetic algorithms, which we mistake for our aspirations and achievements, or stresses and frustrations. Relax! Don’t worry, be happy!

Sure, you may get reprimanded if that report doesn’t go out tomorrow. Or, your supplier may get upset that your payment is delayed again. Or, your colleague may send out that backstabbing email (and Bcc your boss) if you displease them. But, don’t you see, in this mind-numbingly humongous universe, it doesn’t matter an iota. In the big scheme of things, your stress is not even static noise!

Arguments for maintaining a level of stress all hinge on an ill-conceived notion that stress aids productivity. It does not. The key to productivity is an attitude of joy at work. When you stop worrying about reprimands and backstabs and accolades, and start enjoying what you do, productivity just happens. I know it sounds a bit idealistic, but my most productive pieces of work happened that way. Enjoying what I do is an ideal I will shoot for any day.

Knowledge Silos

We know a lot. By “we,” I mean humanity as a whole. We know so much that it is impossible for any one of us to know more than a fraction of our total knowledge. This is why we specialize.

Specialization is good. It lets us cut deep into a specific field of endeavor; but at the expense of a broad overview of everything, naturally. Specialization is expected of professionals. You wouldn’t be happy if you found out that your dentist is, in fact, a well-known philosopher as well. Or that your child’s ENT surgeon secretly teaches astrophysics in the local university.

Isn’t there a danger lurking behind our habit of demanding super specialized silos of knowledge? One obvious danger is the loss of synergy and potential innovation. A case in pointa particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) faces the problem of accessing various files on different computers and networks. Being conversant in computing issues, the physicist devices a nice way of describing the file (or, as it is known now, the resource) and suddenly the first URL (Universal Resource Locator) is born. The rest is historywe have the World Wide Web, the Internet. Fifteen years later, you have e-commerce and YouTube!

If CERN had insisted that their physicists do only physics and leave their computing problems to the IT department, the Internet may not have materialized at all. Or, it may have taken a lot longer to materialize.

The need for specialization is not limited to individuals. It permeates into the modern workplace in the form of a typical division of labor such as HR, Finance, IT and Business. This division has worked well for ages. But every once in a while, the expertise in such silos becomes so split and scattered that the organization loses sight of its basic objective. People in the silos begin work against each other, competing for resources and recognition, rather than collaborating for common success.

The most common pariah in a typical organization is the IT department. These poor folks always get shouted at if anything at all goes wrong in the system. But when everything is working fine, nobody even notices them. In today’s age of ubiquitous computer literacy, why not assume a bit of system responsibility so that the turnaround time in PC troubleshooting (and consequently productivity) can be improved?

In fact, we know why. When it comes to computers, there is no limit to how bad things can get. As the IT proverb says, to err is human, but to completely foul up things requires a computer. End users may screw up the system so completely that even a competent IT department (a rare commodity) may find it impossible to restore normalcy. But, in order to fight this self-destructive (though well-intentioned) tendency, IT departments have gone to the other extreme of making it so bureaucratic and practically impossible to get their help in anything at all!

Another group that gets a bad rap in a highly regulated organization is the auditors. Their thankless job is to look over everybody’s shoulder and make sure that they are following the rules of the game (or rather, complying with policies and regulations). Auditorsnoble intentions get eclipsed by one fatal flaw: they seem to measure their success by how many violations they can find. Instead of working hand in hand with those being audited, the auditors come across as though they are conspiring against the rest.

There is productivity to be gained by blurring the edges of rigid silos in organizations. When silos talk to each other, teamwork happens and those in the silos realize that they all work toward a common goal.

Internet Reading

Major changes are afoot. They have been afoot for the last twenty years. I’m talking about how we learn things, how we read, how we do basic arithmetic and so on.

In high school, I used logarithm tables to work out results in physics and chemistry experiments. Calculators were not allowed. Though inconvenient, this practice honed my arithmetic skillsskills that calculators and spreadsheets have eroded by now.

Similar erosion is taking place in our reading skills as well. We don’t read to retain information or knowledge any more. We search, scan, locate keywords, browse and bookmark. The Internet is doing to our reading habits what the calculator did to our arithmetic abilities.

Easy access to information is transforming our notion of (dare I say, respect for?) knowledge in a fundamental way. In a knowledge economy, knowledge is fast becoming a cheap commodity. We don’t need to know stuff any more; we just need to know how to find it.

I was talking to a lecturer the other day. According to him, a good lecturer is not the one who knows most and has a deep understanding of the subject, but the one that can locate the answer the fastest.

The power of instant information came with the Internet, which made experts of all of us. We can now make intelligent comments and informed decisions on anything.

Suppose, for instance, your child’s doctor recommends the proceduremyringotomy,” quite possibly something you have never heard of before. But you can Google it, read (sorry, browse) the first couple of search results, and you will know the rationale behind the doctor’s advice, the exact procedure, its risk factors and benefits, and so on. In ten minutes, you will know what took the doctor years of hard work to learn.

This easy access to knowledge may, quite mistakenly, diminish your respect for the medical degree. This diminished reverence for knowledge is unwise; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A doctor’s expertise is not so much in memorizing a webpage worth of information, but also in knowing all the special circumstances where that information doesn’t apply. Besides, the webpage you happened to read may be just plain wrong. We should be careful not to mistake easy information for deep knowledge. Let’s guard our respect for true knowledge and wisdom despite our access to ready information.

Such misguided lack of respect is evident in the workplace as well, where managers think they can always hire specialized knowledge at will. I had a friend who was planning to roll out a product using Bluetooth, back when it was an emerging technology. I pointed out the obvious flaw in his proposalhe didn’t know much about Bluetooth. His reply was, “No big deal! I’ll just hire somebody who does!”

My worry is, when everybody wants to hire a Bluetooth expert and nobody wants to know how it works, there won’t be an expert any longer.

Knowledge is not cheap, although our easy access to it through the Internet may indicate otherwise. When we all become users of information, our knowledge will stop at its current level, because nobody will be creating it any more.

We are not there yet, but I worry that we are heading that way. I worry about the support structure of our knowledge base. How will our knowledge empire stand when all its foundations are gone?

Married to the JobTill Death Do Us Part?

Stress is as much a part of our corporate careers as death is a fact of life. Still, it is best to keep the two (career and death) separate. This is the message that was lost on some hardworking young souls here who literally worked themselves to death. So do a lot of Japanese, if we are to believe the media.

The reason for death in sedentary jobs is the insidious condition called deep vein thrombosis. This condition develops because of extended hours spent sitting, when a blood clot forms in the lower limbs. The clot then travels to the vital organs in the upper body, where it wreaks havoc including death.

The trick in avoiding such an untimely demise, of course, is not to sit for long. But that is easier said than done, when job pressure mounts, and deadlines loom.

Here is where you have to get your priorities straight. What do you value more? Quality of life or corporate success? The implication in this choice is that you can’t have both, as illustrated in the joke in investment banking that goes like: “If you can’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday!”

You can, however, make a compromise. It is possible to let go a little bit of career aspirations and improve the quality of life tremendously. This balancing act is not so simple though; nothing in life is.

Undermining work-life balance are a few factors. One is the materialistic culture we live in. It is hard to fight that trend. Second is a misguided notion that you canmake it” first, then sit back and enjoy life. That point in time when you are free from worldly worries rarely materializes. Thirdly, you may have a career-oriented partner. Even when you are ready to take a balanced approach, your partner may not be, thereby diminishing the value of putting it in practice.

These are factors you have to constantly battle against. And you can win the battle, with logic, discipline and determination. However, there is a fourth, much more sinister, factor, which is the myth that a successful career is an all-or-nothing proposition, as implied in the preceding investment banking joke. It is a myth (perhaps knowingly propagated by the bosses) that hangs over our corporate heads like the sword of Damocles.

Because of this myth, people end up working late, trying to make an impression. But an impression is made, not by the quantity of work, but by its quality. Turn in quality, impactful work, and you will be rewarded, regardless of how long it takes to accomplish it. Long hours, in my view, make the possibility of quality work remote.

Such melancholy long hours are best left to workaholics; they keep working because they cannot help it. It is not so much a career aspiration, but a force of habit coupled with a fear of social life.

To strike a work-life balance in today’s dog eat dog world, you may have to sacrifice a few upper rungs of the proverbial corporate ladder. Raging against the corporate machine with no regard to the consequences ultimately boils down to one simple realizationthat making a living amounts to nothing if your life is lost in the process.

Spousal IndifferenceDo We Give a Damn?

After a long day at work, you want to rest your exhausted mind; may be you want to gloat a bit about your little victories, or whine a bit about your little setbacks of the day. The ideal victim for this mental catharsis is your spouse. But the spouse, in today’s double income families, is also suffering from a tired mind at the end of the day.

The conversation between two tired minds usually lacks an essential ingredientthe listener. And a conversation without a listener is not much of a conversation at all. It is merely two monologues that will end up generating one more setback to whine aboutspousal indifference.

Indifference is no small matter to scoff at. It is the opposite of love, if we are to believe Elie Weisel. So we do have to guard against indifference if we want to have a shot at happiness, for a loveless life is seldom a happy one.

Where got time?” ask we Singaporeans, too busy to form a complete sentence. Ah… time! At the heart of all our worldly worries. We only have 24 hours of it in a day before tomorrow comes charging in, obliterating all our noble intentions of the day. And another cycle begins, another inexorable revolution of the big wheel, and the rat race goes on.

The trouble with the rat race is that, at the end of it, even if you win, you are still a rat!

How do we break this vicious cycle? We can start by listening rather than talking. Listening is not as easy as it sounds. We usually listen with a whole bunch of mental filters turned on, constantly judging and processing everything we hear. We label the incoming statements as important, useful, trivial, pathetic, etc. And we store them away with appropriate weights in our tired brain, ignoring one crucial factthat the speaker’s labels may be, and often are, completely different.

Due to this potential mislabeling, what may be the most important victory or heartache of the day for your spouse or partner may accidentally get dragged and dropped into your mind’s recycle bin. Avoid this unintentional cruelty; turn off your filters and listen with your heart. As Wesley Snipes advises Woody Herrelson in White Men Can’t Jump, listen to her (or him, as the case may be.)

It pays to practice such an unbiased and unconditional listening style. It harmonizes your priorities with those your spouse and pulls you away from the abyss of spousal apathy. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. It takes years of practice to develop the proper listening technique, and continued patience and deliberate effort to apply it.

Where got time?” we may ask. Well, let’s make time, or make the best of what little time we got. Otherwise, when days add up to months and years, we may look back and wonder, where is the life that we lost in living?

How Much is Talent Worth?

Singapore needs foreign talent. This need is nothing to feel bad about. It is a statistical fact of life. For every top Singaporean in any fieldbe it science, medicine, finance, sports or whateverwe will find about 500 professionals of equal caliber in China and India. Not because we are 500 times less talented, just that they have 500 times more people.

Coupled with overwhelming statistical supremacy, certain countries have special superiority in their chosen or accidental specializations. We expect to find more hardware experts in China, more software gurus in India, more badminton players in Indonesia, more entrepreneurial spirit and managerial expertise in the west.

We need such experts, so we hire them. But how much should we pay them? That’s where economics comes indemand and supply. We offer the lowest possible package that the talent would bite.

I was on an expatriate package when I came to Singapore as a foreign talent. It was a fairly generous package, but cleverly worded so that if I became alocal” talent, I would lose out quite a bit. I did become local a few years later, and my compensation diminished as a consequence. My talent did not change, just the label fromforeign” to “local.

This experience made me think a bit about the value of talent and the value of labels. These values translate to compensation packages that can be ordered, from high to low, as: Western (Caucasians), Western (of Asian origin), Singaporean, Asian (Chinese, Indian, etc.).

I’m not saying that all Caucasians in Singapore do better than all Indians and Chinese in terms of income; but the trend is that for the same talent, Caucasians tend to be better compensated that their Asian counterparts. Nothing wrong with thatit’s all about demand and supply, and the perception of value and such economic fundamentals. Besides, this compensation scheme has worked well for us so far.

However, the locals are beginning to take note of this asymmetric compensation structure. When I was considering hiring a Caucasian, my ex-boss commented, “These Ang-Mos, they talk big in meetings and stuff, but don’t do any work!” He may have oversimplified; I know manyAng-Moswho are extremely talented and fully deserve the higher-than-local compensation they enjoy. But this perceived disparity between what the talent is worth and how much it costs (as depicted in the movie I Not Stupid) is beginning to hurt employee loyalty to such an extent that firms are experiencing staff retention issues when it comes to local talents.

The solution to this problem is not a stricter enforcement of the confidentiality of salaries, but a more transparent compensation scheme free of anomalies that can be misconstrued as unfair practices. Otherwise, we may see an increasing number of Asian nationals using Singapore as a stepping stone to greener pastures. Worse, we may see locals seeking level playing fields elsewhere.

Let’s hire the much needed talent whatever it costs; but let’s not mistake labels for talent.