The changing Singaporean Workforce: A conversation with Victor Mills

Victor is the chief of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce. He is a Northern Ireland-born Singapore citizen, and he shares with FiveStarsAndAMoon his thoughts on the Singaporean workforce.


FSaaM: So what irks you about the workforce?

There are a couple of things which irk me. First – ageism. If you are a PME and you lose your job through economic restructuring and you are over 40, it’s hard to get back into the workforce even if you have the right attitude and are prepared to accept a pay cut and work in a different sector. It is much, much worse if you are over 50. Things have got better with the government’s recent measures to help PMEs 40 and above.

I was over 50 when I got retrenched some years ago; even with all my qualifications, experience; all my willingness to take a pay cut, do different jobs, do anything! I still couldn’t get a look in, because of my age.


FSaaM: So discrimination needs to go…

Yes, we all need to fight it. The fact that hiring managers, recruiters and HR practitioners look at your age and make assumptions like ” you’ll be too expensive because you’re too senior” or “you’ll not be adaptable” ignores your skills, competencies and potential. This is wrong and wasteful. You don’t even get the chance of an interview to dispel these assumptions, because your CV just goes into the bin. This is prevalent in many developed economies. It’s incredibly daft to allow it to perpetuate in a city state where we want to be manpower lean.



FSaaM: The Secretary General of the NTUC had said that Singaporeans need to go abroad. Do you agree this is necessary?

The Sec-Gen is right. Not enough of our brightest and best Singaporean born and bred talent are prepared to go overseas with their companies to build the skills they need to do the top regional jobs..

The reason for this is because life in Singapore is so comfortable – there’s no push factor. The fact that life is not so comfortable in many other countries encourages people to go abroad to build skills and a better life.

While that push factor does not exist in Singapore at the moment businesses need to create a key push factor. They should tell their top talent the following:-

“Look, if you want the senior regional and global business jobs you must be prepared to work abroad for a couple of years to build the skills you need to do these jobs.”



FSaaM: But don’t you think it would be enough to bring the jobs here? There’s no need to travel then!

No – how can you possibly add value to regional operations if you’ve never experienced what it’s like to live and work in those jurisdictions?’

You simply have no value proposition to offer, why would anybody employ you in a senior regional role? They won’t. They’ll bring in somebody else to do that job. And you’ll be left fuming, thinking that your career has been left truncated. You’ve self-excluded yourself because you don’t want to go abroad and build and practise the necessary skills.


FSaaM: What’s your take on this culture of blaming?

Social media has made this (blame culture) worst because everybody has a voice, even the inarticulate have a voice. It is so difficult to manage. You can see that the Government is trying to find a way to manage it: let us measure it, let us not be too heavy-handed; but it’s so hard to get the balance right.

It amazes me how far these things go, how belligerent people can be. We all need to grow up, stop complaining and start offering viable, practical solutions. In other words we need to turn the negative that is the blame culture into the positive of win-win outcomes.

victor mills sicc


FSaaM: What is the worst of these internet conversations?

The awful anti-foreigner bashing that has gone on since the last GE in 2011. It’s very, very harsh. And of course, once the genie is out of the bottle it’s very difficult for anybody to get it back in. But I think we have to try. This is a phenomenon. Singapore never had this issue in the past. It has become extremely unpleasant and you come across it all the time – I come across it all the time.


FSaaM: What is different about these conversations from the past?

The anti-foreigner rhetoric has come about because a few insecure people have exploited our infrastructure crunch. As the Prime Minister admitted in February this year, the Government put its infrastructure plans on hold at the beginning of the century for good economic reasons- but someone forgot to tell immigration and checkpoints which let in 1.2 million people in 10.5 years. This is a large number for any country to absorb and particularly so for a small city state like ours.

So what happens? You’re born and bred here, you wake up one morning; you feel like a stranger in your own neighbourhood! This then starts the anti-foreigner stuff. These issues are real threats to our sustainability.


FSaaM: So in your opinion, in five years’ time, will we be in a better place? Or do you think this unfortunate development will continue?

We will not be in a better place until the silent majority led by business, academia and government combats this in a constructive way by making sure that we send out clear, consistent messages: we are in infrastructure catch-up which is always tough but things are getting better.

The mob frenzy tells us that foreigners are here competing with us for jobs. Why are we so insecure? We are 2.4 million citizens. We will never have enough home grown talent to run our economy. We didn’t have in 1965, we don’t have today. We won’t have in 5, 10, 50 years’ time. We’ve got to get wise and get real and cut this out. The majority of people feel exactly the same way I do but they don’t want to articulate their views because they don’t want to be targets of an online mob.

The silent majority needs to step up and speak out to keep our society from fraying. If we don’t businesses will begin to feel unwelcome. And unlike 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago, businesses now have more choices than ever as to where they can locate in the region. We were the only game in the region for a long time, but no longer. People are prepared to put up with lot of congestion if it means lower costs and a sustained welcome.


FSaaM: What about mindsets? What can we change?

One thing is: widen what we Singaporeans think are decent jobs.

Is it only doctors and lawyers? I mean, there are lots of other jobs. My view is that the role of parents is critical. They need to stop mollycoddling their children and start widening their definition of what a good job means. There are a host of jobs which are perfectly decent and will provide a decent living and room for growth, development, achievement and progress.

This sort of narrowing of options is very unhealthy. It prevents the build-up of a Singaporean core in each sector. Businesses will say that they don’t have enough people and that they need more foreign workers. The Government will then tell them they can’t have them because they’ve maximised their quotas. Then what does will a business do? It will move out if life gets too difficult which will reduce jobs for all of us Singaporeans!


FSaaM: The government calls itself, “a socialist in capitalist’s clothing”. Have you observed this in action?

Since I’ve been here, ’85 and ’86 were tough. The economy took a downturn but we are so lucky to have very bright people in government who could pull the levers, press the buttons and make the decisions to ameliorate the situation within a fairly short time. And the same thing happened at the Asian Financial Crisis, where admittedly Singapore, because of good management was in a much stronger position than its neighbours. Look at the Global Financial Crisis, the Government intervened so quickly and so effectively that if you blinked, it was over.

Perhaps if the government did not intervene so quickly we would have been able to achieve mindset change about jobs faster. But at the same time that’s the government’s job – to run the country efficiently and look after the interests of its citizens. It does this very well.




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