Sunday, August 13, 2006

Separation Anxieties

According to Zaobao, MP Seng Han Thong had urged Comfort-Delgro to release the reasons why it terminated the contract of the ex-cabby so that the public is aware of what transpired 4 years ago.

This is alarming news.
From what I understand, such matters are private and confidential. In fact, I was surprised a Comfort spokesperson actually told the press why the ex-cabby was terminated when the news first broke last week.

The question I have is : Does the 'private and confidential' contract continue to hold even after one had left the company? If not, this will be a watershed development.

By releasing such information, Comfort-Delgro will be signaling a new employer-employee compact.
If ex-employers start releasing private and confidential information, you can expect ex-employees to jump into the fray, releasing information about their ex-employers. The mainstream media will have a field day covering the juicy inside news about the practices of employers and their management, some of which you can be sure, would not be very flattering. The blogosphere will also be on fire with posts and comments.

What would it mean for Singapore?
If such a day comes, productivity will fall for 2 reasons:
(1) the level of motivation falls as mistrust rises
Knowing that your ex-employer may one day decide to 'taint' your name breeds mistrust. Job commitment and performance will suffer.
(2) the total time for productive work drops
Time that could otherwise be spent on productive work is instead directed towards the collection and organisation of information. Employees will keep copies of emails, documentation and recordings of events that may be used in their 'defence' (or 'offence' if necessary). In turn, employers will also impose measures to counteract any damage that an ex-employee may launch. This may include preventative ones restricting the keeping of copies of emails and documentation. It might also include the monitoring of those it deemed to be 'troublesome'.

For consumers, it may signal the onset of video cameras monitoring your every move. Imagine stepping into a taxi and having your every word and action being recorded by a video camera in the taxi in case of disputes and wrongful dismissals.

Who knows?
In future, even a 'bak-chor mee' stall might have video cameras installed. And I am not being sarcastic here.

Of course, if an employee had not done anything wrong, he should not be concerned over this greater transparency.
Unfortunately, those who had worked long enough will know that in most staff matters, there is usually no right and wrong, unless a criminal offence (eg fraud) is involved. In such a case, the issue would be best left to the judicial system where we will defer to its considered judgement.

In non-criminal matters, it can sometimes boil down to a difference in priorities or values between the two parties. The employer may not always be right in terminating the employee's services. As the employer holds the executive power and authority over decisions, so long as there had been due process and the decision had not contravened any legal or contractual obligations, the employer has every right to make these decisions.

To be sure, some employees deserve to have their services terminated. But, if employers pursue an approach of 'transparency' of work performance, then, it is only fair that the same level of transparency be given to employees to reveal the employment and management practices of their employers. This is very much what the government had always advocated as the 'right of reply'.

This brings me to the other issue. A-Star and Johns Hopkins had decided to go their separate ways after 8 years. Going by the press release by A-Star and media reports, the separation boils down to a difference in perspectives. A-Star wanted big brand names to reside and do research in Singapore, Johns Hopkins preferred to deploy and nurture younger un-established talents. Intelligent Singaporean has a fuller write-up. takchek also has a list of reasons why having bio-science R&D in Singapore has its problems.

To me, this is another example of the mobility of capital. Foreign investors can locate in Singapore because of incentives. They can also calibrate their level of commitment according to the attractiveness of our incentives vis-a-vis what they may receive from other places, including their home countries. Is it possible that Johns Hopkins could have deliberately withheld its more established talents from Singapore because deploying them elsewhere was more 'lucrative'? I don't know.

A talented R&D professional who is blazing the trail in his research efforts derives his motivation from the stage that he is performing in, the environment that he works in and the kinds of people he interacts with in his learning and discovery process. If he were to move to Singapore, he must see Singapore giving him that platform and environment. Perhaps the reason why Johns Hopkins had not deployed any established scientists here is that these scientists did not think Singapore could provide them that platform?

Our strategy so far is akin to building a big mansion, complete with luxury facilities and a dedicated group of butler and servants to see to one's daily needs. And then, we have an open house and invite world-class tenants to take up accommodation in these huge and fully-equipped mansions.

It had worked 30-40 years ago when Singapore first embarked on its industrialization program. Then, Singapore was what many would consider a third-world country with low labour costs.

Fast forward 40 years. Singapore is still using the same strategy, although the mansions are now far more hi-tech and the butler and servants much more sophisticated. Unfortunately, we are now competing in a much more competitive league. Our costs are also higher.

The Johns Hopkins incident seemed to indicate that this strategy had hit a snag. Perhaps it is a transient one. As with all relationships, one can expect disagreements and separations.
For the sake of Singapore, I hope so too.

Otherwise, we have a problem.
And it is a big problem.

We want to play in the big league.We do not have the talents to play in this big league, so, we try and attract top talents to help us break into this league.Unfortunately, the others in the league may not want to play with us.

There is a price to pay to enter this league. And the Johns Hopkins incident is an example. Here, even after paying this 'membership' fee, we are still not accepted as a player because we are not seen as possessing the credentials for a big league player.

To be fair, the government is trying to solve this problem, even if it may not know if it is the right answer. It seems to me that their approach is to trade-off time with money. It does not intend to spend time to build up a local industry (or perhaps it might think it cannot afford the time to do so). So, it 'buys' this time by attracting investors to come, hoping to short-cut the process. Hopefully, the money we had spent in attracting and working with these investors would have helped given us a leg up in terms of time.

Had we?
Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that we are back to where we were 8 years ago?
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