Monday, August 25, 2003

'Ang moh is better' mentality


In July, I read, with great interest, a speech by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad about how "Asians face the possibility of once again being colonised" by people of European origin, including "those who migrated and set up new nations in America, Australia and New Zealand".

Reading that speech, I thought it applied to Singapore too, albeit somewhat differently.

When I returned from the United Kingdom recently, I called a top company in Singapore and asked to speak to its director of human resources (HR). I was connected to an officer in the HR department, who asked me four to five questions before saying that the director was on leave.

About 10 minutes later, I called the company again and spoke to the same officer. This time, I spoke in a posh British accent. The officer put me through to the HR director immediately.

Two days later, one of my friends, a senior manager in a British company in Singapore, told me her European colleagues enjoyed more leverage with her boss. While she was expected to make appointments with him, her colleagues could just walk in and meet him on an ad hoc basis.

In a British consultancy firm in which I had worked, our Singaporean partner company, which dealt a lot with Government bodies, told us to use our European consultants in preference to our better-qualified Asian consultants.

Her reason: "Oh, HR practitioners in Singapore, especially Government-related ones, prefer Europeans."

These examples - which I believe are not isolated cases - demonstrate how the colonial mentality remains firmly entrenched in the Singaporean psyche.

After 38 years of independence, we still kowtow to the Europeans and kick other races in the butt and everywhere else.

Is this what it means to live in a country that has gone from Third World to First? So, a meritocracy happens to be one where white is good and off-white bad?

Why do we choose to buy imported silver when, for the same price, we can purchase gold locally? Could this be why there is growing resentment against the so-called "foreign talent" in this country?

In June, a former Business Times journalist gave me a dressing down about an opinion piece that I wrote in this newspaper relating to foreign talent. His passionate arguments convinced me that Singaporeans are not against genuine foreign talent.

He suggested that Singaporeans are really against those lowly-qualified smooth-talking foreigners who take away jobs that could be filled easily by better-qualified locals - a point which I failed to highlight in my commentary. (Well, better late than never.)

Moreover, why is Singapore's biggest employer - the Government and its related organisations - allowing such practices to thrive?

During my last visit to the Civil Service College, I ran through publicity materials that were available in the waiting area on the ground floor. These were brochures for training courses provided to Singapore's civil servants. It did not take me long to realise that European trainers delivered a majority of these courses.

Perhaps, this is a flawed basis for one to make a conclusive observation. But the very fact that people are talking about this shows that it is important for the Government to respond to such allegations robustly - not only through words but also action.

The Government should only use a foreign service provider if a local equivalent is unavailable.

Indeed, this became the mandate of the board of directors in the British consultancy I worked in. When our Singaporean partner requested European consultants, the board - comprising mainly Europeans - took an Asian-oriented approach.

The board noted: "We will only use a European consultant if you can show us why our Asian consultants cannot deliver what is expected of us."

As importantly, every Singaporean must ask himself two fundamental questions:
o How differently do I treat a European and a non-European?
o What are my reasons for treating them differently?

When I asked myself these questions, I found that I, too, had preferred Europeans in that I could not see myself working for a non-European company. It is now my personal goal to work for a non-European company.

It is not just the non-Europeans who allow such questionable practices to prosper. Some Europeans take advantage of this, too.

For example, my Malaysian neighbour told me recently: "My Australian director often boasts that his Singaporean clients buy the company's products just because he is European."

During my former British director's last visit to Singapore, an American woman approached him. She wanted him to employ her.

She said: "Your company will need a European face if it wants to make money in Singapore."

The examples of blatantly discriminatory practices that I have highlighted suggest that anti-discrimination legislation is long overdue in this country.

Such legislation will not eliminate the "Europeans preferred" syndrome totally. But legislation, coupled with education, will reduce its incidence.

When we tackle the "Europeans preferred" syndrome effectively, it will not matter if four out of five or one out of 10 newly-created jobs are going to foreign workers.

This is because Singaporeans can then be more certain that someone is being appointed based on merit. A true meritocracy means white is good and so is off-white.

Come on, MPs, do something about it!

Dharmendra Yadav