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“I Sacrificed so Much for the Civil Service, and All I Got in the End was the Sack”: Former Assistant Director Speaks Up

2014 was a year I’d very much like to forget and if there was ever the case of someone from The Matrix offering me the red pill or the blue pill, I’d no sooner take the latter if it means I wake up knowing everything that happened in the past 12 months of 2014 never happened in my life.

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Just a little background about me before I proceed any further. I am a 37 year old male born and bred in Singapore (despite my surname– my grandfather was Thai), and up until June 2014, I was “blissfully” hired on what many would consider an iron rice bowl – the Singapore government service – as a Senior Assistant Director at one of the Ministries (shall not reveal which one, please pardon that transgress).

I graduated with a Second Upper in Economics from the National University of Singapore, got my MBA five years after, and I had been 13 years on the job with the Ministry after losing my first job in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis with one of the banks – barely 6 months after graduation from university at that, and got retrenched.

Anyway, I obviously did everything right on my job with the Ministry, and moved up the ranks. It didn’t bother me how much of a Yes-man I’d been, or the fact that overseas deployments often saw me away from my family, with the longest being apart from my wife for close to 2 years. That took a strain on our marriage and we almost got divorced, but in the nick of time, I was re-deployed back to Singapore, and from then on, the need for moving around stopped as well, thanks to a change in portfolio.

It didn’t bother me too that my peers and friends were getting promotions and 15 to 18 month bonuses in the private sector (most of them worked in the financial sector), because subsequently, as events panned out over the years, it turned out my meager government pay package had grown considerably as I climbed the ladder, and as these friends who had thought they had the world at their feet in powerful financial jobs started losing their jobs in the wake of one financial crisis after another.

On a selfish note, I’d considered myself far luckier, and it never did occur to me that my own job would be at stake—after all, this was government service, and as long as the ruling party remained in power, government officers had nothing to worry about, right?

Well, the answer as it turns out is: no. Even MPs and Ministers could lose their jobs or their place as the favourites in the party if they couldn’t get their act together, much less the minions who work for them.

I was asked to resign following a fiasco involving a suspected case of CBT by one of my managers; I wasn’t the one who was directly involved in the case, and certainly never touched a single cent on the alleged amount that was embezzled (I say “alleged” because the case is still on-going, and nothing’s proven to date).

Yet the powers that may be decided that the actions of this single subordinate was a reflection of my inability to keep my house in order, and after months of bickering and pleading and cajoling, my boss very subtly hinted that it’s best I leave the service because one way or another, this was going to leave a black mark on my record.

So 13 years of service, and despite whatever good I’ve done, whatever changes I helped to facilitate or implement, it was down to me being made a scapegoat so the higher-ups in my department don’t have to look stupid to their bosses.

Everyone has a boss, even Perm Secs and Ministers-of-State, so it’s far better for an SAD to step down than implicate the rest of them, or affect their hopes of advancing further in their political game.

And now we know why the abbreviation for the title is “SAD”, because we really lead sad lives: you’re neither too high up to have someone else be made a scapegoat for your mistakes, and you’re not too far down to avoid responsibility and accountability.

So since June 2014, I had been on the hunt for a job, sending out my CV and resumes to companies in Singapore hoping that one would somehow stick. Like many of the senior folks I read on your site, I’d played down my qualifications and quoted lower salaries during interviews if only to get a better chance at securing a job, but to no avail.

Oh, incidentally, reading some of the comments left on the site: it’s very easy for people to say “what, you make $10k a month and no savings?”, because we’re talking very different lifestyle choices.

What people fail to understand is that many of our financial obligations – mortgage for a four-bedroom condo, that BMW, “branded” preschool for kids etc were made at a time when we thought the good times would last, and having lost your job and virtually no income, and when you’re being forced to live off your savings, you really make very hard choices on whether you preferred to use $500 on paying an installment, or giving it to the wife for next month’s groceries.

The irony is that people who earn higher incomes very often end up in debt faster than people who make a lot less, because the folks who don’t earn much don’t make the kind of consumer choices you do.

If you paid attention during economics classes on consumer preferences, you’d understand perfectly what I mean. And it’s highly conceivable that someone making $2000 a month would probably have more savings than someone who makes $20,000 a month.

How do we comment on one’s lifestyle choices? Well, for starters, if you were someone accustomed to living in a five-room HDB flat, how would you react if I said you had to suddenly forgo all that and squeeze your family into a one-room flat just to make sure you had enough to get by? I don’t think anyone can make adjustments that quickly.

So anyway, in those 6 long months till December 2014, it was one interview after another, a lot of handshakes, and nothing doing. Long months of scrimping and saving, selling off the car (at a loss), attempts to cut on expenses just to stretch whatever savings I had left, and then I realized by November 2014, I was dead broke and could possibly face bankruptcy.

And no one seemed to want to offer a job. Not even companies where I had agreed to take on assistant manager roles and 40-60% cut from my salary. Apparently, something was amiss, and for the life of me I could never quite understand why despite my “world-class” university degrees and job experience, no one wanted to hire me.

Then I realized that getting jobs was no more about the networks you had than it is about real qualifications, and that’s the reality of it. In today’s world, and increasingly in Singapore, it isn’t about what you know than who you know that matters if you were hoping to find a job.

I say that because by some stroke of luck, I managed to hook up with one of my professors from school over lunch in mid-December (by then, very, very desperate), and despite feeling somewhat embarrassed I had to have the man pay for my lunch as well, he offered to ask a friend of his, a Singaporean who’s relocated to Cambodia, if he was interested in talking to me and see if I could be some use to his company.

As it turns out, that one meeting made a difference. I met his friend, and after 2 weeks of talks and a visit to his golf resort in Siem Reap, I managed to secure a job, giving a much-needed respite to the stress that’s been eating away at me for the past couple of months.

As it turns out too, that the friend of my professor’s was actually keen to hire Singaporeans to work in his company.

The catch though, was that you can forget about making SGD 7,000-8,000 a month as a senior manager at the company—if anything, salaries are a whole lot less than they are back home in Singapore, even though by Cambodian standards, you were probably in the 70th to 80th percentile, and the man isn’t even trying to exploit you: if he offered anything more, he would only be doing himself in, because in all possibility, the net profits each month probably amounted to SGD 10,000 to SGD 20,000, excluding taxes.

All that didn’t matter, because I was more concerned about trying to get myself back on my feet again.

You see, the greatest bane of not being duly employed isn’t so much about the money, even though it is important to make sure you had enough to tide out the bad times – it’s more to do with that temporal loss of self-worth and dignity, that irritating and very contemptible feeling that you weren’t good enough for anything.

Which is probably why I didn’t hesitate to say yes, even if it meant having to move me and my family away from Singapore, and making do with a salary that’s a lot less than what I was used to.

It’s still preliminary at this stage, but we’ve been here for 3 weeks, and so far things are working out fine. We’re saving a lot by living in the quarters provided for staff behind the main resort, and being a senior manager and having my family over means we’re putting up at one of the larger accommodation rooms with a great view to match.

Actually, it’s right beside the Singaporean owner’s unit, and our families spent Christmas getting to know one another better.

In a sense, it’s pretty hardwarming to have fellow Singaporeans around in that sort of setting, and I never felt closer to any of my countrymen than these few weeks (apart from the owner, there’re two other Singaporean managers and their families here).

I was told 2015 would be a challenging year, and by my own reckoning, there will be more Singaporeans in need by the time we get to the middle of the year. My own experience taught me we should open up our minds and hearts to the larger world out there: I know many Singaporeans balk at the idea of putting everything behind to get a job overseas, but when push comes to shove, and with few options on the horizon, sometimes, one needs to take a bold leap of faith.

I cannot say that my life would be better here in Cambodia than in Singapore, and sure, there are many uncertainties in the days ahead, but what’s important most for me is to ensure I keep working, and as long as I have that, and my family with me, well, I guess everything else can be sorted out – especially pesky demand notices from banks and such.

My parting words as I end this long sharing of mine: to my fellow Singaporeans, keep your heads up and stay positive. The world is a lot bigger than that tiny dot of an island we call home, and if it’s about looking for a job to re-entrench yourself somewhere and grow, don’t just look at absolute salaries, be bold and venture. And when you’ve worked everything out, you could always go back home when you’re established and secure.

Thank you Linus for this letter.
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