, Singapore

Strength in Singapore's diversity

By Derrick Chang

2016 is a special year for Singapore. While much of the SG50 Jubilee celebrations was spent reminiscing our economic miracle, SG51 marks our first chapter of a new tomorrow. As Singapore pushes ahead, we face a completely different set of challenges as compared to our pioneers.

For a start, our ageing and shrinking core population, juxtaposed against a disrupted and global marketplace, must compel Singapore to have smarter workforce to help propel our Shining Red Dot forward with a 'quantum leap' in productivity.

Yet Singapore's most precious resource are our people. In PwC's 2015 APAC CEO Survey, 88 percent of ASEAN business leaders surveyed listed the availability of key skills as the biggest business threat to their business. This means that for Singapore to preserve her status as a land of opportunity, we need to encourage social mobility and meritocracy, and embrace our strength in diversity.

Diversity leads to creativity
Why is embracing diversity so important? According to a study by McKinsey, US companies with diversity on their executive board have a 95 percent higher return on equity than those without. Businesses may miss out on new and innovative solutions to solve problems, simply because their board members think alike. 

Diversity has been proven to drive creativity, and creativity leads to innovation. Innovation is what Singapore needs to make that quantum leap, to realise its imperative to be the world's first smart nation, and most importantly, to be able to thrive amidst the disrupted economy.

The dynamics of a diverse team thrives on each individual bringing to the table his or her own unique experiences and different approaches to the same challenge. On the other hand, group-think suggests that a homogenous group of like-minded individuals would think and behave in the same way. Diversity within a workforce helps to generate fresh ideas about products and practices, leading to more creative and efficient business operations.

Over 85 percent of respondents surveyed by Forbes agreed that a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation. Across the Asia Pacific, 56 percent of respondents "strongly agreed" that diversity drives innovation, compared to 48 percent and 41 percent in America and EMEA, respectively.

By acknowledging the differences that employees bring to the table, businesses are creating an environment where individuals feel respected and, more importantly, valued. It pushes individuals to give their best to their companies, and in turn, allows the company to continuously attract the brightest minds.

Diversity at the heart of the Singapore DNA
Embracing diversity is nothing new to Singaporeans and it can be argued that it is built into our very DNA. In 1965 when we became an independent nation, our pioneers had to learn to put aside their differences and work together to build a nation.

In the formative years of most Singaporeans, we are often taught the importance of religious and racial harmony, and how our tenacity as one nation should prevail against any division in this national tapestry.

Beyond racial and religious diversity, there are ample avenues to enable aspiring students to pursue their passions, and scale different peaks of success – Schools of Life and Physical Sciences at PSB Academy, School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA), Singapore Sports School, School of Science and Technology Singapore (SST) – through the availability of various educational tracks and streams.

Private education institutions have a role to play in helping students from different backgrounds acculturate and assimilate, regardless of nationality – many of our lecturers, university professors, and about 20 percent of students at PSB Academy are from abroad – and, more importantly, to mitigate discrimination tendencies among the student body.

Singaporeans do believe in the value of diversity in the workforce. According to Randstad’s Q3 2015 Workmonitor report, 89 percent of Singaporeans surveyed agreed with the notion. At our core, I believe that Singaporeans recognise our strength in diversity – beyond race, language, and religion.

Yet we must not forget that diversity should also include our pioneers, single parents, working mums, the LGBT community, ex-offenders, and our youth, the centennials. Success on those fronts require a constant work-in-progress.

When a woman is expecting a baby, her co-workers often ask her questions about whether she intends to continue working even after giving birth. Yet when a man is about to become a father, people almost never ask him the same question.

Diversity, the road to SG100
In recent years, the Singapore government has been stepping up its efforts to enlarge that definition of diversity. Manpower Minister, Mr Lim Swee Say, announced that Singapore's national anti-discrimination watchdog, Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), will be given more "teeth" to deal with discrimination in the workplace.

Businesses are also more encouraged to continue employing seniors, and to tap on the wealth of experience that they bring. Numerous grants and schemes are available for businesses to redesign jobs for these workers. From July 2016, businesses can receive up to $300,000 for job redesign projects targeted at workers who are aged 50 and above, twice the amount of funding previously available.

Under the Age Management Grant, another scheme put in place by the Singapore government to encourage the employment of older workers, companies can receive up to $20,000 in funding if they adopt four workplace and hiring practices that directly benefit older workers. 

Yet, more can be done to exterminate discrimination in the other facets of society.

In a 2015 interview with local radio station 938LIVE, ex-offender and owner of the social enterprise Eighteen Chefs, Benny Se Teo, spoke up about how despite the efforts from volunteer welfare organisations, ex-offenders still have difficulty finding jobs in Singapore. According to him, we have been socialised from a young age into thinking that once an individual spends time in prison, nothing good can come of it.

The tightening of Singapore's foreign labour policies resulted in more businesses hiring ex-offenders, though Benny argues that this is because they feel as though they have no other choice, and not because they believe in the value that these individuals can bring.

In addition, only 140 companies have applied for the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF)'s Open Door Programme, a scheme that companies can tap into for funds to hire, train, and integrate persons with disabilities. We know that more can be done for this community.

Many employers fail to realise that basic considerations, such as commuting, which many of us take for granted, can cause a great deal of stress to these individuals, resulting in some reluctance to seek employment opportunities.

These are just few examples of the barriers we have to tear down, to harness our strength in diversity. As we march on towards SG100, we need to be able to embrace our Singaporean nature and be a little bit 'kiasu'.

For us to remotely be able to make the quantum leap in productivity, we have to ensure that every individual in our Singapore core feels appreciated and whose sense of diversity is respected.

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