Dr Audi Fong’s career epitomises the value of working with people of diverse backgrounds, who have different experiences and ideas.
The general manager of 3M Singapore’s safety & graphics business group said it has helped broaden his expertise, experience and perspectives. “Working with a diverse team enhances the strength of ideas. It’s not so much about nationality or race, but the quality of ideas that one brings to the table.”
This international “cross-pollination” of ideas, said Dr Fong, 45, who holds a PhD in chemistry, has helped him succeed within the multinational corporation (MNC), which has 90,000 employees globally.
Founded in 1966, 3M Singapore has more than 1,600 employees, of whom 60 per cent are Singaporeans and permanent residents.
Right after joining the company in 2000, Dr Fong spent 18 months at 3M’s corporate headquarters in Minnesota in the United States, where he learnt about innovation and was immersed in its research and development culture.
Upon his return, he joined 3M’s regional laboratory in Singapore as a product development engineer. He made his mark in 3M’s electronics division, and with the knowledge acquired from his US stint, he was given the opportunity to lead projects to develop and launch adhesives for the electronics markets.
To replace screws in hard disk drives, his team developed a new sealant. It took the international team about six months to develop, test, scale up and manufacture the new sealant – all in Singapore.
“We combined technology know how and market needs to replace something that, up to that point in time, was very entrenched. It transformed the landscape,” he said.
Dr Fong’s experience at 3M in Singapore mirrors that of other locals working in multinationals that have invested in Singapore over the years. Aside from creating employment and raising wages for Singaporeans, they also move the industry as a whole up the value-add ladder by developing new technology and expertise.
From 2014 to 2016, employment of local professionals, managers, executives and technicians grew by 105,000 – more than six times the growth in hiring of Employment Pass holders at 17,000. This reversed a trend from 2011 to 2013.
While Singapore continues to manage the delicate balance between its foreign and local workforce, observers have noted that it must continue to attract companies to invest here, and with them, the right talent with the requisite skills.
“Our door remains open to foreign professionals, especially those with the skills needed for businesses to transform, and at the same time have skills which are in short supply in Singapore,” said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say at a recent Singapore National Employers Federation event.
In Dr Fong’s case, his start with 3M paved the way for new opportunities in 2007, this time in the public sector. He became senior assistant director at the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s (MTI) Industry Division and, subsequently, deputy director (Manpower) of its Resource Division.
Once again, he was able to utilise the knowledge he had gained at 3M.
“Being a lab guy, I knew how R&D works in an MNC, that is to value create, by introducing innovation through products,” he said.
In 2009, Dr Fong rejoined 3M in Singapore, becoming its regional business manager for medical specialities.
Having had the policy experience of overseeing the Singapore chemicals cluster at MTI, he was able to “speak to what was happening in the pharma and medical devices space”, and the emerging trends gaining traction in Singapore.
To turn these into market opportunities, he once again harnessed “the strength of ideas” at 3M, by working with colleagues from different nationalities across the company’s five business units. “We can walk down the hall and ask a colleague of another nationality for input and insights,” he said.
Sharing Dr Fong’s mindset and an equally international career is Ms Yuko Nakahira, who joined 3M Singapore as its managing director in November 2016. “To make changes, it is good to have a diverse team rather than a traditional team, otherwise it’d be very difficult,” said Ms Nakahira, who led the medical and safety and graphics businesses at 3M Japan from 2009 to 2016.
Japan, she said, has a very homogeneous society, so it was harder to align the company’s global vision with local practices. In contrast, they aligned well in Singapore, a very international city.
She added that Singaporeans’ openness is an advantage: “The people and Government are quite welcoming of the idea that you can make changes for the better.
Dr Fong said: “One has to be open to foreign input and alternate perspectives: be always ready to challenge assumptions.”
It’s not just about catching the next big thing, though, he added. “The crux is to unleash our human ingenuity.”
Learning by being open to other perspectives
Ms Jamie Gan has seen first-hand how sensitive the issue of a foreign workforce can be to a government.
While on a five-week stint at her immigration consultancy firm’s Melbourne office last July, the Australian government tightened its policy on immigration.
But she also saw how it took many stakeholders to work out a solution. She recalled: “I saw how MNCs, government officials and employees… collaborated with each other, gave input on their needs and concerns so they could agree how to move forward.”
Ms Gan is a client services manager at US-based firm Fragomen.
The Singaporean, who holds a Bachelor of Law from Murdoch University, started with the Malaysia team in Fragomen’s Singapore office in 2012, helping companies ensure foreign employees complied with the country’s work and immigration regulations.
Fragomen Singapore has 122 employees, of whom four in five are Singaporeans and permanent residents. Because of the international nature of its business, it is essential that Fragomen’s staff depend on each other and work together.
“When calling, say, Vietnam, the person on the other side will likely hang up on me. With such a diverse team, I can count on my Vietnamese colleagues to help translate, and understand the economic and cultural landscape there,” Ms Gan said. “They can help quickly, and as a business we can help our clients resolve matters quickly.”
Ms Gan, who is in her mid-30s, added: “People don’t realise how much you can learn just by being open to perspectives from people living overseas, and from other cultures. They bring a lot to the table, and that can help you work better.”
And it not just all about work.
Besides Singapore’s public holidays, the diverse team also celebrates international holidays such as Thanksgiving.
Mr Mark Buchanan, the firm’s partner for Asia, is equally familiar with local festivities, having lived here for 24 years. A British national, he considers himself a “local foreigner” who has been trained by Singaporeans and mentored by leading practitioners here.
Mr Buchanan praises Singapore’s open economy, which he said gives it an edge, especially in those industries disrupted by technological changes. These offer opportunities for Singapore to emerge as a leader in new sectors, like fintech, for example. He said it is a golden opportunity for Singapore to attract companies in these sectors to come here.
Being mindful of different viewpoints
Ms Jane Cha is a firm believer in diversity, as it was a non-local employer who showed faith in her.
Joining CGG Services Singapore in 2008, she was tasked with setting up its human resource function. Stepping into her new role, she discovered how international it would be.
Ms Cha, now CGG’s vice-president, human resources Asia-Pacific, said: “I was not aware that I’d be dealing with such a diverse spectrum of cultural backgrounds, or have so many colleagues of different nationalities.”
CGG is an integrated geoscience company with its headquarters in France. Its Singapore office employs126 staff, with Singaporeans forming just about half of its workforce.
Starting as a one-person department, Ms Cha tapped the expertise of her colleagues in France and the US to learn the practices and formalise the process. She developed a core team – including three Singaporeans – transferring the knowledge to them. Ms Cha now oversees the full spectrum of human resource practices across seven countries.
“Having a diverse workforce reminds me not to make assumptions...It makes me more conscious of considering different perspectives when formulating polices or when deploying employee initiatives,” she said, adding that the international workforce keeps her constantly engaged.
One such colleague is Mr Gowrish Swaminathan from India.
Mr Swaminathan, who joined CGG in 2009, is a supply chain business analyst and projects manager with the global sourcing and supply chain department. But he does more than that, having taken it upon himself to help his colleagues deal with work stress. He teaches his co-workers yoga: “I incorporate meditation, help them to get rid of their stress, and return them to a state of emotional well-being.”
Mr Swaminathan said it was Ms Cha who encouraged him to get certified as a yoga teacher. As part of his training, he held free yoga lessons for CGG staff. He also takes them on nature walks at places like MacRitchie Reservoir.
Ms Cha said CGG’s non-local employees are mainly in technical or business positions for which local expertise is lacking.
While she hopes more will be done to attract Singaporeans to pursue education with a strong science, technology, engineering and mathematics foundation, she said: “We Singaporeans cannot support the economy by ourselves with our shrinking population. While we continue to strengthen the Singapore core, we must not forget that we are not the world, we are really very small. We have to learn to live with the world.”