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ASEAN: A Workplace Like No Other

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.

BY BILLY CHIA

This article aims to put Southeast Asia as a region into perspective, in contrast with Western economies, in terms of work-life balance, personal development and job opportunities. Although it has been targeted towards those in the west who are considering living and working overseas, it hopes to be useful to those outside the region as well, in appreciating what Southeast Asia has to offer as a workplace like no other.

 

In the globalizing world of today, not only are goods and services more accessible to the world’s population, so are talent, skills and manpower as well. The flow of manpower across the world has risen tremendously as markets open up and the global economy becomes increasingly interconnected. it is impractical, if not impossible to imagine a workforce strictly confined within national boundaries. Even the most closed off country such as North Korea, occasionally known by news media as the Hermit Kingdom, has people working in other countries in industries, from manufacturing to mining.

With the US pursuing protectionist policies and economic projections of the EU looking gloomy under the influence of Brexit, the range of job opportunities in the West aren’t quite the same as they used to be. Nonetheless, skilled workers can still find a wide range of opportunities in the emerging economies of Asia, South America and Africa. Typically when Asia is mentioned, many tend to focus on either China, India or Japan as the key economies of the region, leaving out the continent’s third largest economy, ASEAN.

Southeast Asia (SEA), a region affected by war in the 20th century, has seen tremendous growth since then, and it reflects as much by the vast job opportunities present in the economy, in sectors ranging from IT, banking, engineering and education. Many MNCs have set up shop in the developed cities of ASEAN, bringing not only foreign investment into the economy but many job openings for both locals as well as aspiring expatriates to step out of their comfort zone and into the multi-cultural business setting of Southeast Asia.

While many expats have already made SEA their home, with the pace of growth in the region, jobs in the market are always changing to keep up. However, the thought of working abroad in SEA for expats might not be as appealing as compared to the New Zealand or Germany, and perhaps this is often due to a mismatch of expectations with reality.

Some misconceptions might include a substandard quality of life, political instability and that the economies of ASEAN are still emerging, hence might not have much to offer in terms of relevant job opportunities at a similar level to expatriates. Firstly, although SEA is a developing region, its cities, the typical working environment of expats, offer comparable standards of living to that of many cities in other regions, at a fraction of the cost. In terms of stability, sure enough SEA has its fair share of instabilities, with the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar to Thailand’s military government, in contrast to the political shocks and instability through UK’s Brexit, Europe’s recent spate of terror attacks in their major cities or South Korea’s straining relations with their neighbor up north, it is essentially a case of a different crisis against a different geopolitical background, proving that even seemingly stable governments can face political crises from time to time.

In terms of the job opportunities that economies of ASEAN can provide, they are certainly no less than those found in developed economies such as the US or EU. Many ASEAN city centers already house offices of MNCs such as Shell in Singapore, Nestlé in Thailand and General Motors in Indonesia , and they are actively looking to beef up their presence in the region not only with the local workforce but also that of expatriates, many of which are key to bringing about different skills, approaches, ideas and diversity into the local environment, giving rise to new innovations and improvements in the workplace.

But of course, life is never perfect and the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. There are many challenges that await expats who decide to take the leap of faith into uncharted territory unprepared. SEA is a region rich in multicultural diversity, steeped in eastern traditions and practices while operating a western economy, so things can definitely be difficult here. Generally, while ASEAN cities have highly developed infrastructures, with a combination of metros, bus services and well-connected roads, they tend to be overcrowded. This coupled with the warm and humid tropical climate all year round with the occasional haze and pollution in some regions can get on some people’s nerves, making it a very unpleasant experience.

Culture is yet another barrier to overcome. The change of environment faced by expats creates stress as they learn to balance their work responsibilities with settling into a new way of life. Even in the workplace, culture does not take a back seat. In ASEAN, the working styles differentiate not only from the conventional western style and the traditional eastern style, but also within different countries in ASEAN. For example, in Philippines gift-giving in business dealings is widely practiced, but in Singapore, such gifts if blatantly extravagant might be misconstrued as bribery, which is taken very seriously.  

The stress of separation from family and friends, coupled with the lack of a support network makes expatriate life, especially in SEA with its’ distinctive cultures, hard to adapt to. On top of that, not knowing the local language can easily be a roadblock to daily life and even the simplest social exchange with the locals. Such stresses have been known to cause work performance issues and even premature repatriation which could ultimately create mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, hence the challenge of working overseas should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Nonetheless, for those brave enough to take up the assignment, ASEAN presents many opportunities to learn and grow, not only professionally but personally. SEA’s diverse cultures spread across the 10 nations each present the rare chance to pick up a new language, experience how diverse the world gets, with a region rich in biodiversity, enjoy cheap and unique Southeast Asian cuisine and interact with the locals and learning about their cultures and values. ASEAN’s developing economy, especially in its unique relation with both the West and the East, presents the world’s workforce with a opportunity to be the bridge between Asia and the West in the heart of Southeast Asia, a unique workplace like no other.

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