Saturday, August 23, 2008

Just another Australian worker

I guess I am just another (2-week old) Australian worker now and thankfully so I must say! You remember all the drama I went through when I was still searching for a job? At least now life can go back to a somewhat normal state.

A little bit about my job before I carry on. My job title is "Development Process Engineer" and I work for WorleyParsons, a very large EPCM (Engineering, Procurement & Construction Management) company. The thing that makes the job different is that I am contracted out to the Caltex Refinery at Kurnell (1.5-hour train and shuttle bus ride away) to help them with their Process Design work. For non-engineers, Process Design is basically the design of facilities and equipment that are needed to run the chemical and refinery processes. Some might ask -- hasn't the plant been built already? What else do you need to do? Well lots. For instance, if the refinery wants to increase its production or produce another grade of product (eg. according to new government regulations on clean fuels) then we have to first help assess if the exisiting facilities are sufficient and if they are not, we have to design them based on the company's requirements and that involves a lot of work depending on the scale of the project. The things that we do range from hydraulic and relief studies, sizing pumps, heat exchangers, distillation columns and tanks to risk assessment of existing as well as new facilities. Then the design details are sent to the Project Controls group for cost-estimation and the entire proposal is submitted to management to approve. Upon approval, we can then do more detailed design until we can start to procure the actual equipment and put them all together in the refinery during the construction phase of the project. The last step would be to commission the new facilities making sure that they run according to design. As Development Process Engineers, we are involved in every phase of this entire process up till commissioning but as the project progresses, we get less involved and the Project Engineer takes over.

So that is in a nutshell what Development Process Engineers do.

But that is not necessarily what I am doing at the moment and thus the point I want to make. Being a contractor based in the refinery, you can't help but to feel that you are the slave who is given all the dirty work that no one wants to do. And indeed that is the best one-line summary of the project I am working on at the moment. I kind of knew the plight of contractors for my work at ExxonMobil also involved interaction with such contractors. However when you are one, the reality of it all sinks in. It is actually not that bad because I am rather new to Process Design so even a very low-level project can be a source of learning and personal development. However if I were more experienced (the original job advertisement asked for a person with 7 years of experience!), I would find this job meaningless and even demeaning. Right now, I worry that I might be a little too inexperienced for this position because I was a Process Designer for only 6 months in my previous company. I expressed this concern during the interview but they assured me that they need people new to the job as well. Well my black-and-white resume is there in their records and they should be fully aware that I only have this limited knowledge of what I am currently doing. I know I should take it easy and just learn on the job but I cannot help myself for the thought of the steep learning curve I have to climb is quite daunting. But when I tell myself that this is Australia, land of the laid-back souls, it does not seem that bad after all. By the way, I wake up at about 5am to reach work at about 7.20am. My (flexible) office hours are from 7.30am to 3.50pm (including half an hour of lunch break -- we usually eat and work at the same time because we all want to leave work on time).

I know a lot of you reading this are very interested in the salary that I am currently getting -- so typically Singaporean and Chinese! Don't worry, I will give you an idea somewhere in this post.

I think most of you know that tax is a real bitch in Australia and there are good reasons for that. We have a very good health care and welfare system. For Permanent Residents and citizens, they can visit the doctor and pay a fraction of the fees only (co-payment) and everyone gets this benefit. Also if you are unemployed, you can get payouts from the government and I heard from someone that it is quite a substantial amount, like $1500 a month. Singapore got it wrong when the welfare system was rejected for a "clutch" mentality was thought to be a strict no-no and everyone is supposed to work to their bones to earn a living. Australia is on a welfare system and do you think it is a worse-off country? People here are happy, relaxed and very well adjusted. I hardly see that in Singapore where everyone is either chasing after something unattainable or even worse still, what everyone else is having. It is quite sad...

Ision told me before I arrived that I should not start believing that the Australian work culture is any better than Singapore's for fear that I would get disappointed with too high an expectation. But now I can safely say that yeah, it is really better!!! I am still getting used to the idea but here, people are visibly more relaxed at work and there is a lot of chatting amongst colleagues. They also work at a very comfortable pace without appearing stressed at all. They come to work on time and leave on time (unlike Singapore!!!) with absolutely no pressure from their peers and superiors. And most important of all, the work still gets done!!! Either Australians are super-duper efficient (I think they are just like everyone else though) or it is just proper workload-assignment. You see, Singaporean employers take advantage of their workers by hiring a little less than the number that is actually required (cheaper to do so) and hence everyone has to work more to cover for these missing workers. Singaporeans are also kiasu (which cannot be helped) and this breeds irrational competition and comparison and things like staying late in the office just to keep up appearances happen (even when there is little actual work to be done). Employers then take further advantage of that and it all becomes a vicious cycle.

Back home, I am always seen as the slacker (and at times even treated with disdain) when I treasure my personal time and life more than the work piling up in the office and I have always hated Singapore for that. That is why I think I have really found a place that suits me and my views on life. I am so glad that I have made the right decision to move here. I urge everyone who finds Singapore life unsatisfactory to do the same too and do it as early as possible both for the sake of your health and well-being and also because it is easier to apply for Permanent Residency when you are younger (when you can be more productive and hence beneficial to the country). The bottomline -- only when one feels relaxed and unstressed can one get genuinely motivated to contribute at work and be creative, proactive and strive towards making the company better. How many of you can say from the bottom of your heart that one of the reasons you work is to make the company better? In my opinion, a company is truly great only if it has employees that think like that. If it treats people like slaves (in terms of workload and work benefits), then all it will ever get is slave productivity and slave loyalty.

My colleagues are rather nice people but in Australia, colleagues at work remain as colleagues at work. Everyone has their personal lives outside of work (regardless of whether they are single, attached, married or with kids) and rarely do work and personal lives mix, which I think is good. The close group of friends I had in my ex-company is really not representative of real work life so although I miss this friendly atmosphere at my workplace, I know a lack of it is a reality of life, or at least a reality of the Australian work life.

My department is very small (only 7 people -- one from UK, one from India, one from USA, one from Iran and 2 locals -- a pretty international mix). I report technically to the Caltex department head and to another WorleyParsons manager (also situated within the refinery) for HR-related matters. I don't know all my colleagues well enough to comment on their characters (although I think I already have enough materials on one particular person to do some serious bitching at the moment -- more to come in future posts) and frankly I don't think I want to attach a human perspective to this group of people -- they will forever remain as just colleagues and not personal friends. That way, I can concentrate on my job and segregate my personal self from work better. That is what everyone is doing and I must follow suit (which explains why my work environment can get a little cold and I am not talking about the weather -- it also doesn't help that my open-concept office is but a container outside the main building). Another good reason for this work/personal segregation is so I can keep my outspoken character under wraps which will greatly help me in surviving well beyond my 3-month probationary period. I always know that first impressions last but I just need to be myself most of the time and sometimes I cannot help it but to ignore caring about what others think of me during this sensitive period. Ision and I have decided to only move to a bigger apartment when I get my job-confirmation and I think this is a wise idea.

OK, time for some Mathematics.

We have a scheme here that is similar to Singapore's Central Provident Fund (CPF) system and we call it superannuation or super for short. It is a mandatory 9% of the gross salary (some companies pay more) that will be deposited with a commerical fund manager that will manage the investments made with that money. When the platform is a commercial one, there is accountability and transparency. When the funds are managed by the all-powerful government (a la Singapore), it becomes a black box and who knows what is done with your hard-earned money (go do a little research on GIC and Temasek Holdings). But I digress... When you get your pay cheque, the 9% has already been deducted (some companies offer super on top of the base salary instead).

Then there is the tax. As with all tax calculations, a sliding scale method is used, ie. the more you earn the more you are taxed. For my current salary, I am taxed about 24% (this percentage is not fixed and changes depending on which bracket my income falls under). This tax will automatically be deducted from your salary and what you get in your pay cheque is what you get to keep in the bank. This is good because then you will not have to worry about filing your taxes and tax-evasion will not be a problem to the government. But many people perform a tax return procedure at the end of the fiscal year to get some taxed income back (eg. charitable donations are tax-deductible).

However there is no Annual Wage Supplement (ie. bonus) system here. Perhaps this is because people here are paid enough to begin with and hence need no supplements to boost their low income! My current monthly salary here post-tax and post-superannuation is $445 more than my last-drawn post-tax and post-CPF salary (inclusive of bonuses) back in Singapore. Although if you include CPF/superannuation (since theoretically this will be your money eventually), the above figure becomes slightly negative. So in a sense I am earning slightly more back home but if you include the currency conversion and considering the worst-case scenario, I am actually earning much more here in Australia.

So in summary, I make more money here with better work/life balance, a more superior health care/welfare system, living amongst friendlier people in a far more open-minded society, and above all with the love and support from the man I hold closest to my heart. Why would I ever want to go back to Singapore?

Well, money certainly is not everything and I am sure you have heard this before time and again. But it's true! Quality of life is something money cannot buy and I believe I have found it here. It is really not that elusive you know, you just have to open your eyes, see the world and move beyond the narrow (oh so narrow) perspectives of this box you call Singapore.


starbreez said...

hmm, although i agree that singaporean work culture can be improved, i seriously hope to bring back lessons i've learnt in hk and make things better in some way on homeground.

but to each his own, la -- i'm glad you've found a balance at this point in your life. :)

Kim said...

What do you think is lacking in Singapore that you've found in HK?

Roy Tan said...

I'm so happy you've found your paradise, Kim. As for me, I'll never move to Oz even though my sister is living there (maybe that's one of the reasons) because I'm diehard sticky rice and there is so much more variety here. I may consider China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan or Korea though...nah, on second thoughts, probably not. I'm too old and planning to retire soon.

Kim said...

Well, my mantra in life has always been "As long as you are happy and not hurting anyone else".

Yes, there are too many reasons for you to stay where you are Roy.

By the way, when was the last time you came down here and any plans of coming back in the future?

Goy said...

i hope one day, what i find lacking here, i can find it somewhere else too. but u win some, u lose some. i'm glad u're happier now!

Kim said...

I hope so for you too Goy.

I think if moving to a new place or changing the environment is impossible, finding as many happy things about one's current situation and converting as many unhappy things to either less bad or good ones as possible are the ways to go.

You are right in saying "win-some-lose-some" and I guess we all manage that with cost/benefit analytical and calculated risk-taking.

I am truly happier here (at least for now -- I always maintain the belief that no one knows what will happen in the future).

savante said...

Sounds like you made the right move working there - though the job title's quite a mouthful :)

Kim said...

You bet it's a right choice!

And thanks for dropping by!

Ision said...

Time for a new blog :D


starbreez said...

hmm, i think the can-do spirit can be adopted -- the attitude that no one owes you a living, that you can eke out a story of your own without subscribing to an officially sanctioned script. but maybe i'm just imposing my own views, instead of reality. most people in hk are way too materialistic, and way too stressed. something to try to prevent in singapore, if it's not too late already!

sorry about the late reply! :p

Kim said...

I see, I see.

Weilian hates it there in HK citing discrimination as one of the reasons. Fancy Asians being discriminated against in an Asian country. But I guess it is kind of inevitable in his (banking) ndustry.

I think a lot of places would trump Singapore in terms of people having a mind of their own. Singaporeans are like sheep and worst of all, close-minded sheep. Sometimes I even shudder at the mere thought of this.

I know I know, I have been bitching non-stop about Singapore and frankly now that the worst is over, I should just keep quiet and stop rubbing it in. I just want to urge people to leave if they want to (and stop procrastinating)!

Singaporeans are also pretty materialistic I think. When you say HKers are more so, in what areas are they particularly materialistic? Cars? Property? Clothes? Entertainment? I guess there is no such thing as a perfect country and that applies to Australia as well (Australia is one of the more backward Western countries with regards to gay rights).

Recently I heard from a friend who just came back to Sydney from an exchange program in Denmark as part of her post-graduate business degree about how intelligent and forward-thinking the Danes are (and how much she was motivated by them). If what she said were true (and I believe so), I think Scandinavia should be an excellent (perfect?) place for me to live in. I don't want to keep having to push the boundary -- I want to be pushed and challenged by it!

OK, lunch time is over and it is back to work!!!

starbreez said...

HKers I think are spurred on by the thought of amassing as much money and status (items) as possible -- this means many of them are tough as nails, but some of them are pretty much amoral. 不擇手段。Think WL will attest to this.

I'm quite surprised to know that you consider Australia backward when it comes to gay rights. I thought one of the reasons why you moved there is because it's more 開放!

My brother is in love with Scandinavia, after a short student exchange in Finland. Crazy taxes, but you get properly looked after for life. Perhaps you really should consider heading that way!

Kim said...

So I guess Singaporeans are still more moral in comparison? Maybe the Singaporean government is worse than that of HK? All policies in Singapore are economically-driven (regardless if they are sound from a human approach). Is HK the same?

I moved to Australia because of Ision and also it is MILES ahead of Singapore (but still bad in Western standards) so it is definitely a step-up for me. Even USA (world's top Western enemy) is more progressive than Australia in terms of gay rights and this makes me feel a little sad...

As for moving to Scandinavia, there is no such ambitious plan yet. But no one knows what the future entails!!