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 a very large EPCM (Engineering, Procurement & Construction Management) company. The thing that makes the job different is that I am contracted out to a client company (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 production processes. Some might ask -- hasn't the plant been built already? What else do you need to do? Well lots. For instance, if the plant wants to increase its production or produce another grade of product (e.g. according to new government regulations on clean fuels) then we have to first help assess if the existing 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 plant 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 company of the client, 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 because the work I was doing previously in Singapore 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 department head of the company I am seconded to and to another manager of my own company 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.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

In the country

It began with a rip-off a.k.a the train ride to the airport. Because the station is privately-owned, it has been decided that any poor suckers who lands on it has to pay more than 5 times the price of a usual ticket. The fare jumps from $2.60 to $14.00 passing through the airport and back again making this one of Ision’s travelling pet peeves. But I guess nobody can have anything against convenience for the domestic airport is only 6 stops away.

The budget ($69 one way) domestic plane ride went better than I expected most probably because I slept through more than half of it. Also, it was timed just long enough to not make Ision complain about the crammed conditions. Come to think of it, there weren’t any screaming babies either and that helped a lot. Ision later mentioned that I was the only Asian on board which on closer thought was not that surprising for we were going to the Australian countryside, not a crowded shopping centre or cheap city restaurant. I guess it was high time for a city boy like me to get immersed in all that Australia has to offer, somewhere untainted by city lights.

We landed in Ballina slightly more than an hour later in a small domestic airport which was nothing like an airport at all (more like a bus interchange). It was easy to spot Roger (Ision’s father) in the crowd. I didn’t expect it but I did feel a little surge of family when I saw him. I lost my father when I was 8 years old and the last time I saw Roger, he went on and on with his fatherly tales and that brought me so much warmth, something valuable that I missed out on all my adolescent and adult life.

We travelled very lightly and so the next instant we were on our hour-long way to our destination in Ashby. We were greeted by much small town scenery punctuated with vast fields of sugar cane, open spaces and perfect weather. The land rover finally pulled into this dirt road with a mailbox so I thought home must be near but we went on, rising, dropping and winding (they call those sheer drops and hairpin turns) for another kilometre or so till the landscape opened up to reveal a cozy-looking house on top of a hill with a “lawn” that stretched beyond where I could see clearly. Welcome home.

Ision has not been home since 4 years ago and his father wanted him to go home urgently to help him with some chores (more on that later) that he could not perform himself due to old age. The trip was also timely as I am starting work on Monday and this could be my last getaway before I get swept up and lost in the much-needed focus on my career. Frankly I don’t think I deserve this vacation for I have not undergone much stress (other than the stress of relocation and finding a job. Hmm… maybe I deserve it after all) and more importantly I am not earning an income. But what the heck, I am in a laid-back country so I might as well flow with the culture. Besides, the bank interest rates are high here and July’s interest alone paid for the entire trip, and more.

We got down from the car and were shown our room, which was Ision’s when he was a boy (up till he was 18 when he left for Japan). It was getting dark (winters here get dark by 5pm) and waited for Jennifer (Ision’s mother) to come back from work (and cook us dinner. Hehe). The wood-fired heater in the centre of the living room kept us warm as we sat down listening to stillness.
Of course Ision felt at home immediately the second we touched down but my heart and brain kept going on -- "what can I do", "what can I do", only to realize that there is nothing much at all I can do except to just relax and let the stillness flush all these errant thoughts out of my system.

Jen works at the recruitment agency in Yamba (more on that town later) and I had a very good impression of her from the last time we met in August 2007. She is very refined and well-mannered (think of those high-class British ladies we see on TV) which was not surprising as she came from a good family, went to finishing school (an English thing – a school that teaches etiquette and stuff to girls) and was a Home Economics teacher.

Slightly after 6pm we saw Jen coming home and the familiar image of that energetic middle-aged woman with perfect figure and poise came into vision. She is only slightly younger than my mother but much more energetic (which never failed to amaze me) – I guess country-living does have its perks. As soon as she entered the room, I could see an immediate change in Ision. He went into a child-like state as if all the cares of his adult world got parked into the corner. I found that quite endearing because in my opinion child-like innocence is one of the rarest and most elusive gifts an adult can receive. To be able to feel that again is a very good thing and I am happy for the happiness that instantaneously filled his heart.

And very soon there was the old-married-couple quibbling between Roger and Jen. If they were a young dating couple, you would think that the relationship would be over soon. However years of love and bonding had transformed security, familiarity, intimacy and all the other good stuff into this little oral war playing out right in front of us. Ision later told me it felt a little scary that we have developed to something close to that in such a short time. I told him that was not a bad thing at all and he totally agreed.

It was the middle of the week on a Wednesday night and Jen did not want to bother herself with her usual perfectionistic style of cooking so she just threw in whatever she could find in the fridge and whipped up a delicious risotto for all of us. It is worth mentioning the pantry they had – imagine a walk-in wardrobe but replace clothes with condiments, dried goods, canned food and all the ingredients of a perfect kitchen. I was so impressed with the things I found in that micro-supermarket!
We then had a short discussion on the itinerary of our 3-day stay. Well it is almost a crime to use the word “itinerary” in such an idyllic setting but I guess my limited city vocabulary can only bring me this far. Roger’s plan for us included the chores he wanted us to do but not much detail was given at that stage and I figured I’d know it soon enough. You see, the country bug had finally caught up with me as I relinquished control and allowed myself to blend into the rustic yet sophisticated backdrop. And blend I did into the absolute still of night, something that some city dwellers might not be used to and hence would find it too low a noise level for slumbering. But not me, I slept like a log very soon after I closed my eyes.

That is the end of day 1. Feel free to take a break before continuing. Hehe.

The next morning we rose to a beautiful sunrise right in front of the house and as the sun warmed the shallow waters, mist formed above the surface clouding the entire landscape and then surreptitiously disappeared.
Nature changing its form before our eyes, surely this is not what one can get in the city. We had a simple breakfast and lazed around sipping coffee, reading newspapers and chatting. I found a pile of spherical brown nuts along with a device and soon found out that those were macadamia nuts. How wonderful it was to crack those nuts and eat them fresh.

I think I will never get back to eating de-shelled macadamias from the supermarket again. The thing about living in the country is that a lot of people grow their own food and Ision’s parents bring home-horticulture to the limit. I had a chance to taste fresh strawberries, passionfruit, macadamias, pecans, lemons, kumquats, tomatoes, lettuce and the list just went on.
Ision is really fortunate to have grown up in this environment and I finally understand his distaste for over-priced and over-processed food from the supermarket.

At about mid-morning we changed into our work gear (boiler suits) and went on the tractor and were driven by Roger into the forest where we got to work. The task of the day was to clear a jungle path and what made it super tough was that it was along a reclining slope – something that I grew to hate in the army. Roger headed the pack with his chainsaw which cleared the thicker branches and we followed behind clearing the vines and undergrowth with huge shears to form a path.
The land (with the rainforest) surrounding the house was to be sold and the path was to make the forest more attractive to buyers. I coined the work as “extreme gardening” and Roger loved the term so much that he told us he would use it very often.

It was lunch-time and Jen prepared a filo pastry roll with vegetable filling for us in advance. How thoughtful of her. Of course there was home-made vanilla ice-cream at the end of every meal. This explained for the extra 2kgs I put on after the trip. But it was a vacation for us so I went with that weight-gain in mind (I will slim back down for sure after I start my new job). We then had a brief nap (very very wrong to sleep after eating) followed by my usual 30-minute jog but this time along the undulating country roads where wallabies, cattle and horses could be seen everywhere.
Ision told me that he was chopping firewood whilst I was napping and that was his cardio for the day. Well I missed out on that country experience.

We went out for dinner in the small town of Maclean and we met Ision’s only friend from school whom he still keeps contact with (she is a no-holds-barred kind of girl). We dined at this straight (duh, what else was there in the country) pub that did not seem to serve nice food from the outside and later had coffee and dessert back at her place. It was Sara Lee’s chocolate pudding bought from the nearby supermarket (it has its own guestbook, how strange) which tasted like a chocolate cake that fell into water. She gave Ision and I a tarot reading and Ision later gave her a lengthy one. It is usual for people to have a question in mind before the reading but if they didn’t have one, it is common to ask “what should I know”, which was exactly what I asked. Initially I thought that something would come out along the lines of my new-job anxiety but it was more about my skepticism and how that is preventing me from progressing. Well that has always been my biggest foe but I must say I am really getting better and Ision has played a huge part in that (read my posting about Reiki).

This trip saw yet another first for me – Ision driving me around. It felt kind of strange at first but he is a good driver so after a while, it was as if he had been driving me around all along. The night sky brimmed with stars and it has been a while since I saw such a clear night sky. I did not see any shooting stars though maybe because I have almost all my wishes come true at this point. Travelling along the pitch-dark country roads really brought all the horror movies and thrillers I have watched over the years to the surface (eg. the beginning of “Vacancy”). I started asking Ision questions like “what would you do if all the headlight bulbs were to burst at the same time” and got quite boring answers. I like hypothetical questions a lot and he doesn’t. That is the fun of relationships, isn’t it? Upon reaching home, we went straight to bed and I realized that I could still get tired from relaxing too much.

We woke up the next day later than the first morning and after a slow breakfast (with home-made bread -- yummy!), we were whisked into the forest again to complete the half-finished path-clearing task. Following that was a quick lunch and then Roger drove us out to Yamba, another small (beach) town 30 minutes away for coffee and drinks. It was another day of perfect weather and being out by the sea really makes you wish that the day would never end. Ision read in the newspaper that the weather back in Sydney was hellish with hail and rain and he decided to MMS his friend a picture of me by the beach with the calm sea in the background to irritate him.
There was mobile reception only in the town (not at home) and I got a call from the recruitment agency asking if it was OK for a company who has interviewed me to give me a call to confirm if I really wanted the job. This was the first time I ever experience this – of course I want the job which was why I applied for it in the first place! This company put me through multiple levels of reference-checking, a 4-hour long psychometric test, a lengthy medical check-up and now this. I was rather impatient (as I’ve already got another job) and told him I would find the call pretty pointless (he was a little upset I said this). Well if he’s perceptive enough he would know by now from the recent change in the tone of my voice that I have found another job. The reason why I am still hanging on to this is because I want to know how much remuneration the company is willing to offer. I know it is bad on my part to string them along like this but hey, it is a dog-eat-dog world out there and I am sure they know it too.

It soon got dark and we proceeded to pick Jen up from work to meet up with other friends for a family dinner at the same place we had dinner the night before. It really IS a small town. After dinner we went back to their place for coffee – this seemed like a tradition of small town folk. Ision found 2 potential Nu Skin customers and spent the rest of the night showing them the products and website. Too bad he did not bring the right products to show them this time round as they were really interested. I could see the sparkle in his eyes as he went on with his advertising and this made me feel so good. One of the major draws of Nu Skin products is they are really cheap compared to the same stuff from brands like Clinique and Biotherm and on top of that they work better. I am currently using Nu Skin’s Clear Action system which aims at clearing the skin of pimples and other blemishes. The stuff really works.

Under Roger’s and Jen’s instructions, we rushed home to watch the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics only to fall asleep soon after it started and taped the rest. It WAS a very long ceremony but I must say I saw special effects that I have never seen before. And talk about the scale of the event! Kudos China, wealthy wealthy China.

The next day was a short one as we had to leave by mid-afternoon. We helped to do chores around the house like cleaning bird poo off the railings as well as feeding the exotic wild birds that flew to us when we offered them food.
We were rewarded with Jen’s famous rhubarb, strawberry and apple crumble (again with ingredients plucked fresh from the garden). I photographed the process while Ision wrote down the recipe. I hope I can get to have a taste of that again soon (with Ision making it of course). Jen is a great cook which is of no surprise seeing that she had undergone formal training in cookery. The time after lunch was whiled away with more relaxing on the verandah sipping coffee and tea (this was perhaps the thing I enjoyed doing most during the trip).
Soon it was time to pack up and we did the customary group shots and said our farewells.
It really has been a nice 3 days and I got to know Ision’s parents even better, not to mention having a chance to relax to the max. Roger drove us to the airport and before we knew it, we touched down in Sydney and arrived home in our studio apartment. How different 2 places could be, I began to wonder. But we are currently looking for a new apartment and hopefully we will find one soon. I simply CANNOT wait to move. More on that when it happens. Thanks for reading this extremely long post. Ciao for now.