Lessons in Diversity: Your Passport is Losing its Importance

by Karoli Hindriks February 19, 2018

Singapore Changi Airport. Credits to: Fotos 593

One thing that positively strikes me every time I land in Singapore is the diversity. It’s like people of all races, religions and mindsets have come together to co-exist without anybody having any problem with what the others are about. There are prayer rooms for Muslims at the airport and in malls all over the city. When Hindus celebrate Thaipusam or when Westerners celebrate Christmas, the whole city celebrates with them. And when Chinese New Year approaches, kids of all religions can’t wait to help craft the decorations.

In a way, Singapore is the one place in the world where I feel just human — instead of a white person of a certain nationality. There are certainly areas where Singapore still has a lot of work to do (LGBT rights, for example), but their work with diversity management has been quite extraordinary compared to what I have seen elsewhere.

Last week I had a discussion with the Singapore TechSkills Accelerator Programme Office about the most difficult skills to find in Singapore and the work they’re doing to bring people with those skills to the country. Like most countries in the world, Singapore is facing a talent shortage, especially in the high tech industry.

According to a Manpowergroup Survey, 51% of employers in Singapore had difficulty in filling jobs in 2016. To funnel skills into Singapore, the government is starting to work with platforms that can deliver highly skilled professionals, regardless of where they’re from. Similarly, Estonia, a small tech mecca in Europe, has already simplified the immigration process for highly skilled talent to the extent that a startup can get a work permit for an employee within 24 hours. Now Estonia is working on a digital nomad visa and looking at platforms accommodating borderless groups of highly skilled individuals to build the framework.

Manpower Group Survey 2016

The realization I had in those two discussions was that the passport is losing its importance. Because what do passports actually tell us? Right now they seem to be telling us that people from some countries should travel more freely or get work permits more easily than others.

Let’s look at the world’s most powerful passport in 2018 — Germany — and one of the least powerful passports — Sri Lanka. Is a person from Germany in any way inherently “better” than someone from Sri Lanka? For example, Kalhari, a female engineer from Sri Lanka, who recently moved to Estonia after being hired through Jobbatical?

By all accounts, any country should be eager to bring Kalhari on board. We already know from Enrico Moretti’s multiplier effect theory that each new high tech job creates five new jobs in a society. Yet, within the current frameworks, policies, and people’s attitudes, a Sri Lankan engineer might still feel less welcome in some countries than any “ordinary” person from Germany.

To deal with growing skill gaps, governments need to find ways to bring in the best talent from other countries. To do that, they need new ways of identifying the people best equipped to help build their economies. Today, countries are starting to look at technology platforms that are already doing that work.

In a way, these platforms are making baby steps towards becoming the new passports.

In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Harari points out how countries and currencies are nothing more than an agreement between people. The only reason they exist is that at one point in time, it made sense to make them up and agree for them to be the framework for our societies. Being a member of a physical country and having its passport, which either opens or closes the world for you, has been the agreement since then.

What are the new agreements going to be? We’ve been seeing a strong opposition rising between nationalism/isolationism and globalism. It almost seems like some countries want to close down to stop the world from changing.

It can be argued, as in Yuval Harari’s TED dialogue with Chris Anderson, that the challenges our societies are facing due to automation and technology advancement and their effect on the labor market, as well as climate change, can’t be tackled in a closed-down society. This vital change can only happen through global collaboration. Unless a country manages to completely cut itself off from technological advancements and create a private colony on Mars to escape climate change, countries need other countries to solve their problems.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week in Davos: “Today’s challenges can only be solved by collaboration and openness, not by building walls. We think that shutting ourselves off, isolating ourselves, will not lead us into a good future. Protectionism is not the answer.”

The Straits Times reports that last year, research done on 10,000 startups and 300 partner companies revealed that “tiny Singapore has overtaken tech mecca Silicon Valley as world’s №1 for start-up talent.” According to Deloitte’s Dr Ernest Kan, most ASEAN economies grew on average by 5–6% in 2017, which is at least two times more than the Eurozone and the United States. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Every time I step on a bus or grab coffee at our co-working space in Singapore, I feel how easy it is to be a human being here. Whether you’re wearing a hijab, a turban, or a Hello Kitty T-shirt, nobody seems to treat you any differently.

When you don’t need to worry about prejudice, it opens up space in your brain to use the gift of creativity. And that’s when we can start to build a better world with more opportunity for everyone.

Happy Lunar New Year and hopefully the Year of the Earth Dog will bring us more global collaboration between all cultures and races.


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