Opportunities During Adversity

Image by Jean-Charles Debroize

Singapore's Circuit Breaker is finally over and for many people, life is slowly returning to some semblance of normal. For many others, the reality is hitting hard now as pay cuts, layoffs, business closures and other economical hard hits are taking place all around us. 

I remember waking up to text messages from worried classmates to watch the news one fateful morning in September 2001. It was our final term in uni and we had bellies full of dreams to return to Singapore and start our lives with job offers lined up before us and we would land a glamourous-sounding, well-paying one. That was the plan. 

As I watched every news channel reporting the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York, my heart sank. The world had suddenly gone into disarray and what would ensue, "The Great Recession", saw friends' parents losing their jobs while Singapore's economy started to struggle through one of its worst economic slumps, in part no thanks to the dot.com bust. 

Reality hit hard as jobs dried up, companies had frozen headcounts and were laying off staff. I knocked on doors, wrote in to dozens of companies and finally, one responded and I would go on to work there for three months before they too, folded.

A streak of creative thinking hit me - what if, I could offer my services for free to a company I truly wished to work in, and get my foot in the door? After all, no one wanted to invest in hiring during a downturn, no less someone with no industry experience. I begged a friend to let me speak with her boss, and she agreed. Just like this, I got my first job in the industry I wanted to be in. 

In 2003, as SARS hit Singapore and businesses once again started laying off staff and freezing headcounts, I was by then working in a job I really loved and was worried I would be next on the chopping board as teams in my company were asked to leave. I was having a chat with a senior and he said "This is called Flushing, if you observe, you'd see that the good ones would be reassigned to other teams while the driftwoods get axed. A downturn is the company's best chance to get rid of the people who just aren't putting in their best and are drifting along.". Thankfully, I didn't get axed and it made me realise the transactional nature of the workforce - work hard or have no work. 

Image by TooDee

In 2009, the collapse of Lehman Brothers that triggered the Global Financial Crisis saw Singapore become the first East Asian country to slip into recession. That again led companies to closures, layoffs and headcount freezes. I was looking for a new opportunity that could allow me more international exposure and that ambition couldn't have come at a worse time. My first-born was just one at that time, I had a mortgage and car loan to my name, and as a dual-income family, I couldn't afford to be unemployed. 

It felt crazy to be leaving an employment but how do you quell an ambition? I didn't allow anything to stop me, I wrote in to dream companies, I met with head hunters and lo and behold, I landed myself a job that was everything I was looking for.

At a chance meeting with a high-ranking government official during my tenure here, I posed him this question, "How does Singapore survive in uncertain times like this? After all, we do not have natural resources, neither do we have access to giant economies." I will never forget his dead-pan reply which until now is deeply etched in my mind, "We are like a cockroach. We are swift and we eat anything."

Image by TBWAHuntLascaris Johannesburg

These experiences made me realise some very important things: 
-there are opportunities during times of adversity
-always give your best in every job you do
-be creative, allow change, be different in the way you approach everything
-be determined and don't let something like a recession extinguish the fire inside of you
-a recession is never permanent, what goes down must go up
-have enough savings to tide you through tough times, 6 months is a good rule of thumb
-keep yourself valuable, keep learning and be earnest so that when the opportunity comes knocking, you will have what it takes to be offered; Opportunity favours the prepared mind

Fast forward 11 years since the last financial crisis and we're now faced with yet another setback. How will we navigate this? 

If you asked me, I'd advise you to be like the cockroach! 

You're going to be just fine. Xx

Author: Cynthea Lam

Image by TBWAHuntLascaris Johannesburg