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Broken Iron Rice Bowl

Author: Sanchita Sairang-Kshatriya

2020-03-03 20:41

As per Linkedin’s Workplace Learning Report (2017), the average skills shelf life has fallen below 5 years. 

Neither is this surprising: The stunning demise of Nokia, the fall of Toys R Us, the way MediaCorp has been hiring more of “contract” employees, vanishing act of travel agencies and a lot more real-life business transformations show us that the world is changing at a faster pace than we imagined.

Who knew that once formidable DiDi which defeated the Uber, will have to fire 2000 employees? The mighty Tesla, which is disrupting the entire transportation industry will fire thousands of employees, in one single go? No one had ever predicted that the retail behemoth Tesco will ask 15,000 employees to leave their jobs. But it’s happening, and it’s real.

Not even the new-age digital wonders like Buzzfeed can avoid this phenomenon of terminating employees right now. This is the truth, which you need to accept. Be it gaming giants or IT czars, or healthcare behemoths, job security has become a fantasy, a dream which still eludes millions of people, all over the world.

Technology is evolving every minute, and in 2019, no employee can claim a life long right to employment, in any sector. Emerging technologies, especially AI and Robotics are gulping away jobs at an unprecedented pace, and the machines are rising from every sphere.

The very concept of the Iron Rice Bowl seems a fairy tale, whose truth is as credible as the truth of Santa Claus. 

Frankly, it doesn’t exist anymore.

From Rice Bowl To Rice Bomb

The term Iron Rice Bowl casually translates from ‘铁饭碗’ (pinyin; tiě fàn wǎn), a term originating in China. Central to the concept is the symbol of rice, which has been China’s staple food for thousands of years, and a central theme for many political campaigns. The ‘Iron rice bowl’ promised cradle-to-grave security to China’s citizens. Today is used to refer to a job that guarantees job security. 

Not only the concept of the Iron Rice Bowl is outdated and inefficient, but also its side-effects are negative, and prone to disaster. 

First of all, the recipient of the Iron Rice Bowl makes no proactive effort to upgrade his/her skills, making themselves redundant in the open market. When you are assured of your job for the next 30 years, whether you perform or not, then there exist very little incentives to stay updated.

This triggers a vicious cycle of incompetency, which plagues the entire organization, and stops the natural growth which every tribe of workers deserves. Employees are unwilling to take risks, and that is the biggest risk ever. When the tide of skills and job requirement changes, then suddenly, there exists a massive void of demand-supply, and it changes everything for the nation. 

Singapore’s Iron Rice Bowl 

Singapore - as most of its leaders say, is an “exceptional” place. 

The world's only fully functional city-state has come a long way in just 53 years after its accidental birth. A vibrant and flourishing city-state, Singapore is a global seat for finance, commerce, shipping and travel along with a title of being one of the richest countries in the world. 

However, behind these forests of shiny skyscrapers where the ‘Garden City’ hosts globalization temples such as - HSBC, Citi or Allianz to name a few, Singapore is plagued with a complex problem to solve. And the point at issue is “Singapore's fetish for iron rice bowl”.

Singapore is struggling with a crucial obstacle known as job complacency - the belief that “iron rice bowls” guarantee job security, steady income, and benefits regardless of the amount of effort made by the employees. But this is not the problem. The problem is the mentality where people want a sense of entitlement without creating any value. 

The iron rice bowl theory creates a notion that you have ‘a job for life’ no matter how productive or unproductive work you’ll do. This concept has brainwashed generations to think that having a government job is the ticket to a “relaxed life”. But does this attitude stay relevant in the new world of digital disruption? 

Iron Bowl = Security, Stability and Status 

According to a Singaporean civil servant who did not want to be named, 

“The mentality of most Singaporeans has been to prefer or seek “safe” employment options rather than that of taking calculated risks. Another reason is the established fact that public servants have it easy. There's a certainty of compensation whatsoever is the level of seniority and terminations are rare.”

Then again, people are more inclined towards iron rice bowl careers because they don't contribute to the level of stress that comes with private sector jobs and they still pay well easily and respectably.

What's Wrong With A Safe Job?

The civil service is the main and biggest employer in Singapore and their hiring standards have influenced the mindset of the youth. 

Secondly, promotions in the public sector are mainly based on qualifications and years of service. Therefore people do not really fight hard or take initiatives to come up with innovative solutions. 

This attitude of the young population in one of the most developed Asian economy is outrightly disappointing. It is even more troubling as we expand it to the national scale. The attitude suggests the young generation values the payoff for their education with respect to occupation wellbeing.

According to Nicholas Tay of Merlion Review, “Frankly Singaporeans apply to SMEs and startup jobs as the last resort because the pay they offer isn't high and the social status of working for them isn't anything special.”

This outlook has created a skewed talent ratio for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Reason: candidates demand a market premium if they want to work for a startup or SMEs, as there's a perception that working for small companies is a huge risk and thus they deserve higher compensation. 

Although such reasoning is illogical but it goes beyond market economics. In order to build successful local brands, our country’s youth needs to have the hunger within to create value first, rather than simply accessing contrary to the iron rice bowl culture. What iron rice bowl mentality rather preaches is to embrace the “access value” society instead of a “create value” ability. 

Singapore Is Evolving, So Should You

On February 18th, Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat presented the Union Budget for 2019, and the announcements clearly portray the evolution of the new Singapore.

The Budget announcements tell the job seeker, that the ancient concepts of the Iron Rice Bowl are now outdated, and no one should expect a stable job anymore. 

Global competition has changed the local rules, and retrenchment is becoming the rule, rather than the exception. Managers and bosses around the country are being encouraged to filter the talent, as fast and swiftly it can be done.

The need of the hour is the fast adaptation of reality, and creation of value, instead of seeking entitlement. 

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is happening right in front of our eyes, and it is the survival of the fittest. In such a dynamic environment of business and employment, the Iron Rice Bowl should be best forgotten.

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