Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How I Work

After having written on why I work, I will now write on how I work.

I had visions of a life in economic theory when I was studying economics as an undergraduate, but my father said, "One degree one person only. You have many brothers and sisters." I searched and found a studentship and told my father, "You only have to buy me an air ticket." He said, "This I can do." Off I went and did my Masters, but left half a year into the PhD programme. I could not imagine throwing scarce resources and my youth onto a thesis topic which would be of interest to my professor but not to me, and I could not get a professor who could supervise me on a topic which was of interest to me but not to him. Everybody was so caught up by the little pieces that they had to publish in order to keep their jobs that there was no investment being made on the fundamental theoretical issues of my interest. I had long been dissatisfied with the state of economic theory purely because it was (and is) too caught up in the mathematics at the expense of content, and also because I felt that there must be life after Keynes (in economic theory). Furthermore, I was deeply interested to know how the Malaysian economy functions and there was no better way than for me to come home and work. I became a professional student of economics, and still am.

One of the first little research projects that I did involved collecting the numbers for the money supply and GDP and various other series. As I busied myself, one of the many homegrown first-class undergraduates in the organisation came up and asked me what I was doing. My answer was "To find out the chief cause of inflation in Malaysia." She quickly replied, "It's easy. Either demand pull or cost push." I looked up, flabbergasted. I could only retort, "But, which one?"

This gives me the first clue of what I would later discover to be an underlying problem in our society, that there is no proper research and that people are quite happy spewing off conventional theories or theoretical conclusions without a clue as to whether they are relevant to the situation we are in. My greatest peeve with academic research is the mindless application of local data to particular hypotheses concocted in other countries, that there is little attempt made to see what is happening right before our very eyes at home. (At the very least, Ungku Aziz was original with his sarong index.)

For me, therefore, work is just getting paid for being a student - the wages being my studentship, so to speak. When I got my first job with that auspicious organisation, the personnel manager asked me, "Are you sure you want this job for RM750 a month?" My masters was valued the same as a local undergraduate. My answer was, "This is more money than I'd ever had." There were reasons for such undervaluation. The first thing that they were interested in was to make sure that you passed the civil service examinations on the national history, the national code, the setup of the government and a whole host of other things. Everybody, on first admission, was called an administrative officer. The degradation of an organisation starts from the degradation of its human resources. The performance of an organisation is circumscribed by the quality of the leadership.

My greatest joy in working is in the learning and discovery of the world around me and the workings of my innermost self. It is this self-discovery that keeps me going despite the harsh reality that I had to face, and still have to. It is not easy to cope in an environment when, not only does nature by itself wishes to do you in, but the society that we live in is unfriendly. But there is nobody to prevent anyone from learning and realise for oneself what life and living is all about.

The life of an economist is an extremely interesting and illuminating one. One can observe how people seal their own fate by the decisions they make about what they wish to do and not wish to do, by the distance that they wish to travel, the effort they wish to make, the amount of responsibility they take for their own actions, and the amount of fault they place on others for their own failures or rather inhibiting their successes.

The basic economic tenet is that much of modern society can flourish rapidly to the benefit of most if not all people is through the cooperation of efforts by various groups of people and if there are surpluses to exchange those surpluses in order to improve the variety that spices up all our lives. If one group has a surplus and another group does not have, then one way forward is charity; another way may be horse trading of some sort. These exchanges aside, the first rule must be that everybody works hard, according to their own ability, in order to maximise the output of the society.

In the world that we live in, we are all trying very hard to talk of the exchange model without the effort to increase the output and if possible the surplus.

My studies in the school of the real world was somehow also guided by my father who died immediately after he had achieved his goal which was to send his six children abroad to study, though not everyone came back with a qualification. It was his sense of fairness, to give everyone of his children an opportunity in life, however good or bad they might have been. But after having us the opportunity, it was up to us to make the best of our lives. This must be a fairly standard story for many Malaysian families. But my father's influence on me was a bit more profound, I would like to think. When I had to persuade him about me doing a PhD, he asked, "On what?" I was by then interested in income distribution. My answer was, "Why people are poor?" He said, "Not clever. Better to study how people become rich!"

In a certain way, therefore, my little economics study is on how wealth is created and distributed. In the current economic model that we have, my answer is education and knowledge, investment and confidence and working together, trade and exchange and trust, and opportunities for everyone so that all abled persons can maximise their output. Life is too short for each individuals to wait for the right opportunity to be given to them. When one door closes, another opens.

By improving my understanding of what is going on, which is the same as improving my performance at work, it is not very hard to find a job. There is always someone out there looking for someone who goes around with their eyes and minds open, and think.

Eventually, as a result of sabotage by bosses who refuse to recognise my efforts, I had to move to a new industry. I have learned to embrace change and movement, and not to fear getting out of my comfort zone which is other words to fly. When colleagues and bosses want to kick you out, it means that the organisation has come to a head, to a peak, and everybody thinks there is gold at the summit. This may be a good time to move. When things or the environment looks quite gloomy and there is someone out there who is hiring, jump at the job. Something is brewing and a new industry may grow. The only problem is whether one can get oneself excited and find a way to play a useful role. If one gets could in a very difficult industry which appears to clash with one's personal value, there is always a saving grace by focusing on being the best that one can be in the job and provide as good a service that one can muster in order to help the clients. It is possible to be in the eye of the hurricane and survive.

Mastering the technical details is an important step but only one step. Learning how to serve others well is a lesson that is most meaningful only to oneself. But importantly, work as a student and learn and learn. It is the knowledge born out of curiosity that is the real reward for working. The cash is only to defray the cost of fulfilling some of one's family responsibilities, like giving back what one has taken from one's parents.