Saturday 26 October 2013

Chase meaning, not money

Bizlink Centre Singapore CEO Alvin Lim tells Susan Long why he wants to change how people feel about work and going into reverse gear.
The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2013

WORK is a four-letter word to many. Not to Mr Alvin Lim.

He is in awe of its many unsung dividends. And there is nothing more he likes to see than the furrowed brow of someone immersed deeply in work.

For the last seven years, the CEO of Bizlink Centre Singapore, a non-profit organisation providing employment for the disabled and disadvantaged, has been hard at work trying to change how work is perceived, not just by the infirm but by the able-bodied too.

It is time to change arcane notions of work as a dreadful necessity to put food on the table, he says. Earning a living is merely one aspect of why people work. Work is also a form of "welfare with dignity", a means of therapy, social integration and staying in the community, he avows.

The 52-year-old says his generation, who viewed work as a chore, commonly aspired to early retirement.

"To retire at 50 was the best. Then we saw those who retired too early passing away very fast. And it's not like they had a very good life after retirement. Quite a few now tell me if they can, they want to work on and on, like Mr Lee Kuan Yew," he says in his folksy, meandering way. "Of course, (Mr Lee) works at a very high level. But even at a low level, work is still a privilege."

Today, his 50-strong non-profit organisation hires about 150 people with physical, intellectual and mental disabilities and another 50 disadvantaged people such as ex-inmates, mental patients and the elderly to work in its sheltered workshops and slew of social enterprises in food and beverage, cleaning services, floral hampers and data management.

It is the largest employer of the disabled in Singapore, next to the civil service. Its beneficiaries are aged 16 to 82, with one-quarter above 50. It helps about 300 disabled people find jobs yearly, within its sheltered workshops and in other companies.

Mr Lim has done away with any official retirement age in Bizlink. He is now trying to extend the "privilege" of work to the elderly with disabilities or early stage dementia. Earlier this year, he piloted a work therapy programme for his ageing clients where they tie ribbons and paint festive decorations, for example, to keep their fingers and minds nimble. It has 16 people onboard, and another 16 on a wait list.

Work, the pint-sized man feels, is superior to mahjong or line-dancing in keeping the old active. "Not everyone knows how to play mahjong or dance. But the most common unifying factor in Singapore is work, which almost everyone is exposed to."

When one ages, and pains and aches creep up, isolation magnifies them.

"If you stop work totally, put yourself in parking brake and wait to die, every day you wake up, you think 'Aiyah, my leg is still hurting me, rheumatism is coming, dark clouds are on the horizon'. When you come for work therapy, very soon you forget about it. Soon, you'll be arguing with the nasi lemak seller for forgetting to give you fish, minor things that help you get on with life. You have people at work to hear you out. And if you look around, you will see others whose legs have been amputated. It's very unlikely that you are the worst of the worst," he says.

No iron rice bowl

HE WAS the eldest son of a clerk and housewife with seven kids. Each time a new sibling came along, his late father partitioned off another room on the ground floor of their Kim Keat rented house and let it out. Finally, the family of 10, including his grandmother, lived in only one large bedroom.

At 16, he dropped out of Raffles Institution, breaking his mother's heart, to conserve funds for his younger siblings to go on to university. He signed up for a Singapore Airlines apprenticeship scheme, helping to maintain aircraft engines, while taking electrical engineering night classes at Singapore Polytechnic.

At 20, he was laid off in 1982 in the aftermath of the oil crisis, together with other non-unionised apprentice engineers, and learnt there was "no iron rice bowl". He then joined the Republic of Singapore Air Force as a technician and got his Business Administration degree with Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology through self-study. At 29, he joined an engineering company, and quickly rose from sales executive to operations manager. He became a specialist in intelligent buildings and was recruited four years later by a top Japanese multinational as general manager in 1996.

In 2000, during the era, he headed the Singapore arm of an American Internet exchange company. It was "a pure money-minded" initiative, conceived to generate projects, get listed, then cash out. He was paid $16,000 a month with generous bonuses but received "zero returns" in terms of satisfaction.

Two years later, having realised "my own limits and what I will and will not do for money", he left to run his own manpower outsourcing and IT equipment businesses. He hired bankrupts, ex-prisoners, those heavily in debt and the disabled. He hired 10 deaf people he had met in church, who were retrenched during the downturn, and found them work as ticket scanners for an airline.

On the side, he started the Small Business Start-up And Job Placement Association in 2003 as a support group to shore up the spirits of sole proprietors and small business owners during the recession then.

It had about 50 members who met fortnightly at his Henderson Road office premises to encourage one another. "Instead of praying for people after they commit suicide, I thought we should tell them at the earlier stage that it's OK to fail. We also did job placement because after you go into business, it's very 'lose face' to seek employment again. I wanted to tell them, 'It's OK. Get back to work'."

In 2006, he responded to a Bizlink ad looking for a new CEO. There was plenty to do and much scrutiny, at less than half his previous pay. His first order of business was introducing key performance indicators to Bizlink, which started in 1986 as a project under the Ministry of Community Development after a survey found that 55 per cent of the disabled were not working and just stayed at home. He cut loss-making businesses and returned Bizlink - with operating expenses of about $4 million a year - to surpluses a year later.

Mindful that the disabled would grow old and need retirement financing, he paid his beneficiaries CPF, which later enabled them to receive Workfare subsidies. He focused on their abilities and interests, rather than disabilities, by having a team of psychologists, occupational therapists and social workers assess their vocational skills.

Seven years on, Bizlink's workforce has grown from a total of 160 in 2006 to 250 last year. Its sheltered workshop beneficiaries reportedly enjoy the highest income and benefits in the industry. Their median wage is about $800, not including subsidies.

The work evangelist has also expanded Bizlink's mandate to enable practically everyone to work.

Beyond the disabled, he also hires cancer patients, single mothers, youth at risk, basically anyone who struggles to enter or stay in the job market. His goal is to oversee a team of 1,000 beneficiaries and professionals by 2016.

In time, he hopes to have a holding pool of workers for labour-short industries such as food and beverage and cleaning. He is busy setting up more social enterprises to provide jobs and training and plans to venture into retail soon with Bizlink Shoppes.

What he is looking for is more Singaporeans in their 40s or 50s with relevant experience, who feel they have gone as far as they can in their careers and are looking for a change, to run them.

Earlier this year, he set up a Bizlink Cafe at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) that hires and trains recovering mental patients. He recruited an experienced hotel chef to run it, decked out the place and absorbed all the business risks.

IMH's CEO, Associate Professor Chua Hong Choon, 48, says: "Alvin is very determined and focused on his mission to provide persons with disability every opportunity to succeed and participate in life. He has supported and included persons with mental illness as part of his mission even when many other agencies were unable to include them. He never gives up, and manages to find ways to overcome difficulties."

A rich life

TODAY, he sees his wider mandate as communicating what the disabled want to the wider world.

"A lot in the consumer price index doesn't apply to my people. They have already forgotten about a car or second house," he says. He has also embarked on joint studies with university economists to look at what constitutes a fair living wage. Last year, he conducted his own Our Singapore Conversation so that Bizlink beneficiaries could have their say, then submitted their input to the relevant government agency.

He sits on the boards of Singapore Corporation Of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE), which enhances the employability of ex-offenders, and SATA CommHealth, a community health-care group of services. He is a district councillor at North East Community Development Council (NECDC).

In each of these organisations, he pushes his theories of work as therapy. His old schoolmate, Mr Seah Kian Peng, 51, CEO of FairPrice and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, says his early move from a successful corporate life to champion the cause of the disabled is admirable. "He has, in every sense of the word, punched way above his weight and contributed to making our society a more inclusive community."

Mr Lim is frank he was able to change course and work in the social sector at 45 because of his "non-extravagant" lifestyle. He is married to housewife Shirley, and they have four children aged 13 to 20. He drives a Mazda 5 minivan and they live in a Bukit Batok condominium. He repeats the old saying that no one on their deathbed ever wished they had worked harder to make more money, whereas many wished they had spent more time with loved ones.

At the end, it is clear what really matters, but he beseeches anyone who will listen not to wait till then to prioritise well. "By then, you've run out of time already," he intones urgently. "Work for your joy today."

Mr Alvin Lim on...

Unhelpful beliefs

"In Singapore, everyone says there's no 'gostan' (reverse) gear. You must go on to make more and more. Better to wait first and stay unemployed if your next job doesn't pay you more. But you cannot always be going up and accelerating. You're going to break the speed limit some day. At some point, for the money, you will be doing things that you don't like. If you keep on going in that manner, you become a slave to money. Or you end up unemployed for a long time, waiting for the right job to come along."

Getting real

"All chefs want to be Michelin chefs. But at some point, many find out even if they work another 30 years, they will never get there. And their bodies will just get frailer over time. But even though they are not going to make Michelin chef, they have so much experience and a full life ahead. The sooner they realise this and become contented with their lives, the better. Contentment is easily brought about by the work we do, because most of us spend a lot of time on work. What's wrong with settling down to some stability? Why not chase meaning, rather than money, in the social sector?"

His own beliefs

"I drive a Japanese car and I'm very happy with it. I see nothing wrong with it. Why should I chase after a Rolls-Royce? I came to my conclusion that if I take a step backwards, work at a lower-paying job that I like, why not?"

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