Are You Qualified to Work in Southeast Asia
Dec 23, 2017

Southeast Asia, especially Thailand with its openness and thriving economy, is an attractive destination for living and working abroad. But competing in the job market is easier said than done as top talent flocks to the country.

Working abroad has always been a popular career planning option. Whether a childhood dream, necessity forced by circumstances, or a chance for a better future, going abroad is something on the minds among a certain element of each age group in every generation of Taiwanese.

This is not a matter of right or wrong, or an issue of whether one should stay and contribute to Taiwan or head off and take on the world, as every individual’s aspirations and choices in life and career determine the path they take each step of the way. And ultimately every individual is only responsible for their own life.

The development of Southeast Asia remains a hot topic - from the previous “Go South” policy to the current New Southbound Policy. And the way things are going, there might be another wave in that direction in a few years. This can be attributed to the plethora of development projects available in this fast-growing and relatively less developed areas - especially given that the market has not yet been saturated, there is a lot to do. Armed with marketable skills and a good attitude, there are innumerable opportunities to make something of oneself here.

Thai Advantage, Talent Flooding In

Thailand is one of the better performing countries in recent years, boasting a number of advantages, including ASEAN membership, an ideal geographic location, a high speed railway under construction between China and Thailand to the north and extending south to the Malaysian Peninsula, directly to Singapore. To the east and west Thailand is flanked by Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, making it a nexus for the flow of people, goods, money, and information.

Boasting a broad market, a highly tolerant culture, and relatively complete infrastructure, Thailand is poised to take on the status as the dominant force in the northern ASEAN region.

Bangkok, the capital city, is second only to Singapore as the most prosperous city in Southeast Asia, and in many respects leads even regional metropolises Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai in terms of international character and diversity.

For such reasons, talented job seekers are flocking to Bangkok in such high numbers that it is to a certain degree no less competitive than the North American and European job markets. From companies hiring locally to startup teams vying for venture capital investment and resources, the opportunities are great but the challenges are by no means inconsiderable.

To find a dream job in Thailand, or for that matter anywhere, attitude is paramount.

Failures Outnumber Successes

Recently, perhaps as a result of extensive media coverage and government promotion, “Southbound Fever” seems to have taken hold. Quite a few interested people have asked me about salaries and the work environment in Thailand.

However, reading between the lines, I can tell that many of these people have certain presumptions and - forgive my bluntness - ignorance, saying such things as “I bet Thai people are hard to keep in line”; “Isn’t it pretty backwards there?”; “With the low cost of starting a business in Thailand, it must be hard to not make a profit there”; or even “Anywhere is better than Taiwan; Thailand surely offers better prospects."

Faced with such comments in question form, I want to retort, ‘Are you still holding onto the attitude of past Taiwanese OEM business executives managing Thai laborers?’ Or do you look upon this country as having massive domestic demand, and want to fit in to the local way of life and operate a business you truly love?

I must repeatedly stress that, no matter where you head to make your mark in the world, a broad mind and accepting attitude go a long way.

Even though Thailand has thrown open the door and welcomed people from anywhere to seek a living here, it has never guaranteed you a perfect life and career. All those setbacks you experienced and complain about in Taiwan could very well reappear in Thailand.

When and if that happens to you, in a strange country, not knowing the language, things could easily be much worse for you than in Taiwan.

“Many people complain about low wages, a bad economy, entitled bosses, a bad environment, being under-utilized and appreciated… yet have never reflected on their own attitude or solutions, instead just imagining that if they changed environments everything would take care of itself. It is ridiculous to have not even bothered to learn properly about the market, culture, and situation here and just presuming that Thailand is backwards. Knowing none of the language except for sawadee ka and just assuming you’ll find a job you like in Bangkok, or that starting a business is easy. All that is a pipe dream!” relates one Taiwanese businessman who has observed countless businesses and individuals come and go over more than a decade in Thailand.

Risk Losing Touch with ASEAN

To be honest, the media and public opinion have always been good at setting the tone or putting a spin on things. Oftentimes, they deliberately focus on successful cases or emphasize “thriving opportunities” in order to get in on a certain subject, while failing to report honestly on negative cases or risks.

As a result, they paint a picture of a someone making six figures at a foreign business venture in Bangkok, or a successful entrepreneur, someone whose successful business has expanded from Thailand into neighboring countries… While these might be real examples, one should still be mindful of all those nameless people that quietly lost out - people whose stories you are not likely to ever read.

Apart from attitude, professional skills are equally important. You must know your limits and your abilities, and although dreams are wonderful, reality does not bend with your dreams. Only by putting yourself in the right position can you stand a good chance of putting your know-how and skills to work.

Companies in Thailand, both local or foreign-invested, have no problem offering skilled candidates generous terms - the proviso being that you must truly be “skilled.”

How competitive is Bangkok for talent? How formidable is the competition?

The truth is, basic wages in Thailand are low, and the starting monthly salary for college graduates in the social sciences is only about NT$20,000. Still, aspiring talent from neighboring Southeast Asian countries and even youths from China are pouring in, giving enterprises more than enough employees from which to choose. Even if you want to start a company, you need to compete with all kinds of ventures to attract investors, and to be brutally honest, if you have no stand-out qualities, or are even unable to make a living in Taiwan, you would have to be very lucky to establish yourself in Thailand.

Just how competitive is the talent market in Bangkok? I know a 27-year-old Cambodian with a Master’s degree in engineering from his top choice of schools in Thailand, fluent in six languages including Mandarin, English, French, Thai, Khmer, and Cantonese (and able to read and write in all of them except for Cantonese). After working for a year and a half in Phnom Penh on bridge and tunnel construction sites, he presented his research in Malaysia in 2016 for a patent on cement, and while working on his Master’s worked part time helping a Japanese company get Chinese clients. A young person of his tremendous professional caliber working at one of Thailand’s top engineering consulting companies takes home around 35,000 Thai baht (around NT$32,020) a month after taxes working nine to six, plus half a day every other Saturday. Not satisfied with his current salary level, he has set his sights on higher goals for growth in the future, and is working aggressively to gain experience and better himself.

Bangkok is filled with young people like this. Just imagine, if you were a Taiwanese with a similar background, how confident would you be in your ability to compete?

No Shortcuts to the ‘Promised Land’

Rounding out one’s professional skills and work experience is critical to finding the ideal job – be it in Thailand, Southeast Asia, or anywhere in the world. It is okay to take media coverage as a point of reference, but never fully trust the media, take selectively recounted stories about people’s successful careers in Southeast Asia at face value, or you’ll be subjected to the risk of overlooking the realistic circumstances and intense competition one is bound to face in any ASEAN country.

In accordance with Thailand’s Ministry of Labor regulations, in 2017 Taiwan was classified as a Level Two Advanced Country. Accordingly, in order to apply for a legal working visa to Thailand, a company must pay you “at least” 45,000 Thai baht per month.

As a result, for local enterprises or foreign-invested companies in Thailand, it is far more cost-effective to hire a Cambodian who speaks Mandarin than a Taiwanese national, all work considerations being equal. In fact, more and more Thai workers can speak fluent Mandarin these days due to the large influx of Chinese investment in recent years.

Their Chinese language advantage having been eroded, and professional skills easily replaced by less expensive competitors, Taiwanese should carefully consider their niche and develop a unique skillset in order to find a position to their liking that also pays more than it would in Taiwan.

Naturally, if all you want to do is get a taste for local life, relax and take it easy in a new environment for a short period of time, and you have no lofty notions of making your mark somewhere overseas, then you need not be so serious - for Thailand probably has the lowest unemployment rate in all of Asia, the cost of living is low, and the pace is not as frantic as that of Taipei or Hong Kong. It’s not difficult to find a job and survive in Thailand. Jobs such as entry-level service industries, junior staff at large corporations, Mandarin teachers, tour guides, etc., are easy to find. Even those staying in the country on visitor or student visas, as many foreigners do, can make ends meet.

Still, it is a foreign country after all, and in order to stay for the long term, professional accomplishments, feeling assimilated to local life, and passion for everything around you are all motivations that can keep you going.

Professional skills and know-how, attitude, and passion. It may sound old hat, but that is how looking for a job works, whether you plan to work in Thailand, Southeast Asia, or anywhere else in the world.

Translated from the Chinese article by David Toman

Jack Huang

A native of Taipei, Jack Huang returned to Asia after earning a degree in international economics and global management from the University of London. Currently based in Bangkok, he has held successive positions at United Nations Trade and Industry Department and the Office of Information and Communication Technology(OICT)assisting with fuel management systems development and peace-keeping troop operations support. Work often finds him traveling overseas to the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, and Ivory Coast.

Jack has traveled to over 20 countries, and has lived in New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Beijing, Singapore, and Europe. Eager to encounter new things, his mind is often host to clashes between left- and right-wing thinking.

Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.

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