This interview was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim  Professionals (AMP), October 2017, Volume 12, Issue 4.

Building a successful career away from home is becoming increasingly common especially with the globalisation of economy. According to the data from the National Population and Talent Division, the number of Singaporeans jetting off to live or work abroad has climbed 24 per cent in the past 10 years. The latest population statistics show 214,700 Singaporeans living overseas as of June 2017, compared to 172,000 in 2007.

For many of us, the idea of leaving home to work abroad can be daunting, especially at the thought of going somewhere unfamiliar and needing to adapt to different cultures and lifestyles. A feeling of loneliness may also creep in if we do not have family or friends abroad. However, if we realise where the opportunities can take us, it is sometimes worth taking the leap.

With geographical boundaries becoming less meaningful, thanks to social media and a growing diaspora, those overseas can still maintain a strong bond with Singapore. Moving abroad also opens up a plethora of opportunities for a career boost. Corporations are increasingly seeking team players who understand the importance of cultural nuances and can collaborate with people across organisational boundaries. But the advantages aren’t just organisational or monetary. Exposure to different countries can actually lead to a richer, more fulfilling life.

Working overseas can be a great way to travel, build new skills, creating a global network of contacts and expanding your horizons. A broader worldview can only truly be attained by experiencing the world and no one could have shared this adventure with the Karyawan team better than Atiqah Fairuz Md Salleh, 29, who is an Assistant Editor at UNU-FLORES, United Nations University in Germany.

Q: Could you tell us about yourself?

Atiqah: I come from a family of six, which has since grown over the years. My father, 69, is retired but at the moment, continues to keep himself busy as a freelance consultant and also providing certified training on intergenerational learning and soft skills on active ageing and healthy living for seniors. My mother, 63, is a homemaker. I am the youngest of four children. My sister, 41, is in the civil service moulding the nation back home; my elder brother, 40, is a social entrepreneur based in Indonesia; the other brother, 35, is a senior engineer/designer, and you can say that I am a global public servant.

Q:   Could you share about your educational background?

Atiqah: I had the privilege of attending Temasek Primary School and later Raffles Girls’ School (Secondary). After tertiary education at Meridian Junior College, I double majored in Political Science and European Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). At graduate school, I focused on Global Governance and Social Theory and graduated with a Master of Arts in International Relations from Jacobs University Bremen and the University of Bremen in Germany.

Q: Any special interests in and out of school?

Atiqah: I had always juggled multiple interests when I was in school. When I was not training for the school’s squash team, I was leading the Angklung Orchestra, or reviewing school rules as the Head of Discipline on the Prefectorial Board, or cheering my House on as Vice-Captain, or organising cultural events to promote the Malay language and culture, or volunteering with community organisations outside of school. Today, I am trying to grow my own urban garden in my apartment.

Q: Why did you choose Germany?

Atiqah: I first moved to Bremen in 2011 to pursue my Masters in a programme that I had found really attractive and fitting to my goals. Prior to this, I have had stints at the universities in Heidelberg and Munich, whose rich research traditions had convinced me to return to a German university to continue my learning journey. By then, Germany had grown on me, and it came as no surprise to my family that I was going back there to benefit from a tuition-free quality education. Just as I was about to graduate, I received an internship offer at a global anti-corruption non-governmental organisation (NGO) with an international secretariat in Berlin, and then the rest is history.

Q: Tell us more about your time in Germany.

Atiqah: My time in Germany so far, as is life in general, has seen its ups and downs. I truly cherish the opportunity to become my own person here; I feel that in Singapore, this chance is not always easy to come by. You’re constantly surrounded by familiarity, and at times, you need to know the other to know yourself better. Fortunately I adapt and adjust quite easily, so I’ve not had any trouble settling in the different cities so far. But of course, when you’re out there all on your own, you only have yourself to rely on. However, over time, you become increasingly resourceful and you learn to solve your own problems.

In terms of work ethic/style, I think there is some resemblance of Singapore here with regard to efficiency. This may be driven by different factors – in Singapore, costs to inefficiency may be too great to bear while the Germans usually strive for near perfection – but the outcome is more or less a system or design you can mostly trust. Generally, it is safe to say that work-life balance here tends to be more easily achievable than back home. It helps that the pace of life is generally slower and that nature is bountiful in Germany.

Q: What is it like being a Malay/Muslim in Germany? What is the Muslim community like in Germany?

Atiqah: Today could be one of the most challenging times for a Malay/Muslim in Germany. As an outcome of various events, and in line with trends in other countries in the Western hemisphere, the extreme right in the country is starting to gain traction. The results of the most recent national elections – where an openly nationalist party has gained entry to parliament for the first time – prove it. The fact that approximately one out of three persons you meet on the streets of Saxony (where they have gained most support and where I live and coincidentally also the site of some of the biggest gatherings of neo-Nazis in post-war Germany) wants you out of the country is a scary thought. Thankfully though, I have yet to experience any major outright discrimination based on the colour of my skin. And to be fair, the opposing camp standing in solidarity with people like me also exists and they do show up in large numbers in peaceful protests. Nonetheless, we have to be very careful that all the hatred and intolerance espoused by the far-right does not become normalised.

Living in the birthplace of Pegida, a movement against the “Islamisation of the West”, it is also worth unpacking the Malay/Muslim identity when discussing the reality of living here. On the one hand, as a Malay, it might not come naturally to others that I am Muslim, since I don’t always quite fit their usual image of one, often of Middle Eastern heritage. Where religious affiliation could become a site for discrimination, this point could work in my favour and prevent any predisposed prejudices that could lead to eventual conflict. On the other side of the coin, among the (in Dresden predominantly Arab) Muslim community, at times I also find myself having to “prove” my “Islamness” at the mosque!

Q: Tell us more about your work at UNU-FLORES.

Atiqah: UNU-FLORES is one of 13 institutes and programmes, located in 12 different countries, which together comprise the United Nations University (UNU) – a global think tank and postgraduate teaching organisation, headquartered in Tokyo. You can think of us as the research and academia arm of the United Nations. UNU-FLORES develops strategies to resolve pressing problems in the sustainable use and integrated management of environmental resources, particularly water, soil, and waste. Focusing on the needs of the United Nations and its Member States, particularly developing countries and emerging economies, we engage in research, capacity development, advanced teaching and training as well as dissemination of knowledge. In all activities, we strive to advance a Nexus Approach to the sustainable management of environmental resources, looking at interconnections between resources and designing integrated solutions to best manage them.

I am the in-house editor at UNU-FLORES, dealing with both our print and digital products. I work closely with our researchers and provide editorial support. Besides engaging directly with research content, I am also heavily involved in editorial tasks for the Institute’s communications products, for instance, as editor-in-chief of our quarterly newsletter. Online, I take the lead in curating content for our institutional website. To bolster my team’s efforts in Communications and Advocacy, I manage the Institute’s social media channels and strive to take our content also to a more general audience.

Q: How do you think Singapore fares in the area of environmental resource management? What else can be done?

Atiqah: I am not the expert – you should speak to my researcher colleagues – but from my own observation, Singapore has its own areas of success and misses in environmental resource management. For the water resource, Singapore’s NEWater is a real success story. While many countries are struggling to ensure the safe use of wastewater, resources-strapped Singapore has become a leading example of turning sewage into water that’s cleaner than what comes out of your tap. However, in other areas, a lot more can be done.

One striking observation is how we regard our resources. Singaporeans tend to take resources for granted, often operating on the principle that for as long as our pockets can afford it, we will continue to use it up without regard for the implications on the environment, costs that are often not included in the explicit pricing of a product. In Singapore, an incredible amount of waste – including many items that can be recycled – is incinerated before ending up in a landfill. Where we don’t have the luxury of natural resources, perhaps we should start looking to the waste we produce as a resource. In the move towards a circular economy in ensuring sustainable development, we can prolong the utility of recyclable materials by feeding them back into the economy in a second or third iteration of life. One simple way to facilitate this is by separating our trash. In this way, we ensure that recyclable materials don’t end up in the landfill. We close the loop and ensure that our finite resources get maximised. We also have to find a way to get producers to take greater responsibility for the full life cycle of their products and ensure that they don’t end up polluting our oceans, for example. In Germany, a refund mechanism on bottles encourages consumers to return plastic and glass bottles back to where they come from. Especially in a society where consumption is high, I can think of two additional areas that we can particularly work on in Singapore: food waste and e-waste. These are just some ideas that could perhaps set us thinking!

Q: How do you hope to put your knowledge gained in the UNU-FLORES to apply back to Singapore if you return?

Atiqah: At the moment, it is difficult to put this into concrete plans, but I do hope that I will be able to contribute towards first raising awareness on the urgent need for sustainable development and subsequently help devise ways to realise this with all the knowledge and skills attained.

Q: What advice do you have for Malay / Muslim youths here who are considering a career outside Singapore?

Atiqah: Do it. But I will also add that it comes with its own challenges (bureaucratic included). I believe overseas experience is priceless – it makes you a lot more resilient, etc. – but I would not advise people to do it for the sake of doing it or just to get out of Singapore. Always have the big picture in mind, and your rizq will take you to wherever it may be.

Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She graduated from UniSIM with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and is currently pursuing her Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.

Photo Credit: Karyawan/Ms Atiqah