This interview was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by AMP Singapore, October 2019, Volume 4, Issue 4.
More Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, are choosing to work or live abroad. The number who choose to work or live abroad has increased over the years, with a total of 216,400 Singaporeans last year compared to 181,900 in 2008. The trend is unlikely to abate as the world gets more and more connected, making global employment now much more accessible than before. Economic potential in emerging markets, such as the Middle East, has also contributed to a significant increase in companies relocating their staff and sourcing talent from all around the world.
Our featured personality, Nurlina Awaludin, leapt at the opportunity to work overseas when her previous employer was looking for someone who might be interested in being stationed in Qatar for a few months. Being young and wide-eyed, she looked forward to a change in scenery and learning how the event industry functions in a country that was completely new to her. Over a decade later, Nurlina is now an event director for trade exhibitions where key decision makers in the security and defence industry meet and learn about the latest technologies. In 2009, the first edition of an event she managed secured second place for the ‘Best Trade Exhibition’ award by the Middle East Events Awards.
What started off as a plan for a mere change in scenery ended with her embracing a new working culture and being more open to new perspectives and worldviews 13 years on. Nurlina shares her experience working and living in the gulf state with the Karyawan team in this issue.
Q: Could you tell us about yourself?
Nurlina: I am the youngest in a family of four siblings, and I grew up in a humble, typical middle-income family in Singapore. Despite my parents emphasising the importance of studies, academics was not my strong suit. I had to retake the GCE ‘O’ level exams as a private candidate after my first attempt did not yield the results I wanted. With my new exam results, I qualified for the Certificate of Business Studies course in ITE Bishan, where I eventually graduated in the top 5% amongst ITE students nationwide. I then undertook the Marketing diploma programme in Temasek Polytechnic and later received my Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Western Australia. Even though my education journey was unconventional, I am glad that I remained persistent and had the full support of my family to overcome the challenges.
Q: How did you get a job working for the Qatari government? What does your work entail?
Nurlina: After being seconded to Doha, I worked in a joint-venture organisation established between Qatar and Singapore. One of the core projects that was assigned to me was for the Qatari government, which was producing a biennial exhibition and conference similar to an existing event in Singapore. Therefore, I had the privilege of being part of a team that organised the inaugural edition of the event in Qatar.
Over the years, I worked on different areas of event management and grew from being a marketing professional to being the project lead for the event. After delivering three editions of the event, I was approached by the Qatari government to consider working with them to spearhead the project. Having witnessed the development of the project, I became very invested in its growth. Thus, I made the decision to extend my stay in Qatar and be part of the organising committee for the anchor exhibition and conference amongst other events.
Apart from managing the event departments across the board, which includes overseeing activities related to public relations and marketing, revenue generation, managing vendor relations as well as operations and logistics, I am also tasked to lead the strategic development of the event.
Q: As an Event Director, what kind of events do you manage?
Nurlina: I specialise in the defence and security field, and mainly organise events that bring together the industry’s key decision makers to meet and learn more about the latest innovations and solutions. As an international event, the exhibition is a leading arena for global defence manufacturers and service providers to showcase their latest technologies to government entities from across the globe and form commercial opportunities.
In addition to that, I am also involved in organising conferences where thought leaders from all over the world – including both academia and practitioners – discuss and share their expertise on the latest regional and international trends in the defence and security domain.
Q: What were your initial struggles working in Qatar and how did you overcome them?
Nurlina: Communication was one of the major challenges I had to deal with. Back when I first started working in Qatar, the English language wasn’t as commonly used as it is now. Therefore, communicating with local vendors could get very complicated. Furthermore, many would rather have discussions face-to-face rather than over email, thus there was a need for me to hone my interpersonal skills. But through time, and with better networking, it did get easier as we had a better understanding of each other’s standards and expectations. At the same time, we also managed to establish better rapport thanks to offline communication.
Q: Is the working culture different from Singapore?
Nurlina: Most definitely. The working culture here centres on personal interaction we have amongst colleagues and stakeholders. For instance, most of us greet and have a short chat with each other when we arrive in the office instead of heading directly to our workspace. This may seem as something trivial or even perceived to be a waste of time if we are in a Singaporean work environment, but I have learnt that this little effort goes a long way and is appreciated, which in turn brings the team closer.
Q: Do you find living and working in Qatar less stressful than in Singapore?
Nurlina: To be honest, not everyone will enjoy being in Qatar. One’s personality and way of life plays a key role. I, for one, do find living and working in Qatar less stressful, mainly due to the love for the job I do and my personality of being a social introvert. Hence, I do not feel the need to have a large group of friends as a support system as I am content with having few social activities.
On the other hand, the official working hours in Qatar is typically shorter compared to those in Singapore. On normal days, I work from 7.30am to 2.00pm. During Ramadhan, the working hours are even shorter. Even though many may be envious with this ‘privilege’, we are expected to achieve the same milestones within a shorter time span so it does get overwhelming at times.
I always look forward to having time to myself on my off days. Apart from dedicating my time to my five cats which I have dubbed as my ‘furkids’, I also indulge in binge watching TV series, reading as well as having restful sleep.
Q: What are some of the misconceptions about women in the Middle East?
Nurlina: Before I came to Qatar, many warned me about going there alone as they had this perception that women here are oppressed and do not have the freedom and rights that other women do in other nations. In reality, Qatar is a very safe country and women are free to do as they wish as long as it does not offend the sentiments of the local community.
Q: In your opinion, what are the main attributes that a person must have before considering working abroad?
Nurlina: An open mind and open heart. Positivity plays a vital role in living abroad, especially if you are relocating alone without any other family members within close distance.
Another attribute that would be helpful when one decides to live and/or work abroad is adaptability. We have to be realistic that we will be entering a new environment and not everything will work the way we are used to, so do expect to make some adjustments both personally and professionally. Also, no matter how experienced a person is, there is always something new to learn, so a little humility will go a long way.
Q: What was something uniquely Singaporean that proved to be useful while working in Qatar?
Nurlina: From what I gather, my Qatari colleagues perceive Singaporeans to be earnest and hardworking. We are also known to not overpromise and underdeliver. In other words, Singaporeans are well respected here as we are reputed to have integrity in our work.
Q: Do you have any advice for those who want to pursue a career in the Middle East?
Nurlina: Stay resilient. The recruitment process is more time consuming due to the mandatory procedures but don’t lose hope. One also has to be realistic and do the necessary research on the opportunities that are available in the Middle East as businesses here are dominantly fueled by certain industries. So it will be an advantage if one has relevant experience in the field.
Be sincere in the work that you do and it will be appreciated by many. Prove that our little red dot is able to contribute to a nation’s growth beyond borders.
Q: Do you think Malay/Muslim youths should explore a career overseas? How can they go about doing so?
Nurlina: I do not see a reason why not, especially if they have the interest. They should at least give it a chance. There are many online recruitment portals available that have a proven success rate. Another alternative is for them to approach recruitment agencies and headhunters as many established companies and major organisations nominate headhunters to seek the most suitable candidates. This will also allow the applicants to have a reference of their rights and package as an expatriate hire and also some guidance when making arrangements when relocating.
Q: Do you agree that working abroad is an experience that has developed you both personally and professionally? What changes did you see in yourself?
Nurlina: After spending 13 years in a foreign land that I now call my second home, I have become more independent and responsible. Professionally, I think I have become more patient and learned to listen. Working in a multinational and multicultural environment, I have had to be more understanding of the point of view of others. I have become more open with receiving inputs from others and being more creative in using the information to cultivate new ideas and solutions.
Q: What are your future plans? Will you return to Singapore if you were offered a job?
Nurlina: Eventually, I would want to return to Singapore to be closer to my family. I feel that I have missed out many milestones so I wish to be more physically present.
At the same time, I am very emotionally attached to the projects that I have worked on and want to continue witnessing its growth. Thus, it is hard for me to say what my next course of action will be, but if a suitable opportunity arises in Singapore, I will certainly give it serious consideration.
 Population in Brief 2018. PG 19. Table 4: Overseas Singaporean Population
Nur Diyana Jalil is currently an Executive at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) who manages its social media, events and publication. She loves to read, travel and recently started to write leisurely.
Photo credit : Ms Nurlina Awaludin