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Decline of the Expat Expert

Category: , Posted:01 Jun 2013 | 06:00 am

These day's my life seems to have taken on a speed of its own, as if a stray cat wondered in off the street and hit the fast forward button on my iTunes (no promotional consideration has been provided in the mention of this commercial offering but Apple please note I can and will provide any type of irrelevant connections to any of your products should you be inclined to send me free stuff).
My change of status from domestic resident to expatriate happened nearly thirty years ago. I recall trips to Hong Kong where English generalists were hired by legacy trading firms. Sitting on a bar stool next to one of these pale-faced Brits I'd quiz them on exactly what qualifications they had, or they actually did in their present positions? A precursor was, of course, Eton or another of those old boy institutions. Their answers, despite it being early in the evening and all of us being frighteningly sober, often amounted to jibberish.
In the old days, expatriates to Asia could often leverage themselves into positions of power and respect based on their (western) country of origin. This, of course, did not apply to the 'Old Hands' who still wore those safari suits and hung out at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club). The latter rocked as they travelled further afield then their location clubs and wore instances of malaria, or dengue as badges of honour.
Suddenly that damn cat comes in again, and with an intuitive paw lands right on the go faster button. I'm not going to say what happened next to the cat for fear of enraging the PETA crowd. Suffice to say that today, the expat world as we knew it is gone – forever.
Real estate reflects the same anxious shift. Sure, there was massive growth in the early to mid-1990s when anything and everything worked. At least until 1997. In the lead up, there was a massive migration of overseas property experts into the region. Certainly the Hong Kong handover, if nothing else, was a symbolic taste of things to come, but wanting to forestall the inevitable, many headed north to China.
In what may have been a last gasp effort, or as we say in American football that "final fling into the end zone", the Millennium injected steroids into the system. But as Bad Lance or any speed freak can tell you, for every road that goes up, on the other side is dark fast descent down into oblivion.
During the GFC, the Middle East and Asia again saw an exodus of expatriate experts, and these days, it's become a bit like forestalling the inevitable. With the rising tide of domestication in each and every Asian country, why on earth do they need the long haul foreigners? More telling still is the upcoming AEC (ASEAN Economic Community) with inter-Asia mergers, acquisitions and cross border investments taking centre stage. Enter the Asian expats: Indonesians and Malaysians who can both trade tables in Bahasa, Singaporeans who can switch to the language of the monied mainland.
I've often mulled over learning Mandarin, but then realise that trying to even get a decent command of English has been a struggle. I'm not quite sure what the future holds for the real estate expatriate in this changing world, but certainly, ones nationality is no longer really important – it's more basic elements like language, relationships, connections that count, or extraordinary skills which are currently still in demand.
The playing field has been levelled and not even a billionaire sugar daddy can buy his way into the top in Asia. These days, its a simple matter of how good, or bad, you are. Mind you, keep an eye out for stray cats.

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