When the opportunity to work in Sri Lanka came about two years ago, Selwyn Chiu dived right in. It was a tremendous growth opportunity, both personally and professionally, and he didn’t want to miss out on this prospect.

However, as the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic drew more severe in Asia, Selwyn decided it was time to come home. Ahead, Selwyn shares his experience working in Sri Lanka and his homecoming move to a different industry in Malaysia.

A passion for continuous learning and development

After graduating with an honours degree in international hospitality and management, Selwyn joined Sunway Malls, one of Malaysia’s largest mall operators, as an operations executive.

“It was by pure chance that I landed a new role in the shopping mall industry in 2010 as a fresh graduate. They were looking for someone with F&B background for a new project, and my role was to go into all the shopping malls to do a safety and hygiene audit,” explained Selwyn.

And eight years into the job, his interest in the shopping mall industry grew into a passion and career. And he rose to become the head of operations for the company, establishing administrative, financial, and operational functions. 

Then, an opening for the general manager of Columbo City Centre, Sri Lanka’s first international standard shopping mall, came calling. “It was an opportunity not to be missed, as this will be my first posting overseas, and I get to practice the trade in a growing retail market. I thought it would be a good working experience which will broaden and enrich my career path as well as my life experience.”

Despite a terrorist attack at a few hotels just a week before his move to Sri Lanka, Selwyn, with his strong drive for professional learning and development, was not deterred and continued with his new endeavour. On top of that, he took a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development Management, where he had to fly back to Malaysia for three full-day lectures every month for 18 months. 

After two months, his wife and daughter moved back to Malaysia. His wife, a professional, was not keen to be a homemaker; on top of that, his daughter was accepted into a primary school of their choice in Malaysia. And, seeing that Sri Lanka was only three and a half hours away from home, Selwyn continued his work in Sri Lanka.

Be open to joining another [sector or industry] – as long as the majority of your work experience and skills are relevant to the new role

Working in Sri Lanka: An eye-opening experience

As Sri Lanka is a very small, growing market, Selwyn found it fulfilling to be able to contribute to the company immediately. “My company then was building the country’s first international standard mall, and as most regional offices for international brands are located in South India or outside of Sri Lanka and India, there was a lot of regional work involved,” said Selwyn.

One of the challenges that he enjoyed the most is bringing international brands into the local retail scene. Sri Lanka’s import restrictions are associated with high taxes, and the government has a policy of appointing 51% local ownership for foreign direct investment. Therefore, Selwyn not only has to persuade regional offices of international brands to enter into the Sri Lanka market, but he also had to connect them to local investors to set up joint venture partnerships.

Work culture-wise, unlike working in Malaysia, Sri Lankans do not have the work pressure typically associated with competitive markets. According to Selwyn, the pace in Sri Lanka is slower, but that is not to say they are any less competitive in any way.

Also, Sri Lanka is a rather religious-centric country, and a significant majority of Sri Lankans practices Buddhism. And every 15th of the Lunar calendar in Sri Lanka (also called Poya Day), there is a “time-out” in the country.

“Entertainment venues are closed, and there is no sale of meat and alcohol. It is quite unlike the shopping mall culture in Malaysia, where doors are open every day for the year,” explained Selwyn. 

“Working in a foreign country benefits me as I learned and appreciated the different cultures of another country. Being involved in a foreign industry helps to sharpen my skills in terms of market adaptability.”

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Coming home to a new experience

The thing about working overseas is if there is an emergency back home, you can simply take a plane back. For Selwyn, it was only a three-and-a-half-hour flight home. However, COVID-19 changed his priorities.

“The pandemic changed how travel works; when you do travel during the outbreak, you have to be quarantined when you reach your destination, and by the time the quarantine period is over, the emergency would have been over. I decided that being with family is more important than pursuing a career overseas,” explained Chiu.

Almost around the same time, Selwyn was contacted by Ying Tan about a role based in Malaysia. “I had shared my CV with the Michael Page Malaysia database some years back, and I was contacted by one of the recruiters, Ying, about a role in Kuala Lumpur.”

The Michael Page candidate process, according to Selwyn, was easy and seamless. “I really appreciate that she listens to what I’m seeking for my next career move and is sincere in finding an employer that is best suited for my career aspirations and a company where my skills and experience would be best put into practice. Ying was transparent about the new role, that it wasn’t a like-for-like replacement for my job in Sri Lanka, and that I will no longer be involved with shopping malls.”

Not one to shun new experiences, career growth, and learning opportunity, Selwyn decided to accept the position at Selangor Properties. “The company is also redeveloping some of its existing properties to incorporate more retail aspects into its office spaces portfolio, and that is where I can bring in my experience to help develop the project.”

Selwyn’s best advice for Malaysians abroad who are thinking of returning home but cannot find specific roles in the same sector or industry is to consider changing industries. Think transferable skills. “If you are considering to return to Malaysia, but are unable to be in the same industry, be open to joining another, as long as the majority of your work experience and skills are relevant to the new role.”

Looking to return from abroad? Submit your CV here: https://www.michaelpage.com.my/returning-malaysians

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