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Pakistan’s rat race: The politics of professionals

The race begins quite early. It starts with animated discussions about which school the baby-to-be will go to. One-year-olds are sent to playschools that guarantee admissions in top-of-the-line schools offering O Levels. Before admission tests, tiny tots are taken for regular visits to familiarise them with the schools they will apply for admission to, and photos of that school’s principal are lifted off the internet and repeatedly shown to the toddlers to make sure they are relaxed during the interview.

Fast-forward eight to 10 years. Mothers (and I confess to being one of them) can be seen dropping off kids to O Level exams with zeal and enthusiasm, as if the children are literally going to fight the biggest crusade of their lives. Kids are also encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities – golfing, swimming, drama, knowing an additional language or two – all this not for the joy of it, but because it makes the Curriculum Vitae of these high-achievers more impressive. They are pushed to their limits in the name of competition. All this is a means to an end – and that end is admission into a foreign university.

For years, Pakistanis have wanted their progeny to participate in the mass exodus of brainy, bright, and brilliant youngsters who want to make something of themselves and so go abroad to face life armed with a foreign degree. But a new phenomenon has risen in recent years – the flooding of the Pakistani job market with “returnees to Pakistan,” or R2Ps as they are popularly known.

The reasons why an increasing number of youngsters who have been educated abroad are choosing to return to Pakistan are understandable. Stricter immigration laws are making work visas next to impossible to obtain. Hostility towards Muslims the world over makes living and working abroad a formidable proposition. A global recession means there are fewer jobs in the international market. Many young people also feel that no matter what they achieve abroad, they will still be considered immigrants, whereas in Pakistan they can enjoy a sense of ownership. A ‘paradise for the mediocre,’ as some call Pakistan, is an easier place to shine through and become a mini-celebrity.

More frequent homecomings mean scores of foreign graduates are now working alongside graduates from local universities, may they be from government colleges or more upscale, private institutions such as LUMS. The result? An understated but very real rivalry between foreign and local graduates in the workplace.

Local grads are more ‘with it’ in terms of local know-how and a familiarity with the Pakistani way of doing things. Employers describe such local products as street smart and comment on their well-established social and professional networks. They can often work better with people from different backgrounds and classes. Having lived in Pakistan, they are less naïve and don’t offer the retort that foreign graduates treat like a mantra, “but this is how we do it back there.”

Graduates from foreign universities, on the other hand, have better interpersonal, writing, and presentation skills, and in some cases, a stronger work ethic. Travel has made them world-wise, aware, and confident. They are often ambitious and driven in ways their compatriots are not, and are in a position to put their career above all other social or familial obligations. As a result, they are available to pull long hours, and can be handed responsibility for high-stakes projects.

In some organisations, one group is preferred, promoted, and hob-nobbed with, while in others the reverse will be true. Asha’ar Saeed, the HR director at Reckitt Benckiser Pakistan Limited, feels that, “the edge foreign graduates have is their ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds, and slightly better ethics. Local ones have the advantage of having know-how of local business dynamics. However, in terms of writing skills, presentations skills and networking, anyone can be superior to the other. I have seen some brilliant graduates of Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and Bahria University, Karachi, who can compete against the best.”

With these comparisons being made by those who make hiring decisions, the rivalry between local and foreign graduates is a real issue, bringing complications and stresses for youngsters on both sides of the divide. Saadia Muslim, 23, is a strategic planner at an advertising agency who graduated from a Canadian university. She confesses that “the move back home was not exactly smooth-sailing. Even though I grew up and lived in Pakistan for most of my life, it is quite easy to become spoilt and get used to the good life.” Muslim found adjusting to the work environment and corporate culture in Pakistan to be quite tricky, as there were many office politics and a prevalent ‘seth’ culture.

Muslim admits that her boss not-so-subtly hinted that she was hired because of her foreign college education. “That worked both ways. It felt good to be given importance, but I was extremely wary of colleagues thinking that I was snobby or arrogant.” Muslim also felt that local graduates were at an advantage as it took her some time to relate what she had learnt in college to the local industry. She did not know any famous executives from multinationals who had taught her in college, like her colleagues did, so her networking was also initially poor.

On the other hand, Fahad Naveed, a student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, feels that “foreign graduates get a definite and sometimes unfair edge, even if they studied at some unknown, mediocre university abroad.”

Does that lead to strained relations at work? Cyma Hasan, a business manager has been lucky. “Foreign and local grads are treated the same way [in my office]. In fact, local grads at times have an advantage, in my experience.”

As an inherent part of the culture of the Indian subcontinent, the class and caste system still prevails in Pakistan. We compartmentalise people into Punjabis and Sindhis, Sunnis and Shias, Clifton-wallahs and Nazimabad-wallahs. Diversity is not celebrated; it becomes a reason for strife and an excuse to undermine each other. Foreign versus local graduates is yet another kind of compartmentalisation in our society. Instead of learning from each other, youngsters are using this distinction to give rise to petty politics in a professional context. It is time everyone moved beyond this immaturity and saw that the two groups can be complements – not adversaries – to each other in the road to success.


Farah Zahidi Moazzam is a freelance writer.Illustration by Eefa Khalid/

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

About FarahnazZahidi

Journalist, writer, Communications practitioner, teacher, media trainer | Literature | Gender Parity | Peace | Islam | Very Desi | Chaai, not coffee.

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