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City of not-so-subtle cultural differences

Published on Sunday, 22 Sep 2013

In terms of geography and population, Singapore is a relatively small nation, but its economy is one of the most important in Southeast Asia.

Given its commerce-friendly reputation, Singapore offers a number of benefits to businesses. Taxes are low. Prices are stable. Corruption exists, but at a relatively low level. The city-state also has one of the world’s highest GDP per-capita.

Not only are English standards in Singapore among the highest in Asia, many ethnically Chinese Singaporeans also speak Putonghua, an increasingly important asset in a world where China looms large. An ability among other Singaporeans to speak Bahasa, meanwhile, facilitates trade with its two neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.

For these reasons – together with its strategic location in the heart of Southeast Asia – Singapore is the regional base for a growing list of multinational banks and financial institutions.

So what happens when expatriate bankers take up posts in Singapore? Many of them are misled by the city’s seemingly Western face. As a result, they expect things to be just like back home.

On the surface, Singapore appears to be a very Westernised city, but appearances can be deceptive. Beneath the Lion City’s European face is a distinctly Asian heart. Many traditional Asian values – Chinese, Indian or Malay – are still in play.

“It is very easy with Singapore to get seduced as it seems to be very Western-oriented compared with other places where expats get posted,” says Bob Morton, chairman of CIPD Enterprises. “So newcomers see things that they immediately perceive to be similar to the West – but they are not. In fact, there are many layers of complexity in Singapore.”

Singaporean society is hierarchical, and locals maintain many of their traditional Confucian values. Deference to authority, for example, is still very much a part of the culture. But that doesn’t mean that Singaporeans are all alike. The city state is, in fact, a very diverse place, and there are significant cultural differences between its three most important ethnic groups.

“They may all be Singaporeans, but they’re also Chinese or Malay or Indian,” Morton says. “There is this tendency among Westerners to think that because they’re all Asians, they’re all the same – but they’re not... You really have to spend some time working it out to figure out what the similarities and the differences are. You have to be aware of, respect and reconcile the differences.”

One of the things that can be difficult for expats to come to terms with is the level of government control in Singapore. “When I first came here, I couldn’t get my head around the amount of state intervention,” Morton says. “There are a lot of controls and restrictions.”

Expats working in banking, finance or other sectors are well advised to step back and observe things carefully before jumping to conclusions.

On a practical level, Singapore as a financial hub means bankers based in the city often need to deal with their head office in London or New York in real time. And that can lead to some very long hours – 12-hour days are not unusual in Singapore.
“Meetings need to be scheduled either very early in the morning or very late at night,” says Lewis Garrad, managing director for Asia-Pacific at business performance consultants Sirota.

Educational standards in Singapore are high, and Singaporeans are generally well-educated. They are also very status-conscious, and Singaporean companies can have very high expectations of their staff. “Status is very important in Singapore,” Garrad says. “It is very much a meritocracy. Singaporeans value achievement. They want to be rewarded or recognised.”

The flip side of this is that Singaporeans can be easily embarrassed, and that can lead to awkwardness. “Challenging someone openly in the workplace is not always productive,” Garrad says. “You have to be very diplomatic or people lose face.”

One of the more rewarding – or challenging – aspects of living and working in Singapore is that society is very group-oriented. Whether that’s a positive or a negative depends on your outlook. Some outsiders will enjoy the camaraderie. Others will find the intense interest that colleagues display in their personal lives a bit overbearing.

“Singaporean culture is very collaborative and collegiate,” Garrad says. “This has both an upside and a downside. If you’re not eating with your colleagues, it’s thought to be weird.”  

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