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Living in the Lion City

November 1, 1998
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Featured Article
Despite stories of financial crises, Asia remains the world’s economic dynamo. At the forefront of the bustling Pacific Rim economies is Singapore, the romantic island city-state known as the Lion City. Though only 24 miles wide, with a population of approximately 3 million, Singapore is aggressively leading the region in the level of trade, commerce and high-tech industry that will characterize the 21st century.

Singapore occupies a geopolitically critical position astride the vital Straits of Malacca, through which much of Northeast Asia’s ocean trade must pass -- most importantly, petroleum products en route from the Middle East to the oil-hungry factories of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. But even without this unique qualification, Singapore is a lodestone that attracts foreign business and investment faster than any country in the region. With its central location, easy air access, excellent communication infrastructure and stable government and economy, Singapore makes an easy relocation destination for international assignees.

Yet what becomes of the legion of expats that descend on the small, but intense, city-state? It’s easy to be sanguine about life and work in Singapore; after all, locals speak English as a national language, the country has one of the cleanest, most transparent systems of business and government, and it offers a safe, comfortable lifestyle. But one of the attractive, mysterious lures of Asia is that things are rarely as simple as they appear.

A melting pot.
Singapore is in many ways an artificial entity that grew out of the need for British seafarers and traders to have a safe port of call and a coaling station located between India and the markets of China. Crafted out of a fishing village with a reputation for offering a haven for pirates, Singapore continues to base its economic well-being on trade and commerce. As a part of the post-World War II decolonialization movement, Singapore first confederated with Malaysia, its neighbor, then in 1965 opted for complete independence.

That announcement, made under the leadership of Peoples Action Party founder and leader, Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew, was greeted with universal surprise and skepticism. How, analysts wondered, could such a tiny place stay alive, much less compete with larger, richer and potentially hostile neighbors? Lee was up to the challenge. He realized from the outset that Singapore’s greatest resource, in truth its only real resource, is its people. Consequently, a country that is dominated by ethnic Chinese -- more than 70% of the population call themselves Chinese by race -- was consciously turned into a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures.

Lee announced the formation of a Singaporean identity that respects the cultural roots of all citizens, but is a singular entity with its own special characteristics. He moved to blend in the remainder of the population. The Malays brought a tradition of Islam. The Indians are mostly Hindu and have their own beliefs and proscriptions. Yet all three cultures survive and prosper. As a Cambridge-educated barrister, Lee incorporated the strict training of English common law, with its approach of equality before the law, which worked well in this former British colony. Perhaps this was the necessary glue to bind it all together.

Interlocking relationships.
And so, modern Singapore was born. Today, it effectively blends the traditions of these many cultures into a special mix. Yet at its core lie several of the values of old China. Sandra Chen, a noted master trainer for Prudential Relocation International based in New York City, comments: “One must first understand Confucian Chinese culture to begin to grasp Singapore.” She says the ancient roots of the culture -- not only for the Chinese but for the Malays also -- originate in the relationship-driven credo of Confucius that stresses respect for hierarchy, age, educators, status and, above all, family. “The family is at the most fundamental of all relationships and is the most important. The others grow and branch from family roots,” notes Chen.

So expats quickly learn that networking is critical for survival and prosperity in Singapore. But while many Westerners are up to the task of meeting people within their own specialty areas, they often fail to realize that in a culture like Singapore’s, every relationship can be important. “Singapore can be a very small community in some ways,” notes Suzanne Bey, a former HR specialist in Singapore. “Everyone knows everyone else, and foreigners often are a prime topic of conversation.” Therefore, she emphasizes, it’s important that you learn proper behavior and mannerisms that bring respect in Singaporean society.

This mutual, interlocking series of relationships is based on favors, or guanxi in Chinese. Guanxi is vital, Chen affirms, in any Asian society. Americans typically have a difficult time grasping the meaning of guanxi (pronounced gwan she). Singaporeans might ask for a small favor. This is an indication they want to build a relationship with you. Americans are quick to grant the favor, but fail to request a reciprocal favor out of an unwillingness to impose. She explains: “You must ask them for something small, a little assistance here or there. It lets them know that you understand the workings of building a relationship, and are eager to do so.” If you draw back, you send the message: I want to be left alone.

Squeaky clean and open.
For Americans accustomed to dealing with some of the more opaque societies in the world, or with countries in which bribery and corruption may be the norm, Singapore offers a breath of fresh air. Procedures are clear and openly delineated, and public officials take pains to avoid even a hint of impropriety.

Government employees are especially sensitive about receiving gifts, and will turn down virtually everything offered. It may be possible to take a government person to lunch, but anything more might be misconstrued and would best be avoided.

Brainstorming a bust.
Singaporean employees are products of their hierarchical education system in which teachers teach and students sit quietly and learn. As a result, the open, inclusive, sometimes contentious American style of brainstorming or offering opinions publicly at meetings will elicit a negative response from local employees.

It requires effort to learn employee opinion. First solicit individual thoughts before discussing issues in a group. Never expect a Singaporean to criticize or comment in a meeting about anyone else’s performance. This would incur an unacceptable loss of face for all involved.

Change? Not here.
It may seem paradoxical that a country that prides itself on its grasp of technological processes would seem to avoid procedural change. Perhaps this is another legacy of the Confucian philosophy. Though Americans grasp change as a cultural talisman, restraint and patience are highly desirable qualities in Singapore.

Let change within the office come slowly, if at all, and try to develop a tolerance for change among your employees. Encourage them to move at their own pace in the direction in which you would like them to move. Encourage evolutionary rather than revolutionary change.

Job hopping.
Modern Singaporeans are driven by success. Many young Singaporeans are eager to improve their cash flow and will change jobs quickly for what may seem to outsiders a relatively insignificant amount of salary increase. This causes dislocation for companies that spend time and resources training employees. While it seems at loggerheads with some of the traditional cultural values of stability, loyalty and respect for authority and position, job hopping has nevertheless become a Singaporean preoccupation to the point that the government has issued policy statements discouraging it.

A work in progress.
Singapore, though based on ancient cultures, is still evolving and defining itself. As in any culture based on what could be construed as a conflicting and entangling heritage, there can be paradox and confusion. Fortunately, Singaporeans are open and friendly. They are willing to discuss things on a more open plane than other Asians, and they welcome outsiders.

Still, expats and visitors are wise to learn about the core values of Singapore. Relationships, proper behavior and a polite demeanor mean a lot here, and practicing their manners will carry you a long way.

Global Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 10-11.

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