Singapore is a choice assignment for Western Learning professionals for several reasons. The democratic city-state enjoys mild equatorial weather, and the business climate is welcoming to Western professionals and academics. The cultural experience on the ground is rich and varied with a global outlook. English is the common language of commerce. It’s an easy place to feel safe as a foreigner.
Singapore’s leadership is committed to making the city a center of the Asia-Pacific region, recruiting talent from within the region to work in one of the most affluent economies in the world.
Learning, with an eye on meritocracy in the workplace, is highly valued. As the nation’s economy currently is slowing down, organizations and personnel are eager to stay competitive. Singapore may not lead in innovation, but it does set the pace in terms of business processes and attracting talent to stay at the top of its game in tourism, refining, retail, and technology.
That said, there are inconsistencies in the workplace—e.g., leadership is still male dominated— that affect training and development. Westerners who have become used to flat corporate structures will notice elements of hierarchy that keep the C-suite aloof from the rank-and-file. “Skip interviews” in which employees meet with their boss’ bosses, now common in the U.S., are not practiced here.
Singapore professionals value Western trade, but don’t expect any special deference to your academic credentials just because they’re American or European. There is a sense of pride and a preference for the region’s own universities.
The blend of private, publicly traded, and government-owned organizations is significantly different than in the U.S. Government work often has higher status and salaries than commercial enterprises. Singapore’s airline is government owned, and there are many hybrid, semi-national enterprises. But entrepreneurial principles also are valued, even in state-led organizations.
Cultural diversity is evident throughout Singapore, but the Chinese family structure prevails in many ways. Students often live in multi-generational and physically smaller homes. Property in the crowded city is expensive. Commutes in heavy traffic to less expensive housing can affect promptness and cause training start time delays.
When Skyping from New York at 9 a.m., it’s good to be mindful that it is 9 p.m. for a Singapore professional who possibly is calling in from a house or apartment with elder relatives and young children who may be sleeping. While Asians often speak in softer tones than their Western colleagues, don’t confuse a working father’s quiet presence as “not speaking up.” He’s probably just mindful of his kids’ bedtime.
Multi-generational living has advantages as childcare usually is managed with the help of older family members. This can be a big advantage for women professionals in Asia.
CUSTOMS THAT COUNT
Sharing—housing, domestic duties, food, etc.—is a dynamic unique from the West that affects the routines of the office and is highly observable in the custom of eating groups, which are strong social “reality testing” groups that provide belonging and social support.
As a foreigner, you may be brown bagging at your desk—if not enjoying a solo spree on any street of amazing restaurants—but you probably won’t be invited to a group. Eating groups are from three to seven colleagues who go out every day over the years and provide both support for one another and also a break from the office. You must be invited to a group based on common connections such as your university or job function.
The eating group is a source of informal information exchange that keeps participants in the know. It’s an important feature of networking, and people look forward to it. It’s an egalitarian custom with no group leader, just a consensus of texts about where to go. Everyone in a group has the same status or pay grade. If you advance to management, you’re expected to leave the group and lunch with your new peers.
It’s a custom that provides a lot of positive reinforcement and social validation, but the downside is the lack of diversity and the potential for cliques to form.
For a trainer, it’s unpopular to organize working lunches, but there’s an opportunity to challenge a class to collaborate outside their eating group cohorts in various learning exercises.
SUGGESTIONS FOR SUCCESS
- Don’t just adjust your time zone; adjust your timing. Remember that you will need to accommodate arrival and departure times for personal/ domestic realities, commutes, and multi-generational living arrangements.
- Bring “your A game.” Your classes will be highly educated and motivated. You will be valued for good performance more than your credentials.
- Don’t be complacent. Singapore is so Western in many ways that you might be lulled into doing things like you do at the home office. Effective trainers need to push themselves out of their comfort zones to engage with the diverse and prevalent cultures.
Lily Kelly-Radford, Ph.D., is a psychologist, executive coach, and leadership development consultant. She is a partner in Executive Development Group.