In Singapore, traditional Asian values, inspired among other things by Confucianism, have gradually combined with westernised practices. It is therefore difficult to generalise about the ethnic customs and professional practices of the various ethnic groups inhabiting the island. Although each group seeks to preserve its cultural identity, the younger generations now see themselves first and foremost as Singaporeans and seek to distinguish themselves from their Chinese, Malay or Indian cousins.
Nevertheless, there are some common traits manifested in both society and companies. Succeeding in your international assignment, means achieving an in-depth understanding of the way Singaporean society is structured. Here are 6 Things to help you get started!
1. Wine and Dine
Social contacts are very important in business. One must genuinely be interested in getting to know any new business partner. It is the foundation on which trust is build. And as in many other Asian countries surrounding Singapore, an easy way to connect is over food! Singaporeans are proud of their diverse cuisine. Any gathering should be accompanied by a fair share of delicious dishes!
2. Protecting ‘Face’
If you cause a business partner to lose face, the relationship can be badly affected. In order to save face, make sure you show respect for status. That means showing respect for age, family background, company position and educational background. You should be well aware of the company’s hierarchy and the place of yourself and others in it. With external business partners, it is very important to pay attention when you receive or present a business card. It determines the title and therefor the status they have. Exchange business cards with both hands, with the (Chinese) text directed towards the receiver.
3. Harmony is Bliss
Singaporeans have a strong wish to maintain harmony within the group. As the output of the team one belongs to is generally more important than individual achievements, make sure to address both criticism and praise in general terms and do not single out anyone in public. For individual feedback, make sure you arrange a one-on-one meeting.
4. Reading the Air
Be sure to practice your skills in indirect communication, especially in sensitive situations. Feedback or criticism is best given in an indirect way where the receiver can only imply the ‘bad news’. Realise that your local business partners will also do their best to save your ‘face’. Learn to recognise the non-verbal behaviour showing possible disagreement or inability to meet your demands.
5. Time is Money
Unlike many other Asian cultures, the influence of British colonialism and the education background of Lee Kuan Yew has made Singaporeans very strict on the management of time. If you are going to be late for a meeting, you are expected to inform the other party and have a good excuse at hand!
6. Use Directive and Consultative Leadership
Singaporean managers are perceived as fairly authoritarian and paternalistic by Western expatriates. Employees still generally expect directive leadership where clear instructions are given; they are not particularly inclined to take personal initiative and decisions made by management are hardly challenged. Western expatriates often comment on the lack of ownership or accountability down the hierarchy. However, you can take advantage of this hierarchy when you want to speed up decision-making for more straightforward projects. At the same time, you should invest in building trust between you and your team so they feel comfortable to give bottom-up input and feedback.