Managing In Singapore: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

When executives are posted to work in a foreign country most realize they have to adapt and adjust their cultural business skills to be more effective with colleagues and clients. But what if you were told there was no need to adjust your business approach to communicating, running meetings, negotiating, and motivating your subordinates in a foreign country? What a relief you might think or maybe you would be a bit skeptical.

During an executive coaching session, David, a VP at a British multinational pharmaceutical company with regional headquarters based in Singapore told me about his experiences.

David said, “My boss who visited Singapore on business but never lived there said to me, ‘Don’t worry about managing cultural business differences when you relocate to Singapore. The workplace is very Western.’ Asia -light. Asia-easy. Asia-for-beginners. These are the things you hear from everyone, including Singaporeans during your first few weeks of your new posting,”

“That’s true if it’s about managing your daily living requirements in Singapore. But what about managing your business effectively in Singapore? Do you feel those descriptions also apply?”I asked.

“I had a few surprises after settling into my new role in Singapore. After a couple weeks of meeting all my new subordinates I was surprised that a good 40% of the employees at our Singapore regional office are not Singaporeans. Not only was I managing Singaporeans, but also executives from China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. And suddenly managing cultural differences at work in Singapore is not so simple, light and easy. I also discovered that Singaporeans behave much more Asian than Western. It turns out to be the most complex and multicultural team I’ve managed so far in my work history,” David replied.

Here are key tips to help you manage more effectively when working with Singaporeans:

1. The cultural differences and motivations between the different ethnic groups in Singapore and also other foreign workers needs to be clearly understood in order to manage teams effectively. Almost 40% of the workforce in Singapore is not Singaporean.

2. Excellent team work – rather than ‘standing-out’ from the team is an important part of being a good colleague in Singapore. If you are a manager, your team must like and trust you personally for successful business to be done. Liking you personally is more important to your colleagues than the company or country you represent.
3. When negotiating, a surface politeness is necessary with Singaporeans but understand that Singaporeans are very bottom line focused. Being ‘polite and nice’ on the surface does not affect the determination of Singaporean business people to reach their objectives and decisions. They are keen negotiators especially in the government sector.

4. Singaporeans have a strong sense of competition sometimes called ‘Kiasu’, literally meaning ‘afraid to lose’… a desire to be first. Asian business culture generally requires a win-lose outcome. Expect to have to make concessions. When your relationship is fully established, a win-win approach is more likely.

5. Singaporeans are usually more prompt and responsive than when dealing with some other Asian countries. However, it’s easy to be prompt when the answer is always ‘yes’, and the main business language is English. When the answer is ‘no’, the response is not necessarily speedy, clear or simple in Singapore.

6. Mediocre employee productivity can at times be common in Singapore and a challenging workplace issue. Manage your expectations regarding efficiency. It’s not that people don’t move quickly or work hard, it’s just that the pace is not always consistent.

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