Singapore’s Cultural Commandments
As a thriving regional port, Singapore has long provided its people with some of the highest living standards in Southeast Asia. Even before the Second World War, modern, air-conditioned condominiums were sprouting up in this thriving city-state. But Singapore’s remarkable economic development, these days the stuff of business school case studies, truly began in 1965, when the island finally gained sovereignty following more than a century of British rule (as well as a brief and ultimately failed merger, from 1963, with neighbouring Malaysia).
Singapore’s successful transformation into a business entrepôt and financial hub with one of the world’s highest levels of per-capita GDP was carefully and almost single-handedly orchestrated by one man, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who governed for more than 40 years before stepping down in 1990. His entrepreneurial, ‘there is no free lunch’ ethos won him considerable admiration worldwide; Margaret Thatcher went so far as to state that ‘He was never wrong.’
Because of its location and status as an aviation hub, as well as its multiracial population, Singapore has also been acknowledged as a good departure point for those wishing to explore the region’s cultures, languages and religions. Encapsulating many of the colours of Asia in an otherwise modern, safe and efficient environment, the country has even been described, half-jokingly, as ‘Asia 101’.
BE SUPPORTIVE OF LOCAL ASPIRATIONS Singapore loves to be seen not only as a global (as opposed to regional) player, but also as a global leader. Punching above its weight has been the island’s main preoccupation for decades. Show support and enthusiasm, and where possible take on the mantle of Singapore’s informal ambassador to business and other communities overseas.
BE ORGANISED Foreigners are sometimes (pleasantly) shocked when documents they applied for, say, at midday on a Saturday are approved, issued and delivered to their desks by Monday morning, or when airport immigration takes just seconds to clear. But this is nothing unusual – rather, it is the ‘Singapore way’. Be prepared for, and learn from, the efficiency around you.
EMBRACE A SPIRIT OF COMPETITION It helps to be aware that Singaporeans are a competitive bunch. Talk of ‘upgrading’ one’s skill set, education level or even oneself, period, is as common in Singapore as chitchat about weather is in Europe.
BE ECONOMICAL WITH TIME Time is money, and valued accordingly.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO MIX PLEASURE AND BUSINESS A dearth of free time, coupled with a densely-populated urban setting, creates a natural impetus to kill two (or more) birds with one stone. In meetings, one should be clear and concise, specifically outlining ‘what’s in it’ for the other party. Singaporeans are always open to opportunities, and you never know when luck may strike.
KEEP CONVERSATIONS UNCONTROVERSIAL ‘Modern’ Singapore was born out of a struggle between the now-ruling political party, which enjoys a near-absolute majority in parliament, and those who went down in history as leftist, Communist and labour unionist radicals. Furthermore, there is a tendency among Singapore’s larger neighbours to dismiss the republic as an insignificant, ‘little red dot’ on the map (an epithet attributed to former Indonesian president B J Habibie in 1998). Conscious of these geopolitical realities and of the region’s delicate racial make-up, Singapore’s media and educational institutions are averse to rocking the boat. The pro-government, uncontroversial tone of local news may sound bland to a Westerner, but it is a result of the country’s unique history.
RESPECT BOUNDARIES More than 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in publicly developed high-rises. Multi-generational households are not uncommon. Consequently, an invitation from your local colleagues and friends to visit them at home may be slow in coming. Such a delay is not necessarily a sign of distance or avoidance on their part.
BE AWARE OF RACIAL SENSIBILITIES Singapore has fashioned itself into an open and vibrant economy in which one in three local residents is a foreigner. Despite the government’s consistent calls for tolerance, a measure of resentment is inevitable, particularly when foreigners are perceived as taking up white-collar jobs that Singaporeans could perform just as well.
LEARN ABOUT LOCAL CULTURE There is the polished Singapore that is all business and speaks the Queen’s English. Then there is the more authentic, and cheerier, local subculture perpetuated by the ‘man in the street’, who speaks a pigeonised version of English known as Singlish. Understanding the many colourful Singlish expressions (such as ‘blur like sotong’, which describes someone who is ‘as confused/clueless as a squid’) will make your Singapore experience infinitely richer and more fun.
INITIATE FRIENDLY BEHAVIOUR In a Manhattan-like city packed with banks, lawyers and offices, it is unrealistic to expect a lot of warmth, attention or eye contact from others. But to be discouraged and to start ‘paying back in kind’ would be a big mistake.
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