An Opinion about Singaporean Business Culture

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Marina_Bay_Financial_Centre_at_Customs_House,_Fullerton_Bay_Hotel_SingaporrSometime back, I was in Shanghai on a conference. During that trip, I asked a Singaporean friend (who has been working there for at least two years) to tell me more about the business culture and what are the rising industries there. He told me that the Singaporeans are better in the education sector as compared to the other sectors in Shanghai. In his opinion, Singaporean business men did not do so well against businesses from Hong Kong and Taiwan, particularly the food and beverages industry.

He offered an explanation on why this is so. Most Singaporean business men (and there may be exceptions) tend to work on free market principles rather than relationships. What does that mean? The Singaporean business men do not care whether they are collaborating with other Singaporeans and believe that they extract the best value by going for the lowest costs and maximum return. Some calls this pragmatism and the principle of free market. In case of business men from Hong Kong and Taiwan, they tend to work with their fellow country men to maximize their winning chances. Some calls this trust or relationships. As a result, Singaporean business men lose out in some major industries in China. Of course, there is no right and wrong to how one should do business and I am not in any position to criticize anyone’s way of doing business.

Somehow, it offered me some perspective as to why some Singaporean businesses have difficulties on gaining a foothold in other countries. My sense is that a lot of that stems from our culture. Singaporeans grew up with a meritocratic system where people are concerned with their own grades. I can substantiate with my experiences talking to students from schools. When you are in a secondary school and junior college, the immediate response from contributing to community projects will be “Does it help my ECA or increase my chances in getting into universities?” The reward incentive comes first before the objective. Hence it may rub people the wrong way. Second, Singaporeans place a value on brand rather than relationships. They prefer to work with a credible and big company than with a small and upcoming company. The same goes for the way how people employ in Singapore at one point of time: some business men employ cheaper Indian and Chinese engineers as compare to the Singaporean counterparts.

The same attitude is translated into the way which they do businesses. So, as a result of our cultural upbringing, the pragmatism shaped a different business culture unlike those of Japan, Korea, India, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where they tend to work with their own fellowmen. Ultimately, whether you are doing businesses in the east and west, credibility and trust are important attributes to successful businesses. Singaporeans tend to work on credibility but not so much on trust. It may be useful to bear that relationships (in the theme of trust) may actually help to create a win-win situation.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist