What Organizations Can Learn from Singapore Culture
Blog | Building Culture | September 29, 2016
This same month last year, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reside in Singapore for six weeks while working for ROHEI. Travel to Singapore? My heart sank into my stomach. I suddenly became a mixed bag of emotions: joy, nervousness, doubt and excitement collided within simultaneously. I’ve never been to Asia before so I was curiously subsumed into unfamiliar emotions and thoughts. Would I do this? Definitely. Could I do this? Sure. Am I doing this? Oh my goodness, I am doing it! Left speechless, I immediately began to research as much as I could. What would Singaporeans be like? Is the culture similar or different from American culture? Is the food really as delicious as proclaimed around the world? Would I chance upon the secret ingredients of kaya? Indeed.
Fast-forward to today, it has already been a calendar year since I first boarded the plane. The short six-weeks left a deep impression on me—memories that will last a lifetime, and lessons and insights that I was able to share with colleagues and friends when I got back to America.
Liz with Rachel Ong, Chief Executive of ROHEI
The bits and pieces of Singaporean culture, language and architecture were a revelation to me of what makes things in Singapore work so well. While remembering the interactions and experiences I had, I couldn’t help think that if these cultural traits and mindsets were to be ingrained in an organization, it was sure to grow and succeed. So I’d like to share some pieces of Singapore culture that I think would be good models for organizations to adapt or follow, to encourage and affirm my friends in Singapore, as well as to inspire the rest of the world.
U N I T Y I N D I V E R S I T Y
I’m diverse. You’re diverse. It’s not a big deal. In America, we often refer to ourselves as the “melting pot of the world.” I firmly believe that Singapore is truly a melting pot because of its diverse mixture of people, language and my favorite subject – food. I met more people from other parts of the world in Singapore than I ever did on American soil in a short amount of time. I specifically recall chatting with a ROHEI coworker and noting the different races in the diverse office space. Oddly enough, she didn’t even notice. She explained that in Singapore, skin color and appearance have low priority. Singaporeans are a mix of people from Chinese, Malay, and Indian races—all vastly different in appearance but when you’re Singaporean, you’re just that—Singaporean. Everyone is diverse in their own and it’s not a big deal. Wow! For the first time in my professional career, I experienced people from unique backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures working commonly and smoothly. While the diversity of each person brought great attributes to organization, its focus was properly prioritized in relation to the business. Diversity in organizations is a key contributor to success, specifically demonstrated through gender, ethnicity, age, and even professional diversity. The vital component of diversity in organizations strengthens the quality of the work environment, work product and unity. I saw this same notion was repeated through the country – despite the many latent and patent differences – there is great unity in Singapore which is why it is successful.
The vital component of diversity in organizations strengthens the quality of the work environment, work product and unity.
C R E A T I V I T Y
New ideas come to life on a new level. The first time that I walked through Singapore’s airport, I thought I landed on a different planet or alternatively, in the year 3015. The architectural and constructional creativity displayed left me breathless, despite my heavy jetlag. Surely, the desire and goal to astonish and amuse were met, with a strong creative hand. Outside of the airport, I regularly visited areas that were regularly under construction. The regular and constant improvements displayed Singapore’s knack for excellence, impelled by its leaders. C-Suite executives, HR Leaders and Managers throughout an organization must also drive new ideas on new levels. Consistently and creatively working with employees to drive better outcomes will reverberate in high quality products and service. Are the employees amazed and astonished by the leaders’ creative leadership? Is the organization different from others, in a positive, amusing way? How can things be better analyzed and enhanced with a strong creative hand? Creatively bringing forth new ideas on a new level conveys the unique differences between one organization from the next.
A L O C A L I Z E D G L O B A L L A N G U A G E
Do you hear what I hear? Singapore’s localized, expressive universal language has a special place in my heart. Still not knowing the difference between lah and leh, I will occasionally use Singlish with American colleagues. For example, I concluded an internal meeting with, “Good job everybody, thank you so much. Jia you!” (In Singapore this literally means “add oil” but conveys the message of “You can do it!” or “Go for it!) I was met with blank stares so needless to say, I had to take some time to explain the phrase and context. Although some people simply see Singlish as a local language, in reality it is a means of communication the truly embodies the culture. Communication is defined as the imparting or exchanging of information or news. I prefer the second definition: a means of connection between people or places. Bingo. Many organizations may struggle in the area of communication because they do not have their own unique organizational language. Whether a business is communicating directly, indirectly, formally or informally, the real prize is to determine whether the employees are properly connected from the communication. Everything about an organization speaks; what does the culture say about the organization? What are the employees hearing from the leaders? Does the organization have its own language? Are people speaking of great joy or screaming for help? Leaders should take time and listen to what is being spoken within the organization’s walls. Connecting with employees through the appropriate channels of communication will establish and enforce great trust. Can? Can!
Leaders should take time and listen to what is being spoken within the organization’s walls.
I N S A T I A B L E C U R I O S I T Y
There is a keen eagerness to learn and develop. Singaporeans are insatiably curious, a very important quality to have in one’s personal and professional life. I regularly observed Singaporeans reading newspapers, collecting information and simply engaging with others. Some of the most fun I had while in Singapore was answering questions ranging from, “Why do Americans kiss their dogs on the mouth?” to “What do Americans eat besides burgers?” Singapore is unique because it has grasped the aptitude of becoming an international world leader. As an international hub, Singapore has an uncanny ability to draw people internationally and leave great impressions of exceptionality. I believe this stems from the country’s natural eagerness to learn and develop. Organizational curiosity stems from the leaders to the employees and then to the customers and clients. A product is simply a product, unless it is distinct from other products. A service is simply a service, unless it is divergent from other services. Leaders must curiously inquire about their employees; in turn the employees naturally will continue the organizational culture of curiosity and development. Organizations must also deepen their uniqueness, whether through a product or service in order to draw people, customers and high-performing employees alike.
Business and HR leaders alike are encouraged to advance their organizations with the above key takeaways. Many organizations incorporated in Singapore are fortunate to have the entire country to draw insight from. A brief look outside the window can inspire a person because of the Singaporean architectural savvy. An unprompted discussion with Singlish phrases is a reminder of the importance of the communicative on-goings of life. Best yet, a delicious breakfast of kaya toast can jog the mind to the wonderful culture of an amazing country.
Liz is an attorney based in Orlando, Florida. She works at a large education company as a Compliance Manager and Diversity and Inclusion Advocate.
Subscribe to our newsletter