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Singapore Work Culture for Newcomers

Posted by admin on September 20, 2021
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For foreigners who are coming to Singapore for work for the first time, you may feel apprehensive over the prospect of entering an unknown work culture. Having an idea of what to expect though, can help you to better acclimate and handle your new work environment and colleagues.

Although just a tiny dot on the world map, Singapore's economy is anything but tiny. This small South-East Asia country is one of the world’s freest economies and an international modern city-state. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index 2017-2018, Singapore ranks third out of 137 countries in the world.

Working the Singaporean Way

Singapore, a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures where east meets west, has a work culture made up of a unique mix of Asian and Western cultural influences. These cultural themes bring about unwritten cultural rules and regulations that govern the way Singaporeans act in a place – and in this case, your workplace. The non-interventionist approach taken by the Singapore government provides a relaxed environment for cultural tendencies to predominate.

Large western MNCs located in Singapore will often exhibit predominantly western-style work culture whereas majority of the local government and private companies will have greater influence of traditional Asian culture in their work environment. Local firms are mainly influenced by cultural characteristics: high power distance, collectivism, high-uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation.

Singaporeans have a predominantly strict attitude to life, marked by clear authority structures and distinct social status lines.

Hierarchical Relationships

With Chinese making up 74.3% of Singapore's population, it is not uncommon to see most local firms being significantly influenced by traditional Chinese values. When it comes to relationships though, this translates into a culture of hierarchy, where people in the lower level of the hierarchy system would accept their subordinate status, and respect formal hierarchical authority. People seldom violate chains of command or openly question decisions by their superiors.

On the other hand, MNCs in Singapore have less power distance between each level. Higher managers are usually more willing to share their authorities with subordinates in decision making, and to leave certain latitude for disagreement.

If you have just found a job in Singapore, a good way to conform to hierarchical relationships is to:

  • Treat employers and superiors with utmost respect.

Collectivism

In a traditional western work culture, people look up to personal achievement, innovation, autonomy, and individual heroes. The individual achievement is highly valued, and any individual with a greatest ability will gain the best gains in a company. Being progressive and creative will be appreciated by this culture.

In contrast, the majority of Singaporeans and local firms practise group-centredness, that is, the traditional value of cooperation amongst group members to maintain group harmony. In a workplace, teamwork and group efforts (cooperation) are seen as the main means of achieving company goals (group harmony). Anti-group-centredness behaviours such as disagreeing with the group’s decisions, putting individual wants above the group’s needs and boasting about individual efforts are frowned upon as these behaviours jeopardise group harmony. This Collectivist culture has a preference to work together and share rewards more than striving for individual recognition, sharing responsibilities, helping each other and learning from each other. The younger generation of Singaporeans exhibits more individualistic traits than the older generation.

Rules, Rules, Rules

Singaporean work culture seeks rules appropriate to every situation as opposed to abstract universal principles. Singapore is famous for having strict rules for everything. Majority of the local firms don’t actually want too many employees running around with too many crazy ideas, nor do they want unfocused fragmentations of the core businesses managed by over-enthusiastic entrepreneurs. It’s often thought that mass Singaporeans cannot innovate because they are conditioned to be followers rather than creative idea generators. In the name of creativity, employees may often be encouraged to be "as creative as possible", however, with tonnes of boundaries and restrictions.

While the idea of nurturing a selected few ‘innovators’ and the rest of the population to be the ‘followers’ worked beautifully for Singapore’s initial development, the city-state has now realised that to compete in the new global economy, it needs to scatter the seeds of creativity more widely among its population. A number of initiatives are being implemented at all levels, however, it won’t change overnight and will more likely be a slow and gradual process.

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