7 Survival Tips for Ex-Pats In a Singaporean Company

Ryan Ong

Singapore’s a great place to work, assuming you’re a workaholic in need of acceptance. To everyone else, it’s worse than joining an ass kicking contest with a case of haemorrhoids. We’re one of the toughest work environments in Asia: Come unprepared, and you’ll last as long as Ghost Rider 2 did in the cinemas. But even in the hell pits that pass for an office here, there are ways to come out on top. In this article, I look at how our ex-pats can adapt and even thrive:


Foreigner helping Singaporean with laptop

"So in Singapore, we have the death penalty for drug smuggling and…stopping work?"


1. Replace Criticism With Suggestion

Singaporeans are thin-skinned. Right from school, we’re trained to think of failure as more embarrassing than bed-wetting at 30. The only reason more of us aren’t leaping off buildings is the anti-killer litter campaign.

In the Singaporean workplace, there’s no faster way to acquire enemies than outright criticism. This goes for colleagues, bosses, and even the cleaning lady. You are advised to skirt the suggestion of failure, and posit alternative solutions instead.

For example, let’s say Harry the accountant is late with the budget. Again. Instead of saying:

“Hey, Harry, you ought to visit the garden. You’ll get a kick out of watching the slugs race past,” try something like:

“Hey Harry, have you tried using Excel instead of Notepad for the budget reports?”


Elbow to the face

Nonsense, we can take criticism. The question is, can you take an elbow to the face?


2. Explain Your Reasons

Singaporeans love to ask why, and woe to anyone who won’t explain. Blame it on our highly educated workforce: When we can’t see the point of doing something, the dark side takes over. We assume someone’s giving us work for the sake of, well, giving us work.

In the Singapore office, successful workers back their requests with the reasons. Even our bosses don’t give directions like a banana republic generalissimo; they describe the intended outcome. So if you have a marketing plan to boost sales, don’t just throw a “to-do” list at your team. Explain the overall plan, and show how each point fulfils one of those objectives.


Man giving a presentation

"Today's subject is why I will be in the loo at 4.30pm. Please look at the pictures."


3. Quality First, Speed Second

Singaporeans get annoyed at slow people. But “annoyed” is comparatively better than “artery-bursting furiousness”. So between speed and quality, always pick quality.

If your work is outstanding, you’ll be forgiven for being slow. If your work is on-time but it’s rubbish, you’ll soon be describing crucifixion as a pussy punishment. Also, Singaporean bosses are fond of having people redo things; to the point of getting it right, or getting committed to a local asylum. So there’s no point rushing, not when you’ll have to do it all over again. Just admit you’ll miss the deadline, and do the best work possible.


Wood carvings

"Sorry I'm late. I converted the sales report into a three part epic and hand-carved it on Canadian Timber."


4. Attend at All Costs

Singaporeans can tolerate lateness. In fact, we’re notorious for being late ourselves. Absence, however, is a different issue.

Even if you’d be an hour late for something, you should show up. Colleagues will be polite and say things like “Oh, it’s already so late, you shouldn’t bother.” But trust me, they’re about as sincere as a Sarong Party Girl’s affection for anyone Caucasian. Because if you don’t turn up, your colleagues and bosses will assume you’re lazy, or just couldn’t be bothered. Showing your face means you made an effort.


Leg in a cast

"That's why you're not attending? We don't understand. I mean, you have another leg right?"


5. Clarify the Terms

Singaporean companies, especially SMEs, are loose with language. We’re proficient with English, but”proficient” is not the same as “good”.

When your colleague says “annual”, it can mean anything from a pamphlet to a coffee-table book. We have engineers whose idea of a technical term is “that round thing”. Which isn’t to suggest they aren’t good at their jobs; just that their use of language is more referential than in, say, Britain or Germany.

To be safe, give an example of what you’re planning to do. For example, if you’re asked to compile a report, then do a few sample pages and run it by your colleagues. Make sure it’s what they have in mind before finishing the job.


Singapore engineers

"And the green metal thing goes here. If it falls off, you'll all be like 'Aaargh, oh my gawd.' And then…"


6. Offer to Help…More Than Once

If a Singaporean fell off a cliff and fractured every third bone in her body, she’d respond to the rescue call with “I’m fine, really.” It’s only on the second or third request that she’d admit, very discreetly, that she needs help finding her femur.

Singaporeans don’t like asking for help (for reasons described in point 1). But we’ll resent you for not offering it, despite refusing to actually ask you. Stay for a few years, it’ll start to make sense. To get in your colleague’s good books, you’ll have to take the initiative and offer aid. You’ll probably be turned down the first time, so ask again later. Two or three times should suffice.

On the other hand, when Singaporeans do ask for help, start worrying. Because few emergencies short of a thermonuclear meltdown will warrant this.


Man on fire

"What are you doing with that extinguisher? Ask if he needs help first. Manners!"


7. Do Not Lie To Cover Mistakes

This is true everywhere, short of the former Bush administration. But it’s amazing what Singaporeans will forgive, so long as you’re honest.

Singaporeans are sensitive about a specific type of lie: the sort used to cover up mistakes. Do it even once, and you’ll lose the trust of colleagues. Bosses will probably mount a campaign to get you fired. So just don’t. As for anything else, lie as needed. In fact, if a colleague asks if he put on weight, you’d better start role-playing Pinocchio.


Man pleading with a smiling guy

"A three year coma is NOT a lame excuse!"


Image Credits:
mbrochh, Raymond Brown, Lance Shields, pathlost, soccerkrys, CARAT, gordontarpley, mbrochh (last image), Mike Cogh

Are you an ex-pat joining our work force? Comment and tell us what you think!

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