Emily Levin

Managing a Cross-Cultural Team: Singapore

by Emily Levin
January 2020
Reading Time: 5 minutes

If your company is growing into Asia, chances are high that you will soon add employees in Singapore.

This multi-ethnic, multilingual, and multicultural country in Southeast Asia is the world’s most competitive economy. Singapore is also ranked 9th on the UN Human Development Index (ahead of the U.K. and U.S.), ranked 4th in the world on education, and ranked the 3rd highest in GDP per capita in the world.

With about 5.7 million residents, Singapore has a diverse ethnic mix that comprises Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian and other cultural groups. A full 29% of residents are foreign nationals, further adding to the cosmopolitan nature of the city-state.

Founded in 1816 as an outpost of the British East India Company, today it is one of the most tax-friendly economies in the world and it frequently serves as a headquarters for companies operating in the Asian market. Singapore has the fourth largest foreign exchange market in the world (after London, New York and Tokyo) and is considered by many to be the financial hub of Southeast Asia. This has resulted in a highly-educated, highly-skilled workforce of more than 3.7 million employees.

The growth rate in Singapore is a healthy 2.3% in 2019 which is expected to increase marginally over the next few years.  Less promising for employers of Singapore teams is the unemployment rate, which in Singapore is 2.2%, making it a very competitive market where the war for talent is fully ablaze.

Despite this hyper-competitive talent market—or maybe because of the sheer number of choices—employee engagement in Singapore is the lowest in the region. Engagement in Singapore is 59%, compared with 69% in China, 71% in the Philippines, and 76% in Indonesia. According to Aon Hewitt, this may reflect a shortfall for Singaporean companies in failing to fully engage millennials—whose engagement rate was only 56% and whose active disengagement numbers are alarmingly high. In 2018, Mercer found that only 63% of Singaporean employees feel their career goals can be met by their employers.

While many businesses in Singapore model themselves on Western enterprises and are adopting those practices, dress and customs, the business culture is still formal and traditional. Singaporeans are not overly demonstrative in their business communications, and typically greet one another with a handshake.

Singapore: By the Numbers

  • Population:  5.6 million
  • Time Zone: Singapore Standard Time (GMT +8)
  • Language: According to the constitution, the national language is Malay, with commonly used languages named as English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. The de facto language of education and business is English.
  • Currency: Singapore dollar
  • Office hours: Monday to Friday: 9am-6pm
  • Appointments: Make an appointment, and expect to be punctual
  • Scheduling: Midday and midweek will usually be best for meetings

Management Style

Singaporeans live in a high-power distance culture, which means managers have a strong influence on work culture and companies and teams lean toward the autocratic.

What will your Singaporean employees be expecting from you as a manager? Here are a few qualities they’ll be looking for:

  • Seniority: According to a study by Randstad, 79% workers in Singapore prefer their managers to be older than them. This is potentially problematic as Singapore’s workforce is aging rapidly.
  • Expression: Singapore has a high context culture, where bosses hold a lot of authority—so your employees will be watching you closely for non-verbal cues. They may put more faith in that than the spoken word or email. Your tone of voice, facial expressions and body language  will all convey something to your team, so be careful that you aren’t unintentionally sending mixed signals.
  • Collectivism: Teamwork and group effort is the backbone of a Singaporean team, and workers consider the achievement of the team to be more important than individual achievements. Calling out, rewarding, or recognizing individuals publicly, and even privately, may make your employees in Singapore feel uncomfortable.
  • Rules: Business culture in Singapore is highly regulated by strict rules and process for every situation. Your employees will expect you to lay out the rules they are to operate under and, once established, they will expect you to adhere to this code, also. This includes being on time to meetings!
  • Flexibility: Singapore’s workers would like to have more flexibility in their jobs, surveys have found, but they will need to feel comfortable before they will be honest with you about those needs.

What To Expect from Your Employees in Singapore

What should you be expecting from your team members in Singapore? Here are some common behaviors you might encounter—but be aware that business etiquettes can vary among those from Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures:

  • English fluency: While Malay might be the official language of Singapore, English is the actual lingua franca—the language in which education and business is primarily conducted.
  • Celebrations: While Singapore is officially secular, its dense and highly multi-cultural community celebrates a broad array of Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Indian, and Christian holidays, including:  New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year, Good Friday, Labour Day, Vesak Day, National Day, Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali, Hari Raya Haji, and Christmas Day.
  • Saturday morning work: Many companies are moving on from the traditional five and a half-day work week, but older Singaporean employees may be willing or expecting to put in work on a Saturday morning.
  • Formal titles: Don’t be surprised if your employers call you “sir”, “madam” or “boss”. Singapore is still a bit formal in this way.
  • Let’s do lunch: Singaporeans love their office lunches and declining an invite will be seen as anti-social at best, insulting at worst.
  • Burning the midnight oil: Singapore’s work culture follows the infamous “996” overwork model from the Chinese tech sector (9:00 am to 9:00 pm, six-days-a-week.) You may find your Singaporean team members working surprisingly long hours or stay plugged in far longer than those in other countries. (Take note that there are mixed reports on whether Singapore sees any real increase in productivity for all these extra hours.) You may be in a position where you need to reassure your employees that you will assess their performance by results, more than by the time clock.
  • A letter of notice: Two out of five employees in Singapore—and 43% of millennials, are planning to switch jobs this year. How can you prevent that? Offer them more career advancement opportunities.
  • Community identity: Singaporeans feel like the team is almost akin to a second family unit, and they will be highly motivated to join in with the group for group activities, socializing, and charitable work or events. Planning opportunities for the group to mingle and bond is likely to increase retention and engagement.

 

For a more thorough overview of hiring employees in Singapore, please visit our Globalpedia.

Looking for more advice on finding, hiring, and managing your global team? Globalization Partners can help.

Globalization Partners’ Global Expansion Platform™ enables you to hire in more than 170 countries within days, and without the need to set up costly international subsidiaries. You identify great talent anywhere in the world, and we put them on our fully compliant global payroll – lifting the burden of global corporate tax, legal, and HR matters from your shoulders to ours.

Globalization Partners: we make global expansion fast and easy.

Contact us today to see how we can help you expand your team in Singapore.

Emily Levin

Emily Levin

Senior Manager, Brand & Creative, Globalization Partners

Emily Levin joined Globalization Partners in July 2018 as Communications Manager. Emily has extensive experience in external and internal communications, content creation, and social media management.

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