Ten lessons for doing business in Singapore

Adapting to Singapore's rapidly evolving business culture can be a challenge for foreign companies wanting to do business there.

It is not often that you get to spend a week observing a business culture different from your own. In just seven days of breakfasts, lunches, presentations, workshops, cocktail functions, a writer’s festival and a birthday party, I noted some unexpected tension between different groups living in Singapore. These were contrasted, weirdly, with mutual enthusiasm for building a future together.

Relations between expats, skilled migrants and local Singaporeans were different from when I first lived and worked in Singapore in the early 1990s. Back then, the population was around 3.5 million, comprising 10 per cent expats. Now it is estimated to be 5.5 million with around 38 per cent expats. With the birth rate at 1.2 per cent pa, this huge population increase is largely attributed to expats and immigrants, which has had an impact on the local business culture.

Changes to the business culture in Singapore present challenges for foreign companies wanting to do business there. Singaporeans I spoke with understandably expressed feelings of being somewhat overwhelmed by the influx of foreigners, but added that it was good for the economy. Australian expats expressed comfort at living in this city-state and conveyed a sense of being very ‘at home’.

The interest and enthusiasm of many Australian expats I spoke with was dampened by the lack of humility of others. I witnessed some conversations that left me very concerned about the reputation of this great nation -- remarks by Australians who considered themselves superior to their Singaporean colleagues and who made judgments that were never going to win friends or help influence people.

There are both challenges and opportunities for leaders of Australian companies with interests in Singapore or other Asian nations to consider. Here are a few that come to mind.


The challenges


1. The notion that ‘Singaporeans lack problem-solving skills’ and ‘they need to be told what to do’ is an outdated and limiting proposition upon which to enter the market. Singaporeans are significantly more capable and ‘knowing’ than some foreigners give them credit for. To go there with a fixed view of what you will find will take you on an uphill journey. An open mind will help you to see the possibilities and increase your chances of success.

2. To arrive in Singapore believing that you are in some way superior to local workers will almost certainly be detected and considered arrogant. Singaporeans are extremely welcoming and open to you when treated with respect. If you discover barriers to getting the support and cooperation you seek, you are probably failing to appreciate the cultures and values of your colleagues.

3. Starting your sentences with ‘they’ when referring to people belonging to another ethnic group immediately separates you and can communicate to observers that you are judging them. You would do well to try to convey more about ‘what you want’ and less of ‘what they can or cannot do’.

4. Expats who fail to inquire and listen to the ideas of local employees or peers are perceived as arrogant and insensitive, and local people might respond with behaviours that feel controlling. Worryingly, overt ‘them versus us’ exchanges are more evident today and the tenuous tolerance between groups raises flags that we need to watch.

5. In the 1990s, Singaporean leaders looked to expats to bring technical skills and know-how. Today, in the more advanced Singaporean economy, local leaders express a desire for expats to bring greater strategic and leadership capability to help maintain the nation’s regional competitive advantage.

The opportunities

6. Singaporeans understand that an expat’s tenure in the country is temporary, yet their presence is welcomed and their work appreciated. If you approach your ‘stay’ as an opportunity to improve the lives of people in the region and boost their economy, at the same time as growing your company’s presence and profits, you will leave a legacy that is good for all involved.

7. Singaporean society is highly sophisticated, its people are well educated and the pace of change and development phenomenal. There is much you can learn from the diversity of race, religion and culture of the resident population and you can use this opportunity to develop greater cross-cultural understanding that will add value to your career and business.

8. The country is growing at 4.5 per cent, which in contrast to Australia’s 2.5 per cent, is obvious in almost every way. Investment in commerce, infrastructure, housing, transportation systems, culture and entertainment is immediately evident and there are opportunities in every direction. The government incentivises foreign business to operate there and limits non-residents’ tax on employment income to 15 per cent.

9.  ASEAN nations are growing at between 4 per cent and 7 per cent and collectively they are home to 600 million people. They are Australia’s closest neighbours and most are in the same or similar time zone. Once you are established in Singapore, doing business with other ASEAN countries is a small step and most have strong trade relations with many Western nations.

10.  Your greatest personal development and business success will grow from your ability to adapt to the many global cultures, customs and practices you find there; if you insist on ‘being western’ in Asia you will almost certainly miss opportunities that arise from the blending of ideas from East and West.


There has never been a better time to be an expat in Asia. To make the most of it, you need to go there believing that you have something to learn from the incredible blend of people and cultures you find there. You also need to be prepared to alter the way you work to fit in -- for you will not get 5.5 million people to alter ‘their way’ to fit in with you.

Pamela Young is Author of Stepping Up and Managing Director of growthcurv