While preparing my Organisational Behaviour presentation on stereotypes, myths and truths about our respective countries, I found myself collating more negative than positive points about being Singaporean. Actually, my groupmates and I took turns to talk about pros and cons of each of our countries, so we would have a balanced view. Still, my slide sounds more critical than others’, so far…
While begs the question: Do Singaporeans tend to be too critical of ourselves?
Somehow I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a question of being less patriotic, but just more introspective. We’ve come so far together, ‘one common destiny’, but do we need to remind ourselves of this every year so we don’t rest on our laurels? I know of other Asians who find us too arrogant for our own good, because of our achievements. Googling around, I found forum posts complaining that we feel other peoples’ countries are dirtier than theirs, and inferior in other ways.
Conversely we can choose to see our country and other peoples’ countries in a more positive light. As a motorist, I used to gripe about bottlenecks caused by roadworks from laying underground cables until I went to another country where all the cables dangled from pole to pole. It was an eyesore and when lightning struck, whole buildings would go into blackout and people accepted it as a way of life. After that, I never complained about seeing another roadblock in Singapore again. At the same time I don’t put down that country in front of its citizens but talk about how I love their culture and talent (which is true). Not to say I am such a great example all the time, but I think it would help if we saw things this way.
Why don’t I share with you my groupmates’ feedback (positive and negative) on Singapore and Singaporeans, and you can let me know your thoughts.
Their observations about Singapore:
- Impressively efficient and hardworking
- Restrictive; no free speech or chewing gum
- Good schooling, but not creative [I added however that things are changing and we don’t always learn things by rote anymore - though I didn’t get much out of Chinese lessons!!]
- People are shy to volunteer their help
- Kiasu [I suggested this point; it’s a word that my foreign classmates are now familiar with… ]
One groupmate told me he asked for directions twice, and people avoided him instead of simply saying “I don’t know”. I felt a little apologetic but added that we don’t always help strangers, recalling a YouTube video of someone being stabbed while passers-by walked on. Other groupmates added that it was a similar situation in their countries. (They come from countries heavily involved in WW2 or their own civil wars)
Things I classified as myths were:
- We live apart from the rest of SE Asia
- So hardworking that we don’t take vacations
I disagreed because while we speak English and have a cosmopolitan city, we still have Asian values. Many Singaporeans do travel even if we work hard. I felt that we did take vacations but some of us seem unable to clear our leave. My groupmate added that if we did travell, we tended to go just to SE Asia. I kind of disagree personally because when I travel I tend go to Europe or US or somewhere else far away, though I also know people who have barely travelled beyond Malaysia, usually due to financial constraints (which would make it unfair to say that they don’t travel enough).
Stereotypes which I felt were accurate:
- Too reliant on the Government
- Lacks strong identity because of short history
- International outlook
The stereotypes didn’t have to be all negative; just a belief about what we tend to be. I do think we rely on the Government for every little problem. I think there is a problem that many of us are apathetic about our history beyond what we’re made to learn in our textbooks, because compared to many other countries we have so little of it. I look beyond my country, to that of my ancestors who were in Southern China and then Malaysia, for a deeper sense of my roots. I have also shared my family’s history (WW2 and earlier) with my groupmates. But how can I compare Singapore’s history with a groupmate from Greece?
Likewise, because we’re so small we need an international outlook. In fact, the smaller the country the more outward-looking its people have to be, in order to stay relevant in this world.
Finally, insights/advice to give to expats working in Singapore:
- Give us a structure/framework to work with
- Education is highly valued but majority have basic degrees (fewer Masters, PhD)
- Criticism should be indirect to save ‘face’
- Humility is preferred over self-praise
- We are meritocratic and not used to giving/taking bribes
- We don’t like to cause trouble or challenge authority
- If we complain a lot, ask us for constructive feedback
- To break the ice, organize social activities with good food
- We can be workaholics but it depends on company culture
- We respect our elders