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The dawning of Asia for Australia

by Pamela Young | 21 Oct 2014

‘Asia is a region not a country.’ This is the initial rhetoric that seasoned Australian expats in Singapore give newbies. They say that most newly-arrived Australian expats lack Asian cultural understanding and make no allowance for the fact that Asia comprises 17 countries each with different cultures and business practices. 

Finsia CEO Russell Thomas recently invited a few dozen Singapore-based members to attend a research workshop facilitated by Pamela Young, a global executive, adviser, author and former Singapore expat. About 75 per cent of the participants were Australian nationals and the other 25 per cent were Singaporeans who had lived and worked in Australia previously. 

The primary aim of the exercise was to identify how well the Australian financial services industry is preparing its people to work offshore. Second, Finsia was looking for feedback on how to support the industry to export financial services to meet increasing demand from Australia’s fast-growing Asian neighbours. 

Thomas believes the time is right to focus on building services that will help members benefit from the rising demand for financial services and products in Asia. The region is thriving and Thomas wants to ensure his members are equipped to be part of it. 

As an example, Asian markets are projected to grow at between 2.5 and 7 per cent for at least the next one to two decades. In addition, China’s GDP is set to overtake America’s in 2014 (not 2018 as previously expected) and its GDP per capita will almost double between now and 2020. Rapid urbanisation and consumerisation will continue in China and India, and the 10 ASEAN nations are, collectively, home to over 600 million upwardly mobile people. The expansion of these Asian nations is hard to ignore. 

Finsia members in Singapore share observations 

In over six hours of listening to Australian expats who had worked in Singapore for a range of two to 22 years, many challenges and opportunities were identified. 

The participants were quite tough on their fellow Australians. They were unanimous in their view that Australians arrive in Singapore culturally unprepared, without any languages skills, ignorant of business practices and showing little initial willingness to learn about the local culture or to integrate with Asian people socially. 

While the quality of Australian expat workers is on par with other Westerners, they did highlight that an expat leader’s performance could be seriously undermined by a lack of cross-cultural awareness and failure to adjust quickly to local business practices. 

The three major strengths of Australian expats working in Singapore are: 

  • communication and presentation skills 
  • strategic problem-solving capability 
  • technical quality.

The three major failings of Australian expats working in Singapore are: 

  • lack of awareness and preparedness for living in a culturally different environment and continuing to behave ‘Australian’ when in Asia 
  • lack of understanding that there are many different Asian sub-cultures in Singapore, which is perceived as demonstrating a lack of interest, being closed and arrogant 
  • lack of initial adjustment to fit into the local culture, which limits their ability to engage with local employees and impacts on early personal and business performance. 

Is island culture to blame for poor performance? 

Australians do not have the same linguistic exposure or cross-cultural experience as people living in multilingual countries that share common physical borders with another — like nations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America. Island nations like Australia enjoy many freedoms but are a minority in a multilingual, multicultural, globalising world and this presents many challenges. 

When sending employees offshore to work in countries with people who do have this exposure and experience, the Australian government and company owners need to make sure their people are properly prepared and equipped to operate successfully in the culturally diverse environment they are being asked to work in. Here is a sample of the challenges reported: 

  • Australians have to ‘want’ to learn about Asia and Asian people. 
  • They need to learn how to enquire what others think and consider how they, themselves, are perceived by people of different cultures. 
  • Australian expats tend to stay in their own group and fail to adapt and integrate. This lack of interest in local people or their culture is considered arrogant. 
  • Expats who are not open and fail to ask questions to gain an understanding of what people from other cultures think, make mistakes. 
  • Singaporeans can withdraw from conversations if they detect you are not interested in their view or if you misunderstand them. Trust and respect is vital to open dialogue. 
  • Failure to adapt to local business practices leads to poor performance. This can put reputations of the individual, their company and Australia at risk. 
  • Australian companies’ policies that are ‘Australian centric’ do not cater for the needs of local employees and this limits the individual’s and company’s performance. 
  • Expats who are Asia-ready identify more workable solutions to problems, build stronger relationships, achieve better results and get good feedback from their superiors. 
  • Expats who take time to understand Singaporean business practices and different employee sub-cultures do a better job at directing and motivating Asian people. 

Global branding issues call for national leadership 

Another message arising from the workshop is that Australia (as a nation) has a challenge too. Participants listed adjectives to describe the reputation of Australian expats and the chosen words were twice as often negative as positive. The negative words suggest that Australia’s national culture is one that is self-absorbed and lacks awareness about its impact on others, or how others perceive it. Here are some of the words used (remember 75 per cent of the people present were Australian nationals): 

  • Positive Intelligent, from lucky country, good technical skills, warm, open, happy-go-lucky, relaxed, well-spoken, good communicators, friendly 
  • Negative Aggressive, talkative, overbearing, lack respect for other cultures, they don’t understand locals, poor language skills, arrogant, short-term stayers, blunt, jealous, lazy, hands-off, aloof, closed, not integrated, brash, loud, drinking mentality, rude. 

This reputation contributes to Australia’s global brand and considering the wider impact of these negative impressions would be worthy of further debate. The people who made these judgments may well have had limited cross-cultural awareness or behaved arrogantly when they first arrived in Singapore too; it would seem they recognise now the impact foreigners can have on locals. Their advice is that expats need to be more aware of themselves and the impact that their behaviour can have on people around them. It is not helpful to behave ‘Australian’ in Asia; some adaptation is required. 

Another issue arising from the research that affects Australia and its industries, is the poor reputation we have in repatriating expats. Expats say the skills and experience they acquired overseas is not recognised and they resist returning to Australia, as they believe they have to go backwards in position and pay. If those who do return are not employed at the proper level, their skills and economic contribution are not being fully realised by the sectors concerned. 

Here is a sample of comments made: 

  • (Hiring managers in Australia) do not recognise the knowledge and added value of Australians who have worked abroad. It is hard to get back into Australia. 
  • The perception is that you have to take a step backwards when you return to Australia. This is a deterrent so we don’t think we will go back. 
  • Some say they will not come home to work, as the work is more interesting in Singapore/Asia. 
  • There was general belief that if you work in financial services, going home would be a backward step. 

Preparing Australian workers for Asia 

The 21st century is called the Asian Century for a reason; the fastest growing and dominant region of the world right now is Asia. For the past 500 years, Europe, then America, have dominated world markets and produced the largest share of global GPD. Prior to that China and India produced the largest share of global GPD and they are now making a comeback. The figures are already reversing and there is no ‘if’ about it. 

Australian industries must prepare to compete in Asia as the nation’s oldest trading partners and allies are struggling, like Australia, to renew post-GFC growth. The time for developed Western nations to rely on trading with one another is over. 

The opportunities for Finsia to help are many and the time is right for investing in the nation’s future in Asia. 

As Finsia goes forward to build on its own Asia capability, it will be calling for help from all members who have an Asian heritage, who have lived and worked in Asian nations and those who want to do business in the Asia region. 

While people still approach Asia is a single country not a region of 17 nations, Finsia is motivated to help correct that misunderstanding and build a positive reputation abroad. 

About the author

This article was prepared by Pamela Young, Managing Director of growthcurv and author of Stepping Up: Lead culture change for diversity and growth in the Asian century.



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