This article was originally written when Sensei Michael was still working in China. It is edited and republished here for the benefit of my readers.
Sijngapore is a multi-cultural, multi-racial nation, but within this vernier lies a “Singapore” culture of its own, defined by a shared nation-building process over more than 40 years. The “Singaporean” culture, however, has been eroded over the years as immigration forced a nation where citizens comprises only 62% of the total population (and we have not considered citizens that were not born and bred in Singapore).
In this post, I share with my readers what I have learnt in my 8 years in China, working not just with the Chinese but also with the expatriate community (my business serves the expatriate community).
Singapore has a very detailed-oriented, serious and strongly communal working culture. It is probably why we Singaporeans are normally in demand as managers of very strongly process-oriented vocations (factory managers, for example).
Singaporean teachers are well known for the details we pay to our marking of our pupils’ work. A single essay would have all the spelling, grammatical and structural errors all circled and marked out, and peppered with comments in the lines between, as well as at the end of the essay. I have seen how 2 of my former western colleagues mark their essays – it’s normally a single tick across the the entire essay, with some comments at the end of the essay. All the grammatical and spelling errors were not pointed out to the pupils, since the grade is given based on an impressionistic approach based on the content. Such differences created a lot of problems during the marking of essays during examinations.
Western teachers are always shocked to find that a child who has answered a question correctly (the idea is there) for a Comprehension question, but has structural and grammatical errors, would not get the full 2 marks for that question – a mark would be penalised for his non-comprehension-related errors. Over where they came from, as long as the idea was there, the pupils get full marks for that question. To them, the child would be crushed to see their essays riddled in red ink – it’s a mutilation of their work!
Our Chinese staff have their differences as well. I was always very puzzled, when I first began my work in my school, why it was that simple little things that anyone of us would have done without being told needed us to tell them, before it got done. It was not until Buddy’s encounter after one of our major performances that we began to get an idea.
The janitors were hanging around in the auditorium, chatting among themselves, although the chairs needed to be cleared after the performance. Buddy approached them, and asked if they could see the chairs needed clearing. They nodded – they understood. Then why were not they clearing the chairs?
“No, no, we cannot do anything without our supervisor telling us to do so. Otherwise she’d think that we’re trying to climb over her head or that we can go without her. Our lives will be very miserable in the future!”
So here is the crux of the matter. When a westerner or Singaporean takes the initiative and made a mess out of things, his superior recognises his leadership potential and will cover up for him. The westerner or Singaporean will make an apology, learn from his mistakes and become a better person in the organisation. When a Chinese does the same, his superior thinks of him as a threat and will thumb him down. The Chinese tries to make excuses to avoid getting into trouble as a result, instead of accepting his mistakes and learning from them.
And wait till the 3 cultures come together. The Chinese are shocked that we Singaporeans expect them to think on their feet and move with us at the same crazy pace that we used to race at. The westerners are shocked that we Singaporeans approach every little thing so seriously, every event, every publication, every exam paper, must be perfect – as if President Hu Jintao himself is coming to inspect (as a Canadian teacher remarked once over our preparations for the school open house).
And we Singaporeans get exasperated over having to deal with every little thing the Chinese do if we want it perfect. We get exasperated over how mistakes that we cannot accept could be accepted by our western colleagues. And unlike Singaporean manager, the concept of giving face to a superior or to another probably holds little water, creating plenty of friction.
It sure is challenging being a leader at an international school!