He pulled my sleeve and told me to boldly cross the busy street when we were Hong Kong, telling me that he is “Kwai Lo” (Hong Kong term for expat) and nobody will dare run him down. And he was right. The van screeched to a halt and we made it across the street safely. I turned to apologize to the driver but he just waddled off. I was shocked that he was so confident that he would get the same treatment in any Asian country, since he has worked in Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore. For the first time, I regretted employing him as our CFO.
That evening, we had dinner and I apologized that he waited for five minutes and mentioned it was bad manners. He told me he expected no manners or etiquette from Chinese, since we spit into the bowls we eat out of. Though I was angry, I just smiled politely. And that is the problem. Because we choose to be polite, people like him think we are stupid. Because we are not confrontational, we are weak. That was the last C-level Brit I have ever employed when I was running my companies.
At our annual meeting a few years back, our outgoing President made a remark that set everyone in the room laughing. His remark was, “Singaporeans can’t write.” I wasn’t sure if that was a joke or a criticism. And when he said that, I looked around the room to search for some kind of reaction, since it was a room full of academics who depended on their writing to make a living. But they just laughed, as politely as I did when I was told I had no table etiquette even before I started sat at the table.
I think SOME (not all) people who are not familiar with our culture have clearly misunderstood us. Singaporeans and Asians in general are polite and non-confrontational people, even in the face of insults. While MOST westerners are polite and know their limits, SOME think that we agree with them simply because we do not violently disagree. I see this at the work place, in the university, and in my own companies.
I believe if one wants to work or live in a foreign land, he needs to learn to respect the people of the land, and not categorize people or things according to his standards. So what if our food requires us to take bones out in the middle of a meal? So what if we use our cutlery differently? So what if we dress in our smartest office wear and eat humbly with anyone in a hawker center? So what if our kids do not get to play outside? So what if our accent sounds wrong? So what if we like our coffee in a plastic bag? So what if our secretaries in the office are obliging and willing to make your coffee? So what if we write differently? So what if we have less opportunities in our education because our country was poor when we were young? So what if we like to dress simply and take our public transport?
If you are a foreigner in Singapore, here’s a little tip: you have no right to mindlessly throw insults just because we are too polite to tell you off. You shouldn’t think that you can fool us with lies, excuses and half-truths, since we can see through these, and just don’t want to make you to look bad. You shouldn’t measure us with your yardsticks because if we measure them against ours, you will fail badly as well.
If any foreigner can make an attempt to blend in, we will receive him with open arms. But if he cannot respect our people, our culture and our habits, please go home. We bear no grudges. Hopefully a better place with better opportunities awaits him.