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Seven ways to avoid being an arrogant expat banker in Asia

If you’re a high-earning expatriate banker in low-tax Singapore, now is not a good time to flaunt your good fortune.

Singaporean citizens, incensed by a recent influx of international talent into their crowded city-state, are clamouring for companies to hire fewer foreigners. The Singapore government has responded by promising to ensure that employers give “fair consideration” to Singaporeans when they recruit.

It doesn’t help the reputation of expat bankers when one of their ranks allegedly breaks the law. Swiss national Juerg Buergin, a former UBS executive, is currently on trial in Singapore for sex with an underage prostitute. Last year stockbroker Robert Dahlberg, a New Zealander, was involved in a boozy brawl with a taxi driver. Both could be seen as extreme examples of an unloved stereotype – the arrogant expat.

Here is some advice about how to fit into a Singaporean workplace rather than stand out.

1) Don’t be an escapee

An increasing number of overseas candidates wanted to move to Asia purely because it was a safe haven for finance jobs compared with the West, said Matthew Ng, senior consultant, banking and financial services at recruiters Ambition in Singapore. But boasting about using Singapore as a temporary safety net won’t win you the trust of local staff and may mean you don’t get a job there in the first place. “If candidates are relocating to Singapore as a shelter from less economically favourable countries, interviewers would be able to differentiate them from those with genuine motivations to be here,” added Ng.

2) Make a meal of it

Singapore citizens are mainly of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent, and Singaporean cuisine is equally diverse. Nothing will win the hearts of your co-workers quicker than enjoying a meal with them at a hawker centre, an open-air food court with stalls selling cheap and tasty local delights. “Surprise your colleagues by showing a deep knowledge of their culture,” said Tony Latimer, an executive coach at the Asia-Pacific Corporate Coach Institute in Singapore. “Take them out for a great seafood dinner, but not in the central tourist traps. For example, the best place to eat crab is in the middle of a suburb called Ang Mo Kio,” he added.

3) Drink kopi, not beer

After work the bars of Boat Quay and other drinking haunts in central Singapore are full of foreign bankers (mainly white, male ones). But to avoid such obvious expat enclaves, try going for a sugary cup of kopi, a local coffee made with condensed milk. “Socialising in Singapore doesn’t always revolve around alcohol, so invite people out to a cafe instead,” said Emma Boyd, director of consultancy Pinstripe Business Solutions in Singapore and a manager at the Financial Women's Association Singapore.

4) Understand your own office

It’s not only Singaporean culture in general that you need to know about; talk to your new colleagues before your arrive in Singapore and understand what makes the team tick. “Finding your place in the team is crucial for new expats," said Gerard Milligan, strategic account director at recruitment firm Randstad in Singapore. “A local private equity fund will have a different work culture to a European bank, which again will be different to a local bank,” he said.

5) Meetings matter

Employees in Singapore don’t generally take kindly to receiving criticism in front of their colleagues. So save most of your negative feedback for one-on-one meetings, said Boyd. “And remember that people won’t always put their hands up to make suggestions in groups, so you can also make use of these meetings to ask for their ideas,” she said.

6) Have humility

Certain personality traits made integrating into local culture easier, said Professor Sattar Bawany, managing director of the Centre for Executive Education in Singapore. These included humility, empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, flexibility, initiative, open-mindedness, and sociability, he added.

7) Don’t rush in

Expat assignments in Asia often involve making changes to the way a team or company operates. Under pressure from head office to delivery quick results, new arrivals may rush through reform without proper consultation with local staff. “First gain an understanding of the local business before making changes,” said Natalia Shuman, chief operating officer, North Asia, Kelly Services. “Only changes that you can explain well will make sense to your team,” she said. Latimer from the Corporate Coach Institute added: “When you arrive, shut up and listen. Regardless of what you think you know, you will be accepted faster by listening and asking. Allow the locals to educate you.”

AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager
  • th
    10 April 2013

    The worst thing you can do which is very natural for expats is always comparing your home country to Singapore. Locals hate the comparisons. Of course it will be different! You are in Asia!

  • AL
    6 April 2013

    @gordogekko: Asian Hedge Funds doesnt perform isn't because of the region not making the cut. Its simply because of the asset class not meeting the appetite of asian investors. If you are a foreign banker, lacks innovation, and tries to sell what's in your truck, good luck!

  • AL
    6 April 2013

    @nickncs: Door to SG has never shut. The standards bar has risen. We had foreign talent since our first independence day. Locals compete regionally in 70s and globally in 90s. We are far more diverse and inclusive compared to many countries of the west. Unhappiness amongst locals are not towards FT, its our democratic way of telling our government to improve their policy. Shut the doors on mediocre ones, kick out those who destabilised our peace.

  • A
    5 April 2013

    I absolutely agree with the author. Expat bankers in general need to behave themselves, given that you are already in our country taking our jobs when it could be a local's. Can't agree more.

  • ni
    4 April 2013

    Guys, Singapore is slowly closing it's door on expats. Too many arrogant foreigners have been seen in the banking sector replacing a large number of local bankers and that has caused quite an uproar here in Singapore. Many of the locals who were laid off are still out of job so it's not surprising that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the situation.

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