Singaporeans have a reputation overseas as being honest and straightforward. But the flip side is that we can also be seen as inflexible and gullible. In China, people have ways of getting around the rules, and we need to be aware and to adapt while keeping to our values.
Recently, I encountered a small incident during a family outing in Beijing. I was at the Great Wall tourist area, and passed by a local snack stall which had a big printed sign saying: “Special Offer for Smelly (fermented) Beancurd, Only 5 RMB”. I ordered one portion, and when asked if I wanted to mix two types of beancurd, I said yes.
When I was handed the food, the stall keeper asked for 10 RMB. I argued that it should only be 5 RMB. The stall keeper said that the single-type dish was 5 RMB but that they had run out of stock and the two-type dish was 10 RMB. I looked more closely at the signboard, and noticed the small handwritten words: “Starting From” next to “Only 5 RMB”.
That was not the most pleasant experience, but I took it in my stride as a good 5 RMB (about 1 SGD) lesson without much consequence. I have been living in Beijing for 8 years, and it is good to have such reminders sometimes. And I imagine that such an incident could also happen to a tourist in Singapore if he or she is not careful.
Singaporeans have a reputation overseas for being honest and straightforward. I would credit such behaviour to our transparent process-driven governance, strict enforcement of laws, strong inculcated values, and, to a certain extent, on our relatively-high standard of living.
When we go overseas for work or leisure, it is easy to assume that standards and rules should be followed similarly in other places. From my experience working in China, India and the US, I have found that it is necessary to be alert and to observe how things work in a different environment. We should be aware of what the locals do and what actually happens on the ground.
One often cited Chinese business lesson is about negotiating contracts. Relationships are just as important as and often even more important than the paper document. Of course, that does not mean that agreements should be slipshod. But often, Chinese counterparts would argue that you should not nit-pick the conditions as those would somehow be satisfied during implementation. To them, broad strokes are adequate.
In my dealings with them, I have found it useful to still comb through the details, discuss them and push for prioritised key points to be included in the agreement after mutual consent. In the end, however, both parties will probably sign the document, put it away and never use it formally again. Even if things do not turn out as planned, the last thing you want to do is to take out the document and pursue legal action, as doing so will embitter the relationship, not to mention incur legal fees. It is much better to find compromise solutions and continue building relationships. Nevertheless, sorting these out during the negotiation process helps to build a clearer understanding of each party’s interests and obligations.
Of course, I have also had positive encounters in China. In the past four years, for example, my clothes have been regularly ironed at a small laundry shop run by a husband-wife pair, just a street away from my house. They do the job well and cheaply, and always with a smile. Two days ago, when I brought in a bag of clothes to be ironed, the husband eagerly told me that he needed to return me 8 RMB (about 1.60 SGD), which he had overcharged due to a miscalculation a week ago. I had not even noticed the mistake. I was touched by his honesty and sincerity in making the point to correct his mistake. I treasure such relationships and try to grow them further.
We are fortunate to have a good reputation, which gives others a positive first impression about Singaporeans, Singapore products and Singapore companies. This allows us to gain trust more easily, and we should keep it that way. However, we also need to be aware of the potential downside of our reputation – being gullible – and be up to speed on local customs and practices. Learn the one-dollar lesson before it costs you more.