HAVING spent the last 24 years helping people understand cultural conflicts and learn to live together, I have a particular understanding of the recent furore in Singapore regarding a certain Mr Casey, given that I too am British, married to a Singaporean, a permanent resident and have lived here for 24 years.
Let’s be very clear about the recent case: Was Mr Casey’s behaviour reprehensible? Absolutely.
Were Singaporeans right to be upset? Absolutely.
Does every culture (including Singapore) have ethnocentric and rude people? Absolutely.
Let’s not underestimate his rudeness. This was not something said in the heat of a discussion, it was not a mistake made while in the middle of a sales pitch or while discussing an important project.
This was active behaviour where he chose to post offensive statements. Singaporeans, a government minister and his employers have responded in an appropriate way. He has asked for forgiveness. It is now time to move on.
But why did his words cause such outrage from all decent thinking people — Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike? It’s because this was a reminder of behaviour that many Singaporeans have experienced.
Also let’s not forget that this is not just a Caucasian issue. I know countless stories of other cultures insulting Singaporeans in subtle and not so subtle ways — for example, when foreigners say in a patronising tone to Singaporeans: “Your English is sooooo good.”
What is the solution? To me, it is a prime example of the need for enhanced cultural intelligence for Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike. Although it may upset some Singaporeans to hear, let’s not imagine that Singaporeans don’t also insult other cultures when they venture abroad.
I have worked with many regional cultures that complain about the “ugly Singaporean”. Diversity programmes can involve learning the facts and figures about a country, but the cultural intelligence I’m talking about is not just awareness of other cultures, for “awareness” alone does not help with face-to-face interactions.
Understanding that your new culture is “collectivist” satisfies the brain but does not help with day-to-day behaviour — and it is behaviour that needs to change. It is our cultural intelligence that needs to be developed.
Cultural intelligence (CQ) is based on joint research done with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and with David Livermore of the Cultural Intelligence Centre in the United States. There are four skills and all are needed:
•CQ Drive: Showing interest in your new culture and having the drive to adapt to it;
• CQ Knowledge: Understanding the new culture and its history, politics and habits;
•CQ Strategy: Making sense of the new culture and devising ways to work effectively with its people; and
• CQ Action: Adapting your verbal and non-verbal actions appropriately when interacting across cultures.
It is likely that Mr Casey had some CQ Knowledge of Singaporean culture but probably had very few drive, strategy or action skills.
In this global world, we all are working face-to-face or online with people from different cultures. CQ can be the difference between success and failure for global leaders and teams, communities and countries.
We must recognise that whether we are expatriates or Singaporeans enjoying life in this beautiful island, we need to recognise that we are all guilty of making cross-cultural mistakes with foreigners or with our fellow citizens.
We need to recognise that cultural “awareness” alone is not enough if we are to live as a true harmonious family in this multi-cultural island. What is needed is behavioural change. What is needed is active development of our cultural intelligence skills.