ONE of the first things that public officer Quah Chee Seng did when he found out that he would be posted to China was to learn what it would take to build good relations with the Chinese.

As Contact Singapore’s Area Director (Greater China), Mr Quah, 29, had his work cut out for him. Based in Shanghai, he would be promoting Singapore as an ideal career and investment destination.

“The job requires good communication and strong cultivation skills, quick thinking on the ground, lots of hard work and perseverance,” he said.

As he plunged himself into the work, he quickly realised that it would take much more than merely knowing the language to succeed. And this was despite having spent four undergraduate years in Fudan University in Shanghai.

“Everyone who has worked in China knows that there are significant differences even in the way Singaporeans speak Mandarin. To connect with our Chinese colleagues, we have to understand and use the language as they do,” Mr Quah explained.

The years of immersion in the bustling city also taught him that trust was all-important to building any lasting partnership. And to be trusted and accepted, he had to see things from the perspective of the Chinese, understand their culture and way of life and how they conducted business.

“My experience in and with China allowed my Chinese counterparts to see me as someone ‘closer’ to them. They are likely to share their thoughts more openly with me once they feel I am able to grasp their point of view,” said Mr Quah, who joined the Civil Service in 2005 and has been in his current role since May this year.

He soon also realised that there were also regional and provincial differences in the way the Chinese worked. “An idea might work well in one province but might backfire in another province,” he said.

So when he heard that Prime Minister Lee had just announced a new programme to prepare public officers to work better in and with China, Mr Quah hailed it as a timely initiative. China is changing rapidly and has become a major player in Asia and the world. Bilateral ties with Singapore have also developed strongly.

“It is a very rare opportunity to be able to join a programme that is structured to guide you along for almost a year. This is a great opportunity, and it would not matter where in China the officer gets posted to. Just go for it,” Mr Quah advised.