Participants of the 2014 Singapore-China Young Business Ambassadors programme visiting Shanghai’s World Expo Museum last December. The camaraderie formed during the cultural exchange has forged lasting friendships.
The Singapore International Foundation’s Young Business Ambassadors programme celebrates its 10th anniversary with a commemorative book titled A Decade of Business Exchanges, A Lifetime of Friendships. Here are some of the excerpts from the book which shares the participants’ personal insight into their unique encounters during their colourful cultural immersion programme.
By Wyn-Lyn Tan
HE VALUE OF TRUST
If there was one lesson Singaporean Sam Kok Yin will always remember from his work attachment in Shanghai in 2004, it was the importance of guan xi — the Chinese concept of building friendships, trust and rapport between parties. He says: “The Chinese way is to do business with people they trust. When trust is established between the parties, it eases the process at the negotiation table.”
This was the insight Sam gained when he went to Shanghai as part of the pioneer batch of professionals in the Singapore – China Young Business Ambassadors (YBA) programme.
When Sam embarked on his YBA journey, he was a corporate finance lawyer with Yeo Wee Kiong Law Corporation in Singapore. In Shanghai, he was attached to host company Jun He Law Firm, where he spent time networking, exchanging ideas with his Chinese counterparts and gaining first-hand experience learning the ins and outs of doing business in the country.
A decade on, Sam, now an Executive Director with a Singapore commercial printing firm, considers his stint in China
as one of the most enriching points in his career.
“One valuable takeaway from my work attachment was getting to understand the ‘Chinese way’ of thinking and doing business. In many instances, negotiation is a critical aspect in establishing agreements and business.”
This is where the quintessential guan xi between parties comes into play, he adds. He has since been applying this practice in his own business and personal dealings.
Another insight that Sam gleaned from his Shanghai exchange was the admirable Chinese work culture and attitude he experienced at Jun He Law Firm. He fondly recalls the “family-like atmosphere” at his workplace, where lunch, provided by the firm, gave him the opportunity to interact and mingle with his colleagues, catalysing the many new friendships forged over those cosy and personable meals.
AN INSIGHTFUL PERCEPTION
When Chinese YBA participant Fu Jun arrived in Singapore in 2011 and was attached to The Old Parliament House, her first impressions of the city was that it was “brand new” and “young”.
Sam Kok Yin, who topped the postgraduate Practical Law Course in 2013.
She was impressed with Singapore’s urban planning and how organised and modern it was. She also found shopping,
dining and entertainment options impressive, but the greatest affinity she felt was with the people.
She says: “When I was in Singapore, I did not feel alienated or get the feeling that I was living in a foreign country.”
She observed how sincere her Singaporean colleagues were, citing an example of a very down-to-earth CEO of the organisation hosting her, who insisted on being called by his first name. She recalls: “He would emphasise that he is just like one of us, that we are colleagues.”
Fu was particularly curious about the tudung, or headscarf worn by Muslim women. So when her Singaporean colleague Aminah offered to demonstrate how to wear it, Fu immediately agreed and was delighted to be taught firsthand to wear the headscarf, a symbol of modesty, that is commonly worn by Muslim women.
Learning and experiencing how to don the tudung not only gave Fu first-hand insights into the Malay tradition, a culture vastly different from her own, but also exposed a slice of the rich cultural diversity and vibrancy of Singapore during her stay here.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Jan Tan, a Singaporean YBA participant of the 2006 batch, started a company that trains and nurtures local youth in entrepreneurship after she returned to Singapore from Shanghai, thanks to
the friendships she formed during her YBA stint.
Before the trip, Tan was working in Singapore’s South East Community Development Council (CDC), focusing on projects for the community. “I was seeking experiences that could widen my horizon in the area of youth and community engagement,” she says, on what motivated her to respond to the YBA recruitment call.
In Shanghai, she worked in various departments and was introduced to different areas of work, such as community projects for youths, adults and the elderly. She also conducted a training seminar on service for the local community leaders.
Another task she undertook was planning day trips for singles to meet and date; she recalls one such excursion to the Yangshan Port, a deep-water port for container ships in Hangzhou Bay, south of Shanghai. “I remember vividly one of the leader officials saying their port would overtake Singapore’s very soon — and indeed, it has since overtaken Singapore as the world’s busiest port.”
For Tan, this encounter attests to the “energy, drive and hunger” she saw in the Chinese people — qualities which she found admirable and encouraging. In fact, she was so inspired by their positive qualities and ambition that when she returned to Singapore, she started a company, Jan & Yvfynn, with her CDC colleague and YSE “company buddy” Yvfynn Lim, to help youths realise their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs.
Today, the company, founded on the duo’s experience gained through the YBA programme, trains and nurtures local youth in entrepreneurship, including taking them on overseas study trips to China. Tan and Lim’s close ties and friendships formed with other YBA alumni in China have also benefitted them in connecting with the right schools for student exchange programmes.
Tan says: “We got to know Richard (Ding Jing Yu, Chinese YBA 2007) from the Shanghai Sugar, Cigarette & Wine Group, a state-owned company, and the largest producer of sugar in China. This connection gave us an opportunity to take a group of students from Singapore to tour one of its huge yellow rice wine factories. It was quite an eye-opening experience.”
She adds: “I still chat via WeChat or Skype with friends I made during my YBA stint overseas. We update one another on how we have been doing, as well as the developments in China and Singapore.
“My previous visits to China before the YBA programme were only as a tourist. But the YBA platform allowed me to experience firsthand the Chinese culture as well as to make friends with the locals. Knowing the culture in theory and experiencing it personally makes a big difference”.
Roy Leong (left) reuniting with Zhou Ji and his daughter in Shanghai in March 2013.
Singaporean YBA Jan Tan’s Chinese colleagues outside the Hunan Sub-district Office in Shanghai. Even after eight years, they still keep in touch via WeChat or Skype. Tan is in the front row, second from left.
A JOURNEY OF FRIENDSHIP
Singaporean YBA 2008 alumni Roy Leong first met Chinese YBA 2010 alumni Zhou Ji, a corporate finance manager, when the Shanghainese hosted him at the Shanghai Electric Group Finance Company as a “company buddy” in
2008. Through the years, the pair have gone from being colleagues to good friends, staying connected with each other’s lives.
Leong had the opportunity to return the favour of hosting Zhou when his Chinese buddy visited Singapore in 2010 and 2012. Along with other fellow YBAs, Leong took Zhou sightseeing at Pulau Ubin and Gardens by the Bay. In 2013, when Leong visited Zhou in Shanghai, he also got a chance to visit Zhou’s daughter again, whom he had first seen at his last visit when she was just a newborn.
The warm hospitality and welcome extended to Leong by Zhou in China, and the reciprocation from Leong, fostered a close friendship between them and made it possible for Leong to better understand the environment Zhou grew up in, the education received by the Chinese people and the conditions that shaped them.
Leong recounts that the YBA experience had also created an essential platform for mutual appreciation and respect which helped to build bridges across cultural divides.
Adding with a big smile: “The search for meaningful experience is an ongoing journey and will never cease. I am honoured to have been enriched by the YBA experience. My friendship with Zhou Ji is my biggest gain from the YBA programme.”
Zhou Ji (left) sharing the insights he gained of the Singapore business world through the YBA programme. Looking on is Roy Leong, who worked in Shanghai as part of the reciprocal progamme.
This programme enables outstanding business professionals in Singapore and Shanghai to gain new insights and experience working and living in one another’s cities for three months. They build networks of professional and personal contacts that help to strengthen relationships between Singaporeans and the Chinese community. Besides their work attachments, YBAs also get the opportunity to meet and dialogue with policy, social, cultural and business leaders, including those beyond their respective areas of specialisation for a broader appreciation and wider network of contacts in Singapore and Shanghai. Increasingly, YBA alumni are harnessing the power of these networks in community projects.
YBA alumni at the closing ceremony in 2006.
2014 marks the 10th run of the YBA programme. The growing YBA network of 90 Singaporean and Chinese YBAs, together with several representatives from some 50 participating organisations in the two cities, have come together to produce a commemorative book titled A Decade of Business Exchanges, A Lifetime of Friendships to celebrate a decade of business exchanges, and more importantly, to celebrate a lifetime of friendships.
The YBA programme is organised annually by three programme partners: Singapore International Foundation, Shanghai People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and Shanghai Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs.