Postcard from Singapore: Overturning the “old normal” as an expat

Rivkah Mellor-Bessant, Advance member based in Singapore

Rivkah Mellor-Bessant Contributor

It is a strange and challenging time for so many right now, but in the cultural melting pot of Singapore, I see changes sparked by the pandemic that will redefine the way we work and business focus for years to come. Environmental and social responsibility, employee wellbeing and flexible working are the big winners as prolonged travel restrictions overturn the “old normal” for expats and locals alike.

Measuring just 30km long and 50km wide, the tiny humid island of Singapore is home to 5.6 million people (Sydney-sized) but is one of the most densely populated countries in the world – and as an Australian you certainly feel that. Long roads and wide open spaces are swapped for the delights of living in a deeply culturally diverse city where you are welcome to join in: delicious cheap eats in the hawker centres, flower garlands and marsala tea in Little India, baklava and carpets in the Arab Quarter, dumplings in Chinatown, and the world’s greatest airport offering seamless unlimited travel options.

I moved to Singapore after ten years working in London to lead a diverse team across Asia, from Indonesia to Hong Kong and Japan, and a build-out in China. I quickly learned great importance is placed on face-to-face interaction, how to ensure we and others did not “lose face”, the deference to hierarchy and rules, and the strong influence of traditional Chinese values. Only green shoots were evident in the areas of Diversity and Inclusion, Corporate Social Responsibility or Environmental, Social & Governance principles in the investment world.

And then, COVID came.

Singapore swung into action quickly, following the “game-plan” they developed in response to SARS – temperature checks at the entrance to all spaces straight off the bat, daily WhatsApp messages from the government on volume and location of cases. While many Western countries were arguing about the cost-benefits of compulsory quarantine or stay at home notices Singapore just did it. Masks? Oh yes, ALL THE TIME from the very beginning. You move from your apartment door to your car park – you will wear a mask, you go out walking with friends, you all wear masks.

Singapore has taken an efficient, systematic, communicative approach to addressing the situation and this has given many expats a sense of security and relief; we know what is expected of us and what can be expected in return.

Nippers is a quintessential ANZA beach activity for children and teens to have fun and learn surf awareness and safety at the beach (Courtesy/Rivkah Mellor-Bessant/ANZA)

In the strictest part of our lockdown the grass wasn’t cut and no insecticide was spread in Singapore’s parks and green corridors. Nature took no time in coming out to play with the new wild meadows teeming with Singapore’s famous birdlife, butterflies, reptiles and tropical greenery. Just as Singapore’s natural beauty re-asserted itself, Singaporeans have subverted the stereotype of rigidity with their willingness to adapt and find creative solutions. The hawker centre pioneers who used to accept only cash quickly swapped the lunch hour rush for the green Deliveroo motorbike rider, with the new takeaway apps making it possible to recreate the hawker experience by mixing multiple dishes from multiple stalls for one meal in one delivery.

In the offices of Singapore and across south east Asia flexible working policies have been catapulted forward decades in terms of understanding and acceptance –companies that previously required presence in the office are permanently embracing flexible working. For managers this requires a whole new way of leading based on a greater faith in the employee and a more empathetic approach. I now see many countries in Asia coming to grips with this heightened employee trust model; so important if we are to build companies which can nurture the talent of Gen Y and prepare for the Zoomers and Gen Alpha.

While financial fortunes and year-over-year growth figures remain important barometers of prosperity, I see companies with presence throughout Asia realising their clients are emphasising their contributions to society more and more. Corporate responsibility focus is on the rise; spurred by the realisation that the old model needs upheaval. Decision making for safeguarding our planet for future generations is, thank goodness, no longer just for the hippies amongst us.

Connect with Rivkah

Rivkah Mellor-Bessant is a Melbournian based in Singapore who has teams all across Asia and experience working in both the UK and Europe.

She has also been heavily involved for many years in bringing a classic element of Aussie culture to Singapore, leading the ANZA Singapore Nippers. Every Sunday morning over 100 kids and their families meet on the beach (albeit with no real waves!) to paddle, swim, wade, flag and relay their way to brunch. The club’s key purpose is to offer both local and expat kids of all backgrounds, the chance to develop a passion and safety awareness for the ocean in a really inclusive, fun format, and of course ensure that the kids get exposed to core Australian ideals like equality, humour, and enjoyment of nature and life!