Western Welcome versus Time Honored Tradition

One Study Abroad Trip with Two Destinations: Singapore and Tokyo, Japan
By: Vanessa Graf, Part-Time MBA Student, D.C. Campus 

Reflecting on our class trip to Singapore and Japan, the main theme that most stood out to me as an MBA student was the drastic difference in ease of navigation from a Western perspective.  In Singapore the official language is English with an emphasis on Western norms for both doing business in and exploring Singapore.  This was a contrast to the more traditional and inward focused Japanese culture.  These perceptions were reflected in the social and tourist experiences exploring the countries, as well as the business culture.

Singapore Slings for Everyone!

In Singapore, we met with numerous expats that remarked on the ease for moving to the country, the low crime rates, the quality of living, and the efficiency.  The time to incorporate a business was estimated around an hour and many companies set ups ASEAN regional hubs in Singapore in order to help bridge the cultural divide.

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Singapore skyline with downtown financial area and a view of the bridge where the Singapore Merlion sits.

Our class’s company visits emphasized the specialty of Singapore in bridging together a technological and global network of efficiency through our visits with a focus on logistics at PSA (which used to be short for Port of Singapore Authority but now has adopted the acronym as the name), Amazon Web Services (AWS), Singapore Airlines, and GLP.  When visiting PSA we were able to attend a guided tour of the Port area and watch the many types of cranes offloading a vast quantity of the containers off the ship while we heard about the autonomous truck platooning technology. The Singapore train system was easy to navigate as I jumped on during day one and navigated on my own to different sites.  Despite the convergence of the Chinese, Malay, and Indian culture; English was readily available and I was able to get around on my own shopping, eating out, and socializing.

Our class’s company visits emphasized the specialty of Singapore in bridging together a technological and global network of efficiency through our visits with a focus on logistics at PSA (which used to be short for Port of Singapore Authority but now has adopted the acronym as the name), Amazon Web Services (AWS), Singapore Airlines, and GLP. When visiting PSA, we were able to attend a guided tour of the Port area and watch the many types of cranes offloading a vast quantity of the containers off the ship while we heard about the autonomous truck platooning technology.

 

These company visits were capped with events where we able to explore Singapore.  Our local guide Alvin enlightened us Singapore facts that ranged from information about flying snakes (yes really they exist!) to instructions on how to eat mangosteen, and finally, the local prohibitions on bringing the infamous fruit called Durian on public transportation due to its smell.

Singapore Airlines Safety Training Facility with slides extended and rafts out.

Singapore Airlines Safety Training Facility with slides extended and rafts out.

Our Singapore culture guide, Alvin, demonstrating how to eat the fruit known as "mangosteen."

Our Singapore culture guide, Alvin, demonstrating how to eat the fruit known as “mangosteen.”

Japan Cultural Complexities

In Japan, I found it to be layered with a history of complexities that included societal expectations for everything from lining up for the train (stand in a line on the platform arrows!) to how to pray (bow once, offering, bow twice, clap twice!).  During one of the company visits, there was a moment where a Japanese expat remarked on his newness to the culture and when I asked how long he had been there, he replied “Five Years”.   Another expat living in Japan for years described an experience where he had people respond in Japanese that they don’t speak English when he asked them questions in Japanese.

The Tokyo subway system seemed to further illustrate the complexities of navigating, with a beehive of activity and lines in every direction in Japanese kanji (the character that serves as the symbol for words).  Although I was finally able to work up the courage to navigate the system alone to the Tusiji Fish Market, many of my trips were made by taxi.  More than once, a kind Japanese English speaker wrote where I was headed in Japanese on a piece of paper to show the driver and people along the way for directions.

Rakuten Team tours with students from Waseda University.

Rakuten Team tours with students from Waseda University.

During our program in Japan, we visited with representatives from: Yamato, Rakuten, Hailo, and JETRO.  At these companies, I notice the common thread of the intersection of technology and service.  Yamato allowed us to tour and their sorting facility watching Amazon packages fly through conveyers to be loaded to trucks, hear about the personal connections of the delivery drivers as also serve as sales representatives, and even take pictures with the larger than life black cat mascot.

At the Rakuten headquarters, known as Crimson House, we were able to see first-hand look into a company focused on creating a global outlook by hiring a diverse group of employees and adopting the controversial “Englishization” program to increase the company’s English use at meetings.   The tour also gave us a chance to check out the Rakuten employee amenities that include an all-inclusive cafeteria, fitness area, spa, sinks for brushing your teeth, and clubs that span from Ping Pong to volunteering with animals.

 

 

Lessons Learned

Overall, I felt honored to be able to participate in a program where we were able to get an “insider” perspective of the companies and cultures.  This was gained through meeting with representatives from the companies, cultural expert tour guides, alumni that joined us for dinners, students from the local Universities of Waseda in Japan and NUS in Singapore, and Professors (or Sensei they were dubbed when we reached Japan) that brought tremendous knowledge.

From the interactions with these representatives and the other students in our group on the trip, I believe the trip was successful in opening the door to a global mindset.  The diversity of thought allowed us to question the concepts and approach them from a variety of perspectives.  These exchanges provided me with insights into the businesses, industries and cultural dynamics of both countries.  While both cultures were very different, I tremendously enjoyed visiting both.

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