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beware of Iceburgs in cultural differences

posted 31 Oct 2012, 07:08 by Fin Chockdee   [ updated 31 Oct 2012, 07:11 ]
The challenges are evident in many countries across the region, where cultural differences between foreign superiors and local workers reached a point that led to protests and at times closure of a business.

The dire consequences were on view last week in Cambodia when the Chinese supervisor of a garment factory ripped up a picture of the late and revered King Norodom Sihanouk, which prompted an angry protest and the eventual prosecution and deportation of the supervisor, Zia Chao.

For all the differences that we in the 10-member Asean grouping may have, there are certain similarities when it comes to culture. This is something that foreign investors drawn to this dynamic part of the world have to realize, even as they try to develop talent for the future in this part of the world.


Two other cultures locked horns last year in Vietnam, where local workers at some companies staged protests to draw attention to mistreatment and disrespect from their South Korean employers. They said their Korean bosses basically looked to use Vietnamese labour as slaves and did not care for their welfare or cultural aspects.

The protests in Vietnam eventually led to many South Korean companies changing their management and taking steps to improve their conduct and calm the situation down.

Cross-cultural challenges are many in Thailand as well, where certain things are not said or spoken about and it is best to keep it that way for it could instigate feelings that could get out of control for many people.

Of course, cultural misunderstandings are not unique to Asean countries, and they don’t have to involve people from one country offending people from another. In India, for example, intolerance of other religious views is still a serious problem despite decades of government's efforts to promote a secular society.

Asian people in general tend to be relatively emotional and sensitive about cultural issues, unlike their counterparts in some western countries where freedom of expression and openness are part of their culture growing up.

Having been educated in a more westernised educational system but born and raised in Thailand, I myself at times have trouble expressing myself in an open manner. Although I do believe in openness and freedom of expression, living in Thailand has taught me how to be a little more “Thai”, which I feel gives people like us an added advantage.

Respect for culture and traditions plays a crucial role in allowing for smoother business for any investor and helps build trust among the local employees.

Treating employees as slaves, overworking them or disrespecting aspects of their faith are practices that no one in their right mind should even think of undertaking.

What happens too often, though, is that foreigners come into a country and feel as though they can get away with anything as they have invested their money in developing it, be it Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam.

But the incident in Cambodia was a good reminder to those looking to invest outside their home markets to be able to adapt to the local culture and sensitivities, for any misstep in this regard can be hazardous to the company and its country of origin as well.

One other thing that a lot of investors don’t realise is that they need to know the language and hire local staff in higher positions to be able to attract good talent which can help propel the company to new heights.

Certain foreign investors in Thailand and elsewhere in Asean still show a marked preference to hire people who are from the country where the investor originated, even when qualified local talent is available. We’re not just talking about westerners, though. For a Thai company investing in Vietnam, it wants top management to be Thais, and an Indian company investing in Indonesia will want the top management to be Indian.

This is good in certain aspects – a shared language can help the shareholders and the management communicate – but then it only discourages people with good talent to even apply to work in the company.

Having local people in top management is also good as it helps bring about a greater cultural integration between the company that is in a foreign land and the local community, which may be wary of the intentions of the investors and at times sceptical of the way they run their businesses.

Incidents in the region over the past few months are a good learning point for any investors who are looking to move out of their home countries. To chart their expansion strategy, they realise they must strive to be part of the local community, and making the new investment destination similar to home turf should be the overall strategy of the company as well.
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