Carlie: Hey there! It’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.
Today we’re exploring the foreigner’s experience of working in Asia, with a man who has written a book on the subject: Steve McGinnes.
Originally from England, Steve has lived and worked across the Asian continent for 15 years, and his book combines practical advice with first-hand stories and experiences of professionals, covering topics including power, relationships, family and corruption.
So, whether you’re already working in Asia, looking to make the move, or just curious about some of the key cultural differences between Asian work environments and the West … I hope you enjoy this interview.
Steve, you’ve spent the past 15 years living and working across Asia. What led you there initially?
Steve: Well, I’m an accidental nomad. I came out for three days originally. That three days turned into a three-month contract, which turned into two years. And then, before I knew it, 15 years had gone past. I absolutely loved the place, the opportunities here, the optimism, the wide openness of it all.
You get the feeling so often in London, where I was before, or in Australia or America, that things have been done. You kind of get the feeling that the best years are behind. But when you fly into Jakarta, you go into Vietnam or Cambodia, you talk to the people there, and they’re so optimistic about the future. They see things are going to get better.
They think tomorrow’s going to be better than today, and next year is going to be better than last year. And it’s really hard not to get caught up in that optimism. So I can’t see myself really ever moving back to the West.
Carlie: I can see where you got your motivation from then to write your book, Surfing the Asian Wave. It sounds like there’s so much to tap into in Asia.
Steve: Absolutely. And the more I dug, the more I found. And I felt now was the right time for me to write it, whilst I still appreciated the things that I’d learned. I think the danger is, when you know something really well, you tend to forget you know it. And you start taking for granted the information and the insights you’ve built up. So, whilst I could still see them freshly enough to pass them on, I thought now’s the time to do it.
Carlie: Now you quote some research from the economic intelligence unit in your book’s introduction, that CEOs believe the biggest blocker to future business success in emerging markets will be cross cultural misunderstandings. In your experience, is this true for personal career development, and success as a foreigner in Asia Pacific too?
Steve: Yeah, I think so. Even more so in fact, because I think you expect an organisation to be slightly lumbering. You expect an organisation to be caught up in its own way of doing things and take a long time to change. But I think we expect individuals to hit the ground running and be able to adapt quicker than perhaps they can.
And I think for the individual, more so than the businesses, the real challenge isn’t so much being able to understand the differences, or being able to take on board those differences and adapt your behaviours.
I think the big challenge for most individuals from the West coming to Asia is the acknowledgement that there is a difference, and not just the acknowledgement that there’s a different viewpoint or a different perspective on things like time or action or responsibility, not just that there’s a different way of doing these things, but even that the way they do it is a way.
So, I think in the same way they say a fish can’t see water, we’re not really aware that what we have is a viewpoint. We don’t realise that what we have is a view on risk, a view on time relations, a view on power. We just see the world the way it is. And it’s easy to blindly charge into new situations, unaware that everybody else in the room might be seeing things completely differently.
Even the perception of what we think of as being immediacy, what we see as being a short-term versus a long-term, how long we think it takes to build up a relationship; how we think it’s right to deal with our superiors, with our parents, with our siblings … These are just viewpoints that we’ve built up over time.
And I think once you acknowledge that what you have is just a set of baggage and a load of perceptions you’re lugging around the world with you, then I think you’re open to finding out new ways of doing things and having some empathy for the other points.
And I’d say that’s even more apparent in an individual than a business, but I guess a business is really just a bunch of individuals pushed together, so it’s just on a larger scale.
Carlie: So, when you move to Asia from the West, it sounds like you really need to unpack those bags and just be willing to repack them in a completely different way.
Steve: Yeah, totally. Yeah. And, first of all, you need to acknowledge that you’ve got bags with you. One of the guys in the interviews gave me a really good story that he’d heard about somebody going to India and being told that they had to go and buy an elephant statue from the woodcarver that made these amazing elephant statues.
And he went down and saw this guy in the corner of his tiny little studio off an alleyway, and he was there chipping away at his woodblock, making these wooden elephant statues. And the elephant statues that were lying around this little studio were absolutely amazing.
The guy said they were more elephanty than real elephants, which I thought was a great way of describing it. And he said that he talked to the sculpture, and said, ‘This is incredible. How do you do these?’
And the sculpture said, ‘It’s easy. I just get a block of wood and I chip away everything that isn’t an elephant.’
Carlie: That’s awesome.
Steve: And he took that to mean, you’ve just got to chip away all the stuff that isn’t an elephant. So when you arrive in Asia or Russia or China or India, you’ve just got to strip away the stuff that you’ve picked up on the way.
Knock off all the stuff that isn’t elephanty and let yourself just meld a little bit more into what’s around you and drop some of that armour. And that’s what happened with me when I came here. And the book was described to me by a friend, who said if he’d picked it up at the airport, it would have saved him two years of mistakes.
And that’s really what I was trying to achieve: can we talk about the mistakes that other people have made and what they learned from it? So we wouldn’t have to make those mistakes ourselves. And for me, it’s not really a business book.
We’ve got two halves of the world, the two dominant global cultures, that in a lot of ways just don’t understand each other at all, and worryingly don’t even realize they don’t understand each other.
So how can we align on future plans for the environment, when what we see as being the future, what we see as being short-term and long-term, what we see as being our priorities, what we’re seeing as being our vision and values, are completely misaligned?
How can we get together as cultures and try and avoid an economic shutdown, when we have a financial system in the West that’s based around quarterly earnings and a financial system in China that’s looking at a hundred years of growth?
We’re just coming at these things from completely different viewpoints, and different perspectives, without even realizing it. And then being surprised when we can’t come to mutually beneficial solutions. So, that’s it for me. It’s looking on an individual level, as you say, and on a business level.
But really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this much bigger challenge that we have, as technology and transport and an ease of movement around the world has pushed the different sides of the globe together much quicker than we’ve been able to adapt and grow our understanding of each other. And I think it’s a huge opportunity, but also an opportunity for catastrophic misunderstandings and the effects of those.
Carlie: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about Asian cultures made by Westerners?
Steve: There’s a couple of key ones around power. There’re some mistakes made around protocols. There’re some mistakes made around relationships. I’ve seen a number of businesses where local companies have families working together. They have siblings working together; they have cousins; they have fathers; they have son-in-laws.
And often Westerners will see this as a semi-corrupt deal, or certainly a cushy way of bringing in an inept relative. And it’s not the case at all. I mean, the reality is, if you’re going to bring somebody in for a high profile, high pressure, very important position, you’re going to want the people that you know and you can trust and you can rely on, and who aren’t going to run away with your secrets to the competitor.
And that’s really your family or your school mates or your army buddies. They’re pre-vetted. So where we see that as being some kind of shady deal, in Asia it just seems to be perfectly natural. Of course, you’d want somebody you knew well in one of those senior roles.
The other thing is the power dynamic. I had a great story from a lady I was interviewing, who’d come over from Australia to work for one of the big American advertising agencies. And they went to Japan and pitched, and they were in the middle of a huge presentation, and in the room were the usual hierarchies of the 20 members of the client team to the … From the CEO, all the way down.
And during the question and answer session at the end, they looked over, and the CEO had fallen asleep, and they took that as an absolute insult, an afront to their work. Not only was the CEO not interested, he wasn’t even pretending to be interested. And of course, they all went straight to the pub afterwards.
It was only a few years later that she discovered that the power hierarchies in Japan are so strict that, whilst the CEO is in the room, nobody junior to him will venture any kind of opinion. So nobody’s going to put forward any suggestions or any questions whilst he’s there.
And the only way of getting other people in the room to chip in at all is for the CEO to pretend to be asleep.
Carlie: He needs to take himself out of that conversation completely.
Steve: Literally. And when he’s asleep, other people can chip in and other people can talk. I recall being on a trip personally in Cambodia, being taken out for the evening. And we were there with our competitors and the client – the president took us out. We ended up in a very, very seedy – as you can imagine – bar, with the kinds of situations that you can predict in those kinds of environments.
And those kinds of choices are put in front of us. You know, girls were there, drink was there. I personally had said, all along through the day, it wasn’t my interest. I was married. I had children. I wasn’t interested in the kinds of things they wanted to do after midnight.
And then, when it came to it, there was so much pressure from the people there to sort of indulge and fall into the behaviours that they were expecting on that night out. And I didn’t. The other vendor, our competition, did. And I thought, okay, we’ve lost that pitch. We’ve lost that job. But to my surprise, we got the job.
We actually were given this very large budget project, and only a few months later, when I was working on the project with the president’s younger brother, I expressed my interest to him about why we’d got it.
He thought it was hilarious. And he told me that the president wasn’t interested in whether I did what they said or not. He wasn’t interested in whether I caved in and went off into the corner with the stripper or drank vodka with them. What he was interested in was whether I stuck to my guns. So, if at six o’clock in the evening I said I wasn’t interested, and then at 1:00AM I still didn’t do it, that showed I had good character.
Whereas the other guy, who had said earlier on he wasn’t interested in doing it, but at the end of the night, to keep them happy, had gone along with it. Rather than enamour himself to them, he’d just shown he had bad character. He didn’t stand up for what he believed.
They didn’t care what I did. They didn’t care what my behaviour was. They just wanted to see if I was consistent in what I said, because that’s, in their opinion, how you build trust. It’s whether somebody stands by their guns and sticks to their beliefs.
So while I was worried about what was I doing, what impression I was making, they were actually watching for something completely different. And I think that’s actually one of the key differences. We judge people in the West by their actions. We look in terms of what they delivered, what numbers they put up last week.
Whereas in Asia, it’s much more about character. It’s a much longer-term game. It’s about who you are as a person. Can you be relied on in 10 years? Not, what did you deliver this quarter? And I think those are the kind of areas of misconception and misalignment that sometimes make great anecdotes.
But when you’re looking at the Chinese premier and the US president trying to align, when they are completely misaligned in terms of what they’re trying to do, it’s not going to work.
Carlie: Also, in your chapter on power, you talk about how decisions are made behind closed doors by senior executives, with little to no opportunity for those below them to really contribute, which would be quite a difference for someone coming from a Western workplace, where they might be used to much flatter team structures, where it’s easier to make your mark, collaborate, have a voice.
How do you deal with coming into a workplace like that, and making sure you don’t make a misstep, but also making sure that you can make an impression?
Steve: That’s a really good question. And I think, first of all, it’s probably useful just to see the validity and the usefulness of that way of working. And again, to hark back to what I said earlier, we’re so conditioned to see the world the way that we see it.
So when we see these hierarchical power structures and these decisions being made unilaterally, and then enforced through an organisation, we look at it and think, What a waste. This is so old-fashioned. They’re missing out on all the inputs. But the plus side of that is things get decided and they get done.
So yes, they may miss out on some of the inputs, and there may be 5% or 10% of additional value adds that could have been built into that project by involving more people. But there’s also a likelihood that that would just spin the wheels of the project. And if it’s a time-sensitive decision … Sometimes in the West we see opportunities go by because we’re so busy talking about it.
So, whilst we often look at these relationships and these structures in China and in Asia, and look at it and go, ‘Wow, that’s a terrible top down old school way of doing it.’ Sometimes they look at us and think, ‘Will you guys just make a decision and get it done? Will you just actually action this and stop talking about it?’
So, it’s as frustrating for them as it is baffling for us. But when you’re an individual in that environment, there are ways of moving around it. The key way of doing it is your proximity to power. There’s always a separate power structure behind the organisation chart.
There’s usually a way of accessing and influencing those decision makers, who may be two or three steps away from you in terms of the formal structure. But the key with that is to not go over the head of your direct boss. If you were to step around them, that is such an insult to them and their position that sometimes that relationship will never, ever recover from that.
So, the key way of doing it is, how do you make a soft impact? How do you get close enough? Or how do you inform those senior decision makers of what you’re thinking in a way that doesn’t alienate your direct line managers or those around you? And the way of doing that often is through the social scene. There’s still a culture of going out with the boss, of drinking, of the networking, of the soft side of things in the West.
We now see this as much more superfluous, and quite often they are the things that get cut. In Asia, they are still the way that movement of information happens in an informal way. And it may be that you’re not the person that actually gets to talk to the big boss. It may be you need to go through an intermediary, who’ll be passing the information onto you. And that’s just a fact of life.
You may never actually get close enough to the key decision maker to get your thoughts and inputs to them. The key bit though is getting it to them, and everybody along that chain realising where it came from. But, as I say, the key part is not to step around, or on top of, that hierarchy. So it’s just a case of being aware of who knows who, who talks to who, who’s connected to who, who went to school with who, who’s related to who.
And then using that network of people, potentially at arm’s length, to get your thoughts and views to the senior decision makers. But don’t write off those soft skills – the dinners, the sports, the casual conversations, the small talk – which, as I say, in the West we seem to have jettisoned to a degree. Because that’s how the power moves, and that’s how information moves here.
And again, I think the key thing is to remember that whilst we look at these structures and think terrible, top down, patriarchal forcing of opinion, they look at us and think, you just get on and do this. I mean, I think the coronavirus is a really interesting element of that.
On the one hand, we’ve got a situation where it’s been pretty clear that mid-level medical officials in China knew what was going on, but didn’t feel they were able to pass bad news up through the ranks.
They didn’t feel able to tell their bosses something they didn’t want to hear, and their bosses didn’t want to pass it onto the boss above them. So that movement of information didn’t happen. And that’s a bad thing. But conversely, that top down structure means they can build multi-thousand people hospitals in 10 days, and they can lock down nearly 50 million people.
They can shut down Wuhan – a city of 11 million people – overnight. In the West, we could never do that. We would never be able to get something that ambitious done that quickly. So yes, we might have no hesitation in our flatter structures for our doctors and medical experts to cascade upwards their concerns about something like this. But after that happens, we can’t build hospitals in 10 days. It takes 10 years to build a hospital.
The key bit, I think, is an appreciation that the real success and the real sustainable future is what can we see from both sides of this. And as an individual, let’s not look at: ‘This is right and this is wrong’, or ‘How do I need to adapt to make this work?’
It’s, ‘How can I cherry pick the best bits of my behaviours and the best bits of my learning, and cherry pick the best bits of the Asian culture and the Asian business I’m working with, and come up with a way of working that’s better than both?’
Carlie: Should women expect a different experience in Asian workplaces than men?
Steve: Absolutely. One of the ladies that I interviewed for the book, she said it wasn’t until she came to Asia that she thought anything could be more complicated and challenging than the gender roles in the West.
I think the key element to bear in mind, and it was certainly a revelation to me, was that we can see the different gender expectations and the different gender roles in Asia versus in the West.
And it is simple or simplistic to look at it and think women in Asia are treated like women would have been in the 40s and 50s in the West. And I guess that is true to a degree, but I think the difference is with the speed of change. The emancipation of women and the way that women have taken bigger roles in business and in culture, that’s happened in the West over the last 50 or 60 years, probably since the second world war …
That change, which we’ve now taken it for granted, has happened in Asia in the last five or 10 years. Whilst women in the West have that struggle of being a mom and being a wife and being seen as nurturing and caring and feminine, while also having those demands of being hardworking and professional and strong.
And that’s really difficult, to balance those two things. But we’ve had 50 years to get used to it. And I’m not saying it’s not a struggle, but it’s something we’re becoming more aware of and we deal with, and we’re putting things in place to structure it.
If you go to Japan or Korea or Shanghai, women have those same challenges, probably more acutely. But it’s all happened in 10 years. So they’re simultaneously expected to be mother, daughter, and wife.
And husbands don’t do anything at home. They don’t take any part in childcare. They really don’t play any of those nurturing roles. But women are increasingly expected to do that and do all the Western expectations of a strong professional woman.
The other element is it’s very hard not to project ourselves onto situations we don’t necessarily really understand. When you’re working in Indonesia or Malaysia, and you’re working with women of a Muslim background, your instinct is to look them in the eye, shake their hand, and deal with them exactly the same way you would with a man. And for a long time, I was doing that, thinking that was the right thing to do.
But now I realise, the only thing I was doing was making them feel uncomfortable. So I will take the lead in those situations from them. Similarly, if you see an act of what we would consider to be blatant sexism, our instinct, whether a man or woman, is to jump in and hold that person accountable and tell them what they’re doing is wrong.
And that’s a mistake, because not only have you just stepped into a situation you probably don’t understand, there’s likely another dynamic going on behind that, that the overt display might be nothing to do with.
Sometimes the gender expectations are such that even though the woman is clearly really running the show, she will put on a slightly more passive and subservient demeanour in public meetings. And drawing that to the attention, you haven’t helped somebody; you’ve just thrown it into sharp relief. And so, I would say it’s really not a black and white situation.
It’s just something that is much more pointed and more acute than what we’ve seen happen in the West. I think the trajectory is going in the same direction, but the velocity is at a higher speed.
I think that the hard learning is, stepping in and, from a Western point of view, saying what you think is the right thing and doing what you think is the right thing, sometimes isn’t the right thing. And it’s very hard not to try and be personally the hero in those situations,
Carlie: I really appreciated your practical advice in the power chapter. Something that every expat, I think, needs reminding of sometimes – when they get frustrated at disjointed processes, of what we might see as outdated thinking, wherever we’re living in the world – it’s not our job to fix things.
Steve: Absolutely. And you’re absolutely right, because we’re not going to fix anything. I remember being in a very large presentation meeting in Vietnam, and we were doing our usual song and dance for the whole room. And we had our translator, and everything was going along the way it would normally go.
And halfway through the question and answer session at the end, the door opened, and the tea lady came in pushing, literally pushing, a cart of tea and cakes around the room. Everything stopped. Everybody stopped what they were doing. Everybody stood up and, when she went around, she had a little chat with every person in that room.
And this woman must have been in her late seventies, maybe even early eighties. She had a little chat with everybody in that room, and nothing happened, and no small talk went on, until she’d gone around and talked to probably about half of the people in that meeting room, given them their tea and then left.
And then we carried on with the presentation. It was only afterwards that I was told that that woman was the wife of the company founder, who had died a few years before. And what had happened was that was a generation of women in Asia who couldn’t be in power. They couldn’t hold any power or responsibility, but she was the driving force behind the whole business.
And she built that business, and ran that business, through her husband and then through her sons. And her version of soft power wasn’t to come in and bark orders at everybody, because for her generation that was wholly inappropriate.
That walk around the room, serving tea, was her catch up with the board, telling them what she thought, what they should do, and listening to what they said. And that was as powerful as a board meeting. A nod or a smile or a frown from her was the equivalent of being absolutely bawled out by the president in some Western board room.
And I would never have guessed that in a million years. I just saw that as a bunch of guys who were very, very nice to the tea lady. And I didn’t guess for a second where the real power was in that room.
One of the guys that I interviewed, a guy called Andrew, he said, ‘The thing with Asia is you never really know where the power is until you find yourself sitting next to him.’ And that was an absolute example of the obviousness of the org chart and the overt hierarchy of power, but then where the real power was sitting behind it.
And that is often the case. There’s another source of real influence that is sitting behind. And often it’s a woman of a generation that couldn’t take power herself. It’s a fascinating area.
Carlie: It really is. And I find it so fascinating that this woman is essentially running the business from behind the men in her life, as you said, because she’s of that generation. But that’s not the case for women in Asia now.
But at the same time, as a foreign woman coming to work in Asia, should you expect to be able to climb as high as your male counterpart? Or is it just a fact that there are going to be roadblocks for you?
Steve: I would say there are going to be roadblocks, but like any obstacle, they can be got over. I think, as a Westerner, we have a lot more latitude. We get forgiven for saying things we shouldn’t say. We get excused for doing things we shouldn’t do, as long as we do it in a way that shows that our best intentions are at the heart of it.
So I think women from the West can say things and do things and act in ways in Asia that the Asian women can’t. So I’d say actually a Western woman coming in from the outside in many ways is freed up to do things that our local women couldn’t.
That said, the local woman will understand the nuances and the complexities and be able to navigate around them, whereas the Westerners will often just charge through them. But I don’t see those blocks anymore as being rigid walls. They’re just things to be aware of and cognisant of.
And I think being a Western woman in Asia actually opens up quite a lot of doors, and allows access, in that whereas an Asian woman would need to be invited into those conversations, we can sort of push ourselves into them. But the key area, I guess, to be highly aware of, is that that is what we’re doing.
We need to go into it with an understanding that we are perhaps breaking the rules, that we are perhaps speaking out of turn. But if you do it, as I say, with the right attitude, and you do it with an understanding of, ‘Hey, I know this might not be the way to do it, but I’m going to do this because I don’t know a better way,’ as opposed to, ‘No, this is how it should be done. It’s how we do it in the West, therefore this has got to be done here.’
That will close doors very quickly. Doors that perhaps could’ve been nudged open with a smile and a slight wink of misunderstanding.
Carlie: It does sound like a bit of a minefield, how to make sure your words or actions aren’t taken out of context. And it sounds like it’s inevitable that you’re going to do or say something that’s going to offend.
Steve: Absolutely. And also, it’s easy to forget that we are still the outsiders. We are still being watched. We are still an individual of interest. So our offhand comments, our unthought-through actions, will actually be the stuff of legend two days later. At best legend, at worst awful gossip, because we’re novelty.
We’re mini celebrities: we’re seen; we’re tracked; we’re talked about. So something we do doesn’t just disappear, whether it is saying the wrong thing or acting the wrong way. But as I say, I think if you go into it with the best intentions and it’s clear that people understand that you’re trying, that if you get something wrong, it’s not because you think our way of doing it is best. We just didn’t understand the way we should be doing it.
That goes such a huge, huge way … Just being appreciative, or just being open, and acknowledging that maybe you don’t know what’s going on. I think that is probably the baggage that, as expats coming to Asia, we carry with us. This belief that we know the best way, that when we come into a situation, we know the answers. ‘The way you’re doing it is wrong. And we’re going to show you the right way of doing it.’
That unfortunately is a legacy that a lot of people who came before us have left and we’ve inherited, and I think one of the best things that you can do is, whilst not undermining your own abilities and your own professional capacity, make it clear that you’re not coming in expecting that you know better than everybody.
And I think that just really does make everything easier. Going in with an open mindset and being appreciative and open that you just don’t know everything.
Carlie: Steve, you have a story in your book about needing to bribe officials in a passport queue in Indonesia. Now, as someone whose Asian experience, interestingly for an Aussie, consists of just four nights in Thailand – and I grew up following the story of Schapelle Corby, who was jailed in Bali over drugs found in her bodyboard bag at the airport – I find the whole subject of corruption pretty confronting.
And even though I know it exists in the West too, just in a different way, how do you best navigate these situations, so that you don’t end up in a jail cell for missing that cue to, you know, grease somebody’s hand?
Steve: I think that’s absolutely the right question. I think we tend falsely to have an incredible dichotomy on this. Corruption and bribery is bad, underlined in capitals in bright red letters, and that’s how we view it from the West. But actually, it’s not that simple.
I mean, is tipping a way to bribery? Is slipping the maître d’ at a restaurant $20 to get you a good table? Is that bribery? Is recommending the services of somebody to somebody else, is that bribery? I mean, really, it’s just another additional element alongside the legitimate payment to help get things done.
You buy a drink at a bar and you give a tip, essentially to either thank the guy for doing his job or to assume and that you’ll get better service, faster service, good service next time. That’s a bribe. The barman’s being paid. You’re giving an unofficial payment on top of that.
So, I would say 90%, probably more than that, 99% of the bribery and the corruption in Asia is simply that. It’s an unofficial payment that’s going alongside the official payment, that helps guarantee you’ll get what it is you wanted.
Carlie: To make your life easier.
Steve: Basically. And in the same way, if you go to the US – the UK and Australia are a little bit different – if you go to the US, people know that waiters can’t live on their wages. They live on their tips. And a lot of positions in Asia, particularly low-level government positions, nobody expects you to. What you live on is the unofficial extra gratuities you get on top of that.
And it’s seen as no more of a bad thing than the waiter in the US knowing that he needs to make tips to live on. It’s not underhand. It’s certainly not a gateway into anything other than getting the thing that you wanted. And that is probably 95%, 99% of the time that it’s simply that.
Why does it happen? Because it works. If it stopped working, it would stop happening. If one person stood up and said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ other people will keep doing it. It’s not a case of an evil that needs to be stamped out.
And what’s interesting, and I’ve talked about this in the book, is there’s been research that’s shown that we’ve always assumed that Asia is in phenomenal growth. Indonesia, Cambodia – these countries that have got high levels of corruption – are in incredible growth. And we seem to think, ‘Wow, isn’t it such a shame? Imagine what they could do if it wasn’t for all the corruption.’
There was a really good piece written by an academic, who made the argument that actually they’ve grown this fast not in spite of the corruption, but because of the corruption.
And his logic is that if you sign a contract to build a road or build an airport – or do a deal to make 10,000 cars or whatever it is that you’ve just put in place – particularly in areas of heavy legislation, like construction or development, then you will put in your tender, you’ll put in your price, you’ll put in your bid, and you will get given the project, and slowly it will go ahead.
And lots of things can get in the way of that: legislation, laws, disruption and disputes can stop and start a big project. And a big project that would benefit the country, the city, the business. That’s what happens in the West.
If you’re in Asia and you’ve been given that project by the official, and not only have you been officially awarded that project, you’ve also made an unofficial payment to him through whatever means, then not only are they obliged to move forward that project because it’s what the contract says, he also now needs to deliver his side of the deal because you’ve paid him.
You’ve paid to deliver that project; you’ve paid for that tender; you’ve paid for that piece of work. So now, he has to do everything he can to make it happen. So a project, or a development, that’s had corrupt payments involved in it, is actually more likely to happen.
It’s more likely to go ahead and get completed than the one that hasn’t. And that feels really counter intuitive. But when you think about how many projects in the West never get going, or take 10 years or 20 years or get sidelined, it actually makes sense that those extra payments aren’t going to stop the project. Actually, they’ll make it happen.
And in the same way, on a smaller level, if you’ve just given some guy 20 bucks to help get your paperwork done, or your visa delivered or your passport back or your driving license stamped, he’s not just going to give that to you and get it done because it’s his job; he’s going to get that done because you’ve just paid him directly to do it.
And if he starts not doing the thing that he is given an extra payment to do, then very quickly people will stop giving him the extra payment. So he’s much more incentivised to deliver what he’s agreed to do than just relying on the fact that this is his job to do it.
And the reality is, if you’re a business or an individual, costs in real terms are lower in Asia; things are cheaper. The day to day living costs are lower. You just need to factor in some additional spend for those low-level annoyances, in terms of small, let’s call them, tips, rather than bribes, to get things done. But you’ve got to put a line in the sand.
Carlie: Yes, this is what I was going to ask. What is the point at which your tip is okay, and your tip is not okay?
Steve: It’s not necessarily consistent across Asia. I mean, if you’re stopped in your car for speeding, in inverted commas, in Malaysia or Indonesia, which are the two countries nearest where I’m sitting right now in Singapore … If you’re stopped by the police, you roll down your window and you hand over a couple of small notes and off you go.
I live in Singapore most of the time. If I did that in Singapore, I’d be out of the car and in a jail cell within 30 seconds.
Carlie: This is what terrifies me.
Steve: Yeah, so it’s not all of Asia, so you need to pick your battles. But I think what we’re getting into is that there is a line, and I would say admin, paperwork, visas, passports, speeding tickets, those low-level things, you just take them as a level of annoyance.
When it comes down to people’s lives, to big decisions, to large property deals, to anything that’s got repercussions beyond you and that person that you’re dealing with, I think you’ve just got to get out of that.
And you certainly don’t want to open up a can of worms that you can’t get out of. Anything you wouldn’t feel completely comfortable doing, don’t do. It’s better to walk away from something, and maybe join the back of that 200-person queue, than it is to do something you’re uncomfortable with.
But where is that line? I don’t know the answer. I just know what I’ve had to do to navigate, and I’ve generally felt comfortable that I’ve burned on the side of safety. And as I say, often we will project an air of mystery and danger onto those situations that, for people actually there, are just the day to day way things get done.
Carlie: Before we finish up, I wanted to ask you how working in Asia has changed your perception of time. I’m a bit of a punctuality stickler. I get impatient pretty easily, like if there’s a doctor’s appointment and I turn up and I’m 15 minutes late going in. But it sounds like for you, it’s been a real learning curve?
Steve: Yeah. I think for me the secret has always been to keep to my own levels of punctuality. So, if we need to be somewhere at 10 o’clock in the morning, I’ll still be there at 9:50am. Because the day that you’re not, you can guarantee that’s the day the people are.
And in Asia, as we talked about with the power dynamics, one thing that’s usually very clear is the last person who’s allowed to arrive is the biggest boss. So the last person to get there will always be the senior guy. And if he’s not the last person, then the last person turning up is showing the utmost disrespect for that senior.
The senior can expect everybody to wait for him or her, but they won’t wait for anybody else. So whilst other people may turn up late, unless you are the big boss, you’d better be there early. And it’s best just to keep your own levels of Western punctuality.
The other lesson is don’t take it personally. As I said to you, as I put in the book, I was kept waiting for eight hours once for a client meeting. But I looked around and I realised that everybody else was waiting as well.
Carlie: Did you sleep in the office? That’s insane.
Steve: Yeah. After a while, you start realising that’s the case. So then, when I was doing projects in India, I’d take my lunchbox with me. I’d take a book; I’d take my iPod; I’d settle in for the day, the same way that you might settle into a cafe to get some work done. I just happened to be somewhere else.
But they weren’t treating me that way; everybody was treating everybody that way. It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t an act of disrespect to me. So you can’t be offended when actually it’s just their way of being. So, if somebody is late to meet you, it’s probably because their diary was bumped by somebody else, whose diary was bumped by somebody else again, further up the line.
It’s just a knock-on effect. It’s a game of dominoes. Nobody is offending or being deliberately rude. It’s just the way the world works. Once you understand that it’s not you that’s being made late, or you that’s being kept waiting deliberately, you just let it go. But just be prepared for it, and settle in for a long wait.
Carlie: Sounds like you got some great reading done.
Steve: Yeah, very thick books.
Carlie: Now, obviously I think reading your book is a great starting point, but what would be your key piece of advice to someone moving to Asia for the first time, whether they’re taking on a new work contract or following their partner, for example?
Steve: Be open, be humble, and just appreciate the fact, as I said at the beginning, that your viewpoints are just views. Your way of seeing the world is just one way of seeing the world, and other people’s views and opinions and perceptions are just as valid as yours. And there’s no right or wrong.
And also, particularly when you move out of the major urban hubs, you’re a celebrity. You’re a novelty. You’re being watched. You’re being talked about, and you are not anonymous and not invisible. So, act like you are in a one-person reality show all the time, because that’s basically what’s happening.
Carlie: Okay. Mildly scary, but okay. Well, Steve, thank you so much for the chat. It was brilliant, and there’s so much to learn in your book to really open your mind and see things from other people’s perspectives.
Steve: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the chat. Thanks so much for taking the time.
Carlie: That’s it for this episode. You can continue the conversation about working as an expat in Asia, and share your own experience, in our Forums or Facebook groups. Find all the links at expatfocus.com.
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