Being 'culture smart'

The cultural and linguistic diversity of the workforce, a defining feature since colonial times, was accentuated in recent decades with a greater inflow of Bangladeshis, Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Malaysians and Indonesians. Domestic helpers are now hailing from even Naypyitaw, Colombo, Phnom Penh, Darjeeling and Mizoram, to say nothing of professionals who come from all corners of the globe. Against this backdrop, one would not expect Ministry of Manpower (MOM) officers to be au fait with the characteristics of all the nationalities. However, the large presence of certain groups of foreigners makes it de rigueur for frontline staff to be more attuned to their particular cultural attributes, beliefs and habits.

Recognising this, MOM is aiming to promote, in human resource jargon, better communication with and "persuasive engagement" of foreign workers - through tailor-made courses for its staff. Closer attention to worker welfare is necessary, given the recurring nature of issues such as high employment agency fees and unsatisfactory working and living conditions cited by some. To be sure, nine in 10 foreign workers are satisfied with their lot here, as a recent survey showed. But grievances do surface from time to time, for example over housing, wage and fee disputes, labour law infractions and work accidents. In assisting those left in the lurch, MOM officers would be more effective in listening and negotiations when they are trained to be "culture smart".

Indeed, given the variegated nature of the workforce as a whole and the broad range of interactions involving different people, there is value in raising the cultural quotient of all who have contact with foreign workers. The Committee of Inquiry on the Little India riot recommended as much last June. At a basic level, this is a social project that ought to be championed by educators, civil society activists, unionists and bosses. "Culture is a matrix of infinite possibilities and choices," as noted by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Sovinka. Singaporeans, of all people, should be doing much more to exploit its productive potential and social benefit.