Singapore's a 'Hello Kitty' culture

By Paul Fitzpatrick

Much today is said about culture. Culture, whether it be national or organizational culture can be defined as ‘shared beliefs or values’ or a ‘common way of looking at things that is shared by people who inhabit the same social environment’.

What can we learn about Singaporean national culture?

In 1991 Dutch anthropologist, Geert Hofstede (1) conducted a study of national culture in which he surveyed 116,000 IBM employees located in forty different countries. The purpose was to identify and to distinguish the cultural features of different countries.

Hofstede’s research identified four cultural dimensions within the countries that he surveyed.

1. Power Distance
2. Uncertainty Avoidance
3. Individualism v Collectivism
4. Masculinity v Femininity

Power distance

Refers to the extent to which an unequal distribution of power is accepted by members of that society.

Countries with a high acceptance of power inequality included Malaysia and the Philippines. Those with a low acceptance of power inequality included Austria and Israel. This has implications in terms of what type of management style might be acceptable.

In cultures where there is a high acceptance of inequality a more autocratic style of management might be preferred and where there is a low acceptance of inequality a more democratic style might be appropriate.

Singapore demonstrated a slight bias towards high power distance thus suggesting that Singaporeans are amenable to controls imposed from above provided they can be justified.

Uncertainty avoidance

Refers to the extent to which members of a society area able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Countries least able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity included; Greece, Portugal and Japan. Those best able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity included Singapore followed by Jamaica and Denmark.

According to Hofstede such cultures also have the potential to stimulate innovation as they maintain a greater level of tolerance towards unorthodox ideas and concepts. So Hofstedt is saying that Singaporeans are potentially more creative than other nations.

This is somewhat removed from the popular misconception of Singapore as a conformist conservative society. On the other hand countries like Japan that are least able to cope with uncertainty tend to be better at implementation rather than at innovation.

Individualism v collectivism

Refers to the extent to which individual or group identity is promoted within that country. Perhaps not suprisingly countries where individualism was promoted included; US, Australia and UK. Conversely countries with a high group orientation included; most of the Asian countries including; Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines.

Masculinity and Femininity

Hofstede used the terms masculinity and femininity to describe specific sets of traits that might be considered predominately masculine or feminine.

Masculine traits might include assertion, acquisition and even aggression. Feminine traits might include supportiveness as well as caring and nurturing instincts.

Countries identified as being highly masculine included Japan and Austria. In these countries emphasis tended to be placed upon winning and success.

Countries with highly feminine cultures included Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. In these countries the emphasis tends to focus more on the quality of life and the environment. Singapore was rated as being midway, in other words not particularly masculine or feminine.

Hofstede’s work has been criticized, not least because his entire sample frame was taken from just one company IBM. However it remains a definitive study on national culture.

So what does Hofstede’s research tell us about Singaporeans?

That Singaporeans are moderately tolerant of controls that are imposed, are group orientated and above all able to cope with high levels of complexity and ambiguity, potentially making them very creative and independently minded.

So how does this tie in with first hand experience of Singaporean national culture? In 1999 cores of Singaporeans queued, overnight in some cases, just to acquire Hello Kitty dolls at McDonald’s restaurants.

On several occasions police reinforcements were needed to keep order as fighting broke out at a number of McDonald’s outlets. Hardly the behavior of a creative, independently-minded people! So why did these Hello Kitty dolls become transformed into objects of so many Singaporean’s desire?

In his 2000 publication, “Why Asians are less creative than Westerners?” (2),Ng Aik Kwang tries to rationalize their behavior within the context of the ‘kiasu syndrome’, the pursuit of material artifacts as a way of affirming one’s social and economic status within society.

The centrality of materialism within a society is usually culturally derived. The development of a national cultural identity is also an evolutionary process.

Singapore has had less than forty years to both develop a sense of cultural identity and to achieve economic transformation. Not surprisingly, given such a relatively short time scale, the priority of government has been to get things done. To this end they have provided direction.

However instilling within the Singaporean mindset the need to ‘get on’ and achieve goals has, arguably, given rise to an acquisitive instinct. The five C’s; car, cash, condo and credit card and country club, after all, are an affirmation of the priorities of many Singaporeans.

Coupled with this is the perception of status which is still prevalent within many Asian cultures. Material acquisition is perhaps the easiest and surest way of attaining status.

Possibly also, in the case of Singapore , the pursuit of materialism, if nothing else, can provide a distraction from the pressures of living in an intensely competitive society.

One of the features of the kiasu syndrome is that people tend to go after the same things. This might be a top of the range Mercedes, a Gucci watch or even a Hello Kitty Doll. The underlying reasoning is that if so many want it, it must be a good thing. A scenario similar to the ‘Hello Kitty’ scenario took place when Bread Talk slashed their prices by 50% for a limited period. Also when Singapore Bus Company offer Tupperware products in exchange for twelve used bus tickets. In Asian countries kiasu tends also to be reinforced by the strong sense of group identity that Hofstede refers to as a desire ‘not to be left out’. The outcome however can be an acquisitive, undiscerning and uncreative society in which everyone wants the same things and, as a consequence, develop similar patterns of thinking.

By way of contrast to the Hello Kitty disorders in Singapore , Ng Aik Kwang cites the actions of American environmental activists at a recent meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Demonstrators orchestrated street protests and committed acts of wanton vandalism designed to draw attention to measures that would cause environmental damage. Anti-social behavior perhaps but, none the less, designed to bring to light a greater transgression. Such actions might even be considered laudable when contrasted with the superficiality of the motives of the Singaporeans who queued outside McDonalds.

All countries have their fads. The United States and Europe are no exception in this respect. Sadly, in the case of Singapore , the Hello Kitty episode has projected a somewhat distorted ‘ Disneyland ’ image of a country where an uncreative and materialistic people indulge in trivial pursuits. So does this undermine Hofstede’s findings? Hofstede, after all, argues that Singaporeans are independently-minded and potentially creative. Possibly, but then again such pursuits could be an inevitable consequence of a ‘big Mac’ global culture where consumerism reigns supreme and where instantious gratification is always at hand.

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