In mid-January, I interviewed several western business leaders from companies in New Zealand and the US. While seeking their views and input on doing business in Asia, and particularly Singapore, I came across several frequently repeated comments about Asian business culture.

As this was not a major survey involving hundreds of respondents, the shared views below are not representative – or even meant as broad generalisations – but they may shed light on doing business in Asia.

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Intangible aspects

When I asked these westerners why they had chosen to do business in Singapore, almost all of them said that they place about 50% of emphasis on financial and market attractiveness.

The other half of the equation, however, is a desire to try to understand the reserved Asian culture and the ‘soft’, intangible aspects of business and management.

Three frequent comments were heard regarding Asian business behaviour:

  • “Asians do not always say what they mean, or mean what they say.”

     

    The interviewees said that they had experienced their Asian potential customers or partners saying “yes” when they actually meant “no”. This indirect way of communication was a source of frustration to them and often masked the true intent, making business negotiations slow and sales difficult to forecast.

 

  • “Asians do not always say what they know.”

     

    Asian employees may not be as open as westerners expect them to be during meetings in front of other colleagues or provide active feedback on their competitors’ latest moves. This silence could be from a fear of losing their jobs – or in case their bosses think that the competition’s success is a reflection of their incompetencies.

    Westerners have learnt that in such cases they need to ask plenty of questions – and to communicate that it is acceptable to let western bosses know what is going on in the business and marketplace, as this helps in their decision-making.

     

 

  • “Asians do not always say things directly.”

     

    Asian business people do not always appreciate westerners’ direct, ‘in your face’ management style and can end up taking matters personally due to their own non-confrontational approach to communication. Or they will use a third party to act as a go-between to communicate to the westerners.

    One general manager of a white goods company remarked that doing business in Asia is like watching a duck that appears calm and serene on the surface, but beneath the water is paddling furiously. And often executives in Asia are ‘paddling’ in a certain direction without having complete information or knowing the true picture of the business situation.

 

Long-term relationships

Hence, a lot of questioning and second-guessing may be required for any western business people or investors wanting to enter Asia. They have to make a commitment to get to know their Asian counterparts and employees, to sow long-term relationships and be willing to wait to harvest any results.

This may go some way to explain why some business in Asia takes a long time to grow – time is needed to read between the lines, understand hints and innuendos, observe body language, allow time for the Asians to know westerners well and earn trust. Asia is a long-term play but for patient investors, it is worth the wait.

Lawrence Yeo is founder, CEO and principal consultant of AsiaBiz Strategy, a Singapore-based consultancy specialising in Asia investment promotion and market development services.

Email: Lawrence@asiabizstrategy.com