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Getting Singaporeans to be more culturally intelligent

We are all familiar with IQ and EQ but now there is also a need for CQ — Cultural Quotient. It basically means to be culturally intelligent and able to deal with people of different cultures in different cultural settings. Do our future generation have the tolerance, self-awareness and humility to be global citizens?

We are all familiar with IQ and EQ but now there is also a need for CQ. What is CQ? It is Cultural Quotient. It basically means to be culturally intelligent and able to deal with people of different cultures in different cultural settings.

CQ helps us understand the way other people think, why people do business the way they do and what they think of us.

The new digital economy is increasingly pushing businesses, including small- and medium-sized enterprises, to go global.

Businesses now are looking to hire global citizens — employees who can function and excel anywhere in the world, whatever the cultural setting and environment.

This means not only being able to accept the norms of different cultures but, more importantly, being accepted by other cultures.

Do our future generation have the tolerance, self-awareness and humility to be global citizens?

Clearly, one cannot be a global citizen if one has a closed mind or is xenophobic.

Those who are fully absorbed in their native culture, especially if they grow up in a homogeneous society, often find it difficult dealing with alien cultures.

Conversely, those detached from their own culture and are regularly exposed to different cultures can more easily adapt.

A truly global citizen finds common grounds and emphasise similarities, not differences.

Understanding and empathy are also needed.

Singaporeans are well positioned to be global citizens, given that we live in a heterogeneous society that is multicultural.

This theoretically should help us to be more accepting of other cultures, especially as we also have 1.6 million foreigners among our population.

We are bilingual and in many cases trilingual or more. In theory we are not and should not be monolingual in mindset.

However, sometimes we unfortunately tend to be so. I recall an incident in Bangkok. A Singaporean woman was not able to communicate with a taxi driver and he could not understand where her destination was. She was furious and scolded him in English.

The driver then looked at me (as I was standing behind the woman) and I said to him: “Sawadee Khrap, Lumluka Khrap?” and he said something in Thai (I don’t speak Thai) and hand signalled me to get into the taxi.

As I was boarding the taxi, the Singaporean woman looked at me and said, “hopeless driver, can’t even speak English!” I smiled and calmly said to her, “ma’am the problem is not that he does not speak English. The problem is you do not speak Thai. We are in Bangkok”.

She was a bad example of a Singaporean being monolingual in mindset.

Here is another personal anecdote of how knowing a few foreign words or phrases can be extremely helpful. I was in a café in a small town in France.

The menu was all in French, which I don’t understand. Luckily, I was served by a waiter who spoke very good English.

I asked him “what food do you have?” He replied, “it is all in the menu”. I said, “but it is all in French”. The waiter’s response was quick and not very friendly and just one word, “Oui’. (Which means Yes in French).

At that moment, I realised that I had made no effort to use any French words and had expected the waiter to speak to me in English and even expected the menu to be in English.

So I paused and said, “pardon Moi, Je no parleez Francais” and looked at the menu and said, “any recommendation?”

The waiter smiled and started explaining in English what was in the menu. That incident, which happened many years ago, made me realise the power of knowing and using a few foreign words and phrases.

Ultimately, having cultural intelligence is not about being an expert in the different cultures. It is about having the right mindset and the ability to be effective in different cultural settings.

The good news is that Singapore is at the forefront of recognising the significance of cultural intelligence.

There is a cultural intelligence course being offered at Nanyang Technological University and the Ministry of Education has been trying to incorporate cultural intelligence in our education system.

CQ is destined to be a requisite skill for future professionals. We need to harness it in our people, particularly our undergraduates.

Singapore, being a multicultural society, is well positioned for this and can ensure that cultural intelligence gives Singaporeans a competitive edge in the global world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Ameen Talib is Head of Applied Projects at the Singapore University of Social Sciences’ School of Business.

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