The study began by defining values, and through literature review highlighted that corporate leaders – through their own values held – play a large part, if not a key role in moulding their organisations and establishing their organisations’ core values. Using Low (2002) thesis as a foundational resource and data where twelve key Singaporean values were uncovered, this further research study, through the use of questionnaire survey-cum-interviews, examined the most important value(s) held by...
Referenced as: Low Kim Cheng Patrick (2005) Towards a Framework & Typologies of
Singapore Corporate Cultures Management Development Journal of Singapore, Vol. 13,
No. 1, May 2005, p. 46 - 75.
Towards a Framework and Typologies of
the Singapore Corporate Cultures
Professor Patrick Low Kim Cheng, Ph.D. (South Australia) & Chartered Marketer
Professor of Management & Marketing, the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics &
Strategic Research (KIMEP); and formerly an Associate Lecturer of Human Resources
Management and Organisational Behaviour
Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS)
About the Author:
Patrick Low Kim Cheng, Ph.D. (South Australia), M.Bus. (Curtin), Dip M (U.K.),
GDPM, GDMF (MIS/Standard Chartered Bank Gold Award), BA. He teaches Small
Business Management, Managing People and Entrepreneurship at the Kazakhstan
Institute of Management, Economics & Strategic Research (KIMEP) and formerly,
Assoc. Prof. Low is an associate lecturer of MDIS. A Chartered Marketer and Chartered
Consultant, Patrick Low is also the author of 4 books: best-sellers The Power of
Relationships (2001) and Strategic Customer Management, (2000, 2002), his third book
is Team Success (2003); and his fourth book, co-written with Daniel Theyagu, Ph.D., is
Developing True Leadership Potential (2003). He has on an ad hoc basis lectured and
tutored for the Universities of London, Murdoch and Monash (Australia) as well as the
Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore.
The Management Development Journal of Singapore
Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS)
The study began by defining values, and through literature review highlighted
that corporate leaders ? through their own values held ? play a large part, if not a
key role in moulding their organisations and establishing their organisations?
core values. Using Low (2002) thesis as a foundational resource and data where
twelve key Singaporean values were uncovered, this further research study,
through the use of questionnaire survey-cum-interviews, examined the most
important value(s) held by Singapore?s corporate leaders when running their
Singapore companies. From here, a framework with local analogies or
metaphors, are drawn. The results suggest that a pattern can be extrapolated to
describe the various Singapore corporate cultures in existence, and implications
of findings for corporate leaders are also discussed.
Towards a Framework and Typologies of
the Singapore Corporate Cultures
Low Kim Cheng, Patrick (2005) Towards a Framework & Typologies of Singapore Corporate Cultures
Management Development Journal of Singapore, Vol. 13, No. 1, May 2005, p. 46 - 75.
The study began by defining values, and through literature review highlighted that corporate
leaders ? through their own values held ? play a large part, if not a key role in moulding their
organisations and establishing their organisations? core values. Using Low (2002) thesis as a
foundational resource and data where twelve key Singaporean values were uncovered, this
further research study, through the use of questionnaire survey-cum-interviews, examined the
most important value(s) held by Singapore?s corporate leaders when running their Singapore
companies. From here, a framework with local analogies or metaphors, are drawn. The results
suggest that a pattern can be extrapolated to describe the various Singapore corporate cultures
in existence, and implications of findings for corporate leaders are also discussed.
Values are the core beliefs, ideas and things people care and believe most. Values are
people s or organisation s priorities; they also pr ovide purpose and a sense of direction,
setting the standards and giving us a sense of right and wrong. And in fact, it can be said
that values are derived from the founders and leaders (Borromeo, 1996: 51, Sithi-
Amnuai, 1996). In fact, both political and corporate leaders play a part in moulding
organisation and establishing values and beliefs (Horton, 1999: 32; Borromeo, 1996;
Sithi-Amnuai, 1996). Just as pure springs make for clean rivers (Kim, 1994: 145),
leaders values make for the organisation s culture . Birch (1993) claims:
Singapore constructs itself as modern by relying on establishing a set of
shared, i.e. collective, values and ideals. Its politicians, therefore, are also its
(Birch, 1993: 76)
The perceptions and views of Singapore leaders, political and corporate, are seen to be
critical, since they serve as the visible personification of the types of behaviour likely to
find support in Singapore. According to Graves (1986: 122 123) and Sithi-Amnuai
(1996) leaders are perceived as culture givers and givers of meaning. Thus, when a
company operates in Singapore, it is affected by what Maurice (1979) calls the societal
effect of the Singapore culture.
Leaders are Principal Formers of Their Organisation s Culture
To understand a particular culture within nations and organisations, it is helpful to look at
its founders and its present office bearers of business organisations. Founders are often
regarded as the principal formers of their organisation s culture (Schein, 1983; Selznick,
Though Martin, Sitkin and Boehm (1985) appear to be scathing about the seductive
promise that founders can create a culture, cast in the founder s own image and reflecting
his or her own values, priorities, and vision of the future, it is a strongly held belief. A
founder s own perspective can be transformed into a shared legacy that will survive death
or departure from the institution a personal form of organisational immortality
(Martin, Sitkin & Boehm, 1985: 99). Organisations founders or corporate leaders are
indeed significant individuals in their organisati ons (Jackson, 1993: 150). Parson s
1998 study supports this; a strong inference exists in his findings that managerial values
were central to the formation of the organisation s philosophy (Ashkanasy et al, 2000).
The leaders underlying values influence the staff s likes and dislikes, the way they carry
out their duties and responsibilities as well as the work place process and behaviour
Schein (1985, 1990) also invokes psychological theories of the psycho-dynamic make-up
of leaders, when he states that organisations begi n to create cultures through the actions
of founders (Schein, 1985, 1990: 221).
Davis (1984: 8) concurs, in his statement that the leader is the fountainhead of culture.
In Asia, the saying the tail trails the head has the same meaning. One Singapore
corporate leader, Lien observes: We Chinese always say: When a tiger dies, he leaves
his skin; a man dies, he leaves only his name. (Li en & Kraar, 1994: 82).
The leader is the fountainhead whether that individual is:
the entrepreneur-founder who first lays out the g uiding beliefs or the current
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who has been given the right to reinterpret the
guiding beliefs and state new ones. If the leader is a great person, then inspiring
ideas will permeate the corporation s culture str ong beliefs make for strong
cultures. The clearer the leader is about what he stands for, the more apparent will
be the culture of that company. Whether strong and clear or not, the individual at
the top of the organisation is the one who will set and, if necessary, re-set the
(Davis, 1984: 8)
Entrepreneur-founders have been described as heroes or champions. Deal and Kennedy
(1982: 39 41, 1988) depict such heroes as reinforci ng the basic values of a culture by
making desired behaviour attainable and human, by providing role models, being a
symbol to the outside world and by preserving what makes the organisation special or
unique and above all setting the standards for performance.
CEOs, through their role-modelling and setting of good examples, influence the ways
things are done (Daft, 2001; Low, 2001; Low, 2000; Sithi-Amnuai, 1996; Matsushita,
1991). If the stick is crooked, the shadow cannot be straight. (Low, 2000: 139); the
leaders action runs deeper than words (Sithi-Amn uai, 1996: 36; Kuczmarski and
Kuczmarski, 1995). Whittle states:
the chief executive affects how people think, wor k and act on the job. As the
twig is bent, so grows the tree If the CEO likes a clean desk, executives all keep
their desks clean. If the CEO has an outward aggressive personality, and supports
marketing, the entire bank (company) supports marketing. If the CEO is a bean-
counting cruncher, this influence filters down to the branch managers who emulate
this particular management style.
(Whittle, 1987: 4)
As the Chinese saying goes, with wisdom and gentle ness, even the most powerful force
can be subdued (Wang, 1993: 94). Corporate leaders reinforce the basic organisational
In his doctorate thesis, the researcher conducted a survey of 32 Singapore companies, all
Singapore co-operatives. They play a significant role in the local economy (Tan,
1994: 11) and are considered as a social instrument for the rapid development of the
country and its people (David, 1975: 8). Singapore co-operatives are fully competitive
with private enterprise, do not get special treatment from the Government (and) their
differentiating factor is that ownership is restricted to local people (Low, 2002: 150).
Singaporeans wholly own these companies through Singaporeans memberships; and
hence, they can be duly classified as Singapore companies (Low, 2002), reflecting a
Singapore brand of corporate culture and core values. The thesis investigated the
characteristic cultural traits of the typical Singapore Company through survey
questionnaire-cum-interviews. A model of the Singapore national culture was then
identified and analysed; certain unique Singaporean cultural values were reaffirmed
(Low, 2002; also see footnote 1).
In Low s (2002) research, with the use and help of the literature review [e.g. Lowe, 2000;
Chang and Wong, 1998; Trompenaars, 1994, the Chinese Values Survey (CVS) (The
Chinese Cultural Connection, 1987); Hofstede, 1980, 1991; List of Values (LOV) (Kahle,
1983) and Rokeach s Values Survey (Rokeach, 1973)], four focus groups of five
experienced human resource practitioners and corporate leaders, providing background
information (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990:15; Single ton , Jr. & Straits, 2002) such as
common sayings and personal experiences, identified and validated a list of the national
values commonly held by Singaporeans. From this list, a pilot test was conducted, and
the list was then further verified by the focus groups. After the test, the pilot respondents
minor adjustments were made of the list and survey questions; confirmations were also
received from the pilot respondents that the survey questions did seek their views on the
various Singaporean values, and what and how these values affected their companies.
Low (2002) then validated these value assessments of the twelve values against a panel of
two independent assessors (and agreement from his two supervisors). A survey
questionnaire and guided interviews were then used to explore the values of Singapore
co-operatives to discover what distinguishes Singapore companies from other foreign
companies there, and what socio-cultural determinants and Singaporean values contribute
to the success of, or work against, the Singapore companies. In the process, Low, 2002
uncovered Singapore companies subscribing to 12 Singaporean values and these key
Table 1: The 12 Singaporean Values
1 Human Capital
3 Sense of unity
6 Globalisation and networking
7 Continuous effort and being resilient
8 Governmental support and involvement
12 Participation of women
(Source: Low, 2002; see Footnote 2).
Objective of the Study
While considerable amount of literature on the patterns of corporate cultures that exist in
the West (for example, Trompenaars, 1994; Handy, 1979), there is a limited amount of
research focusing on this issue in the context of Asia in general and Singapore in
particular to date. Therefore this study attempts to fill this void.
In his research, Low (2002) cites the twelve Singaporean values and these values are then
cited and used to examine the key value(s) that prevail among these Singapore companies
as held by their corporate leaders, and if so, to survey what various types of Singapore
corporate cultures that may exist. The primary objective of this further study is to
determine whether surveying these top values held by the corporate leaders can present a
pattern of values or any clusters of similar core beliefs. Thus, the researcher asked the
most obvious question, and that is What is the mos t important value (or values) of the
Singaporean managers when running their companies? And are these priority values of
the leaders picked from the 12 Singaporean values (Low, 2002) or otherwise?
Low (2002) thesis served as the foundational source of data with the twelve Singaporean
values extracted for this further study. Data for this further research were collected using
questionnaire survey-cum-interviews. Respondents consisted of co-operative leaders of
Singapore co-operatives of all categories and industrial types, i.e. Campus, NTUC,
Industrial services and Credit sectors.
The survey-cum-interviews were administered. 32 out of a total of 66 Singapore
co-operatives leaders participated and the response rate of 48.48% obtained. The survey-
cum-interviews were conducted from September 1999 to the end of April 2000. To
increase the reliability and objectivity of the study, the researcher also checked and
validated these responses-cum-assessments against an independent assessor, a Ph.D.
candidate contracted by the researcher. Metaphors were also suggested since they are
believed to enrich the cultural descriptions (Ortony, 1979). They can be used to illustrate a
pattern or a theme, and Gannon (1994, 1993) has used them to describe cultures.
During the survey-interviews, scales of 1 (least agreeable to the value cited) to 10 (most
agreeable to the value cited) were used and the most important value answers from the
respondents were recorded. Their responses were then collated and tabulated; the
corporate leaders endorsements were summarised as follows:
Table 2: The most important value endorsed
The most important value endorsed Number and percentage (%) of
(Here, respondents cited as top value on a scale of 9 /10 respondents who agreed
out of total 10)
1 Being viable/ concerned with the bottom-line 8 25
2 Achieving social objectives
(No. 2 matched with the values of the
co-operatives Low, 2002) 6 18.75
3 Going modern/ professionalism and technology 6 18.75
4 Having close relationships/ all in the family
situation 4 12.5
5 Valuing political stability with a sense of unity
(No. 5 matched with the combined values of
Governmental support and involvement, and
sense of unity, two of the 12 identified
Singaporean values Low, 2002) 3 9.375
6 Being a role-model 3 9.375
7 Going global with diversified interests
(No. 7 matched with the value of globalisation and
networking, one of the 12 identified Singaporean
values Low, 2002) 2 6.25
8 Being bureaucratic
(No. 8 matched with the overall Confucian
Heritage of the Singapore national culture Low,
2002), the respondents referred to the various
procedures or bureaucratic practices that 3 9.375
Possible Limitations and Caveats
In analysing these data, the researcher compares the above list with that of the original 12
Singaporean values surveyed (Low, 2002). Interestingly enough, few of them chose from
the above original list of 12 Singaporean values but, instead, they suggested alternative
values. At this point, the researcher will highlight the possible limitations, being aware of
the possible limitations from the outset of the research.
One possible explanation is that the original list asked for core values but respondents
were replying in terms of activities. They were thinking more of their operational
activities and urgencies. Similar to Khong s (1993: 39) research where the SMEs were
more concerned with their daily operations , the pr esent study s examples include the
fact that eight respondents (25%) spoke of their need to ensure the bottom-line and
profits. Six other respondents (18.75%) spoke of going modern, being professional and
tapping the benefits of technology.
Another possible explanation for the respondents citing their own alternative values, as
important values could be this researcher s choice of words in the survey-interviews.
Perhaps, this researcher s choice of words may not be appropriate; the respondents were
endorsing similar items but were using different terms. For example, they were endorsing
the value of globalisation and networking but were referring to going global with
diversified interests. And when they were endorsing the value of Governmental support
and involvement, they were referring to political stability with a sense of unity.
Additionally, another possible reason why the respondents selected values outside the list
of original 12 values could be that they were thinking of their leadership or organisational
image and even the glamour , and that they wanted to be seen in the right light as
serving their members or stakeholders interests. Hence, the citing of profits, being a role
model or fulfilling the social objectives and responsibilities was the most important value
that influenced them. Nonetheless, even if these were not actually the case, these were
values that affected them and were rightly pointed out by them.
Another possible explanation for the respondents selecting values outside the list of the
original 12 values, particularly the social objective value, could be that the respondents
might be thinking of the raison d ?tre or purpose of their existence, hence their selection
of this value.
Yet another explanation is that the respondents took the original 12 values as axiomatic,
considering them as their accepted Singaporean values; and thus, their most important
value might or might not come from the 12 original values. If the most important value
came from one of the 12 original values, then it only reinforces the proposed Singapore s
Confucian heritage cultural model. If, on the other hand, the most important value came
from outside the 12 original values, then it only speaks of the organisation s special
circumstances and concerns. For example, corporate leaders selecting the value of social
objectives may possibly be thinking of their co-operatives own mission, objectives and
Granted the latter explanation is true and given the fact that the co-operative leaders were
rightly voicing their most important values as to what they perceived and interpreted as
their priority value in running their organisations (what they want to be practised), the
corporate cultures that emerged are next assessed. Note that an independent assessor also
further verified the respondents answers and the labels of each corporate cultural type
are then given. Each corporate cultural type with its implications is now discussed.
Analysis and Discussion
1 The organisations that value profits (profit or the mee-pok
man/ street noodle seller culture)
Majority of respondents (8 or 25%) indicated that they were more conscious of their
bottom-line with perhaps the strong need to be resilient and survive. One co-operative
leader from the industrial services sector highlighted the typical view of organisations
that value profits:
as far as I m concerned, I am not really bothered with whatever (Singaporean)
values, we run the company as a profit centre. We have no choice. And run the
business as best that we could. Like any other business, profits matter most of all.
At the end of the day, we must satisfy our shareholders.
Also reflecting the profits matter , another respo ndent, one from the Campus sector
First (1st.) in the ranking, the most important factor: we encourage thrift and
savings amongst our students as much as we try to source out cheap to effect
whatever savings in line with our coop s objectiv es ( and make money).
So, in what way is profit matter linked to the Mee-pok Man? How does this researcher
derive the Mee-pok man analogy? The Mee-pok Man is seen as a hardy seller of a popular
Singaporean fast food a cheap fish-ball flat-nood le dish much liked by Singaporeans
(see Footnote 3). Here, the Mee-pok Man, the hardy seller is seen as analogous to the
resilience value, a certain can-do spirit (Chua, 2003: H13) that is identified as one of
the underlying twelve Singaporean values (Low: 2002).
Such a Mee-pok Man culture is also reflected in Lee and Sheh s (1994) study where the
results proved that the human-relations approach and business orientation are most
important. Consistent with earlier findings which indicated that the Chinese mind being
pragmatic and devoted to seeking profit (Zhang, 1999), the majority also demonstrated
the need for thriftiness. Indeed, in such a culture, profits are ploughed back and being
frugal is a virtue. Thrift involves the use of limited resources material, capital and
human resources (in line with the island Republic s limited resources that has impacted
on its culture; Low, 2002) and this results in improving productivity and overall
profitability (Sheh, 2001). Being thrifty helps to prosper, if not survive (Mulchand &
Fong, 2004). Besides, the leaders persevere, working hard (Sheh, 2001; Robertson, 2000;
Yeung & Tung, 1996) and exercising endurance, particularly at the early inception of the
business where existence and survival are the key objectives. The existence of this culture
as discussed very much supports the prevalence of the Singapore s Confucian heritage
national culture (Low, 2002) although other writers have challenged such a notion.
One implication of companies with an organisations that value profits culture is that
they can be niche players, making full use of their resources as well as being thrifty and
having a certain resilience, and can better survive in competitive environments.
2 The organisations driven by social objectives (co-operative
The 6 co-operative leaders or 18.75% voiced the social objective imperatives. One co-
operative leader from the credit sector reported that We look after members interests;
members interests come first. Another respondent (Industrial services) spoke of:
First - our social objectives are central. I m here to help them. We re here to help
them. These are ex-convicts, and former drug addicts. They do find difficulties in
getting employment and we are here to assist them getting jobs, be useful people,
and re-integrate into society.
It is heartening to note that the co-operative s social objectives were pursued; these
organisations sought to satisfy their members needs, especially in the presence of
economic hard times. The findings are supported by Foo s (1996) study that the
co-operatives have achieved their objectives, including the fact that NTUC co-operatives
have also contributed to the Singapore Labour Foundation (SLF), improving the workers
welfare, and furthering the development of the trade union movement in Singapore.
Besides, the NTUC co-operatives were created to enable workers to acquire assets and
thus give them a greater stake in the economy (Campos & Root, 1996: 71). The
metaphor, organisations driven by social objective s can thus be interpreted to reflect
very much the Confucian value of helping others and paying back to the community.
NTUC Fairprice, one of the leading super-marts, unlike its profit-driven competitors, has
cut prices on 400 items and would do so for other items too. NTUC Fairprice has a social
obligation, helping workers pull through the economic hard times and redistributing the
profits to society (Osman, 2001; Soh, 2001; Ee, 2001; 2001a).
Call was also made for more co-operatives to care for the elderly, with NTUC Eldercare
opening day-care operations and heavily subsidising its operations to keep the rates
within the means of the working class (Ee, 2001a: 228 229).
As a Confucian value, the leaders serve as guardians and providers of their people s
welfare. Though some may dismiss this as mere patronage, nonetheless, it can be argued
that this is Confucian in nature. Confucian teachings stress benevolence and compassion
and, as a corollary, a successful and good person is one who is also benevolent and
compassionate to sufferings and deprived fellows (Sheh, 2001; Scarborough, 1998; Chan
& Chiang, 1994: 292). The leaders then help others less fortunate or pay to the society
what has been taken from it. The existence of such a co-operative culture reinforces
Singapore s revamped Confucian cultural model earlier identified in Low s (2002) study.
The implications of such a culture are that these co-operatives help ordinary people to be
company shareholders, while closing the ranks between the rich and the poor they
help promote egalitarianism.
3 The organisations that value going modern (modernising / the
bum-boat owner culture)
6 corporate leaders highlighted this view with one of them, voicing that:
Nowadays, even Singapore family-run companies alt hough the key positions are
held by family members and power are kept from outsiders adopt a more
professional management style. They use technology or the services of top
management consultants to advise and organise their companies.
Indeed, it is not surprising that the go-modern business owner/ bu m-boat owner culture
prevails in the Singapore corporate scene. The existence of Singapore companies,
especially small Chinese companies under the strong pressure of a modernising
environment, cannot be denied. They have to upgrade their present level of technology
and management know-how so as to compete locally, regionally and internationally as
evidenced in Lee s (1996) study as well as in Long (2004).
The existence of such a culture is further supported by the 2000 year-end joint study
researched by the National University of Singapore s Centre for Business Research and
Development (CBRD) and the Singapore Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry
(SCCCI). Though the Chinese companies subscribed to IT, e-mail and the setting up of
web-sites, they faced modernisation issues such as needing more knowledge and
information of Governmental assistance as well as tapping into the various Government s
assistance schemes (SCCI-NUS, 2001).
Though Singapore businesses placed great value on new technology adoption (Menkhoff
& Loh, 2002), many of them especially small Chine se ones need to emphasise
technology and advancement (Long, 2004; Chan & Chiang, 1994: 272, 350, 357; Siew,
1987). Singaporean business owners should bring innovation and change into their
organisations, with professional management replacing the family entrepreneurs (Bjerke,
1999: 146; SyCip, 1995: 21). Recently, a newspaper columnist Leong (2003: 33) in fact
reported the growth of a family-owned company through modernisation and the hiring of
professional managers, particularly YHI; other such Singapore companies include
Breadtalk, which makes buns, and Qian Hu, which rears ornamental fish and Osim,
which sells massage chairs. One modernising, happy family group s corporate leader
admitted, at the end of the day, what is important is that the bank (company) must be
professionally managed (Koh, 2003: A14).
Nevertheless, it is believed that Chinese businesses are faced with dilemmas to retain
traditional Chinese management (human-centredness, family-centredness, centralisation
of power and small size) or adopt the knowledge needed for the modern economy (Lee,
1996). Different perspectives are held by the two generations on how to run the
organisation (especially when children of first-generation leaders/founders in Chinese
organisations have received a Western education) (Lee, 1996; Siew, 1987).
This label has been used because like the bum-boat that is a motorised sampan, the
organisations that value going modern apply technology to reap its benefits while
adopting a professional approach. In the past, bum-boats were very commonly found in
the Singapore River and they were used for loading or unloading goods from ships
berthed at the Singapore Harbour s Outer Roads). The Bum-boat Owner corporate culture
is characteristically unique in that it includes certain enlightened management practices.
One implication of this organisations that value g oing modern corporate culture is that
of the challenge of continuing the traditional values of familial-like relationships, or
facing expansion while embracing modernisation. Yet another implication is the
challenge of integrating the values of both the first and second-generation leaders.
4 The organisations that value family relationships (sole
proprietor/ towkay and family culture)
It can be interpreted that in Singapore, within organisations that value family
relationships, the situation is very much the same as what one respondent (from the
Credit sector) expressed:
Creating that sense of belonging is very important to us, we want to create that
sense of family. We want to also increase the rapport among our members. We
are to help each other.
I also believe in relationship-building networkin g. When you re small and you
network, you can build your contacts, business and last.
Another respondent (Campus) opined that:
We re a unique in many ways; we stress more on building relationships. In this
small business, we want the students to build their friendships with each other.
We also want to emphasise the togetherness among our students.
Here, such corporate cultural traits can be assessed as applicable to the sole proprietor or
small-family Singapore companies. Indeed, there exist pockets of Chinese family
businesses in Singapore where the emphasis is on family (Sheh, 2001: 75-83). The
Towkay corporate culture can be construed as the typical family or closely-knit business
a la Phua Chu Kang (PCK), a popular local Television of Singapore (TCS) s sitcom
featuring the on-goings in Singapore s favourite A h Beng (backwoods or country
bumpkin boy) contractor. Phua Chu Kang s wife, Rosie and Architect brother, Phua Chu
Beng are both roped in to help in Chu Kang s business. The Chinese Towkay is a closely-
knit all-in-the-family type of corporate culture where every members, their relatives,
friends and relationships count. Relationships matter most.
Towkay or Boss-centred (the analogy used by Sheh, 1995: 28), the proprietor or
business leader, runs the show, providing the knowledge and expertise with good
relationships with his people (Sheh, 2001; Ng & Ng, 1996: 368; Sheh, 1995; Chen, 1991,
Siew, 1987; Yao, 1987). Chinese-owner managers take their meals with their employees
at a round table. Knowledge, information and experience are transmitted through this
informal gathering (SyCip, 1995: 21). This family culture, the analogy used by
Trompenaars (1994), appears foreign to most in the United States conversations are
more important than research questionnaires and subjective data are superior to objective
data (Hodgetts & Luthans, 1997: 163). In fact, there is a tendency to use more saliva
than tea (Low, 2001). Talking means that the leade rs ears are on the ground and that
they keep themselves aware of the environment in which they are operating.
Cultivating personal relationships (Guan Xi) is stressed (Yeung & Tung, 1996; Montagu-
Pollock, 1991; Siew, 1987; Yao, 1987). Superiors show concern openly but not criticism
(Yao, 1987). This lends support to Lee s (1996) and Siew s (1987) studies where family
or familial relationships play a critical role in the organisation (Bjerke, 1999: 153, Sheh,
In such a corporate culture, the business is run based on good relationships and
employees are not only being treated like all in the family situation, but they also view
their organisations as traditional families (Sheh, 2001; Adler, 1997: 52; Lee, 1996; Siew,
1987, Chong, 1987). Reflecting the Singapore s Confucian heritage cultural model , the
corporate leaders or managers, like benevolent fathers, use more saliva than drinking tea
meaning talking, coaching and taking personal int erest in the employees welfare.
Informality and intimacy exists with everyone und ertaking a variety of activities to
meet daily performance demands (Low, 2001: 98 99; N g & Ng, 1996; Chan & Chiang,
1994: 55 56; Lasserre & Schutte, 1995: 105; Bond, 1 991; Siew, 1987).
One implication is that in such a culture, seniority and good conduct of behaviour such as
reliability and trustworthiness are stressed.
In fact, both these organisations ( organisations t hat value family relationships ) as well
as organisations that value going modern ( see 3) have its implications for Singapore
and the rest of Asia where overseas Chinese family businesses prevail and where they are
affected by the winds of change and modernisation. One such implication of the sole
proprietor or the organisations that value family relationships culture is that, as the
company expands, it will evolve into the organisat ions that value going modern culture
(see 3), embracing values of modernisation such as valuing technology such as e-
commerce and others.
5 The organisations that value political stability (stability or the
orchid shirt and national dress culture)
For this category of companies, national stability and the Government s help are stressed.
These companies, being nurtured in such a politically stable environment, grow and
expand. Order and stability were found to be much valued in Confucian societies
(Robertson, 2000; Yao, 2000). Singapore, in particular, has long had a reputation for
being intolerant of corruption and for having one of the more efficient, no-nonsense
regulatory systems in Asia (PERC, 2003: 14).
True, all SMEs or for that matter, businesses in Singapore value political stability but in
such a culture, that political stability value is stressed, and in such a culture, the role of
the Singapore Government is emphasised and evidenced as a priority value. A typical
view expressed by the corporate leaders in such organisations goes as follows:
First in the ranking? The most important factor we value political stability. The
government provides the systems, the roads and all the necessary infrastructure.
With political stability and unity within the company, we can work together to
grow the company.
Strongly reflecting the Government component of the underlying Singapore cultural
model earlier mentioned, this notion of organisati ons that value political stability
corporate culture is further supported by Lee s (2001) research of larger companies and
SMEs in Singapore. These companies have normally expanded and grown through
Government incentives, financial assistance schemes as well as support, and form a
seabed of future Singapore MNCs.
Interestingly, it should be noted that in Singapore, the Orchid-shirt is a noted national
costume, it can be a dress, a lady s blouse or a man s shirt with printed or batik orchid
motifs. The Singapore Government has been encouraging the use of this national orchid
wear, among Singaporeans particularly when attending official functions abroad; hence,
the name for such a corporate culture. The Orchid-shirt (national dress) wearer corporate
culture exists in Singapore companies have distinctive emphasis on political stability,
being dependent on that governmental factor for growth.
There is no denial that there is Singapore companies that prosper and want to play it safe.
They have enjoyed Singapore s political stability, its social cohesion and whatever
products of good government such as an efficient and effective civil service. Unlike its
neighbouring countries, particularly Indonesia that suffered from much social disorder,
politically safe and financially prudent Singapore has been highlighted as a good place to
do business, especially evident during the Asian Economic Crisis. This Orchid shirt-
wearer corporate culture would include Singapore s banks, fund management and
insurance/ credit companies. These companies traditionally, over the years, benefit from a
well-ordered city, the Singapore Government s smooth successions, the efficient and
effective Civil Service, the tripartite arrangements, provision of good roads, infra-
structure and communications systems; things that are doubly hard to let go. The efficient
and effective Civil Service s influence on Singapore enterprises can be linked to political
stability, one of the Singapore values concurrently identified in Low s (2002) study.
An implication of this culture is that success breeds success, as there is special emphasis
on the winners (Lee, 2001; Doh, 1996) by being identified as the Enterprise 50
companies and being able to utilise Government initiatives such as the Local Industry
Upgrading Programme (LIUP) and others (Lee, 2001). The Government lends much
support to innovative local start-ups and companies that have critical mass, commitment,
capacity and capability to innovate and grow (EDB, 1989). Another implication is that a
need exists for the Government to put more emphasis on developing other SMEs,
alongside the development of this organisations th at value political stability corporate
culture. Otherwise, a lop-sided economy may emerg e, one that is heavily dependent on
government s initiatives, and GLCs with the latter growing bigger while emasculating the
SMEs with the passing time.
6 The organisations that value being role model (role model or
school teacher culture)
In organisations that value role model, one respondent said that:
Things central to whatever we do is that of being the role model, and as Catholics,
we want to spread the message of love and charity. We want to learn and teach
love. That s the very reason of our formation and existence.
And another respondent (Industrial services) further indicated that his co-operative is:
(to provide) Contoh , a role model in which a grou p of people (Malay/ Muslim
taxi-drivers) come and work together for our mutual benefits. Besides, it s to raise
our honour and good names.
We also want to run our co-op professionally.
Corporate leaders and managers should present the image of a mighty leader in a way,
leaders need to set the example, and be trusted by counterparts and employees; this is
similar to Chen s (1991) study or, as in Yao s (198 7) study, paternalistic leadership is
fostered (Bond, 1991: 71).
Like the benevolent father, the Singapore Government has intended that the GLCs lead
the way in becoming world class. For certain industries, GLCs such as POS Bank and
DBS were leading because of the pioneering nature of the industries (Tan, 1975: 93).
Operat(ing) in a vast array of sectors with the single-minded quest for efficiency , the
GLCs playing the leading role , plot and spearhea d economic moves (Shameen &
Reyes, 2000: 43). This organisations that value be ing role model culture reinforces the
Confucian heritage cultural model discussed in Section 6.1. The teacher or the role
model in the Confucian sense is respected, commanding the same respect as is due to
one s father and elders and are, in fact, the primary source of guidance (Scarborough,
1998: 23; Bond, 1991: 29).
The Singapore Government has, in fact, reinforced this teacher or role model corporate
culture. Both POS and DBS Banks were set up by the Singapore Government to serve as
role-models or lead the local banks in embracing hi-tech and updating their IT
processes, more so during the first twenty years after Singapore s independence. And it
can be argued that during the Asian economic crisis 1997 1999 when the Government
was emphasising that big or corporate size matters, DBS Bank led in the acquisition or
the merger with POS Bank in 1998. DBS Bank also went shopping, buying into
Philippines bank, paying a total S$1.2 billion, a near 20 per cent stake in Bank of
Philippine Islands, which is poised to be that country s largest bank (Velloor, 1999: 1).
And DBS thus sets the example when Singapore s local banks were told that they needed
to consolidate, merge or follow-suit to be stronger and competitive.
An implication of the organisations that value bei ng role model culture is that even
when it comes to investing abroad and spreading Singapore s external wings, the
cosmopolitan GLCs encourage and set the example for other Singapore companies to
7 The organisations that value going global (going-global or the
Singapore Symphony Orchestra: SSO culture)
Two larger co-operatives (that have the necessary resources and means to go abroad) out
of the 32 corporate leaders interviewed perceived going global, growing into a Singapore
MNC, as the most important value they espouse. Here, one interviewee highlighted:
The most important value? Going regional? JTC has a JTC International. We ve
our dreams or vision (too) . Of course, we want qu ality , being the best and
wanting to achieve growth . We ve to be efficient and effective. Going regional
we like to going regional is an opportunity, to gr ow bigger, reaping the
economies of scale but very frankly, we must get i t right first. We need talents,
diverse talents and resources.
Perhaps, technology and globalisation will spur growth. We need to network to
strengthen our business.
And staff training and development is another key factor.
And another NTUC co-operative interviewee added that:
We are and will be building our global contacts and network. We ll train, equip
ourselves. We want, have the resources to go regional. We have previously tried
it. We ll go in, expand at the right time. We ll go overseas when right
opportunities prevail. And if so, our venturing overseas will be profit maximising.
Why then the SSO label? Such organisations normally seek to go global, embracing or
enjoy(ing) technology , and building contacts and networks as well as resources and
talents. Usually big, they have the necessary resources and diverse talents to build up
their diversified business interests.
Like the SSO international in composition, of div erse talents and Singapore s largest
professional artistic body aspiring to be a world-class orchestra, Singapore companies
with such a corporate culture are multinational, usually fairly big companies and banks
with several overseas branches (or at least has the potentials to be as such). Here, access
to global talents (is) critical for Singapore banks and the best in the world will help the
industry set itself up as entrance to the regional economies ( The Straits Times, 2 Feb
2000, p. 45). And they too aspire to be world-class. They can also grow by leveraging
knowledge and other capabilities in multiple locations, rather just at home (Williamson,
Yes Dos & Santos, 2001 cited in Khanna, 2004).
Singapore as a global city is acting as key basing points for the expanding corporate
Singapore (Yeung, 2000). Increasingly, Singapore companies are becoming more and
more international with such a cultural orientation. The empirical support of the existence
of such a culture also comes from Low s (1994) study of Singapore s MNCs and the
Ministry of Finance (1993).
Additionally, such organisations with the SSO culture ordinarily bear valued brand names
(such as Tiger Balm, Yeo s , Anchor, Tiger) and valuing technology, such typical
companies include those awarded with incentives or supported by Government bodies
such as the Trade Development Board (TDB), to go overseas (Trade Winds Industry
Weekly, 1996). They usually also employ foreign talents or have a diversity of people
within their ranks and file. Here again, the presence of such a culture reinforces the
presence of the benevolent father, the Government as in the Singapore s Confucian
heritage cultural model (Low, 2002). The Government through its various agencies such
as EDB plays an active role almost like a partner in helping Singapore companies
One implication of such a culture is that its potentials and strengths of diversity and
creativity can be further tapped to expand the company.
Another implication is that in such a culture, the company resorts to global sourcing,
providing it access to lower cost raw materials and components, particularly those not
available locally as well as access to higher quality inputs such as better technologies or
more skilled workers. Global sourcing and networking equips the company too with less
reliance on a small number of possible suppliers, which reduces risks.
8 The organisations that are procedure driven (bureaucratic or
It is noteworthy that that about 3 interviewees or 9.375% from the above cultural types
indicated that there were bureaucratic issues. Thus, it would appear that although the
interviews were done with a group of co-operative leaders, the findings suggest that
another corporate cultural type that is evident in the Singapore corporate scene. One such
respondent (Industrial services) observed:
Perhaps, there are some quarters in the Singapore corporate culture that is rather
And she further added:
When we ve approached and asked for help, they would cite that they are bound
by the rules. For example, the poor is defined as having an individual income of
S$800 in order to qualify for free legal advice now this is quite unrealistic, the
people there knows yet they are quite rigid. In terms of the aged, the family s
income needs to be less than $2000 to qualify. Easily, many middle-income
Singaporeans would not have been qualified. The people there are rule-bound and
they don t want to subsidise the middle income but rather the poor. You can earn
S$1200 or slightly more yet you can be poor. They are aware of the changing
incomes/ conditions yet they fail to revise the guidelines, perhaps very
It can be inferred that such a corporate culture tends to exist in pockets of Civil Service, a
particular Ministry or Ministries that this respondent had dealings with. And this strongly
coincides with what Chua (2003: H13) has cautioned, not to be overly rule-bound
( hyper-precaution ), lack of risk-taking, tense an d over-reacting.
There are organisations that are procedure-driven or rule-bound in getting the tasks done.
Such a culture is very much like Morgan s (1986) machine or bureaucratic organisations.
Studies of bureaucratic culture has been documented in Wallach (1983 cited in
Wimalasari, 1991: 42) and Blau (1956) as having these dimensions power-oriented,
cautious, established, solid, regulated, structured and procedural. These studies are useful
as guides in identifying aspects of such cultures in Singapore.
The existence of such a bureaucratic culture in Singapore has been further substantiated
by Yeung s (2000) study. Being a developmental State, Singapore s preoccupation with
economic development must be supported by the establishment of an elite economic
bureaucracy to guide the market, as argued by Wade (1990) and Johnson (1982). A case
in point is that since 1961 the Economic Development Board (EDB) of Singapore has
been established as a one-stop investment promotion agency to assist foreign firms in
their investments, entry to and operations in Singapore.
Here, it is argued that bureaucracy is a Confucian tradition and, here again, this metaphor
reinforces the Singapore cultural model (Low, 2002). Confucian institutions embody a
hierarchical, bureaucratic structure. The paternalistic approach that governs the family is
extended to the organisations, tempered with paternalistic benevolence (Scarborough,
1998: 21; Bond, 1991).
The existence of this bureaucratic culture highlighted here is also consistent with the
personality profiles studies done among the Singaporean managers (e.g. Tan and Tan
1999; Ditzig and You, 1988). In their research, Tan and Tan (1999) cited serious ,
systematic , thoughtful , thorough and conserv ative with the likelihood to
harbour traditional orientation as the dominant t raits among Singaporean managers.
3 respondents or 9.37% made reference to this Bureaucrat or the Kathakalli Dancer
corporate culture. Why the selection of this label and its significance? To explain, the
Kathakalli is a form of classical Indian dance and one of Singapore s traditional dances.
In the modern Singaporean context, the Kathakalli has been highly stylised
( mechanical ) classical dance that emerges from it s own milieu, i.e., it is old yet elegant
and with its dramatic essence retained. Like the bureaucracy in its puritan form, the
Kathakalli dancer is a rare breed, and its numbers are also fast dwindling.
Just like not many people nowadays want to learn such traditional elaborate step-by-
step dances like the Kathakalli dance, not many corporations too want to retain much of
its elaborate bureaucratic practices. Be it as it may, the bureaucrat corporate culture
reflects organisations as machines (Morgan, 1986) ; the implied downside of such a
corporate culture is its typical less open in communication, and its more of one-way flow
of information i.e. top-down, rule-bound and proc edure-oriented with slow adaptation
to changes. Companies with such a corporate culture can be victims of mergers and
acquisitions; the Big Boys large corporations, us ing their financial muscles can easily
acquire or take over them.
On the other hand, one other implication of the or ganisations that are procedure-driven
culture is that it not only provides a source of stability, but also growth. The latter further
implies that greater effectiveness could be derived from a more centralised decision-
In summary, the above 8 Singapore corporate cultural types are shown in Table 3:
Table 3: The 8 Singapore Corporate Cultural Types
(Based on the chosen top values perceived and voted by the corporate leaders)
1 Profit or the Mee-pok Man/ Street Noodle Seller Culture values:
o Profits, thriftiness and business viability
o Being street-smart, surviving in the harsh environment and can be
quite hardy or resilience.
2 Co-operative Culture values:
o Social objectives and the needs of the community.
3 Modernising/ the Bum-boat Owner Culture values:
o Going modern and professionalism, using technology to reap the
benefits of automation and technology.
4 Sole proprietor/ Towkay and Family Culture values:
o Creating all-in-the-family , a personal and cari ng atmosphere,
building a high sense of belonging and togetherness.
5 Stability or the Orchid Shirt and National Dress Culture values:
o Political stability and the government s help and support with a
high sense of unity.
6 Role model or School Teacher Culture values:
o Being a role model.
7 Going-global or the Singapore Symphony Orchestra: SSO Culture values:
o Going global with diversified interests.
8 Bureaucratic or Kathakalli Culture values:
o Getting the tasks done; and in a way, being procedure-driven.
Singapore as a global city is acting as key basing points for the expanding corporate.
Overall, by grouping the most-important value answers from the respondents, this
research study has analysed and identified eight (8) different corporate culture typologies
that existed in the Singapore Company s corporate cultures.
It is interesting to note that metaphors are normally situations, events or circumstances
that occur in a culture that capture and clarify its essential elements. Indeed, of prime
relevance is the research study s usage of the metaphors in describing the Singapore corporate
cultures since they create a new understanding about the new objects (cultures) (Ortony, 1979).
Linking to and explaining the local metaphors used, eight (8) different Singapore corporate
cultural types are derived. Admittedly though some may argue that these cultural types
identified may appear not to be easily understood by non-Singaporeans or those who are
less exposed to Singaporean culture, Singaporeans nonetheless should be better able to
identify, relate or associate and appreciate some, if not all, of the local parallels and
Footnote 1: see Low Kim Cheng, Patrick (2002) Corporate Culture and Values:
Perception of Corporate Leaders of Co-operatives in Singapore, Unpublished Ph.D.
Thesis, the University of South Australia.
Low (2002) thesis investigated the characteristic cultural traits of the typical Singapore
company through survey questionnaire-cum-interviews. The researcher looked into the
validity and measurement of culture, specifically looking at developing a list of
commonly included dimensions or values in other empirical and theoretical publications,
as well as testing out these values and confirming with the focus groups held. Values
were compared and many studies were looked into, and among these studies reviewed,
just to name a few, included Lowe, 2000; Chang and Wong, 1998; Trompenaars, 1994,
the Chinese Values Survey (CVS) (The Chinese Cultural Connection, 1987); Hofstede,
1980, 1991; List of Values (LOV) (Kahle, 1983) and Rokeach s Values Survey
Leaders of 32 Singapore co-operatives owned by Singaporeans were then interviewed
and from the study, a model of the Singapore national culture was also identified and
analysed. Certain unique Singaporean cultural values were reaffirmed, and a process
model, using focus groups, literature reviews, pilot test and interviews, for measuring
national culture also emerged.
Footnote 2: These 12 Singaporean values were uncovered in Low (2002) s thesis. Interestingly,
Low s (2002) research has created a process model for developing an adequate
description of a national culture and values. What the study has done is to focus on a
strategy for analysing the components of a national culture as represented by the local
companies. Such a strategy in arriving at a set of values in isolating a national culture
or the model can be represented in the following stages:
1. Set up focus groups of locally relevant experts to identify an initial set of
values cherished at the national level. The use of the focus groups is a
good way of getting uninhibited opinions and views from the experts who
are prepared to talk and argue about the country s national culture and
values. Here, Blumer (1969: 41) noted the importance of group interviews
or focus groups. Focus groups comprising acute obs ervers and who are
well-informed a small number of such individuals brought together as a
discussion and resource group is more valuable many times over than any
representative sample .
In the study of culture, as in this study, focus groups are useful when it
comes to investigating what participants think, but they excel at
uncovering why participants think as they do (Morgan, 1988: 24).
2. Develop the set of core values from the universal literature.
3. Give summary of core values from literature to focus groups.
4. Focus groups revise and then establish set of national values. The
researcher then checks with a panel of independent assessors who reviews
the set of national values. Finalise conceptual framework of local national
6. Test for applicability with locally important informants.
7. Arrive at a final model of national culture.
The experts asked were experienced corporate and business leaders, because of the
peculiarities of Singapore its history and econom y. The model was then tested for
applicability since there is a synonymous match between the national culture and
business or corporate culture in Singapore. This synonymous match is primarily because
of the country s small size and lack of natural resources, and because since its birth as a
modern nation, Singapore is dependent on human capital and relies strongly on its
economy for its survival and growth.
The use of best experts in the focus groups helps; they are able to provide more accurate
evidence, very much the same as courts of law getting expert witnesses. For the model to
work, and thus be applicable, the key to finding the national culture of a particular
country lies in getting members of the focus groups who are locally relevant experts. This
is because, in certain countries, certain sectors or fields need to be emphasised since they
serve as critical inputs to the national cultures involved. For example, in Indonesia, in
finding the national culture and core values of that country, the focus groups should
consist of experts among them, the mullahs and th e ulamas (Islamic leaders and
religious teachers), and the farmers. This is because Islam is the country s key religion
(Indonesia is the world s most populous Muslim country) and the agrarian way of life
have influenced much of Indonesia s history, politics, economy, leadership, way of life
The Hofstede and Bond (1988) study, on the one hand, has come up with the dimension
of traditional Asian values (called Confucian Dynamism), a measure that is salient to
investigators of Chinese values, as other cross-cultural studies of values are based on
survey instruments developed by Western researchers. On the other hand, this research
study has mapped out a process model of using core values identified by the local
experts. The one aspect of the focus groups that is universally supported is their
employment as tools of exploration (Templeton, 1994: 138). Hence, in this way, future
researchers in their own countries could use this process model in order to audit and
identify the relevant set of core values, thereby customising the measurements of culture
in their respective country or society.
Footnote 3: Mee-pok is Singaporean as much as tom-yam (a spicy soup dish is to the Thai.
This fish-ball flat-noodle dish was very commonly sold in the back streets or the seamier
side of Singapore. There is a surprisingly strong sense of survivalism and resilience in
mee-pok stalls. The dish is at times being sold at night or in the wee hours of the morning
in notorious parts of Singapore. The Mee-pok Man s patrons include the denizens of the
night, sometimes a motley assortment of characters from the seamier side of life. Mee-
pok Man, a Singapore story has in fact been made into a feature film in 1995, gaining
much status in international film festivals and even getting awards (such as 1. Special
Mention Prize from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), 8th
Singapore International Film Festival, 2. Special Jury Prize, 9th Fukuoka Asian Film
Festival - July 1996 and 3. Special Mention from the Jury - New Currents Award
Competition - Best New Asian Director - 1st Pusan International Film Festival -
September 1996; see http://www.zhaowei.com/mpmfest.htm .
Low Kim Cheng, Patrick (2002) Corporate Culture and Values: Perception of Corporate
Leaders of Co-operatives in Singapore, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, the University of
Low Kim Cheng, Patrick (2001) The Power of Relationships: How to Boost Your
Business and Lead A Better Life, BusinesscrAFTfi Consultancy, Singapore.
Low Kim Cheng, Patrick (2000) Strategic Customer Management: Enhancing Customer
Retention and Service Recovery, BusinesscrAFT Consultancy, Singapore.
Low Kim Cheng, Patrick (1994) A Study of Singapore MNCs The Route to
Globalisation, A Master of Business (International Marketing) Project, Curtin
University of Technology, Australia, June 1994.
Note: Other references given in the original document are not indicated here other than
the author s own work.
Low Kim Cheng, Patrick (2009) Corporate Culture and Values: Perception of Corporate
Leaders of Co-operatives in Singapore. VDM-Verlag UK/ USA * ISBN-10:
3639151674/ * ISBN-13: 978-3639151671.
The author sincerely appreciates the helpful comments made by Prof Yasar Geyikdagi,
Professor Emeritus of Business, State University of New York, the Editors and the Board
of Reviewers of the Journal.
Referenced as: Low Kim Cheng Patrick (2005) Towards a Framework & Typologies of
Singapore Corporate Cultures Management Development Journal of Singapore, Vol. 13,
No. 1, May 2005, p. 46 - 75