Ugly ex-pats and cultural intelligence

Feb 19 2014 by David Livermore Print This Article

In January, a Singapore-based British 'wealth manager', Anton Casey briefly gained global notoriety for a spectacular blend of arrogance and cultural insensitivity that kicked off when he posted a picture of his son on the MRT (Singapore's local rail system) with the caption: "Daddy where is your car and who are all these poor people?"

He later posted a picture of his son in his silver Porsche with the caption: "Normal service can resume, once I have washed the stench of public transport off me." And to cap it all, a YouTube video also emerged in which he mocked his critics saying, "I don't mean to offend anyone, don't be angry with me. Be angry with your mum and dad for raising you a wuss."

With his remarks going viral throughout the UK and Singapore media, local reaction was understandably angry. Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, described the posts as "deeply offensive". Mr Casey and his firm, Crossinvest Asia, soon parted ways, and the company issued a statement saying Casey's comments went against "our core corporate and family values that are based on trust, mutual understanding and are respectful of diversity." Within days, Mr Casey, his wife (a former Miss Singapore) and son then fled to Perth, saying that they had received death threats.

For another perspective on this unfortunate episode, I sought the opinion of another Brit based in Singapore. Philip Merry is CEO of the Global Leadership Academy and has more than 25 years experience in multi-cultural consulting, training and team facilitation.

"Having spent the last 24 years helping people understand cultural conflicts and learn to live together, I'm pretty close to the recent furore in Singapore since I too am a Brit married to a Singaporean and I've lived in Singapore for 24 years.

Was Mr Casey's behaviour reprehensible? Absolutely. Were Singaporeans correct to be upset? Absolutely. Does every culture (including Singapore) have it's share of ethnocentric and rude people? Absolutely. But this case is a prime example of the type of behaviour from expats that causes outrage to host cultures.

There are many such examples. Remember Justine Sacco, the PR executive (yes PR!) who was sacked in 2013 following the upset she caused to an entire continent with her post on Twitter 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just Kidding. I'm White!'

Let's not underestimate Anton Casey's rudeness. This was not something said in the heat of a discussion, it was not a mistake made while in the middle of a sales pitch or while discussing an important project. This was active behaviour where he chose to post offensive statements. Singaporeans, a government minister and his employers have responded in an appropriate way. He has asked for forgiveness. Twice.

Why did his words cause such outrage? It's because this was a reminder of a colonial behaviour that many Singaporeans have experienced. And this is not just a Caucasian issue. I know countless stories of other cultures insulting Singaporeans in subtle and not so subtle ways, like when patronizing foreigners tell Singaporeans "Your English is sooooo good".

To me this is a prime example of the need for enhanced cultural intelligence for Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike. Although it may upset some Singaporeans to hear, let's not imagine that Singaporeans don't also insult other cultures when they venture abroad. I have worked with many regional cultures that complain about the "ugly Singaporean".

Diversity programs can involve learning the facts and figures about a country, but the cultural intelligence I'm talking about is not just awareness of other cultures, because "awareness" alone does not help with face-to-face interactions.

Understanding that your new culture is "collectivist" satisfies the brain but does not help with day-to-day behaviour - and it is behaviour that needs to change. We need to go beyond cultural awareness - it is our Cultural Intelligence that needs to be developed.

So what could the four cultural intelligence capabilities coined by the research of the Cultural Intelligence Center in the U.S. and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University tell us about Mr Casey? I'd suggest that it's likely that he had some understanding of Singaporean culture (CQ Knowledge) but probably had very low CQ Drive, Strategy or Action.

So is it possible for him to develop the other three skills? Without knowing him this is impossible to answer because it all comes down to whether he has the desire to do so. All I know is that when somebody has offended the host culture in such a dramatic way, it is best that the organisation employing him reconsiders before that person does any more damage.

In a world where we all are working face-to-face or online with people from different cultures, CQ can be the difference between success and failure for global leaders, global teams, communities and countries. We must recognize that whether we are expats or locals enjoying life in this beautiful, prosperous island, we need to recognize that we are ALL guilty of making cross-cultural mistakes with foreigners or with our fellow citizens. These lessons also apply wherever you work in the world.

Cultural "awareness" is not enough if we are to live as a true harmonious family in this multi-cultural island. What is needed is behavioural change. What is needed are active cultural intelligence skills. What is needed is cultural intelligence."

Today, companies such as Coca-Cola, Novartis, Google are among those who are using CQ to select and support those who go on global assignments. by assessing CQ before the assignment, providing coaching to the individual and his/her partner and family, and creating an action plan.

And the most culturally intelligent companies also prepare the expat for re-entry back home and draw upon the individual's insights from the overseas experiences. A number of companies are waking up to the fact that cultural intelligence is more than just a "nice-to-have" but is often the difference between relocation success and failure.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.