On 28 July 1997, I stepped off Vietnam Airlines flight No VN 741 to Singapore from Ho Chi Minh City, ready to undertake my new work assignment as Chief Representative of the state-owned Bank for Foreign Trade of Vietnam (Vietcombank).
We had opened the Vietcombank Singapore Representative Office, our first in ASEAN, despite the regional crisis.
Headquartered in Hanoi, Vietcombank Singapore Office aims to help promote cooperation with its foreign correspondents in Singapore, resolve problems involving settlement of payments and make market information available to customers in Singapore and the region.
After my work stint at Vietcombank, I remained in Singapore to pursue my master’s degree programme in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS) where I had been a part-time student for two semesters.
Concomitantly, self-learning efforts earned me several professional qualifications on financial planning, insurance and investment consultancy and a position as Financial Services Adviser with Prudential Assurance Singapore in 2002.
In early 2003, I joined a Singapore-owned manufacturer of edible oils and fats as Sales Manager and travelled extensively to Malaysia, Vietnam, Russia and the Ukraine for business development and market expansion.
It was a professionally and academically satisfying six years.
Singapore, a Great Place to Work
After that, I set up a consulting firm and then a language centre providing business and translation services and Vietnamese language courses.
Our consultancy and translation businesses have been growing substantially along with a vibrant Singapore economy.
We have built a diversified customer base consisting of MNCs and Singapore companies interested in doing business in Vietnam.
Thanks to Singapore’s flexible working environment, I have become a language trainer-cum-interpreter at several private and public institutions, which include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, Centre for Language Studies at NUS, SEAMEO Regional Language Centre, and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
For the last four years, I have also been a part-time teacher of Vietnamese literature at an international school – ACS (International) Singapore.
Sparking of Interest in Culture and Society
There are many unforgettable memories during my time in the Lion City, chief among them my very first business lunch with a senior banker from United Overseas Bank shortly after my arrival in Singapore.
In addition to queries for updates on banking business in Vietnam, the banker asked me some questions on Vietnamese culture, language, arts and cuisine.
I felt helpless and ashamed as I was unable to provide him with a satisfactory answer, despite being a Vietnamese myself, as my knowledge was inadequate and my English was not strong enough to explain matters well.
I decided to come clean about my ignorance and I became committed to acquiring more knowledge about Vietnam to be shared with my Singaporean customers, business partners and friends.
Thankfully, this nationalistic drive and mission have indirectly helped me discover more about Singapore’s many wonders and values that I had never been aware of.
A Bridge to the East and West
Singapore is widely regarded as a bridge between the East and West, as the intersection and meeting point of diverse cultures.
Singapore’s story is, in part, the story of how it has absorbed and adapted different cultures – and their associated traditions and languages – into its market-driven economy and multicultural society.
One vivid example would be Singlish, a mixture of English and Chinese or Malay.
While the Singapore government labelled Singlish a handicap for some Singaporeans, some local artists and writers have branded it a badge of Singapore culture, which many Singaporeans feel really proud of.
Lah (as in “OK, lah”) is now among the 10,000 new and revised words to appear in the Oxford English Dictionary Online which defines it as “a particle used with various kinds of pitch to convey the mood and attitude of the speaker”.
Reflections on Singapore as Home
I am now a Singapore permanent resident living in a cosy HDB executive flat in Queenstown.
I treasure Singapore as my second home, truly a home with my daughter singing Majulah Singapura and reciting the Singapore pledge every weekday morning in a local primary school.
However, from the bottom of my heart, I would admit that such a sense of belonging is a melange of expatriate pride and melancholic nostalgia.
Singapore does not have a long history compared to Vietnam, my home country.
However, Singapore does have much to offer with its unique history and geography, a multi-racial population with diverse cultural values, a well-regulated society influenced by various religions, and in its status as a cosmopolitan and booming centre of capitalism in Southeast Asia.
In my opinion, the cultural identity of Singaporeans, though, is still a work in progress.
You may have heard of the 5 Cs – car, condominium, credit card, cash and country club – as Singaporeans’ main aspirations, and which hints at how important economic status is in their outlook on life.
But my exposure to the Singaporean Hokkien-speaking environment would offer another version, the 5 Ks, which provide an deeper insight into their psychological make-up:
Kiasu (fear of losing), Kiasi (scared of death), Kia bor (afraid of wife), Kia boh (afraid of having nothing) and Kia chenghu (afraid of the government).
Generally speaking, Singaporeans are nationalistic and always score high in surveys on national pride.
The National Day Parade (NDP) is held every year to promote the Singapore spirit.
Each NDP has its own theme song but a favourite among Singaporeans is Jia (‘Home’ in Mandarin) which comes with English and Malay versions too.
This reflects the importance of family in Singapore society.
As a minister, Lim Swee Say, once said, “Singapore is a capitalist America, a socialist China and a nationalistic Switzerland”.
There is much to be learnt from Singapore in being an attractive hub for business, culture and human development.
This has been a fruitful and rewarding learning journey in the Lion City.
LE HUU HUY (*)
(*) Le Huu Huy is a Vietnamese national who has been living in Singapore for the last 15 years.
He is Director of Vietnam Global Network, which offers consultancy services in trade and investment, education and training in Singapore,Vietnam and ASEAN.
He also runs Vietnam Language Centre which provides translation and interpreting services and Vietnamese language courses.
Source: Singapore Insights form the Inside, published by Ethos Books