Singapore: the difference that makes the difference

Written by
Alex Swarbrick

09 Jun 2016

09 Jun 2016 • by Alex Swarbrick

This has recently become home. And it’s a country infused with the riches and challenges of diversity, with a superficial veneer of homogeneity.

Even the weather! We were told we’d miss the diversity of English seasons; that in Singapore, the weather is always the same. Always hot, always humid. But look closer, and it’s a paradox. There’s nothing samey about thunder so loud you don’t just hear it, you feel it; about torrential rain that doesn’t cool things but heats them, like pouring water on the stones in a sauna. 

It’s not just because I’m English that I’m going on about the weather. It’s the comparison I see to Singapore society as a whole. It’s a paradox, in which there’s a superficial homogeneity, and yet look closer and you see what has always been a diverse society, and is becoming ever more so. Fifty years ago, Singapore was fused out of contrasting cultures, and in the early decades following independence, nation building relied on policies designed to engineer homogeneity, while safeguarding allowable difference. And today, Singapore society sees itself becoming increasingly diverse, driven from influences outside and within. Both government and communities are actively seeking how to manage and harness this diversity to sustain the country’s success story.

And it’s a challenge; difference makes a difference. Diversity correlates with success. The business case doesn’t need repeating, and it’s well documented that diversity changes business outcomes for the better. Diversity of thinking, personality, culture, gender, style, sexual orientation, age, experience, background.

But inequality does the opposite, and recent research suggested that Singapore has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor anywhere in the world. And the UK is facing its own growing inequality. The study highlighted[1] that for each of eleven different health and social indicators, from physical health to drug abuse, education to social mobility, community life to teenage pregnancies, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

The future of work is diverse

Globally, diversity is on the rise, and by every measure. In most business, it’s the new norm, and yet there are still ways in which the diversity agenda is going the wrong way. 

There are predictions that the UK workforce by 2030, will be multi-generational, older, more international, and with women playing a stronger role. Projections are that women will account for two thirds of the growth in higher skilled jobs. And yet the gender pay gap seems obstinately wide. 

Also, growing global mobility and changes in technology are expected to increasingly bring together different and sometimes conflicting cultures, religions, races and languages. Alongside this, the pay of low and middle income earners is projected to continue stagnating, and if established trends continue, the proportion of national income accruing to the highest 0.1% of earners will rise from 5% to 14% by 2030. (High Pay Commission (2011)).

So, despite progress, given gender and ethnicity pay gaps threatening to widen, racism threatening to increase, and organisations still battling with unconscious biases which have thwarted countless well planned diversity initiatives for decades, what are organisations and HR functions supposed to do?

Success stories show that the solution doesn’t lie in yet more training. It’s not for want of awareness that we still fail to capitalise on the rewards of diversity. 

A bit like Singapore, the evidence is it’s the subtle, policy changes which make the difference. Systemic changes that reverse trends and sidestep biases. Take the example of EY. Following 18 month’s analysis, they transformed their policy for recruiting and selecting graduates, undergraduates and school leavers. While academic qualifications are still being taken into account, they found them an unreliable predictor of future success, whereas other strengths and qualities were found more reliable. So in one systemic move they have levelled the playing field for all candidates, irrespective of background. 

Or take Proctor and Gamble, who last year gained the Catalyst Award, for their innovative measures that expand opportunities for women and business globally. The Company’s global diversity framework was recognised for supporting the development of diverse talent worldwide, including women at all levels and across all regions. 

Don’t get me wrong; despite Singapore’s appearance of success through diversity, I’m no fan of social engineering. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s the systemic changes which HR can initiate, that will be the difference that makes the difference.