Makeup, high heels, screw-ups and Singlish – office life in Singapore
Singaporeans are noted for working long hours.
I was told this repeatedly, but shrugged it off before accepting a job at a local advertising agency.
It is something you don’t understand until you experience it for yourself.
The talk of 12-hour days is not an exaggeration. I quickly learnt a consequence of working long hours is big mistakes.
A month into my job I worked with a designer on a billboard until 6am.
When I returned to the office four hours later, after a quick nap and a shower, I received an email from our fuming client.
The billboard we worked on all night had already been installed but the wrong file was used. The background on the artwork was the wrong shade of brown.
The next day the 21-year-old art director responsible for the screw-up was fired.
There were many other speedy exits. If the boss wanted you gone, you were gone. Regardless of what your contract stated.
Singapore, and advertising especially, is fast paced.
And managers are direct.
In my first week I was told to wear more makeup, and directed to creative head of the agency for grooming advice.
I was also told to wear high-heeled shoes, which was ridiculous as I was already a giant amongst my petite Singaporean colleagues.
I appreciate presentation counts when your job is to sell ideas to clients but was surprised at the straightforward manner employees were told what to wear.
Another colleague was told to purchase glasses with no prescription to wear for pitches or client meetings.
According to management this was to disguise his creepy stare and tendency to blink rapidly when nervous.
Appearance matters in the Singaporean workplace – as does your ethnicity.
While Singaporeans pride themselves on being a cultural melting pot, there are stereotypes.
A colleague told me how the hierarchy works – first are Chinese Singaporeans then ethnic Malaysian Singaporeans, then the mainland Chinese.
Those who come from mainland China are viewed as uncivilised for being pushy and uncouth, and speaking English poorly.
Beneath that fall Indians, Bengalis and Filipinos, who fill up the construction and domestic services sectors.
I didn’t ask where the ‘ang mos’ (Singaporean term for foreigners, but referring to Europeans) fit in.
When a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity joined the agency, his name was quickly Westernised from Rasul to Russell before being introduced to any clients.
I felt neither here nor there, as the granddaughter of Cantonese business owners, who fled to New Zealand after the Communist Party Revolution.
Being a born and bred Kiwi meant my accent quickly became a running joke – and I found myself speaking broken English to fit in.
While my new NBR colleagues would be astounded to hear me yelp across the office phrases like “why you no give me the file yet?”, “What taking so long?” just last month this was everyday and just easier for me.
Like many ex-pats, I also adopted Singlish, a fusion of English and Chinese dialects.
And when I replied "can", instead of "yes", or dropped a "la" onto the end of my sentence, I felt like I fit in.
My workmates were a tight knit bunch – the late hours brought us together.
At the time I left eight of my 24 colleagues were dating others in the office.
Now, when I return home at 6 every evening and don’t know what to do with myself, part of me misses the action and the drama of agency life in Singapore.
But the grass is always greener, isn’t it?
Victoria Young recently joined NBR as ad/media reporter.