Integrating Locals and Foreigners in a Multicultural Workplace

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Home > Articles > Integrating Locals and Foreigners in a Multicultural Workplace

 Integrating Locals and Foreigners in a Multicultural Workplace

William Wan | Today's Manager
December 17, 2021
How can organisations help staff with different backgrounds integrate and build a harmonious environment?

Singapore is an open and vibrant economy. Rooted in its Asian cultures and located at the crossroads of global trade, Singapore has fostered a multiracial and multicultural society by drawing from different cultures and ideas. This has been a competitive advantage for us.

With over 170,000 employment pass holders as of December 2020—of which workers from India, China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Britain form two thirds—and 7,000 multinational companies operating in Singapore, we are a global workplace from people of different nationalities. 1

The proportion of Employment Pass (EP) holders from India doubled to 25 per cent last year, from 14 per cent in 2005. 2 This was driven by the rapid growth of Singapore's digital economy as we strive to be a technology, infrastructure development, research, and innovation hub.

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng explained that “as every sector seeks to be digitally enabled, their need for tech talent has grown significantly", emphasising that Singapore currently does not have enough locals to fill the jobs available. As of July 2021, in the Infocomm sector alone, 6,000 jobs remain unfilled.

While some Singaporeans have a concern with competition for jobs and opportunities at the workplace, most understand the economic arguments for having EP holders and appreciate a multicultural workplace. 

According to an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey 3 of about 4,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents last year, nine in 10 of those surveyed felt that it was good to have people of different nationalities living in the same neighbourhood. They also said they can learn a lot from the immigrants’ cultures.

Likewise, businesses stand to gain when their employees from different backgrounds work and interact well at the workplace. Inclusive and harmonious workplaces tend to have more engaged employees, with more innovative teams that are better at solving problems and creating value. They can better attract and retain talent, and are likely to be more productive. 

Companies have realised that a talent pool made up of a hybrid of local and foreign staff needs to be able to work and coexist harmoniously in order to succeed.

But this is easier said than done.

What can organisations do to help staff with different backgrounds integrate in the workplace and build a harmonious environment?

Help New Foreign Employees Adapt to Local Workplaces and Local Culture
A well-structured on-boarding programme will provide a good start to a strong relationship between employer and employee, and a useful introduction to the norms, values, and culture of an organisation. 

Specifically for new foreign employees, employers can share about Singapore’s socio-cultural norms, so that they can learn and adapt to Singapore’s values, cultures, and norms. Employers can also assign local employees to buddy up with new foreign hires to help them settle in more quickly.

Additionally, employers can take the initiative to be more aware of cultural backgrounds, values, and interests of employees. Building relationships through increased understanding and trust helps to foster inclusion. 

Employers can take advantage of such knowledge to meet specific needs of employees, and make them feel more welcome at work.

Create Opportunities for Your Employees to Interact and Forge Bonds
Employers can also organise bonding activities for employees. This can include Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives that allow employees to contribute to a common good together. 

Activities to develop cross-cultural understanding and competencies amongst employees can be part of staff development programmes. Employers can encourage new foreign employees to join external interest groups and to participate in activities with locals, such as networking sessions in professional associations.

As work from home becomes part of the new normal, it may be more difficult to meet in person, but there are ways to help remote teams thrive, such as organising regular video conferences to update each other about our lives, or catching up physically over a meal in small groups.
Eliminating Bias
Lastly, it is important to ensure all employees feel they are getting equal opportunities. Internally, performance and reward metrics should ideally be built on the same basis for everyone, irrespective of origin and background of staff. Practising fairness will avoid any anti-foreigner sentiment that may create an “us” versus “them” mentality. 

Additionally, when considering employees for promotion, companies should take the best-fit approach, seeking the best person for the job based on merit and skill sets, without regard to whether they are local or foreign.
While there are challenges to workplace integration, we need to remain open in order for businesses to thrive and succeed through the pandemic and beyond.

Said Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Edwin Tong in July 2021: “I find that it's important that we don't just talk about integration, but we make it a lived experience daily.” 

1 Ministry of Manpower, Foreign workforce numbers. Accessed via,​

2 Calvin Y, 8 July 2021, The Straits Times, Indian EP holders nearly doubled to 25%, driven by digital economy growth. Accessed via,

3 Jeraldine Y, 3 August 2019, CNA, More than 6 in 10 feel immigrants not doing enough to integrate into Singapore: Survey. Accessed via,​.

Dr William Wan is a Justice of the Peace and General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM). He was a senior partner of a regional law firm and a managing director of a psychometric company headquartered in the USA.


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Today's Manager Issue 4, 2021

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