By Dexter Zhuang | 15 Nov 2022
After working in Silicon Valley for almost 7 years at top tech companies such as Dropbox and CreativeLive, I felt long overdue for a break and decided to take a sabbatical to explore Southeast Asia. During my travels, Singapore stood out as a great place to work and live in, so I took a leap of faith and relocated to the little red dot with my partner.
Having lived here for 2.5 years now, I’m often approached by others for advice on how to relocate to Southeast Asia like I did. Below I’ll share some of my personal experiences and tips to help you make your own successful transition to the region.
5 tips to embark on a successful career in Southeast Asia
Adapt to a different communication style
One of my favourite books is Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map. In it, she talks extensively about cultural differences impacting how business is done in low- and high-context societies.
In US work culture, communication is relatively low-context or straightforward, and negative feedback is delivered a bit more directly than in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, Southeast Asia’s culture leans towards being high-context, which may require you to read between the lines and deliver negative feedback more indirectly.
In my experience in the region, I’ve learned that when giving feedback to peers or reports, I get a better response if I offer it in a one-on-one setting rather than during a group meeting. In terms of communication style, I’ve observed that Southeast Asians might not always feel comfortable speaking their honest opinion in a high-stakes group setting, so I try to follow up in more relaxed, private settings to hear their true feelings on a subject.
Get comfortable with WhatsApp
Coming to Southeast Asia, it was a little bit of a culture shock when I learned just how extensively people use WhatsApp (and other messaging apps like Viber) to communicate for work.
I rarely use email while working in Singapore except for occasional customer correspondence. This is very different from my experience in the US, where we relied heavily on email communication for doing business.
Get plugged into communities
If you’re someone new to the region and unfamiliar with the Southeast Asian market, I’d recommend getting plugged into various local tech communities – including founder communities like Tech in Asia School and angel investor communities like Hustle Fund’s Angel Squad.
Many investors and business people who have been operating in the region are extremely generous about sharing their knowledge and connections. If you find someone’s background is interesting and want to chat, don’t hesitate to reach out to them via LinkedIn or other networks. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Explain the “Why” behind best practices
Coming from the US, you might have specific knowledge of best practices that haven’t been adopted yet in SEA due to lack of exposure or market readiness. If you are trying to implement certain best practices, make sure to explain the reasons as to why they should be applied.
Don’t assume your team members are familiar with these practices, and communicate your thought process to avoid any potential misunderstandings. They might also be able to give useful feedback on why these best practices might or might not be successful in local markets.
This holds true even if you are not a team leader or manager, because you might still be in a position to influence and share your knowledge with your peers.
Learn to adapt to regional working models
The tech scenes in the US and Southeast Asia differ significantly in terms of working models. When I worked at a US-based headquarters, there was a large focus on American customers. We would interact with our global office counterparts every few weeks or months and make an occasional trip to other global offices perhaps once a year.
In Southeast Asia however, tech companies often move to rapidly establish a presence across multiple countries. As a tech worker in Singapore, you can expect to work with teams across the region – from Vietnam or the Philippines – on a daily or weekly basis. You will need to be open to receiving input from local teams when trying to understand the needs of their market or customers.
Addressing common concerns
Can I adapt to the local culture?
One of the most common concerns I’ve heard from friends is about cultural differences. While there are definitely going to be differences in terms of culture and communication styles, it is still entirely possible to build great relationships. This just requires both parties to be willing to adapt to each other.
For those concerned about not fitting in, consider looking for companies that have teams with diverse backgrounds or a strong remote working culture. Having employees from all over the world typically signals diversity and inclusion, while a company that values remote work is likely to have good documentation and communication practices.
Can I find the right role?
In the more mature US market, many tech workers tend to have highly specialised skill sets which may not directly applicable in Southeast Asia at the moment.
If this statement describes you, I would recommend broadening your point of view and considering how your skill sets may be utilised in different contexts and situations. Think about how your knowledge and experience may be used to contribute to something outside of your immediate specialisation.
Will I be working with “less skilled” talent?
Though the tech scene in Southeast Asia is less mature than in the US, it’s a misconception that local talents are less skilled.
From my personal experience, local talents are very savvy and scrappy, and they learn really fast. They are able to pick up best practices quickly, and are definitely able to compete with international talents. They are also domain experts in their local markets and can help you ramp up the skills and knowledge needed to succeed.
Why you should work in Southeast Asia
Help a company expand to regional markets
In the US, many companies can focus on the massive domestic market alone and may not decide to expand internationally until years down the road. In Southeast Asia however, markets are generally smaller so many companies will seek regional growth from day 1.
Being able to participate in a company’s ambitious regional expansion plans is an exciting opportunity that’s more common in Southeast Asia than the US.
Experience working across multiple markets
As mentioned earlier, many companies operate and develop outside of their local markets. From a professional perspective, I’ve found that working in Southeast Asia has allowed me to experience what it’s like to service multiple regions at the same time.
This means that I get to engage with more diverse cultures, communication styles, market dynamics, and business approaches – an experience that is simultaneously humbling and perspective-broadening.
Shape the future of Southeast Asia’s infrastructure
Despite the region’s rapid growth, there are still lots of pain points I’ve felt in Southeast Asia – in areas such as logistics and digital payments – that are less acute in more mature markets. For example, cash is still the main form of payment for many Southeast Asian countries, which slows down the pace of conducting business and adoption of online services.
Working in this part of the world, you’ll get to play an outsized role in helping fill these critical technology gaps and make a meaningful contribution to building up Southeast Asia’s future economy.
Entering a new world of opportunities
Recently I’ve definitely observed increased interest amongst friends and associates in moving from the US to Southeast Asia. When I chat with them, they’re hungry to experience what it’s like to live abroad, and some are looking for career opportunities that help them gain a global perspective on their industry.
Personally, I’ve chosen to relocate to Singapore because it’s like a mini United Nations; I love that I get to meet people from all over the world while working here, and it has definitely helped me see how the world works at a much deeper level.
If you’re thinking of relocating to Southeast Asia or have done so recently, please feel free to connect with me! I’d love to chat and hear about your experiences.
Dexter is an entrepreneurial product leader, angel investor and adviser at early- to mid-stage startups across Silicon Valley and Southeast Asia. He loves building world-class product and growth teams that help customers get more out of their lives.
Connect with him here.