Integrating foreigners isn’t a lost cause

Integrating foreigners isn’t a lost cause

On a recent trip to present a research paper in Tokyo, I was surprised to not hear a single mobile phone ringing or a commuter talking loudly on the subway. Despite the train coach being notoriously crowded, the quiet was deafening.

Zhang Jianlin is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at SIM Global Education.


On a recent trip to present a research paper in Tokyo, I was surprised to not hear a single mobile phone ringing or a commuter talking loudly on the subway. Despite the train coach being notoriously crowded, the quiet was deafening.

Just as I was starting to wonder why the Japanese were behaving so considerately towards others, I heard announcements, first in Japanese then in English, over the sound system that all mobile phones must be switched to silent mode inside the coach.

What can we learn from the Japanese subway management to help our foreign friends better integrate in Singapore? Our Government has in recent times been sounding the refrain that foreigners whom Singapore welcomes to its shores must do their part in learning and adapting to our culture. Will this be a call in vain?

From a behavioural economist’s view, I believe not. It is in one’s self-interest not to deviate from the social norms of the society we live in.

The assumption that man is rational and self-interested is Economics 101. Indeed, it is what distinguishes economics from other social sciences such as sociology. While social scientists have long frowned upon such a simplistic view, it is only recently that behavioural economists have also challenged the validity of this assumption.


A simple way to test this assumption is by running a dictator game experiment. In this game, one player, known as the dictator, is asked to allocate any amount of his money to an anonymous recipient. According to the common assumption, standard economic theory predicts that the dictator would give nothing to the recipient.

Over the past 30 years, researchers across the globe have conducted countless dictator game experiments. The outcome, as summarised by Professor Colin Camerer of the California Institute of Technology, showed that, contrary to expectations, the majority of dictators gave away between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of their money.

The finding puzzled many economists. Borrowing ideas from neighbouring sciences in particular psychology, behavioural economists like Professor James Andreoni of the University of California San Diego sought to offer the explanation that people gain a “warm glow” when they sacrificed their own material benefit for the benefit of others.

According to Professors Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher of the University of Zurich, we feel compassionate towards those who are worse off and giving to them helps to manage this feeling and improve our own happiness. Fundamentally, therefore, even giving is still a selfish act.

Recently, competing explanations have also been proposed. One school of thought argues that giving meets people’s innate desire to avoid appearing selfish.

Together with Professor Yohanes Eko Riyanto from the Nanyang Technological University, we conducted an experiment to prove or debunk the existence of this “negative image avoidance”. We asked recipients to write a message to dictators after having received a token sum of money from them.

By default, the message would be given to the dictators for free. However, the dictators could pay the experimenter to stop the message from being passed back to them.

One might argue that the recipients’ negative impressions probably did not matter much to those dictators who chose to give little in the first place. But this was not the case.


The dictators spent about 43 per cent of their own money that could have been earned from participating in the experiment to prevent the expected negative messages from reaching them.

Even though they could simply get the messages for free and refrain from reading them, the mere thought of receiving something negative propelled them to give up about half of their money to ensure the messages did not get to them at all. In other words, the self-interested incentive to avoid knowing the disapproval of others was strong.

The recent unabated debate about “locals vs foreigners” hinges on the assumption that there exists a common set of social norms and culture unique to Singapore.

If to avoid being perceived negatively — or at least avoid knowing that one is being viewed negatively — is innate to human nature, then spelling out consistently and constantly what the expected and desired behaviours are could well help foreigners adjust and integrate in this country.

Even in a mature and homogenous society such as Japan, reminders of clearly defined expectations of behaviour are repeatedly given to people so as to induce the desired manners.

The Government and Singaporeans alike can do their part in defining what is considered “Singaporean”, and what is not, and roll out programmes to systematically communicate this message.

While this may not be an exact science, going by behavioural economics, there is a chance that Singapore might just be successful in its integration efforts.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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