After attending nursing college, I realized it was not my dream to become a nurse. So I explored opportunities in the business process outsourcing industry in the Philippines. I might still be looking for that dream job, were it not for an opportunity to teach a program on culture and communication skills. That first step to the front of the class triggered a flood of memories. I wanted to become a teacher when I was young; I remember asking Mom to buy a blackboard and a box of colored chalk. Now, as a trainer, I stood in front of a whiteboard with a box of markers.
Ten years after that fateful class, I am an experienced learning and organization development professional who has programs and initiatives through different platforms globally. As a project manager, I have focused on everything from design to measurement and evaluation. Throughout my journey, I have met people with various personalities, learned different cultures and values, and worked with multiple local and global organizations who all want to make a difference in this world.
Being a trainer is life changing. As talent development professionals, we are not just facilitators or designers. Our primary role is that of a coach, mentor, and dream maker. When we do our job right, we inspire and encourage someone to become a better person and achieve their goals.
I usually ask participants during the icebreaker what they wanted to be when they were young. It is funny how people find it challenging to remember what their childhood dream was. At the same time, it is fascinating to see individuals who feel so accomplished because they are now living what was just an ambition earlier in their lives.
I’m delighted to take you on a training journey through the Southeast Asian region, based on my experiences preparing training resources, traveling around, and establishing relationships. Southeast Asia comprises Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (also called Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and East Timor (Timor-Leste). In this chapter, however, I will focus on some of the larger countries I’m more familiar with, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia.
People and Culture: Get to Know Your Audience
Southeast Asia is home to 11 countries; the region is divided into mainland and island zones. The mainland zone (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) is an extension of the Asian continent. The island region—also called maritime—includes Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia (with more than 17,000 islands), the Philippines, Brunei, and Timor-Leste. The largest cities are Jakarta, Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, and Ho Chi Minh City. The region has more than 570 million people, and a huge variety of languages, religions, political systems, and histories.
The Istiqlal Mosque, in Jakarta, Indonesia, is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia has a tropical, rainy climate. The temperature is usually warm, with the exception of the highland areas. Tropical forests cover most of the region. In the Philippines, there are two climate changes in a year: the dry season, which starts in late November and ends in May, and the wet season, which begins in June and lasts until October.
Banuae, Philippines. Wet season is from June to October.
As an international trainer, it’s important to understand the differences in geographical regions, nationalities, values, and culture that could help you design and deliver training programs successfully. Here is some guiding information:
Meet the People
Southeast Asians are known to be fun-loving, compassionate, gentle, hospitable, and friendly people. In my courses, they seemed more excited about games, and were smiling a lot and warmhearted. They have also developed a strong sense of courtesy and respect, which is evident in how people treat elders, parents, and even superiors.
Communicate Successfully and Sincerely
Southeast Asia has thousands of spoken languages. This fact alone makes the region very diverse. Tracing the history, we see that the most influences, including language, came from Chinese and Western sources.
Some of the major languages used in the region include Malay, Bahasa, Mandarin, Burmese, and Filipino. Note that English is not used as a primary language in most countries within the region, although more nations are enhancing the English-speaking capability of their people. While this could create a barrier to communication, it is the trainer’s responsibility to find ways to communicate and connect with learners effectively. Sometimes that means using gestures and visuals.
Communication styles also vary. However, most Asians tend to have a high-context manner when communicating. In other words, the meaning of the message is derived not only from explicit verbal or written messages, but also from contextual factors such as the relative status of the individuals involved, nonverbal signals, and the strength of the relationship.
One good example happened while I was running a class on coaching. The discussions were so engaging that the class was 15 minutes behind our lunch schedule. Wanting to summarize the topic, I asked the class if it was OK to extend the discussion a bit more. They did not respond right away. Instead, they looked at one another and then suddenly, one by one, they said “Umm, OK. How long will it be? If it is not too much, then yeah, we can extend.” Just by hearing their low-pitched voices, observing their closed body language (such as crossed arms and looking away), I knew that it was not OK, so I sent them to lunch.
Southeast Asia has a rich history of varying civilizations that has resulted in a diverse society today, including differences in religion, values, and beliefs. Today, Islam is the predominant religion in most countries within Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Thailand, Burma, and Laos practice Buddhism. Christianity is another religion in the region, predominantly in the Philippines and Timor-Leste.
As a trainer, it is important to take note of these differences. I remember once facilitating a meeting with leaders coming from various countries in Asia. There were a few Muslims in the group, but the lunch prepared for the meeting did not have any food appropriate for them. To the leaders’ disappointment, they had to step out and grab lunch. This issue could have been prevented if these details had been asked for ahead of time.
Getting Started: Conduct a Needs Assessment
Regardless of the country or region, conducting a needs assessment plays a significant role in ensuring the effectiveness of a program and improving the performance of individuals and businesses. According to the Global Trends in Talent Development study conducted by ATD (2015), in Asia-Pacific countries the most prominent concern is around linking learning to performance.
As trainers, we know that the alignment of training objectives to performance requirements starts at the assessment stage. Completing a thorough assessment of gaps and needs is essential before implementing any program. It is a common practice in the region to use multiple tools and approaches in assessing the training needs of individuals or an organization. More information is always better. Following are the most frequently used approaches to needs assessment.
Conversations and Focus Group Discussions
The needs assessment conversation can be very different in each country in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, needs assessment conversations will start at the top of an organization and then move down to the manager level to discuss performance issues. Decisions will be finalized back with the head of the organization. In Malaysia, decisions are made slowly, so you need patience. Malays will probably involve you in polite conversation for a lengthy period before identifying the real training issues. In Singapore, I had to spend a significant amount of time explaining the purpose of discussions and activities, building context to answer the manager’s many questions even before I explained the content. Clarity is a top priority in working efficiently with Singaporean stakeholders.
In the Philippines, conducting interviews or focus group discussions is the preferred training needs analysis method. By doing this, you can speak to your target audience, which helps to get a better picture of the current challenges or needs. When using an interview or focus group, ensure a comfortable environment for the participants to share more information. Remember that Southeast Asians highly value relationships, and this could all start in open conversations. They may be reluctant to share any negative opinions to avoid speaking badly about someone.
Thanks to technology, this method can take place online through Skype or conference calls. However, it is still a good rule of thumb to confirm with the client if they prefer to discuss in person or if an online meeting works.
Review Performance Scorecards
In the 2017 State of the Industry study that was conducted by the Philippine Society for Training and Development (PSTD), 28 percent of the respondents said they use performance reviews as a training needs assessment tool. It seems that organizations are embracing the importance of objective performance reviews. Leaders use scorecards to assess the performance of their team members against their metrics and targets. This type of assessment is usually done monthly and often serves as the foundation for annual reviews. These documents can provide the training leader with clues as to the training solutions needed.
Also, an external consultant can ask for copies of employees’ scorecards. This medium can provide baseline data, then help measure the effectiveness of the solution after implementation.
Itineraries: Plan the Learning Journey
Planning a learning journey in Southeast Asia requires making the needs of the learner a priority. Because of the difference in culture and personalities, a cookie-cutter approach might not work for all Southeast Asians. However, the goal should always be to engage the learners and ensure their full commitment to applying what they learn back on the job.
Here are a few examples of the variety of practices you might find in different Southeast Asian countries:
• Philippines. In the Philippines, training plays a major role in the development of employees in an organization. Most companies have a dedicated training department but could also seek an expert consultant in providing training solutions. Moreover, since Filipinos are always excited by new opportunities, the employees appreciate and value it. The best approach to get the commitment of a Filipino is to align training objectives to career progression.
• Vietnam. In Vietnam, most organizations do not usually provide in-house training, and when they do, it is more on an individual basis rather than skills training for groups. Group training is typically done for safety training or other, broader purposes.
• Brunei. In Brunei, most organizations only provide initial onboarding. Skills development happens once they do their jobs, usually without structured development programs.
• Singapore. Singaporeans appear to have little tolerance for chaotic learning situations with unclear objectives and road maps. During training, clearly communicate the training objectives and purpose of activities. Building relationships with the trainees would also help a trainer to create an open environment in class that could encourage active participation.
• Thailand. Thais prefer to work with other people rather than individually. Their emphasis on cooperation and harmony becomes evident in any kind of business environment. For a successful training program, encourage the participants to build relationships with one another until they become comfortable and perform collectively. It is also a common practice for superiors to mentor those who are junior to them. So, in designing a program, involve the manager as a contributor to the development of their team members through mentoring.
Utilize a Blended Approach
Because of the increasing complexity of business processes, the methodologies used to deliver training must keep up with the constant changes in the organization. According to the Global Trends in Talent Development research report, the Asia-Pacific region still delivers 54 percent of learning hours through instructor-led classrooms, 16 percent through technology-based methods, and 24 percent through a blended approach (ATD 2015). Mobile learning is also an emerging technology used in the region to deliver formal learning.
In the Philippines, coaching and mentoring came up as a preferred methodology according to the 2017 State of the Industry study conducted by PSTD. It is a part of Filipino culture to respect and look up to someone who is more senior, not just in age but also in experience. Therefore, mentoring is embedded in the DNA of learning and development practices in the Philippines. In fact, early in my career, a mentor influenced my strong foundation and values in training. She has always been a part of my career triumphs as a trainer, and even in my personal life.
Take Advantage of Technology and Social Learning
Southeast Asia is seeing a dramatic shift in the technologies used for social learning and education. Fast-growing markets, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, are embracing social media tools. Currently, Singapore is the third most connected country in the world. These markets have large Millennial populations that can leapfrog over their senior managers through learning that is more accessible and personalized. The rise in learning and gamification related to social media is changing the way learners access knowledge and interact with one another.
But there are still challenges. For example, connection speeds in areas of Southeast Asia are still too slow due to technology limitations. While Singapore has an average of 20.3 Mbps, one of the fastest in the world, most countries in Southeast Asia average between 3 and 9 Mbps (Fastmetrics 2017). This could make some learning programs that require connectivity inefficient and inconsistent.
Packing Lists: Logistics, Technology, and Resources
I once delivered a three-day customer service workshop for a client in Dumaguete, a city in the Philippines, where the client selected the venue. I arrived an hour earlier than the start of the session to set up everything. First, the room was too small for a conference room setup, but I could fix it. Next, the audio and video outputs on the projector were not working, but I was able to make adjustments as well. The client also asked to add participants to the session, so I had to print more workbooks before we started. During the session, the laptop froze, so I had to use an assistant’s laptop. To make matters worse, I began to lose my voice. It was a nightmare.
Of course, I made it appear as if everything was OK. The participants deserved the best learning experience, and that is what I gave. In a crisis like this, it is vital that the trainer knows how to manage logistical and technical issues and not let them affect the program. Have a list of emergency numbers in case all your troubleshooting skills are exhausted.
The sophistication of the venue depends on the preference of the client or what the program needs. The leading cities in Southeast Asia—like Jakarta, Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, and Ho Chi Minh City—have high-end hotels, while most provinces have smaller hotels or stand-alone training facilities. It would be good to determine the requirements first before booking any venue.
If delivering training in more rural or provincial areas, it would be best to research if the materials needed will be available. In the Philippines, for example, training rooms are more sophisticated in Manila compared with those in the provinces.
Logistically, transportation in Southeast Asia can be as complicated to figure out as the region itself. Commuting using public transport in the Philippines is quite complex compared with other countries. If the session is around metro Manila or major cities, car services like Uber or Grab are reliable. You must anticipate traffic—it is better to travel three hours ahead of the session, especially during rush hour.
In Singapore, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system is the quickest way to get around the city. Taxi services are also available, especially if the training venue is not by an MRT station. There may be a surcharge on taxis. In Jakarta, use the Tansjakarta bus service, which offers a very efficient and reasonably priced option for commuters going into the central business district. Taxis are available in all large cities in Malaysia, and most have meters—although drivers may not use them. Bicycle rickshaws (trishaws) supplement the taxi service in George Town and Melaka, and are handy ways of getting around the older parts of town, which have winding, narrow streets. However, they may not be the best means of transportation if you need to arrive early to the training venue.
A trishaw in George Town, Penang, Malaysia. Trishaws are a good way of getting around Penang’s older neighborhoods.
Customs: Body Language Dos and Don’ts
Actions speak louder than words. Hence, as trainers, we should be mindful of our body language to maintain an open and respectful learning environment. Utilizing a global mindset and remaining flexible to feedback from people you meet in Southeast Asia will help. This region is complex, so let’s break down body language behaviors by country.
Behaviors in the Philippines
• Mano po. Mano po is a gesture of respect from the Philippines; young Filipinos usually do this to greet and show respect to elders. The elder will hold out their hand, and the younger person will raise it to their forehead, while saying “mano po.”
• Animated gestures. Because English is not a native language, Filipinos sometimes find it difficult to explain all ideas in English, so they supplement statements with actions. A trainer should be able to read and interpret these gestures. A good example is when asking a Filipino for directions; they might use their lips to point out the location without providing exact instructions. However, don’t hesitate to ask further if you’re lost.
• Eye contact. Filipinos find it impolite if a person does not look at them when speaking. It applies even in training. With a big class or audience, make sure to connect with all participants through eye contact. It is a sign of sincerity and a means of communication.
• Energy and enthusiasm. Trainees will get energized when they feel the high energy and enthusiasm of a trainer during facilitation. Filipinos also appreciate a presentation that is based on a story or real-life experiences. Be sure to add a human feel to the session instead of just talking about facts and technical information.
Behaviors in Singapore
• Dress. Singapore is one of the most religiously diverse nations, and thus, dress is very conservative, even in business.
• Introductions. Singaporeans shake hands when introduced. Men and women usually greet each other with a handshake. Outside that, never touch, hug, or kiss a person of the opposite sex at a business meeting. When making introductions in meetings or training courses, always use the person’s title and family or personal name.
• Respect for elders. Singaporeans show respect for elders, similar to most Asian cultures. Establishing credibility with the audience is imperative. Have an important person (elder) from the organization introduce you and highlight relevant credentials.
• Eye contact. Do not get offended if a Singaporean does not look you in the eyes during training. Their eyes are cast down or away as a sign of respect and politeness.
• Conversations. A common greeting in class might be “Have you eaten?” or “Where are you going?” instead of “Good morning.” Good conversation topics include food, scenery, the arts, and tourist attractions. Avoid subjects like religion, personal relationships, money, racism, sex, or politics.
• Feet. Be careful when crossing your legs. Never point toward or inadvertently show the sole of your shoe to other people. Also, do not tap your foot.
Behaviors in Malaysia
• Greetings. It is OK for men to shake hands at business meetings, but it is better to nod or give a slight bow when greeting a woman or an older person. Introduce higher-ranking people or older people first. Western women should greet Malay men with a nod of their head and a smile. Avoid touching anyone of the opposite sex.
• Hands and feet. Do not use a single finger for gesturing. Use your right hand to pass items, such as a marker. Do not point at another person with your foot.
Behaviors in Indonesia
• Meeting and greeting. Greet people by slowly and sincerely saying selamat (sell-a-mat), which means peace. Shake hands and give a slight nod when meeting for the first time. Shake an Indonesian woman’s hand only if she initiates the greeting.
• Eye contact. It is considered rude to look someone straight in the eyes. Prolonged eye contact may be viewed as a challenge and may cause defensiveness.
Climate: Create a Warm Learning Environment
Southeast Asians like to build family-like relationships and environments—for example, Indonesians value loyalty to family and friends above all else. We involve emotions in whatever we do, and that is why we expect sensitivity among our peers. Even a simple gesture, like putting your hands on your hips when presenting, can be misinterpreted. In Singapore, that gesture can mean anger.
Here are some tips that could help build better connections with Southeast Asian learners.
Smile and Be Personal
This one is very simple. The trainer should welcome participants with a warm greeting and a smile. Before class starts, introduce yourself to each participant according to their culture. It will build rapport, which could help in maintaining a trusting relationship throughout the session.
Be Casual and Conversational
Most Southeast Asians are very conversational, and are OK with answering almost any personal question. Participants will also appreciate it if the trainer shows interest in the exciting things they do outside work. These discussions make good icebreakers. Filipinos will respond more if they are feeling comfortable. Find out what their hobbies are, what they did over the weekend, or something unique about them, and you will be surprised with how much they open up.
Know the Locale’s Pride
It can be a tourist spot or a famous restaurant. People like to talk about how great their town or community is. If you’re staying in the area for a while, ask participants about the best places to visit or things to do.
Especially true of Filipinos is that they are encouraged to perform when they know other people have done it. Share your own experiences, struggles, and solutions.
Insert Games Into the Program
When designing a program or facilitating a class for learners, include activities and games. This strategy fosters relationship building, creates a fun environment, and brings out participants’ competitiveness, which makes training more engaging. Be aware of cultural, gender, and generational differences when dividing participants into groups.
Things to Consider: Handle Classroom Challenges
Southeast Asians are polite, so it is rare to face very difficult learners in class. However, being familiar with the culture and values would help the trainer manage the class better. Here are some common scenarios and tips on how to handle them:
Pay Attention to Time
A bad habit that most Filipinos have is tardiness. For example, if a meeting were set to start at 7 a.m., participants would probably arrive at 7:15 or even 7:30. That is why they are flexible when setting the start time of events and celebrations. In Singapore and Malaysia, the trainer is expected to be on time. Singaporeans will be on time, but in Malaysia, the participants might be slightly late.
“Praise in public, criticize in private” applies to Southeast Asians. They are emotional and sensitive, and tend to take feedback and comments personally, which means that anyone who provides feedback should be conscious of the manner of communication and the words used. Saving face is one of the most important aspects of Southeast Asian culture. It is important never to cause anyone to lose face. Speak to a participant in private if there is a problem in class. The sandwich approach of beginning and ending with a compliment works best.
Do Not Assign Homework
Southeast Asians value work-life balance, and believe their time outside work should not be spent doing work chores. So, avoid giving homework to the participants that would require too much of their time after training hours. If necessary, provide the rationale for such activities. Doing pre-work during office hours before the start of training session is a common practice.
Read the Audience
In Southeast Asia, it is not common to hear “no” in response to anything. It is important to give participants a way out of any activity in class. Remember silence, a hesitation, or sometimes even a yes might actually mean no. Read the participant’s body language.
Not all Southeast Asians can understand and speak English; some will even struggle to understand the accent of fluent English speakers. People may not explicitly say that they do not understand, but as a trainer, it is better to ensure this does not become a communication barrier. Encourage the participants to interrupt if they are having trouble following. Usually, establishing a hand gesture that signals when to slow down is a gentle way to give feedback to the trainer.
If the learners are not participative enough, here are some ways to encourage them:
• Have them gather their thoughts as a group and assign a representative who can share the team’s response.
• Have participants write their answers on a piece of paper and share them with the class.
• Give them time to gather their thoughts and come up with a reply. The trainer can ask the question before sending them on a break, so it gives them more time to think.
Tips and Warnings: Advice for Nonnative Trainers
To ensure that Southeast Asian learners get the most from the learning experience, here are additional tips and warnings for guidance.
Allow Interactions to Take Place
I once attended a leadership training facilitated by a foreigner, hoping he researched how Filipinos behave in class. However, it became apparent that he was managing the session as he would manage it if he had participants from his country. He was too focused on the concepts and topics. He did not provide many opportunities for group interaction or activities. As a result, we felt disinterested and disengaged.
Manage Time and Conversations
Another item to handle is the time spent on class interactions and conversations. If these activities are already taking too much class time, politely insist on moving forward. The following can be used: “This is a fascinating discussion. However, we need to turn to the next section. If we have time later, we can go back to this topic and discuss further. Is everyone OK with that?”
Refocus on Results
Establishing the objective of the session is a good way to ensure that everyone is aligned with the expectations. Filipinos tend to focus on the fun and experience during the session, so it is important to refocus on the results from time to time.
Wear Appropriate Clothing
Attire can go from formal to casual depending on the topic and the audience. However, standard dress is conservative. Even if the venue or theme calls for casual clothing, the trainer still should mind their clothes, especially women. Low necklines, shorts, or sleeveless clothing might be considered revealing. Stick to polo shirts or denim when choosing casual attire.
Use the Native Language
It’s a great idea to initiate a conversation using the native language. Here are a few Filipino and Malay words you can use:
• Filipino: mabuhay (welcome), mending usage (good morning), maraming salamat (thank you so much), and paalam (goodbye)
• Malay: apa kabar (hello), sa-ya tee dak fa-ham (I don’t understand), terima kasih (thank you), and selamat jalan (goodbye).
Facilitating learning in Southeast Asia is an eye-opening experience. With beautiful places to visit, rich culture to experience, and lovely people to meet, Southeast Asia is a place where learning and teaching are fostered. Come and share your expertise with us. The meaningful relationships we form will help us all grow.
We are looking forward to seeing you train in our beloved region!
About the Author
Marby Tabungar is a training and quality manager for HR operations at Genpact. She has more than 10 years of experience from the IT business process management industry, with the last seven years dedicated to learning and development. She is a key contributor in the elevation of talent development practice in the Philippines as a member of the executive committee and the board of trustees for the Philippine Society for Training and Development (PSTD). She also leads the research and publication team, which captures and shares trends and best practices in learning and development in the Philippines. She has built her expertise in HR technology and managed services through multiple implementation projects and establishment of end-to-end HR processes.
ATD (Association for Talent Development). 2015. Global Trends in Talent Development. Alexandria, VA: ATD Press.
Fastmetrics. 2017. “Internet Speeds by Country (Mbps).” Fastmetrics. www.fastmetrics.com/internet-connection-speed-by-country.php.
PSTD (Philippine Society for Training and Development). 2017. State of the Industry. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: PSTD.
The Elgin Bridge, in the Singapore financial district