by Quek See Leng, Associate Director, REI (Singapore)
What would you choose to do to create a shared context that brings people together? How would you make time to deepen what has largely been Zoom relationships? How would you respond if you were at such an infancy stage of your core function that you had to pivot in order to remain relevant to the organization's larger goals?
The REI's Singapore representatives have wrestled with these key questions. The outcome? A week-long retreat for all the REI country leaders, with the goal of refreshing, resting and building community.
The film Andre and His Olive Tree is a documentary which followed the final days of the famed two-Michelin-star restaurant that rose to become one of the best in Asia. So, what does it have to do with REI and its country leaders?
The two have this in common: both received input from independent director and producer, Josiah Ng. In October 2017, Josiah read that Taiwanese chef André Chiang was going to close his eponymous restaurant in Singapore. He felt compelled to contact Chiang and asked if he could document the final days. This led to the full-length documentary titled Andre and His Olive Tree that broke Taiwanese box office records in 2020 and is currently listed on Netflix.
Beyond the restaurant’s three-month waitlist and the $350++ price tag per person for dinner, it was truly priceless to have Josiah spend a morning with the country leaders. He inspired and challenged them to reframe the way they tell stories of the work they do every day in their cross-cultural settings. What if more of us on this end of our screens would sit up and pay attention to the real impact REI is making in these emerging nations?
Or, what if REI documented and studied in detail our existing projects, with the goal of mapping the purposes and aligning people and processes? This was the focus of the Project Management workshop Margaret Thevarakom facilitated. Armed with two decades of experience in the non-profit world, she challenged the country leaders to evaluate and distill processes from REI’s extensive experience, in order to develop a toolkit for greater clarity, consistency and accountability.
Although REI (Singapore) only recently incorporated on 16 November 2023, the nation stands out in terms of the calibre and professionalism its people offered. A walk at the Marina Bayfront and a short lecture on Singapore’s growth and development as a nation helped country leaders understand this Little Red Dot (for context, please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_red_dot).
Not only does Singapore have English as the lingua franca, her educational institutes, healthcare organizations and administrative services are world-class. When it came to potentially sending long-term staff and short-term professionals to train leaders in emerging countries, country leaders began to understand how timely this new Singapore office is.
It was not all work and no play for this group of cross-cultural workers. Over meals and shared living spaces, the country leaders found themselves in situations that brought their personalities to life. One took to the skies in a slingshot that catapulted him 230 feet upwards at a speed of 100 miles an hour. His colleagues watched in awe and admiration as he put himself in the center of a thrilling surge of pure adrenaline. Like two playful schoolboys, two others teased each other to no end. The country leaders also dug in to a whole range of international and local delights on a continuum of comfort and sense of adventure. Another one has seen others eating crabs all his life, but he decided to take up the challenge of deshelling and eating some, much to his delight.
By the end of the week, country leaders had met Singaporeans who are REI’s supporters, partners and friends. New friendships forged; old ones rekindled. Living six in a chalet provided opportunities for people to find deep resonance in conversation and share playful times with hearty laughter.
Many of the country leaders returned to their emerging nations and hit the ground running. But they knew this without a doubt: the warm hospitality shown to them in Singapore made it a worthwhile time of rest, connecting and refueling.