Moscow never sleeps
— I was born and raised in Singapore, studied at the University of Singapore, and received a Bachelor’s degree specialising in engineering. I really enjoyed travelling around the world, moving through time and space. And all the time, I was drawn to the mountains, to the heights. I remember in my youth getting to the top of Mount Kinabalu, in the east of Malaysia. A height of over 4 km, and below me: cloud. And I felt…like a bird…Perhaps deep down I already knew that my life would be bound up with those iron birds: aeroplanes. I was simply delighted when I was accepted to work at Singapore Airlines.
— Which countries did you manage to work in before you ended up in Moscow?
— I was head of the company’s office in Beijing. Then I put some hard work in for two years in Sri Lanka. Staff rotation was part of the company set up. I was very lucky to end up working in Moscow. It was considered an extremely tricky assignment. It’s no secret that Russia is not the most comfortable of places for Asians. The company took great care in selecting the right candidate.
— How did you come to be chosen for it?
— They could see that I can adapt easily, that I quickly soak in other cultures, that I can live and work in any country. For me it was a great honour to take charge of Singapore Airlines’ office in Russia and become part of the local team.
— What were your first impressions of Moscow?
— The cold! My home country, Singapore, is located virtually on the equator: the lowest temperature is 20°C. And when I flew into Moscow, it was minus 32 here. I remember looking out of the aeroplane window just after we had landed. There was no sunlight, just blanket haze. But in two months spring arrived and I began to see everything in a completely different light.
— As you had already seen a lot, was there anything at all in the Russian capital which surprised you?
— Moscow is a city which never sleeps. The supermarkets, restaurants are open 24-7. You can even buy flowers at any hour of the day or night. From this I drew the conclusion that Russian men must be very romantic. Then my Russian friends corrected me: “We buy flowers for the wife when we’ve been out well past midnight with friends or workmates, so that she doesn’t hit the roof.”
Before coming here, I had happened to hear that Russians hardly ever smile and go about with sour expressions. I don’t think this is the case. Russians are very friendly. For example, yesterday, my wife and I were cycling along the Moscow Embankment, and we got off our bikes in the metro. One of those severe-looking men came over to us and, without a word, helped my wife to put her bike on the escalator. And he was most surprised when we said thank you to him. Russians are very considerate. Always ready to come to your assistance. Once, when I got lost, some students took me to the house I was looking for, even though they were going in a completely different direction.
— Have any kind of difficulties come up?
— The language barrier. I don’t know the Russian language. What has helped me out is that all of my colleagues speak excellent English. But it is a good idea to know Russian when working in Moscow so that you can understand what people are saying to you at meetings: a lot of nuances get lost in translation. You need Russian to be able to read regulatory documentation: Russian laws are very complex. I did start to have Russian lessons but I had to give up on the idea, due to my heavy workload.
Friendship with Russian people is something to be proud of
— What can you say about Russians’ mentality?
— Russians appear to be reserved people, keeping things to themselves, which is why they can seem cold. But when you get to know them personally, they reveal themselves, they “thaw”, and you can already see how sincere and well-meaning they are. Friendship with Russian people is something to be proud of. They do everything for their guests. Russian hospitality knows no bounds. Once, we were having dinner at a restaurant, and we got to know a young couple, both of them lawyers. You would have thought that, as far as they were concerned, we were complete strangers to them. But after chatting for an hour, they invited us to their dacha, telling us in detail how to get there. There, they taught us the proper way to drink vodka.
— What would that be, then?
— Even in the bitterest cold, vodka should be put in the freezer before drinking. And it should be 40% proof, and the shot glasses chilled.
— What else characterises Russians, other than knowing how to drink vodka?
— How very much family-oriented they are, I would say. Parents in Russia devote a great deal of time and attention to their children.
— Are there any differences between the team in Moscow and the one you worked with in Beijing?
— It was easier in Beijing because I speak several Chinese dialects. As far as the team spirit goes, I would like to point out that the most open approach to matters comes from the side of my Russian colleagues. They speak openly about all difficulties which arise. This is their distinguishing feature. In Beijing, my colleagues sometimes hid, kept quiet about problems. But if you don’t talk about problems, then how are you going to resolve them?
I would like to point out that the most open approach to matters comes from the side of my Russian colleagues. They speak openly about all difficulties which arise.
— How many people work at your branch?
— Over 20, and they are all women. Everybody envies me. The Russians have a saying about this: “You are sitting as if in a raspberry patch”, i.e. surrounded by sweet berries. At Domodedovo airport, we have another 10 employees: eight women and two men.
— What is it that you require of your staff?
— This team had already been put together before I arrived. One of the basic requirements is an excellent command of English because all of our correspondence with Head Office in Singapore is conducted in English. It is also important that they are easy to get on with, seeing as our employees are having to deal with passengers all the time. Employees should also be of a personable appearance, especially if they work at the airport.
You have to provide customers with the very best
— How do you rate the Russian airline market?
— Demand, at this moment in time, exceeds the capacity of Moscow’s airports. New terminals need to be built and the funds are there to do this. Flight management is efficiently organised, everything runs on time. Moscow is an important transit point. Competition in the airline industry is fierce. Many are trying to offer the greatest number of entertainment options, the widest seats, the most spacious planes, the largest fleet. At Singapore Airlines we endeavour to ensure that all of the services offered by us match the requirements of our passengers as closely as possible. You don’t have to be the biggest: just to provide clients with the very best, individual in-flight service, with an exclusive level of attentiveness.
We endeavour to ensure that all of the services offered by us match the requirements of our passengers as closely as possible.
— The image of the Singapore Girl, the graceful stewardess, is a trademark of the company. There is even a waxwork figure in Madame Tussauds in London of your Singaporean beauty: the first advertising personality to be included in the exhibition. What kind of selection process do the girls have to undergo before they get to don the Singapore Airlines uniform?
— A very rigorous one. A group of experts keep a close eye on how the girls conduct themselves, how they walk, stand, speak. After all, they are called upon to embody Asian values and our hospitality which is warm, refined, solicitous, and calm. Once they have been selected, the girls undergo training. Included on the programme, for which three and a half months is set aside, is a course in ethics. Future stewardesses are taught how to present themselves correctly, how to interact with the customers, how to attend to them. The girls are also told how to look after themselves, keep their weight under control.
— The food on board Singapore Airlines is legendary…
— At our company, we have an International Culinary Panel, on the staff of which are nine internationally renowned Michelin Star chefs. Their signature dishes are indicated on the menu with a special mark. All wines and dishes offered on board are tasted beforehand in a special compression chamber which recreates the pressurised atmosphere of an aeroplane cabin.
It’s safe on the street even at three in the morning
— How expensive a city is Moscow for foreigners?
— Going to a restaurant here is very dear. However, Sinaporean restaurants are also fairly expensive. And you have to bear in mind that you are not only paying for the food, as much as for the suroundings, and the particular ambience. Many Muscovites go to restaurants to socialise more than anything else.
— What can you say about the cost of renting accommodation as well?
— Look, I’m from Singapore where an enormous number of people live in a densely populated area. Property there is very expensive. Flats back home cost more than in Moscow, rents are cheaper. On the other hand, here in the Russian capital, there is no problem at all with buying a car. Before you can buy a car in Singapore, you have to obtain a special certificate of ownership which costs 30,000 Singaporean dollars. Not to mention paying excise duty and a registration fee.
Flats back home cost more than in Moscow, rents are cheaper.
— Do you have any favourite places in Moscow?
— Gorky Park, where there are numerous shaded avenues and clearings. I sometimes play football there with my friends. Adjacent to the park is the embankment of the Moskva River where my colleagues from the Singaporean embassy and I go jogging.
— What do you show your guests when they visit Moscow?
— Very little is said in Singapore about Moscow, it gets scant pubilicity. None of my friends, for example, knew anything beforehand about either the culture of Russia or its rich history. But when they came to stay with me, they all literally fell in love with Moscow. I show my friends Red Square, the Sparrow Hills where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Then we walk to the Moskva River Spit with its towering monument to Peter the Great, we take in some of the museums, and in the evening we go off to the Bolshoi Theatre.
— Would you consider Moscow a safe city for foreigners?
— Maybe I have been particularly lucky, but, in the two and a half years I have been living and working here, I have not experienced any kind of incidents. And I am not the kind of person who leaves the house by car at eight in the morning and gets back at eight in the evening. My wife and I walk around Moscow, and it can be the case that we get back from visiting friends between one or three in the morning. Both in the centre, and in the suburbs, I have always felt completely safe: at any time of the day or night.
Both in the centre, and in the suburbs, I have always felt completely safe: at any time of the day or night.
— What would you say to the foreigner contemplating whether or not to come to work in Moscow?
— Learn Russian! Don’t rush to judgment. Moscow is a city which reveals itself to you gradually. And don’t be put off by unsmiling passers-by. Behind that severe Russian exterior there hides a kindly soul.