Cultivating global networks

Faridah Mohd Saad
Centre Director, Johannesburg, IE Singapore

NUS Arts and Social Sciences

If you want a Big Mac in South Africa, be prepared to share your life story with the cashier.

According to National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Political Science graduate Faridah Saad, you cannot simply walk in and out of any McDonald’s outlet in Johannesburg without conforming to the norm of engaging in social niceties and casual chitchat that comes with every order of fries.

"Before you say anything to anyone, you have to ask them how they are," said Faridah. "It does not matter if they are the security guard or the aunty making you tea. I have seen so many Singaporeans who try to order their latte in a cafe, only to be greeted by a loop of, 'Hi, how are you? How are you today’?"

Faridah (first from left) pictured here with friends in San Francisco.

This is just one tip she offers to Singaporean entrepreneurs who land in Johannesburg airport for the first time. As International Enterprise (IE) Singapore’s Centre Director in Johannesburg, Faridah’s job is to promote Singapore to Africans and Africa to Singaporean business leaders who land on her turf.

Not an easy job when your responsibility stretches from Mozambique in the north to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, a geographical region larger than Europe. But Faridah was cheery and undaunted as she waxed lyrical about the untapped trillion-dollar combined economy of Africa.

Despite her tender age of 28, Faridah’s work in IE Singapore has taken her to more than 17 countries, including some that most Singaporeans would never think of visiting. She has been through more airports and crossed more borders than most Singaporeans, save for perhaps pilots and cabin crew.

However, do not be mistaken. The directorship that sends her jet-setting every other week did not simply land in Faridah’s lap by chance; it came about after years of hard work and study on her part.

Even when she was a young intern for Singapore Press Holdings, Faridah had some inkling that Singapore was not enough to contain her ambitions. There was a vague yearning to explore beyond these sunny shores, perhaps even to be based overseas as a foreign correspondent.

"I asked my journalist colleagues what to study and many of them suggested Political Science in NUS," she recalled. It made sense at the time, since political desk journalists were often seen by SPH as the cream of the crop.

Helping out at NUS Open Day as a student ambassador.

So that was what she did, choosing to major in Political Science in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS. The experience turned out to be a lot more than she had bargained for.

Within the classroom, she learned about institutions like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank while attending a module on International Organisations by Professor Reuben Wong. Little did she know she would get to work with these organisations years later to develop infrastructure projects in Asia.

Despite her busy coursework, Faridah was appointed a student ambassador and given the rare opportunity to interact with the late Mr SR Nathan during an event which she emceed. Best of all, the NUS exchange programme to Boston University afforded Faridah her first real taste of overseas life.

"At Boston University, I read modules in political philosophy, American history and international diplomacy. I became friends with a great bunch of international students from Australia, Japan, Germany, Denmark... we travelled around the US and even spent Christmas break in Cancun, Mexico," she exclaimed.

Her former colleagues at the newspaper were regretting their recommendations because Faridah never returned to journalism. Instead, she won herself an undergraduate scholarship with IE Singapore – an agency that partners Singapore-based companies in their overseas growth and promotes Singapore as a global trading hub.

"This job has taken me to brave new worlds!" she mused.

With representatives of the Zambia development agency.

Back in vibrant Johannesburg, she leads a team of South Africans who scour the continent for business opportunities. Outside the embassy walls, she welcomes and supports Singapore business leaders who arrive with a “National Geographic” mindset on Africa – images of starving children, political chaos and malaria epidemics.

Faridah always takes special pride in demolishing these stereotypes.

"You can literally see in their faces," she said, mimicking their popped eyes and slack jaw. "They will ask, 'There is a four-lane highway? The mall has Gucci and Fendi?'"

While their reactions are priceless, so is Faridah’s work of helping Singapore businesses get access to the right connections. But regardless of what the purpose of your visit might be, Faridah welcomes her fellow Singaporeans to the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.

During SG50 celebrations last year, Faridah was thrilled to join a dinner for the 70 or so Singaporeans living and working in South Africa. And as is typical of our countrymen, they spent too much time deciding who should make chicken rice and who should make popiah.

"This is one project I have never done before," said Faridah with a hearty laugh.