A Cultural Guide Singapore


• 3.5 million
• One of the most densely populated
countries in the world.

• Singapore (3.3 million)

• Singapore is a democratic republic.
• The president is the head of state.
• The prime minister is the head of government.

• Singapore is located just north of the
equator; consequently the weather is
hot and humid all year around.
• A tropical rain shower occurs every
day or two throughout the year
except during the month of July.
• Mid-November to mid-January is
the heavy rainy season.
• The coolest period is during the
months of December and January.
Temperatures range from 25C (75F)
to 28C (82F).
• Temperatures during the rest of the
year range from 27C (81F) to 31C


Ethnic Groups
• 76% Chinese (comprised of more
than five subgroups with different
dialects and different cultures).
• 15% Malay (indigenous to
• 6% Indian (comprised of immigrants
from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri
Lanka and Myanmar).
• Less than 1% are European.
• Relations between all ethnic groups
is good.

• Singapore has four official languages:
Malay, Tamil, Chinese, and English.
• Malay is the national language.
• Despite the fact that English is not the
mother tongue for any of the three
main ethnic groups, it is the primary
language used in business, adminis-tration,
commerce, and tourism.
• The Government of Singapore uses
Mandarin Chinese.
• English is considered an important
unifying factor because of its neutral-ity
as well as its being the major
international language.
• All Singaporeans are expected to
learn English.
• The government strives to ensure
that traditional cultures and values
are maintained by encouraging use
of all languages.
• The Chinese speak a number of
different dialects. However, the
government is encouraging all
Chinese to learn and speak Mandarin.
• Most Singaporeans are bilingual or

• Singapore has no official religion.
Freedom of worship is constitutionally
• The major religions are Buddhism,
Taoism, Confucianism, Islam,
Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism.
A number of other smaller religions
are also practiced.
• Approximately 50% (primarily
Chinese) practice Buddhism or Taoism
(or a combination of Buddhism,
Taoism, and Confucianism).
• Most of the indigenous Malays are
• The Chinese community believes in
Feng shui (pronounced fung shway).
The words mean “wind and water.”
Feng shui is an entire school of
environmental and cultural doctrines.
Feng shui is based on the premise
that people experience happier,
healthier, more prosperous lives when
their homes and work environments
are harmonious. New ventures or
new construction will often require
the blessing of a Feng shui master.


Meeting & Greeting
• Although Singapore has three major
ethnic groups, each with its own
tradition, the most common greeting
is a handshake.
• The handshake is usually quite soft and
lingering. Both hands may be used.
• Foreign businesswomen may shake
hands with both men and women.
Singaporean men will often wait for
the woman to initiate the gesture.

Singaporean Chinese
• Singaporean Chinese may accompany
their handshake with a nod of the
head, particularly when greeting
older people.

Singaporean Malay
• Singaporean Malay are often Muslim.
• Muslim tradition dictates that there is
no public contact between the sexes.
• Devout Muslim men will ritually
cleanse after they have touched a
• If the Singaporean Malay is very
westernized, he may shake hands
with a woman.
• Foreign businesswomen should
wait for a Malay man to initiate the
• Foreign businessmen should wait for
a Singaporean Malay woman to offer
her hand.
• The traditional Malay greeting is the
Salaam that involves taking the right
hand, touching the heart, then the
forehead and then gesturing forward.
It is not recommended that foreigners
use this greeting.
• Some Muslims, particularly men, may
bring their hands back to touch
their chests after shaking hands to
symbolize that the greeting comes
from the heart. They are pleased
when a foreigner reciprocates the

Singaporean Indian
• Although not common, Singaporean
Indians may greet you in the tradi-tional
manner called a namaste
(pronounced na-mas-tay), which is
done by holding the palms of your
hands together (as in a prayer)
below the chin, accompanied by
a slight nod.
• Many Singaporean Indians are Hindu.
• Traditionally, there is no public contact
between the sexes.
• Only westernized Hindus will shake
hands with women.
• A namaste in this situation is an
acceptable alternative to a handshake
for a foreign businesswoman.
• Business cards are exchanged at the
beginning of a meeting.
• Cards should be given and received
using both hands.
• It is not necessary to have your card
translated into Mandarin on the back
unless you are dealing with a
Chinese company.
• You should begin meetings with a
few minutes of casual conversation.
Business discussions will usually
begin relatively quickly.
• Avoid scheduling meetings during
the luncheon period from 1:00 p.m.
to 2:00 p.m.
• Avoid scheduling business trips
during the Chinese New Year period.

Forms of Address
• The three different ethnic groups
should each be addressed in a
different manner.
• Because of the complexities, it is
acceptable to ask a Singaporean
how he or she wishes to be addressed.
Singaporean Chinese
• In Chinese names, the family name
is traditionally placed first, followed
by the given name.
• Address Chinese using their
professional title (Engineer, Dr.,
President, etc.) or government title
(Mayor, Councillor, etc.) followed by
their family name.
• If the title is unknown, use the
appropriate courtesy title (Mr., Mrs.,
or Miss) and their family name.
• Never address a Chinese by his or
her family name alone.
• Traditionally, Chinese wives retain
their maiden name. Marital status is
indicated by using Madam or Mrs.
• Many Chinese have taken an English
first name or use their initials to
ease communications with English
• It is acceptable to ask how someone
wishes to be addressed, if unsure
about which is the family or first
• Only family members or close
friends use first names.
• There are only 100 widely used
family names. The five most common
surnames are “Chang”, “Wang”,
“Li”, “Chao”, and “Liu”.

Singaporean Malays
• There are no family names. A man
is known by his given name(s)
followed by bin (son of) and his
father’s name.
• A woman is known by her given
name(s) followed by binti (daughter
of) and her father’s name.
• To address a Malay, use the
appropriate professional title (Dr.,
Professor, Engineer) or Mr./Mrs./Miss
followed by their given name.
• The traditional greeting for Muslim
men is Encik (pronounced onchik)
followed by their first name. For a
married woman it is Puan (pro-nounced
poo-ahn) or for a single
woman, Cik (pronounced chik),
followed by her first name. The
current trend is to use Puan for any
adult female.
• Some married women will drop
their father’s name and take their
husband’s name.
• Some westernized Malays have
removed bin or binti from their
• If a man has completed his
pilgrimage to Mecca, he will be
addressed as Tuan Haji.
• If a women has completed her
pilgrimage to Mecca, she will be
addressed as Puan Hajah.
• These honorific titles must be
individually earned.
• Professional titles (Doctor,
Professor) or the English courtesy
titles (Mr., Mrs. or Miss) plus the
family name unless familiar with
the Hindu, Muslim or Sikh greeting
customs. Wait until invited to use
first names.

• Given names come first, followed by
family names.
• It is polite to use professional titles
or Shri (Mr. ); Shrimati Mrs.) or
Kumari (Miss) or the suffix –ji with
a last name to show respect.

• Muslims have no surname. A Muslim
is generally known by a given name
followed by bin (son of) or binti
(daughter of) plus the father’s given
• Married Muslim women do not
always take the husband’s name.

• The given name is always followed
by either Singh (for males) or Kaur
(for females).
• All Sikhs use the name Singh, but
not all Singhs are Sikhs.
• Address Sikhs by their professional
title or Mr., Mrs., or Miss, and by
their first name.
• To address a Sikh male as Mr. Singh
is the equivalent of saying “Mr. Man”
in English.

• Business entertaining over lunch or
dinner is common. Business breakfasts
are rare.
• Most Singaporeans prefer to
conduct business over lunches
which can be long in duration.
• Business is often discussed over
the meal.
• Do not invite a Singaporean business
associate to lunch until you have
had an opportunity to meet on a
few occasions.
• Government officials may be prohib-ited
from attending a social event.
• Spouses are often invited to dinners
and other functions if business is
not to be discussed.
• If you invite Singaporeans to dinner,
ideally have an even number present
at the table to ensure good fortune.
• You will rarely be invited to a
Singaporean home for a business
• Shoes should be removed before
entering most homes.

• Since Singapore has become quite
westernized, the customs and eat-ing
etiquette will vary according to
the cuisine and culture.
• Hindus and Buddhists do not eat
beef; Muslims do not eat pork.
• Chopsticks are the most popular
utensil although Western-style
utensils are normally available.
• In most cases, diners will have
individual bowls (plates or even
a banana leaf) of rice.
• Wait until your host begins eating
and invites you to start.
• Small amounts of food should be
taken throughout the meal from
communal platters.
• It is considered polite to always leave
a little bit of food on the serving
dishes (not in your own bowl or
plate) to show that an adequate
amount of food has been served
and you have been well fed.

Singaporean Chinese
• At a round table, the guest of
honour is always placed facing
the entrance and to the host’s left.
• Use chopsticks for eating and a
porcelain spoon for soup.
• Chopsticks, when not in use, should
be left on the chopstick rest. It is
considered improper to rest
them on your dinner plate or on
the rice bowl. Do not place them
standing straight up in the rice
(associated with a funeral ritual
and synonymous with death).
• Do not place bones, seeds or other
debris in your rice bowl. If a separate
dish is unavailable, they should be
placed on the table.
• To remove any bones from your
mouth, do not use your fingers. It is
considered impolite. Most Chinese
will use chopsticks to remove bones
and then set them on a bone plate
or on the table.

Singaporean Malay/Indian
• The guest of honour is usually seated
at the head of the table or to the
right of the host.
• Diners wash and dry their hands
before and after a meal.
• When dining with Indians, always
go to the washroom to wash your
hands before eating.
• Malays will usually offer a small
bowl and towel at the table.
• Malays and Indians eat using the
fingers of their right hand.
• Never use your left hand as it is
considered unclean.
• Forks and spoons may be used for
some foods.
• If given a spoon and fork, hold the
spoon in your right hand and the
fork in your left; use the fork to
push food onto the spoon.
• Always use a serving spoon, rather
than your fingers, to take food from
a communal dish.
• It is offensive to offer food (even to
a family member) from your plate to
others. Never let the serving spoon
touch your plate. Indians believe that
anything that touches someone’s
plate is polluted.
• Orthodox Muslims and most Hindus
do not consume alcohol.
• It is customary for Malays to
entertain at home rather than in

• It is important to be punctual for
business or social events.
• If you are going to be delayed for a
meeting, you should phone ahead.


• Singapore has the highest standard
of living in Southeast Asia.
• Singapore is one of the safest
countries in Asia.
• British colonial influence is evident
in many parts of Singapore society.
• Singaporeans are highly disciplined.
• Great value is placed on excellence,
hard work, honesty, and education.
• The ethnic groups within Singapore
peacefully coexist. Singapore is a
country of racial harmony and
national unity.
• Each ethnic group works hard to
maintain its own cultural traditions.
• The family is central to all ethnic
• Elders are respected.
• Singaporeans are usually modest
and humble. Compliments are
appreciated but are usually modestly
• Loud voices and public displays of
anger are frowned upon.
• The preservation of harmony is
• Singaporeans will not say an outright
“no”, as it is considered disrespectful.
Common expressions used instead
are “It is difficult” or “I would like
to but…”or“maybe”.
• The answer “yes” does not always
indicate an affirmative. “Yes” may
mean “Yes, I understand” or “Yes,
I hear you”.
• The concept of “saving face” is
important in Chinese culture.
“Face” refers to a person’s pride,
self-respect, family honour, and
reputation. “Keeping face” means
avoiding embarrassment, failure,
or defeat.
• Be careful to avoid causing
someone to “lose face” by insulting
or criticizing him/her in public.
• Short periods of silence are common
during discussions with Singaporeans.
Be patient. Do not try to fill in the
silence with further discussion.
Await their response. Silence is not
only considered polite, but may
indicate serious thought.
• Do not be surprised by a laugh or
smile at what may seem inappropriate
times. This response may be used to
mask feelings of embarrassment,
nervousness, or other emotions.
• Very strict laws prohibit littering, jay
walking, smoking, spitting, and
chewing gum.
• Although most toilets now flush
automatically, failure to flush a
toilet is against the law.
• Punishment and fines can be
severe, hence most Singaporeans
respect and abide by the laws
which have been established.

• Public displays of affection are
frowned upon.
• A woman may hold hands with
another woman. This is considered
a sign of friendship.
• Hitting your fist into your other
cupped hand is considered obscene.
• Be sure to cover your mouth with
your hand when yawning.
• It is considered rude to blow your
nose or clear your throat in public.
• Minimize hand and body gestures
when talking. Most Singaporeans
find the movements distracting.
• Avoid touching someone’s head
(even to pat a child) as both Malays
and Indians believe it is where the
spirit or soul resides.
• For both Muslims and Hindus, the
left hand is reserved for personal
hygiene and therefore considered
unclean. Do not eat, accept gifts,
pass objects, or hold cash with
your left hand. When both hands
are needed, it is acceptable to use
• The foot is also considered
unclean. Avoid showing the soles
of your feet (or shoes), touching
anyone or moving objects with
your feet.
• When crossing your legs, do not
place one ankle on the other knee.
• Shoes must always be removed
before entering a mosque or temple.
• Do not point using your forefinger
as Malaysians use this gesture to
point only at animals. Even using
two fingers is considered impolite
by some Indians. Use the right
hand, palm facing out or your right
thumb (be sure the rest of your
fingers are curled inward).
• It is a sign of anger if a person
stands with hands on hips.
• An Indian may indicate agreement
by a side-to-side toss of their head.
Westerners often misinterpret this
gesture to mean “no”.
• A gesture which indicates someone
is having difficulty giving a positive
response, involves the sucking in of
air or a hissing sound made through
the teeth.
• To beckon someone, extend the arm
out, hand down, and make a down-ward
scratching motion with your
fingers towards your body.
• It is considered polite to slightly
bow when entering or leaving a
room, or when passing by a group
of people.

• Tipping is not expected and is often
• In restaurants, a service charge is
usually included in the bill.

• Because Singapore is hot and
humid all year around, you will
need light-weight clothing.
• Sudden rain showers occur through-out
the year. Bring an umbrella.
• Natural fabrics that breathe, such as
cotton, are appropriate.
• Because of the heat, business dress
in Singapore is somewhat casual.
• Foreign businessmen should dress
more conservatively until aware of
the formality required. Men should
wear a suit and tie. Jackets may be
removed if it seems appropriate.
• Foreign businesswomen should
wear tailored linen and silk dresses
or suits (pant suits are acceptable)
with stockings and pumps. Avoid
sleeveless garments. Short sleeves
are acceptable.
• Singapore offices are often air-con-ditioned
to extreme coldness so
visitors should have a jacket handy.
• For business, Singaporean men will
often wear dark trousers, a light-coloured
long sleeved shirt and tie,
without a jacket. Open-necked batik
shirts are also popular.
• Singaporean businesswomen will
wear either a light-coloured blouse
with a skirt or a business suit, depend-ing
upon the formality of the office.
• The dress code at evening receptions
can be business attire or “smart casual”.
• Jeans are acceptable for both sexes.

• Business gifts are generally not
• Gifts are exchanged between
• A gift may be misinterpreted as a
bribe, if it is given before a close
relationship has been established.
• Singapore has very stringent laws
against bribery.
• Government officials may not
accept any gift.
• Each ethnic group has different
gift-giving traditions.
• Gifts are never opened in the
presence of the giver. To open a
gift immediately indicates that the
person is greedy. Gifts are put aside
to be opened later.
• Gifts should be elegantly wrapped.
• When you wrap your gifts, be aware
of the significance of colour for the
different cultures in Singapore. See
• If invited to a private home for
dinner, always bring a small gift.
• Give brand name, high quality gifts.
Singaporean Chinese
• Present your gift using both hands.
• In order not to appear greedy, Chinese
will normally decline a gift several
times before accepting. It is important
to insist until they accept the gift.
• Similarly, you should decline several
times before taking a gift.
Gift taboos include:
• clocks (associated with death),
• knives (negative connotations),
• green hats (a Chinese wearing a
green hat indicates that his wife or
girlfriend has been unfaithful),
• blankets (suppress prosperity), or
• handkerchiefs (symbolize grief and
• Wrapping paper: Avoid white,
black, and blue paper (associated
with funerals). Red and gold are
good colours to use as they are
considered festive colours.
Singaporean Malay
• Do not give liquor, pork items, or
• As Malays consider dogs unclean,
do not give toy dogs or gifts that
picture dogs.
• Wrapping paper: Avoid white paper
(associated with funerals) or yellow
paper (reserved for royalty).
Singaporean Indian
• Present gifts using the right hand.
• Wrapping paper: Green, red, and
yellow are good colours to use.
• Singapore is a very good place
for foreign businesswomen to do
• Singaporean women are often
highly educated and actively involved
in business and commerce. However,
there are still few females in top
executive positions.
• Most Singaporean women man-agers
are employed in personnel,
administration, consumer affairs,
and public relations. Most are in
lower- and middle- management
positions and support functions.

Louisa Nedkov is President, Solo Sessions, based in Toronto, and author of the book Raise Your Cultural IQ – Asia & the Pacific, from which this article is excerpted. Raise Your Cultural IQ can be obtained directly via her Web site or through Amazon.com. Louisa Nedkov may be contacted at: Tel. 416.441.0021, Fax 416.441.6801, E-mail info@SoloSessions.com, Web site www.solosessions.com.