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Singapore - Local Customs

Historical perspective
To understand the culture of Singapore you have to know a little of its geography and history. Singapore is a small island at the southern end of the Malay Peninsular and two bridges connect it to the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru. For a brief period in the 14th century a Malay king ruled from Singapore, but it had no other historical importance until in 1819, when Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company landed in Singapore to establish a new trading port. At that time, all shipping between Europe and India passed by Singapore, on its way to China. Singapore is still today one of the world’s largest ports.

The earliest inhabitants of Singapore were Malay fishermen, but the British soon encouraged the Chinese to come from Malaya and China to provide labor for the port. They brought soldiers from India for the colony’s army and police force. Today Singapore has a population of about 4 million people  - 75% Chinese, 15 % Malay, 8% Indian and 2% others.

Singapore was a British colony until 1959 and became an independent Republic in 1965. At that time it was a poor developing country with low standards of health, housing and education. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, led the country until 1990. His government produced a modern economic miracle, turning Singapore into one of the world’s most industrialized nations. Petrochemicals and electronics are its major exports. Singapore has a democratically elected government, but only one party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has been in power and opposition parties are small and ineffectual.

  • Business Etiquette
    The business environment in Singapore is quite varied and what you should wear and how you should behave differs from place to place.
  • Business Attire
    In the banking and financial sector, business wear is the same as in most other countries. Due to the climate wearing jackets is optional except on formal occasions. In other kinds of business meetings including meetings with government officials and in marketing, advertising, sales, research and academic environments, ties are not always worn and smart casual dress is okay.
  • Introductions
    Shaking hands is the usual form of greeting but you should wait for the Singaporean to put out their hand first as some Malay and Indian Singaporeans may prefer just to nod. Business cards are important and should be given and received with both hands. Take a minute to look at what is written on the card.
  • Punctuality
    Be on time. If you are running late for a meeting or appointment, use your mobile phone to call ahead and apologise. Always arrive early for job interviews. Arriving on time for social events is not as important. Working hours vary from 8.30 to 10am in the morning to 6pm or much later. Lunch hours vary from 30 minutes to more than an hour.
  • Communication
    Asians generally prefer to avoid eye contact. English is the language of business but avoid using slang, idioms or humour. Singaporeans are generally very conservative and reserved. Getting to know people may take some time.
  • Networking
    Networking is important in Singapore so join a business association. Singaporeans prefer to do business with people who have been introduced by a third party.

Business Associations

Customs
In common with most Asians, Singaporeans remove their shoes before entering a home or a temple. For visits to an Indian temple or Islamic mosque, dress modestly. Chinese temples have no dress code. On the streets of Singapore you will see many women wearing saris, Punjabi suits and various kinds of costumes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Malay and Indonesian women who are also Muslim will always have their arms and legs covered and sometimes wear a headscarf which in Singapore is called a ‘tudung’. Everyone else in Singapore dresses very casually. Smart casual is adequate for nearly all occasions.

  • Chinese Customs

Chinese New Year
This is a celebration that continues for two weeks. Chinese families celebrate with a family reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve. Red envelopes (hong bao) containing money are given to children. Other gifts are exchanged, particularly pairs of mandarin oranges which symbolize happiness and good fortune. You can wish Chinese friends and neighbours “Gong Xi Fa Cai” or “Happy New Year”. The Chinese community will shop for new clothes, new household items and special New Year foods. The favorite colour for New Year is red which signifies good luck and prosperity.

Chinese Weddings
Guests wear bright colours as black, dark blue and dark green are considered unlucky. The bride and groom are given gifts of money in bright red envelopes.

Numbers
The number four is considered to be very unlucky and most Chinese people will avoid it in their telephone numbers. The number eight is very lucky.

  • Malay customs
    Most Malay people are also Muslims and do not consume alcohol and eat only ‘halal’ food. ‘Halal’ regulations determine the types of animals that can be eaten and the way food is prepared. Muslims do not eat pork or chocolates and candy containing gelatine. During the month of Ramadan, in November or December, most Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset.
  • Indian Customs
    Most Indians follow the Hindu religion. The cow is a sacred animal in India, so Hindus do not eat beef and many are vegetarians. Some Indians follow the Muslim faith and so do not eat pork. There are many small restaurants in Little India where food is served in the traditional way on a banana leaf and is eaten with the fingers. Only the right hand is used for eating. It is quite acceptable to ask for cutlery in these restaurants if you don’t feel comfortable eating with your fingers.

Do's and Don'ts
Don’ts
Singapore is a “fine” city’- that’s what it says on some souvenir tourist T-shirts followed by a long list of things that you can be fined quite large sums of money for, if caught doing. Singapore is a very clean, tidy, ordered city and to keep it that way the following things are forbidden:

  • Chewing gum
    Since 1992 Singapore has banned the import, manufacture and sale of chewing gum. This law was enacted after doors on a train were stuck with chewing gum and unable to be opened.
  • Spitting 
  • Littering
    Very heavy fines can be associated with littering and Singaporeans have been known to make a citizen's arrest.
  • Jay Walking 
  • Dancing on the bars 
    Bar owners face heavy fines if they allow dancing on the bars or on the tables in their clubs or bars-this to happen on their premises.
  • Smoking 
    not allowed in just about any indoor, air-conditioned space including shopping centers, restaurants, cinemas, buses, trains and taxis. Clubs and bars can have a smoking area in places where food is not served. In restaurants smoking is only allowed at outdoor tables.
  • Tipping
    Not completely outlawed but unnecessary. Most restaurants will already charge a 10% service charge. You can give taxis drivers the small change but they will not expect a tip.

More Serious Don’ts

  • Drugs
    Possession of illegal drugs is considered to be a very serious crime. If you are caught in possession of quantities of morphine over 30 grams, heroin 15 grams, cocaine 30 grams, marijuana 500 grams, hashish 200 grams or opium 1.2 grams you will be considered to be a drug trafficker and face the death penalty.
  • Liquor
    The legal age for alcohol purchase and consumption is 18 years. Public drunk and disorderly behaviour can result in a heavy fine or even imprisonment. There are also strict drinking and driving laws.

Do’s

  • Do join a queue – standing in line for cinema or show tickets, waiting for a table in a restaurant, collecting free give aways at a shopping center promotion, joining a queue for taxis. Singaporeans love to queue up for everything.
  • Do learn to speak Singlish. This will help you communicate better with taxi drivers and shop assistants. Singlish is English spoken with Chinese grammar and a good quantity of Malay and Chinese dialect words added for local flavor. Beginners can just add ‘lah’ to the end of sentences.

Singlish dialogue example :
Passenger – Takashimaya can'
Taxi driver – Can lah

English Translation :
Passenger - Can you please take me to Takashimaya department store.
Taxi driver – Certainly madam

Social etiquette
There are many different cultures co-existing in Singapore so customs and etiquette like all things in Asia depends on each individual situation.

Eating out

  • This is the main recreational activity in Singapore. There are all kinds of Western style restaurants from haute cuisine to McDonalds. Local cuisine is also available in many different environments. Singapore is famous for its very casual style ‘food courts’ or ‘hawker centres’. (go to Food-local gastronomy for more information).
  • Opening hours vary but some places specialize in late night or 24 hour opening.
  • Most Singapore restaurants are very child friendly. In Chinese culture the whole family of at least three generations enjoy eating out together for special occasions.
  • Dress varies but because of the climate is always on the casual side.
  • Eating out with groups of work colleagues is common, especially at Chinese New Year. It is common to eat at places where the cost is fixed in advance. Hotel restaurants that have buffets are very popular as are Chinese restaurants that have fixed price banquets. Someone in the group will make the reservation in advance and collect the payment from group members in advance or at the restaurant. Asians friends eating together will normally divide the bill and pay equal shares. This is especially the case because in most Asian cuisines a selection of dishes is ordered that is shared by everyone at the table. Eating at food courts is popular because you buy your own meal at a counter and share a table with friends.

National Dress
It is appropriate for women to wear National Dress on any occasion including at work. On the streets of Singapore you will see many women wearing saris, Punjabi suits and various kinds of costumes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Men usually only wear National Dress on special occasions such as National holidays or religious festivals.

Smoking
Smoking is forbidden by law in any indoor public space including restaurants, shopping malls, train stations and offices.

Alcohol
Freely available everywhere. Alcohol is not usually not consumed during working hours. Any kind of public display of drunkenness will quickly attract the attention of the police. There are very stiff penalties for drink driving.
Entertaining

The Chinese community do most of their entertaining in restaurants. If Chinese friends invite you to a restaurant, they will order the dishes and they will pay the check. You should arrive at the restaurant close to the time stated. You can reciprocate by taking them out to dinner or inviting them to a meal in your home.

In Indian and Malay culture it is more common to entertain at home. If going to someone’s home you should take a gift- the usual chocolates or flowers is acceptable. Malay people are often of the Muslim faith and do not drink alcohol. The time to arrive and leave varies a lot. You should try to find out in advance what is expected. Some people will expect you to arrive at least half an hour later than the designated time.

In common with most Asians, most Singaporeans remove their shoes before entering a home.

Expatriates entertain at home or meet friends in restaurants. In a restaurant people pay for their own meals. Timing depends on culture and whether children are included.
Removing shoes before entering a home or place of worship is probably common to all cultures.

‘A Matter of Course’ Etiquette series, Raelene Tan, Landmark Books.  Includes books on Chinese, Indian and Malay customs and etiquette

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