Singapore Business Etiquette

Posted by Sophia Barnhart

Selamat datang ke Singapura! (“Welcome to Singapore!” in Malay)

Singapore, the tropical oasis home to over 5 million people of countless dialects and religions, is a thriving hub for global business. Declared the world’s best place for business, this island nation boasts rational and cultural unity in its modern society.

When conducting business in Singapore, it’s crucial to keep in mind that despite its small size, Singapore is home to an extremely diverse society. Its multiethnic population is essentially comprised of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures speaking Malay (Singapore’s national language), Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, and English—though it’s best to use English in business as it’s the universal administrative language in Singapore. There is even a local vernacular called Singlish, which is “essentially English generously peppered with local slang and dialects”.

The Lowdown

  • General office hours in Singapore are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Typical vacation time is around public holidays (try to avoid scheduling appointments on or around Christmas or either the calendar or Chinese New Year).
  • It’s advisable to avoid conducting business during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
  • Taxi is the most traditional way to travel, but the MRT is also an option within the city.
  • Locals may arrive late, but visitors are expected to arrive punctually.

Dressing Sharp

  • Day-to-day work: business casual is just fine—given the humid climate, lightweight short-sleeve shirts with long trousers or dresses without ties or jackets are generally acceptable.
  • Special events: follow dress code (which may include jackets). Foreign visitors should dress slightly more formal than the average dress code.

Make or Break Meetings

  • Handling your business card: be sure to hand over your business card with both hands at its edges, with your name facing the recipient. Upon receiving a card never write on it, simply place it in your pocket or folder.
  • Be aware when first making introductions on how to address the person, whether he or she has a Chinese, Malay, or Indian name
  • General greetings to begin a meeting include a handshake (don’t shake too hard—a gentle squeeze is enough) and an introduction.
  • Feel free to start with small talk: you’re welcome to talk about business, food, weather, the economy, or even just your flight into town. Try to avoid compliments and talking about emotions or politics.
  • Though in Western business it’s considered assertive and polite to maintain eye contact, looking a person straight in the eyes in Singapore may be interpreted as disrespectful, or worse—aggressive, so keep eye contact brief.
  • Singaporeans are calm in demeanor, so be patient and soft-spoken when chatting.

Dining Decorum

  • Singaporeans take a lot of pride in their own food, so if you’re meeting over a meal (which is more than likely), expect delicious local cuisine—Singaporeans love seafood. Fusion restaurants tend to work well also.
  • There are few restrictions on utensils but eating with chopsticks or hands looks impressive if done correctly. Be aware if your host is Muslim—if so, watch for alcohol, pork, Halal food, etc.
  • If your business contact is Chinese, try to sit with your back to the door—in Chinese culture, it is always important for them to see an exit.
  • It is impolite to refuse initial offers of food or drink. When finished, place both your spoon and fork together on your plate and place your hand above your plate and say, “No, thank you” to refuse seconds.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • While each ethnic group shares different gift giving traditions, it’s generally customary to give something when invited to someone’s home or during festive seasons (i.e. Chinese New Year).
  • Locals may call upon their clients with a gift hamper.
  • As a visitor, it’s a nice gesture to bring something typical from home—processed food is a good idea but keep quarantine regulations in mind.
  • When giving a gift, be sure to present it with both hands. When receiving a gift, open it after the giver leaves.

Down to Business

  • In business, Singaporeans can be direct and demanding; you will be expected to get right to the point. However, be patient when building partnerships—they will foster strong personal relationships.
  • Singapore’s business is known to be highly efficient, so Westerners are also expected to deliver information promptly.
  • Business that adds prestige is key; wasting time, money or resources is frowned upon.
  • Do remember that Singaporeans are non-confrontational, so although they won’t overtly say “no”, their “yes” may not signify acceptance or agreement.

Public Behavior

  • Singapore is a cosmopolitan city-state famous for its strict regulations and fines. Be careful not to littering, spitting, or smoking.
  • Avoid public displays of affection, showing anger, or discussing religion or politics. Wait on making jokes until you’ve established a solid relationship with the other person.
  • Treat men and women equally, as discrimination is banned and women are quickly gaining ground and respect in the business world.
  • The head is considered sacred, so don’t touch someone’s head. The feet, on the other hand, are considered dirty, so never show the bottoms or use your feet to point.

Now that you’re well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to Singapore, don’t forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb!

Selamat tinggal! (“Goodbye” in Malay)