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The nature of Singaporean society dictates that questions relating to etiquette and customs are more fluid than in many other Asian countries, as the diversity of communities means there is no single set of culturally acceptable behaviors.

There are nevertheless some customs and values that are universal. The first and foremost of these is that the elderly should always be treated with the greatest respect and courtesy at all times. This value supersedes all others.

Social Etiquette

General
  • Singaporeans generally take off their shoes before entering their homes and will also expect guests to do so
  • An invitation should always be acknowledged, whether you are able to attend or not
  • Dress modestly when attending social functions, and always seek advice on dress code if you are unsure so as to avoid causing offence
  • Avoid telling jokes until you have gotten to know your friends or colleagues very well, as they may be misunderstood and cause offence
  • Don’t instigate discussion on issues surrounding religion or politics; these matters are seldom discussed in public and almost never with strangers
  • Public displays of affection (PDAs) are generally not socially acceptable
  • No matter the situation, try to avoid raising your voice or losing your temper in public; problems, difficulties or misunderstandings are better resolved in a calm and methodical manner, as in this way a successful outcome is more likely
  • Do not litter, and do not eat or drink on the MRT
Entertaining Guests in Your Home
  • Muslims are prohibited to touch dogs, and many Chinese are afraid of them, so try to keep your dog away when visitors come to your home
  • When entertaining a Muslim guest, remember that they do not eat pork, nor drink alcohol; any meat that is served should be halal
  • If you have invited a Hindu friend or colleague to dine with you, they should not be served beef
Dining Out
  • As food is such an integral part of life in Singapore across all communities, there are a great many customs associated with dining out, and so it is not expected that a foreigner will understand them all at once. If you are unsure as to how to proceed, don’t feel embarrassed to ask your host about the proper etiquette – in most cases, they will appreciate the fact that you are trying to learn and understand how things are done.
Chinese Style
  • Chopsticks are not as ubiquitous as in China, so when dining with Chinese friends it is acceptable to ask for a fork and spoon
  • However, if you are eating with chopsticks, don’t stick them standing up in a bowl of rice, nor cross one over the other, as this is considered bad luck and impolite
  • Expect a boisterous, joyous affair with much talking, laughter and sharing of dishes
  • Always praise the food and the host’s choice of restaurant
  • Don’t be surprised when your host and other diners pile your plate with food, whether you ask for it or not
Indian and Muslim Style
  • When dining out with Muslim or Hindu friends, wait until you are invited before you start to eat or drink
  • Only eat using your right hand and use a serving spoon to serve yourself from communal dishes
  • Don’t serve other people at the table using your own utensils
  • If you’re eating with your fingers, just use the tips of your fingers and take small amounts
  • You can drink using your left hand
  • You will usually get a finger bowl at the end of the meal

Greetings and Addressing People

  • Introductions should always be carried out in order of age and seniority
  • You can expect younger Singaporeans to shake hands with everyone, but this is not the case with the older generation
  • Most Chinese men will shake hands, albeit with a much lighter grip than most Westerners
  • You can sometimes expect men and women to shake hands, but only when initiated by the woman; do not expect, however, to shake hands with a Muslim woman
  • Two women meeting will usually greet each other with a salaam, or head bowing greeting
  • If in doubt, when you are introduced to a member of the opposite sex, nodding the head and smiling is the most appropriate from of greeting in most situations
Chinese Style
  • Chinese people are generally referred to by their surname or family name, followed by their personal or given names; until you have been invited to use a personal name, it is polite to refer to a person using their surname and title
  • You can expect that many Chinese people in Singapore will have Western versions of their names (often added to their full Chinese names) and may prefer you to use that
Malay Style
  • Many Malays don’t have surnames, but instead add their father’s name to their own using a connector
  • Men add their father’s name using the connector bin, meaning ‘son of’; women will use the connector binti, meaning ‘daughter of’
  • ‘Haji’ in the case of a male, or ‘Hajjah’ in the case of a female, are titles used before names to indicate that the person has made their pilgrimage to Mecca
Indian Style
  • Surnames are not always used by Indians in Singapore; rather, the initial of their father’s name is placed in front of their own
  • Indian names are very often shortened, so that only the first half is used; some Tamil Indian names use only the second half of the name
  • After marriage, women drop their father’s name and use their husband’s first name as a form of surname
  • Sikhs use the suffix Singh (for males) or Kaur (for females) to denote their religion
  • Indians of Christian faith may use western names

Gift Giving Etiquette

Chinese Style
  • It is considered polite to ensure that all gifts are elaborately and expensively wrapped
  • If you are given a gift, it is polite to open it there and then
  • Flowers are not usually considered an appropriate gift, given their associations with the sick and death
Malay Style
  • Never give gifts of alcohol
  • Never give gifts made from pigskin
  • When you offer a gift, do so with your right hand
  • When you are given a gift, do not open it until later
Indian Style
  • Be cautious about giving alcohol as a gift; only do so if you are certain that the recipient drinks
  • If you are giving a gift to a Hindu, don’t give any gifts made from leather
  • If you are giving money as a gift, make sure it is an odd number
  • If you receive a gift, do not open it until later

Business Etiquette

  • Be aware that business protocols are taken very seriously
  • Good personal relationships are at the heart of all good business relationships
  • Business relationships need time to develop, and negotiations take time to be completed
  • Try to schedule business meetings well in advance, and ensure that you attend promptly
  • Show respect for seniority and a company’s organizational procedures
  • Be prepared for tough negotiating on issues such as price and deadlines
  • Try to avoid confrontation or overly heated discussions during meetings or negotiations; a calm demeanor will always be more respected than an aggressive manner
  • Expect your questions to be given due consideration, and do not expect rushed answers
  • Treat business cards with respect, both your own and others’

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