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The People

Singapore is a conglomeration of Chinese (76%), Malay (15%) and Indian (6%) cultures. In the past, this racial mixture has lead to some conflict. However, today most Singaporeans enjoy racial harmony and national unity. Each group works hard to maintain its cultural traditions while building a modern, cohesive society. Singaporeans of the younger generation think of themselves as Singaporean first, and as Chinese, Malay or Indian second.

Meeting and Greeting

  • Shake hands with everyone present at a business meeting or social occasion. Shake hands again when leaving. Your handshake should be firm.
  • Singaporeans may bow slightly as they shake your hand. Many Westerners are generally taller than Singaporeans, so it would be polite to give a small bow. A slight bow for Chinese or older people is polite.

Body Language

  • Never touch a person's or child's head. The head is considered sacred.
  • The foot is considered the lowest part of the body, and is thought to be unclean. The foot should never be used to point at someone, and you should never show the bottom of your feet. Tapping your foot or fidgeting your legs denotes feebleness and lack of interest. When crossing your legs, do so only by placing one knee over the other.
  • Raise your hand to get someone's attention. Never signal or point at a person with the forefinger. Do not pound your first on an open palm; this is obscene. The forearm jerk is a rude gesture.

Corporate Culture

  • Westerners are expected to be punctual for social occasions and business meetings. Call if you are delayed. Tardiness is viewed as a sign of disrespect.
  • Business cards are exchanged upon being introduced. Exchange business cards with both hands after you are introduced.
  • The government finances many of the large corporations in Singapore. This bureaucratic system is known for its high efficiency and corruption-free business style. Western-style management is evident in large firms managed by Singaporeans.
  • Personal contacts are important in business. It takes several years to develop business relationships. Take time to know people before discussing business.
  • Singaporeans tend to get right down to business in meetings. Singaporeans are fast-paced and can make decisions quickly.
  • You are expected to deliver reports, correspondence, packages, etc. when promised.
  • Always talk straight and get right to the point with Singaporeans. You can be direct when dealing with issues of money.

Dining and Entertainment

  • Dinner is the most common form of business entertainment, but it is a time to socialize and build relationships rather than discuss business. Don't be surprised if business dinners are scheduled for every night of the week. Most entertainment is done in restaurants.
  • Food is usually put on the table with all dishes served at once and to be shared by all. Drinks and appetizers are uncommon, though they are available in Western restaurants.
  • Allow the host to order all the dishes.
  • Chinese may offer a banquet. A Westerner should always reciprocate with a banquet of equal value before departing.
  • Chinese use chopsticks for most food and porcelain spoons for the liquid part of soup. Western style utensils are used, but are not as common as chopsticks.
  • Allow a Chinese host to invite you to start your meal and begin eating before you start to eat.
  • When finished with your meal, place chopsticks on the chopstick rest (setting them on your plate means you are not finished).
  • Be on time for dinner in a Malay home. The dinner is usually served immediately with no drinks or appetizers beforehand.
  • Indians always wash their hands before and after a meal. In a Malay home, you will be given a small bowl of water and a towel. Use the water to wash your hands.
  • Malays and Indians use a spoon along with their hands to eat, but never use your left hand to eat (unclean). If given a spoon and fork, hold the spoon in your right hand and use your fork (left hand) to push food onto the spoon.
  • Never let the serving spoon touch your plate and never share your leftovers. Indians believe that anything that touches someone's plate is tainted.
  • It is impolite to refuse initial offers of food or drink. To refuse seconds, place your hand above your plate and say, "No, thank you." When finished, place your spoon and fork together on your plate. If they are not placed together, you will be offered more food.
  • After a meal with Indians, expect to stay for approximately one hour of conversation.


  • Due to different ethnic groups and the modern character of Singaporeans, there are many different attires acceptable. Dress is normally very casual. Western clothing is most common.
  • For business, men should wear white shirts, tie and slacks. Jackets are usually not required.
  • Women should wear blouses with sleeves and skirts or pantsuits.


  • Each ethnic group shares different gift giving traditions.
  • Business gifts are generally not exchanged.
  • Use both hands to give someone a gift. A gift given to a guest or the host is not opened in the presence of the giver.
  • Be careful of the gift being misinterpreted as a bribe, even a small gift. Never give a government official a gift, which might be considered a bribe.
  • Always bring the hosts a gift when invited to someone's home.

Helpful Hints

  • Singapore has strict regulations which carry stiff fines, possible jail sentences or even death. You should never do the following: jaywalk; smoke in public or in air-conditioned buildings (except country clubs); enter the country with drugs; litter, or import, manufacture, sell or use chewing gum.
  • Avoid public displays of affection.
  • Do not show anger or emotions or raise your voice. Remain disciplined and in control.
  • Avoid discussing religion or politics.
  • Avoid jokes until you know someone well. Few jokes will be understood or appreciated.

Especially for Women

  • Western women may confront a small bias when doing business in Singapore. Being taller than Singaporeans may be advantageous to women.
  • Singapore has an official policy against discrimination of women, and Singaporean women are gaining a wider acceptance in business.
Adapted from material compiled by Window on the World, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. Originally based on material contained in the "Put Your Best Foot Forward" series of books by Mary Murray Bosrock.
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