The city-state of Singapore is in the front rank of international commerce and finance, with transport systems and an infrastructure that display the best in 21st-century innovation. And yet, Singapore also reflects the traditional cultures and heritage of an Asian nation. It is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. Ethnic Chinese, at around 75%, Malays and Indians comprise over 98% of the population, creating a business and work culture that still displays in many areas the values of respect for age, status and hierarchy.

A raft of attractions tempts foreign companies to expand into Singapore. Although Singapore’s nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2021 ranked only 38th in the world at 378.6 billion US dollars, the population is among the world’s richest, with a per capita GDP of US$66,263 ranked sixth globally. This is one of the highest among Pacific Rim nations. Singapore is sixth among the economies of fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is the only Asian nation with a Triple AAA credit rating, a hub for east and west shipping lanes (with the world’s second-largest port), while 50% of the world’s population is within a six-hour flight away.

The Basics of the Singaporean Work Culture

Here are a few tips on taking the best steps and clearing those cultural barriers in Singapore. The country has some unique etiquette nuances that could catch out western employees.

Language: Chinese, Malay and Tamil are the official languages, while English is the working language in commerce and business.

Punctuality: Being on time shows respect for your opposite numbers and the budding relationship.

Business Attitudes: Remain in tune with the status hierarchy on the other team and show thoughtful consideration for the views expressed.

Negotiations: These reflect the highly-competitive marketplace, with an often rigid attitude towards costings and deadlines. Think long-term rather than a quick result, leaving room for a tiny element of compromise and hiding frustrations.

Greetings: Be sure to shake hands first with the team’s most senior member. Leave plenty of ‘personal space between yourself and Malay or Indian females.

Business Cards: Exchange these as part of the greeting and introduction phase; offer with both hands and show interest in the information displayed. Perfectly acceptable to have them written only in English.

Dress Code: Lightweight suits for both men and women are a sensible way of coping with the year-round tropical climate in what is very much a ‘business city’. Short-sleeved shirts with a tie are also acceptable.

Gift Giving: A regular part of Asian business etiquette, although if possible, check beforehand if a small offering is acceptable.

Out of Hours: Sharing lunch and dinner with new colleagues of the opposite team is an integral part of building the relationship. Remember … if the meal is with Malay or Indian associates, alcohol will not be served.


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