10 top tips: Singaporean business etiquette

How to impress your Singaporean business associates

On the surface, Singapore is a high-tech, cosmopolitan environment, fast-paced and fashion conscious. But under the veneer of gleaming skyscrapers, designer shops and expensive cars is a complex cultural melting pot, with influences from Chinese to Malay to Indian. To complicate matters further, just because you are familiar with Chinese culture, or Indian, does not mean the same rules apply here, as some elements are uniquely Singaporean. This is a competitive, fast-paced, multicultural and tightly regulated place. People work hard and ambition is valued. Younger Singaporeans may identify first as Singaporean before Chinese, Malay or Indian.

With all this in mind, here are some tips on making a good impression in this dynamic, diverse place.

1. Singaporeans are generally more inclined to play by the rulebook than other Asian cultures. So while who you know is important, and business relationships need to be cultivated, there is less of a culture of people exchanging favors and using personal connections to get ahead in business.

2. Singaporeans are label and fashion conscious. Always dress smartly and don’t be afraid to sport designer accessories. Stay in a good hotel. Be professional and friendly but not over-familiar. You will impress a Singaporean negotiating team by avoiding the typical Western traits of impatience, or revealing too much of your personality.

3. Do not underestimate the power of social media in Singapore. Some 70% of Singaporeans are active social media users, more than double the global average. Make sure you know what you are talking about and use social media to your advantage in business. Laughing yourself off as ‘a dinosaur’ or dismissing social media as frivolous will not win you respect.

“Silence is an important element of Singaporean communication. Singaporeans see Westerners who rush in with quick answers as clumsy and insensitive. This applies to video calls as well as face-to-face meetings.”

4. Singaporean relationships are governed by the concept of ‘face’, a mask of personal dignity. This must be maintained at all times, and no action should be taken that will cause somebody else to lose face. Getting worked up and displaying emotion is frowned upon, as is doing or saying anything that will cause another person to lose face. Tact, diplomacy and implicitness rather than directness are important at all times. Face can be likened to a prized possession: it can be given, lost, taken away or earned. Losing face could ruin business prospects and even invite retribution.

5. Singaporeans tend to use an implicit style of communication. Business conversations may include a smattering of ‘Singlish’, a combination of English, Chinese and Malay words. Listen carefully to what your Singaporean counterpart is saying, whatever their ethnic origin. A hesitant ‘yes’ may mean no. Other versions of ‘no’ include ‘yes, but…’; ‘the schedule may not permit…’ or simply not answering the question. Objections are voiced very politely to avoid causing you to lose face, so it is essential to detect them.

6. Anyone who displays anger during a meeting in Singapore risks being judged as unworthy of respect and trust. Outbursts of laughter, too, may mask loss of face, nervousness, shyness, or disapproval. Silence is an important element of Singaporean communication. Do not be afraid to use it; Singaporeans see Westerners who rush in with quick answers as clumsy and insensitive. This applies to video calls as well as face-to-face meetings.

7. Understand the role of hierarchy. Singapore’s strong hierarchical relationships begin at home, with the relationship with one’s parents and grandparents. Age and status are respected and the elderly are deferred to. In the workplace, senior people are treated with utmost courtesy and deference. Avoid publicly debating, correcting, or disagreeing with an older person or superior. They will only lose face and consequently, you will lose the respect of others. This rule should also be followed when you are with your boss and are meeting with Singaporeans. In social situations (never the workplace), older people may be addressed as ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie’.

8. Singaporeans are group-orientated at the same time as being indirect communicators. Facial expression, tone of voice and posture are all important ways of interpreting somebody’s true feelings. In creating harmony, Singaporeans often use the phrase “Isn’t it” meaning “Isn’t it right?” at the end of sentences. This helps build consensus at various stages.

9. When asked for a favor, Chinese Singaporeans will usually avoid saying “no,” as to do so causes embarrassment and loss of face. If a request cannot be met, a person may say it is inconvenient or under consideration. Statements like ‘I will try’, or ‘I’ll see what I can do’ usually have negative implications.

10. Be ready for the potential minefield of business entertaining. Make sure you can use chopsticks. If you’re the guest of honor, leave a little food on your plate to show that you’ve had enough, or more may keep coming. If you’re choosing a banquet menu, avoid pork for Muslim guests and beef for Indians. Establish before hosting an event whether serving alcohol is appropriate. Make sure you know the right venues; image is important. Never get drunk – there’s no surer way to lose face.

What experience do you have of working with Singaporeans? Can you share more top tips and advice? Click here to share your advice.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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