How to Enjoy Your Singapore Holiday Without Offending the Locals – Important Cultural Do’s and Don’ts
Even the most seasoned and urbane traveler finds his or her first encounter with the people and scenery of Singapore something akin to a cultural punch in the face. Upon arrival in this fascinating city-state, you’ll quickly realize that you’re very far from home and that the locals vehemently adhere to both modern and old-fashioned customs.
No matter if you’re traveling to Singapore for business or pleasure, it’s crucial to honor the natives’ customs, beliefs and social mores to avoid offending anyone or solidifying your status as an obtuse tourist. It’s also important to note that etiquette surrounding basic social interactions will vary depending on the whether the individual is Chinese, Malaysian or Indian. Here’s a short etiquette lesson to peruse before planning any future Singapore holidays.
Greeting Your Host, Business Associate…or Basically Anyone
Once again, it cannot be stressed enough that culturally, the people of Singapore are very different. When it comes to greeting a stranger, business associate or pretty much anyone you’ll meet, you cannot go wrong with a quick, light handshake. When women greet one another, they will often shake hands or simply nod or bow. Greetings between opposite genders is a tricky subject, especially as it’s forbidden for Muslim women to have physical contact with men in public. If you’re a man greeting a woman or vice versa, your best course of action is to wait for the local to make the first move, and follow in kind.
If traveling to Singapore for business, there are several unwritten rules and regulations to follow:
- Dress – For men and women alike, a good rule of thumb is to dress conservatively. If you’re a man, grooming is everything and it’s not a bad idea to stick with solid, neutral attire. Women: wear a nice business suit that either features pants or a loosely fitting skirt that falls below the knee.
- Negotiations – Skip the aggressive sales tactics and instead appeal to a Singaporean’s value system. If you wait for a clear “no,” you’ll be in the meeting for a while, because businessmen will often use cryptic phrases like “maybe” instead of coming out and shooting down your proposal.
- Meetings – When it comes to a formal meeting, punctuality is key. Feel free to chit chat with your colleagues before and after the meeting, but it’s all business once the chairperson or senior representative begins the more formal gathering.
- Gift Giving – No matter what your intention, it’s never a good idea to give your Singaporean business associate a gift: this will most always be misconstrued as a bribe.
Views on Touching and Personal Space
Don’t be offended if you meet a Singaporean and he or she remains at arm’s length through the majority of the conversation. This is a common practice, but you’ll notice as the local becomes more comfortable, he or she will eventually begin to move closer. It’s acceptable to lightly touch a friend or relative on the arm or shoulder, but know that no matter what the Singaporean’s cultural background, gender rules still apply. When it comes to briefly touching an arm to acknowledge an individual’s presence or even patting someone of the opposite gender on the back, it’s best to always just keep your hands to yourself.
On the surface, gender bias in Singapore seems to be a non-issue, although as a female tourist you’ll discover that your behavior in public cannot be as flamboyant or garish as your male counterparts. No matter what the situation, it’s best for women to wear conservative clothing and sport the natural look when it comes to hair and makeup. You can be heard, just don’t make a spectacle of yourself in public as to not offend or embarrass your Singaporean friends and business associates.
Finally, when in Singapore, follow basic rules of decorum, including throwing your trash in a receptacle. Spitting, littering and even chewing gum in public are not only offensive, they also carry a hefty penalty if you perform either of these acts in the vicinity of a law enforcement officer.
About the Author: Lisa Johnson is a journalist who travels frequently to Asia and met her husband in Singapore.