Singapore is a wonderful place to visit and is home to very warm and hospitable people. It is also a country where strict rules have been enforced to protect its citizens and to keep the city spotlessly clean. Though some foreigners might be quite intimidated by these rules, it is important to remember that these were put in place so that both visitors and Singaporeans alike will enjoy a peaceful, safe and clean environment.
Aside from the rules, it is also wise to keep in mind that the country has a unique fusion of Chinese, Indian, Malay and European immigrants, and these diverse racial groups have retained their cultural and religious identity, which can cause some confusion as to how to behave and do certain things when in the presence of one or the other. For instance, a seemingly innocuous gift can mean other things to one person. So as not to cause offense and stay out of trouble, here are the things that you should remember when in Singapore:
When giving a gift, a good rule of thumb to follow is to consider the ethnic background of the person you wish to give a gift to. In more westernized countries, anything given is appreciated, but in Singapore, you have to be careful about what certain objects may imply when given.
For Chinese people, never give clocks, flowers, straw sandals or handkerchiefs because these objects are associated with death and mourning. Flowers are given traditionally for sick people and for funerals. Never give gifts in odd numbers because they are considered to be unlucky. Also, never give cutting instruments such as knives or scissors because it means severing or ending relationships. If you’re giving a gift for a baby, never wrap it in wrapping paper with a stork or any kind of bird on it since the Chinese regard birds as harbingers of death. When you’re given a gift, refuse it two or three times before accepting it to show that you are not greedy or taking advantage of their friendship. Wrap gifts in red, pink or yellow since these are happy colors. For the Chinese, elaborate gift wrapping is indicative of the care you’ve shown to pick out the present, so if you’re not sure about your wrapping skills, you can have the gift professionally gift wrapped. By all means, never wrap a gift in white, blue or black since these are mourning colors.
For Malay people, never give alcohol or anything made of pigskin (such as a football) because most Malays are Moslems. Give the gift before leaving, not upon arrival, and remember to give the gift using both hands, or your right hand only because handing it over using your left hand is considered to be rude. Wrap gifts in red or green wrapping paper, and if you’re giving food, make sure it’s halal.
For Indians, never give alcohol or anything made of leather. Use your right hand to give the present and not your left hand. If the gift is large or heavy, you may use both hands. If you want to give flowers, never give frangipanisbecause they are traditionally reserved for funeral rites. Also, never wrap gifts in white or black because these colors are known as mourning colors.
Watch your body language and your gestures
Singaporeans usually rely on facial expressions, tone of voice and posture to know a person’s intentions or attitude towards them. They have a tendency to be subtle and indirect in the way they communicate, and would rather hint at a point rather than stating it directly since this may cause someone to lose face. For instance, instead of flat-out saying “no” they’ll often say “I’ll see what I can do”. Also, silence is an important factor when communicating with Singaporeans. Pausing before responding to a question means that you’ve given the question some thought and that you are considering your response carefully. They don’t respond to the western way of answering a question in a hasty manner. For them, it is rude and thoughtless.
Be aware of your gestures. Pointing at someone with your index finger is considered to be very rude. Also, never use your feet to point, and never show the bottoms or your feet. The feet are considered by Singaporeans to be dirty, whether this is actually true about the state of your feet or not.
Never touch someone’s head, because the head is considered as a sacred part of your body. Resist patting little kids on the head, no matter how adorable they are.
If you’re on your honeymoon, avoid getting too affectionate in public because this is frowned upon in Singapore. Kissing in public is not good—but holding hands is ok though.
Never eat or offer anything with left hand when you’re in the company of Moslems. Furthermore, never use your left hand when shaking hands with a Moslem.
Meeting and Greeting
In Singapore, greetings follow a strict protocol based on both the ethnic origin and age of the person.
When greeting the Chinese, you may shake hands but make sure that your grip is light, although the handshake itself may be prolonged. If you are a man, you may shake hands with a Chinese woman, however, wait for her to extend her hand first. Always greet older Chinese people with a slight bow.
For the Malays, men are ok to shake hands with other men. But men and women do not traditionally shake hands since Moslem men do not touch Moslem women in public. When greeting a Malay woman, it’s better to use the salaam, or bow your head in greeting. This is also an appropriate greeting between two women.
The Indians shake hands with members of the same sex. To greet the opposite sex, nodding and smiling will be sufficient.
Do address someone using the title of Mr., Mrs. or Miss with the surname. Do not use first names unless you’re encouraged to do so. This goes for all ethnic groups.
If you’re in Singapore for business, then business etiquette should be observed. Never show up at an office without an appointment made, and always be punctual for a meeting. Always have some business cards with you because they are exchanged as a matter of formality. Your business cards should be in mint condition, and you should never give someone a soiled or tattered business card. If you’re meeting the Chinese, it’s a good idea to have one side of your card translated into Mandarin and have the Chinese characters printed in gold because they consider this to be an auspicious color. Give and receive business cards with both hands. When giving out your business card, make sure that your name on the card is facing the recipient so he or she can see it, and grip it with both hands at the corners.
Be patient during negotiations because they happen at a slow pace. Always wait to be told where to sit because there is a strict hierarchy that must be followed. Never directly disagree or contradict someone of a higher rank, and always pause for at least 15 seconds before you answer a question. It’s the Singaporean way of communicating, and doing this will show them that you are being thoughtful and really deliberating something before you answer. Lastly, dress stylishly yet conservatively for business meetings because people in the city state take pride in their attire.
If you have the good fortune to be invited to eat at someone’s house, it’s good to know that apart from basic table manners, there are also other things that you could do that will please your hosts.
If you are invited to a Malay home, be punctual because they serve the food right away. It would be a shame for the food to cool just because they’re waiting for you to arrive. A small bowl with water and a towel will be provided so you can wash up before you eat. Even if you’re certain that your hands are fairly clean, its good manners to wash up just like everybody else. Remember to bring your hosts a gift, though not liquor or anything made out of pig skin.
If you’re dining at a Chinese home, never bring a food gift because they may misinterpret this to mean that they are bad hosts, and this act, although done with the best of intentions, can cause offense. When you have finished eating, always leave a little food on your plate because a clean plate will mean that you are still hungry.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Never tip. Tipping is not customary in Singapore and is frowned upon by the government. Most service-oriented establishments already have the service charge included in your bill.
Once you enter someone’s house, it is customary to remove your shoes. Do the same if you’re entering a temple.
Now that you’re familiar with the do’s and don’ts of Singaporean etiquette, you’re sure to enjoy your stay, knowing that you can adapt to this country’s ways and perhaps, make some friends along the way.
Next week, stay tuned for part two of this article, which will be all about the rules and regulations to follow to avoid being fined or arrested in Singapore.