Here is our guide to personal etiquette, whether to tip or not, how to gift and how to greet fellow Singaporeans.
3 February 2014| Last updated on 28 June 2017
Singapore is one of the most multicultural cities in the world and is considered one of Asia’s biggest and busiest hubs. While the country itself is small, it is densely populated with people from the world over. The population of Singapore is made up of Chinese (76%), Malay (15%) and Indian (6%) cultures; this means that each culture has different norms and etiquettes that they follow. Singaporeans enjoy their cultural heritages, however they also have strong national pride and unity, it is therefore advisable to familiarize yourself with the cultural norms of the society as an expat, especially in light of giving gifts.
In Singaporean culture family comes first and the concept of family and respect is paramount. Heirachy is also important and elders are usually greeted and served first, even before guests. As a guest in someone’s family home you will be expected to respect this traditional treatment of elders. The term family generally extends beyond the immediate family to relatives and close family friends. Therefore the family network is strong and fiercely protected.
The concept of ‘face’ is also very important to the Singaporeans and is treated as a commodity that can be gained, given, lost or earned. It is a mark of personal qualities such as being honorable and having a good character. One person’s good or bad face can extend to their family and business. Hence it is of the utmost importance to maintain face when in Singapore.
Tipping is not a customary practice in Singapore and most service related businesses and products include a service charge. Not only is it not within social norms to tip, it is also frowned upon by the Singaporean government.
Gift Giving in Singapore
Due to the fact that Singaporeans come from three distinct cultural lines it is always imperative to know your host’s heritage in order to give the correct gift. This is a guide for giving gifts at private events and functions. Bringing a gift to a business meeting may constitute a bribe and is frowned upon.
If the receiver of the gift is ethnic Chinese here are some guidelines to gift giving;
- Gifts will not be opened when received.
- If you are attending a dinner party do not bring food as this indicates that you do not believe that your host can provide for his guests.
- Instead bring a small box of cakes or sweets for the children.
- Do not bring flowers as they are associated with sickness and death.
- If you are giving anthing that can be counted, ensure that you give even numbers as odd numbers are considered unlucky.
- Do not give knives, scissors or any cutting utensils as they indicate that you would like to sever the relationship, also do not give clocks, handkerchiefs or straw sandals because of their storng association with death.
- When buying gifts ensure that they are wrapped elaborately in yellow, red or pink paper (happy colours). Never use white, blue or black to wrap gifts in as these are mourning colours. Also never wrap gifts, especially childrens gifts in paper with birds or storks as these are harbingers of death.
If the receiver of the gift is ethnic Malay here are some guidelines to gift giving;
- Give the gift upon departure, with your right hand (or both hands if the gift is large). Gifts are usually not opened when received.
- People of Malay ethnicity are Muslim and should therefore not be given any gifts containing alcohol or anything made of pigskin. Also if you are giving food ensure that it is halal.
- Wrap gifts in red or green wrapping paper but avoid white paper as it is associated with death and mourning.
If the receiver of the gift is ethnic Indian here are some guidelines to gift giving;
- Give the gift using your right hand (or both hands if the gift is large). Gifts are usually not opened when received.
- Wrap gifts in bright coloured wrapping paper but avoid white and black paper.
- If you are giving money give it in odd numbers.
- Avoid giving alcohol as a gift unless you know that the person in question would not disapprove.
- Avoid gifting leather products.
Pointing at someone with your index finger is considered rude, as is pointing to anything with your foot. Do not touch other people’s heads, the head is considered a sacred part of the body. And showing the soles of your feet is a big no-no.
The most common form of greeting is the handshake, however some people of Chinese ethnicity may prefer to bow, they do not expect the same of you. If you greet a Muslim allow them to extend their hand first, some Muslims are uncomfortable with shaking hands.
Singaporeans use gesture and tone to communicate their feelings, rather than words. They would rather hint at a suggestion then say something outright in order to save face. It is important to read between the lines when sitting with Singaporeans. Pause before you answer questions as it seems as though you are considering the question. Silence is an important element of communication in Singapore.