KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture In Singapore

Colorful Singapore culture

Business Culture in Singapore

 

Keeping culture in mind as you do business in Singapore

Since you are considering doing business in Singapore, it’s important that you understand some of the cultural expectations you’ll encounter. If you miss them or incorrectly interpret subtle cultural cues, you could unintentionally damage your business prospects. On the other hand, if you understand the cultural setting that you’ll be entering and how to do business in Singapore, you’ll be in a better position to succeed.

 

Understanding Singapore’s national culture

Each culture has a collective way of thinking, which in turn affects the workplace.  For instance, in cultures where getting along is much more important than arguing, negotiations can be very frustrating or confusing for someone who is used to saying what they think and demanding results.  In order to better understand how values in the workplace are influenced by culture, Geert Hofstede conducted a comprehensive study around six different dimensions and uses this information to help explain business culture in a number of countries.

 

The six dimensions are:

 

Power Distance

A measure for how much the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.  Singapore scores very high on this dimension with a 74. In the business world, this means that power is centralized in the management and employees expect that they will be told what to do. Rules are important and there is a formal attitude toward managers. Information is selectively shared. 

 

Individualism vs. Collectivism

In societies that show more individualism, its members are expected to take care of just themselves and their immediate families.  In societies that show more collectivism, individuals can expect that their family or members of their particular group will take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. Singapore is a collectivistic society, meaning that the group is more important than the individual.  Harmony is very important and open conflict is avoided.  Politeness is more important than honest feedback.  Saving face for others is always a goal and managers should always be calm and respectful.  Anyone interacting with Singaporeans should also keep this philosophy in mind - be calm, respectful and maintain harmony. 

 

Masculinity vs. Femininity

Masculine societies show a preference for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards, and are more competitive. Feminine societies show a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak, and quality of life, and are generally more consensus-oriented. Singapore falls in the middle on this spectrum, meaning that consensus and sympathy are important, as are being modest and humble.  Conflict is avoided in all aspects of life. When in meetings, avoid appearing to know everything or being persistent about making your point. Remain patient and respectful. 

 

Uncertainty Avoidance

The level of discomfort members of a society feel with uncertainty and ambiguity. Singapore scores very low on this dimension.  They do not have a need to control the future. 

 

Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation

The degree to which cultures prefer to maintain long-held traditions while viewing change with suspicion versus cultures that encourage thrift and modern education as a way to prepare for the future. Singapore’s score is high on this dimension. Its culture supports long-term investment showing as perseverance, sustained efforts, thrift, and slow results.  Singaporeans emphasize virtue and the way in which things are done, always open for new options to arise. They have a pragmatic approach to business, believing that two things together can make something stronger, vs. being in opposition.  

 

Indulgence vs. Restraint

Indulgent societies allow for relatively free gratification related to enjoying life and having fun. Restrained societies suppress gratification of needs and regulate them by means of strict social norms. Singapore falls in the middle on this dimension. 

 

If you would like to learn more about this research and its findings, Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov have written a book on the subject

Map the Dimensions on a World Map - In the following video five of the dimensions are explained and then mapped on the world, showing how different parts of the world compare.

 

If you’d like to hear Geert Hofstede himself describe these spectrums, check out the following short videos:

10 Minutes on Power Distance

10 Minutes on Uncertainty Avoidance

10 Minutes on Masculinity vs. Femininity

10 Minutes on Individualism vs. Collectivism

10 Minutes on Long vs. Short Term Orientation

10 Minutes on Indulgence vs. Restraint

 

Now let's take a closer look at the business and local culture of Singapore and its main ethnic groups, the Chinese, Malay, and Indian. 

 

Greetings in Singapore

Names

A majority of Singaporeans are Chinese and there are conventions around names that you should know.

  • Many ethnic Chinese have taken Western first names, such as David Chan.  You would call him Mr. Chan

  • With Chinese names, the family name is first, followed by the given name, such as Lian Jiang Mei. You would call her Ms./Mrs./Miss Lian

  • Do not use first names until you are invited to do so. Keep things formal and respectful

  • Don't use just a last name when addressing Singaporeans

The names of people of Indian and Malay descent are written and spoken with the given (or first) name first, followed by the family name.

  • Do not use first names until you are invited to do so

You can always ask Singaporeans what you should call them by asking, "How shall I address you?" 

 

Business cards

While business cards in much of the West are a way to share contact information, they are more important in Singapore. They are exchanged after the initial introductions.

  • Business cards are given using both hands

  • Treat cards with respect as an indication for how you will respect the relationship

  • Examine business cards carefully before putting them into a business card case

  • Keep your cards in immaculate condition and never give someone a dirty or tattered card

 

Shaking hands

Shaking hands varies in Singapore depending on ethnicity. While your natural inclination may be to shake hands upon meeting someone, it may not always be the best approach. While shaking hands with everyone is a common Western practice, be sensitive to the signals you may be receiving in case it’s not the tradition of the person you are meeting. With all groups, first introduce the elderly or person with the most status first.

 

Malays

  • Since the majority of Malays are Muslim, it’s important to note that physical touch between the sexes is not common. When you meet a Malay woman, wait to see if she extends her hand first. If she does, it’s ok to shake it.  If not, bow slightly and place your hand over your heart as a sign of respect.  

  • A normal handshake is the norm between men when doing business.

  • Younger Malays may shake hands with foreign women, but it’s is more appropriate to use the ‘salaam’ greeting (bowing the head)

  • Women greet one another with the salaam greeting

Chinese

  • A bow is the traditional greeting between the Singapore Chinese, but you would not be expected to do so as a foreigner.  

  • A handshake is fine, but make sure it is not too firm.  

  • The Chinese grasp may be somewhat light but can be somewhat prolonged

  • The Chinese are more likely to be comfortable shaking hands with women.

Indians

  • Indians of the older generations often still use the “namaste”, a slight bow with the palms brought together.  

  • Since some of the more traditional Hindus might be uncomfortable with women and men shaking hands, use the namaste in order to avoid offense

  • A slight bow when joining, leaving, or passing a group of people shows courtesy

 

Relationships in Singapore

In some cultures business can’t take place unless a strong relationship has been established, while in others the business at hand will dictate how necessary and how deep the relationship goes. In Singapore, networking and cultivating relationships are very important for doing business.

 

Respect and losing face

An important cultural concept in Singapore is saving face. Having face indicates personal dignity. Loss of face, shame, and honor are all connected and play an important role in Asian culture where they go beyond the individual and are seen to reflect directly on one’s family, organization, even nation.  If you inadvertently cause someone to lose face, you jeopardize how they measure themselves in terms of social standing and upholding traditional Asian values.

  • Face is a prized commodity that can be given, earned, lost, and taken away

  • Face is a mark of qualities such as good character, a good name, and being held in high regard by peers

  • Singaporeans will strive to retain face in all aspects of their lives

Avoiding ways in which you might cause someone to lose face will strengthen your business relationships. The suggestions below will help you not only in adhering to business culture norms in Singapore, but will make you aware of those situations where you might slip up.

  • Do not debate, correct, or disagree with an older person or superior in public.  You will not only lose the respect of the elder or superior you will also lose respect of others that witnessed your conversation

  • Don’t argue with senior managers in front of more junior people

  • Do not belittle the arguments or ideas of the manager in front of his or her team

  • Don’t argue with or reprimand people from your group in front of your Singapore business associates

  • Even if it’s how things are done in your country, don’t jump in to get your point across - even with your own team

  • If you find someone to be factually incorrect, don’t present it as their fault

 

Not only do you want to avoid making anyone else lose face in Singapore, but they will also be working hard to help you save face.  One of the ways this will show up is in the product or service feedback you receive. Singaporeans will be very hestitant to give you any negative feedback.  If you do receive it, no matter how quietly or gently it is given, take it seriously and multiply it by a factor of 10 in order to get closer to how they are really feeling. 

 

 

Harmony

Harmony is another important concept in Asian cultures.  Since the well-being of the group is paramount, maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict support that end. This can sometimes lead to confusion for someone outside the culture, but your success in doing business in Singapore will rely upon your maintaining harmony in your interactions.

  • Generally, the group’s interests are more important than the individual’s

  • Harmony is important in meetings and everything should be done to promote it.  Open disagreement is unusual once a decision is made and debates are held in private

  • Remember that diplomatic and coded language is the norm and that what is said is not what is necessarily meant. Try to look for the meaning beneath the actual words. If in doubt return to the issue later after you have continued strengthening your relationship

  • Teams work on a consensus decision-making basis, which can be lengthy and frustrating. You will want to exercise patience and understand that your counterparts are trying to avoid conflict

  • 'No' does not always mean 'no' and 'yes' may merely be an indication of comprehension

  • Always try to explore beneath the surface level as to what may actually be meant

  • Respectfully ask a lot of questions if you still need more clarity

 

Seniority and status in  Singapore

Seniority, status, and hierarchy are very important in Singapore. Hierarchy is drawn from Confucianism, which emphasizes respect for age and status. In the workplace, this presents as deference paid to older employees.

  • Always introduce elders first, give them preferential seating and the best food.

  • Maintain respect for the hierarchy of your business counterparts at all times

  • Business structures tend towards the hierarchical with decisions made at the top by senior management before being shared down the chain

  • Show respect for senior managers and elders, greeting elders first. Defer to their opinions, ask their opinions first, let them order first at meals

  • Ensure that people of a similar status from your company deal with senior people when doing business in Singapore. Do not show disrespect by expecting your counterparts from Singapore to deal with younger, more junior colleagues. You may need to adjust titles within your organization to abide by this principle

  • Age is respected and managers tend to be older. As with all Asian countries, age brings automatic respect and it is more difficult for younger people to interface as equals at senior management level

  • Managers in Singapore expect and receive respect. In return for that respect they take a holistic interest in the all-round well being of subordinates

  • Performance determines promotion within an organisation - except within family firms where family bonds are strongly felt

  • Avoid intense eye contact with an older person or for long periods of time as it is perceived as disrespectful

  • Leave thoughtful pauses before answering a question from a senior manager

 

Negotiations and meetings in Singapore

In a sense, your negotiating begins before the actual negotiation.  You may go out to dinner or socialize in some way before your actual business meetings start.  Keep in mind that you are being evaluated at all times - possibly even in the car they've sent to pick you up at the airport, so put your best foot forward in all settings, social or otherwise.

 

Dress code

Singapore is hot and humid, so dress can tend toward the less formal as compared to many Western or Japanese and Korean cultures. If you are going into a business setting, the following guidelines will help you know how to dress.

  • It is better to be over- than under-dressed. If you are male, you can always remove your tie and jacket if those around you are much more casual

  • Lighter colors than dark blue or gray are acceptable

  • Men may not always wear ties or jackets, though they are more common in banking and law

  • Many office settings do not allow women to wear short-sleeved shirts

  • Don’t wear shorts and t-shirts

  • Keep a dry and clean appearance 

 

Conducting negotiations in Singapore

Always wait to be told where to sit in order to follow a strict hierarchy

  • Speak quietly and remain calm

  • Don’t lose control of your emotions. You’ll lose respect and trust

  • Don’t argue

  • A quick response to a question is considered thoughtless and rude

  • Singaporeans will wait a respectful 15 seconds before replying to a questions in meetings and negotiations, so wait for their answer before forging on

  • Prepare in advance what your limits are so that you can allow the other team to “win” in some areas

  • If you are at a point where you cannot concede anything else, you can firmly and calmly state your position, but don’t be rude, aggressive, or impolite

  • Make sure that the people negotiating from your team are able to keep from arguing and have the skills to circle back later, ask the right questions, and know when to let things go

 

Nonverbal and subtle communications in Singapore

  • Remember, silence is very important. Pause before responding to a question to indicate that you are giving it appropriate thought. Carefully consider your response

  • Facial expression, posture, and tone of voice indicate how someone feels

  • They may hint rather than making a direct statement, and not directly say no in order for both parties to save face

  • Singaporeans can be subtle and indirect in their communications

 

Gift-giving in Singapore

Based on the national stance against corruption, one of the most important things to avoid is the appearance of bribery. There are also cultural differences that you will want to consider when giving gifts in Singapore.  

  • Gift-giving is less prevalent in Singapore than in most other Asian countries and gifts should be modest in nature to avoid any implication of corruption (and corruption is not tolerated in Singapore)

  • If a gift is given, it’s best to give it to the group.  If to individuals, they should be very small and token, such as a pen with the company logo

  • Always wrap gifts and do not expect that they will be opened in your presence

 

When giving gifts to the ethnic Chinese:

  • Gifts are not opened when received

  • In order not to appear greedy, the gift may be refused three times before it is accepted

  • Don’t give:

    • Knives, scissors, or other cutting utensils. They indicate you want to sever the relationship

    • Clocks, handkerchiefs, or straw sandals: these are associated with funerals

    • Food to a formal dinner. You will imply that you think the host won’t provide enough food (but you can bring a small gift of sweets or fruit for the children)

    • Flowers, since they are given to the sick and are used at funerals

  • Wrapping

    • Elaborate gift wrapping is imperative

    • Use red, pink, or yellow wrapping, which are happy colors

    • Don’t use white, blue, or black paper since they are the colors for mourning

 

When giving gifts to ethnic Malays:

  • Gifts are not opened when received

  • Give gifts when you are leaving, not when you arrive

  • Use only your right hand to give a gift, or both hands if it is big

  • Food you give should be halal - foods that are permissible for Muslims to eat or drink under Islamic Shari?ah (law)

  • Don’t give:

    • Alcohol

    • Toy dogs to children

    • Anything made of pigskin since Malays are Muslim

  • Wrapping

    • Use red or green paper

    • Avoid white paper since it symbolizes death and mourning

 

When giving gifts to ethnic Indians:

  • Gifts are not opened when received

  • Use only your right hand to give a gift, or both hands if it is big

  • If giving money, give odd number amounts

  • Avoid:

    • Frangipani, which is used in funeral wreaths

    • Giving leather products to a Hindu

    • Alcohol, unless you are sure they drink alcohol

  • Wrapping

    • Use red, yellow, or green paper or other bright colors, which bring good luck

    • Do not use white or black paper

 

Gender

  • Women play an active and senior role in business life and will be found in most functions of an organisation. Overseas women will be dealt with on their merit

  • Women in business are expected to keep a very professional, almost distant relationship with male colleagues and this should be respected. Eye contact should be minimal and proper distances observed

 

Multicultural/Multiracial

Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that Singapore is anything but a highly-sophisticated country with well-educated and successful business people.

  • English language levels are almost universally high with much of Singaporean education being conducted in English. In addition, many Singaporeans complete their education in the U.K., U.S.A. or Australia

  • Singapore is probably the most heavily Western-influenced of all the major Asian economies and, as such, presents a sometimes confusing mix of solidly traditional Asian values and very modern business techniques

  • With its multi-ethnic society, the Chinese, Malay, and Indian traditions coexist

  • There is religious and cultural diversity

  • Singapore is an eclectic mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians and global expatriates and is therefore difficult to categorise. What is true of the ethnic Chinese approach may be very different in an Indian-oriented company or the regional headquarters of a major MNC

 

Business entertaining in Singapore

While business entertaining in Singapore is very important and often takes place over dinner, this time together should be considered as an opportunity to build relationships and socialize rather than continuing to discuss business.   

Though commonly available in Western restaurants and a typical way to start a business dinner in the United States, drinks and appetizers before the meal are uncommon.  The host will usually order all of the dishes. The dishes are then served at once and shared amongst the diners in the group.  If you are the host, you can avoid arguing over who pays by paying in advance.

Business dinners with Chinese Singaporeans

If your hosts are of Chinese descent, you’ll probably be using chopsticks. If you don’t know how to use chopsticks, you might consider practicing before you go to Singapore. And if you are going to use them, it’s a good idea to know a few rules.  Never leave them sticking up in the rice bowl and when you are not using them, place them on the chopstick rest on the table.  Western style utensils will usually be available if you just can’t use chopsticks.  

Business dinners with Singaporean Malays and Indians

Use a spoon along with their hands to eat. Always use your right hand to eat, as your left hand is considered unclean.  If you are given both a spoon and a fork, hold the spoon in your right hand and use the fork in your left hand to push food onto the spoon.

 

 

It is polite to leave some food on your plate — finishing everything could imply that you have not been served enough and are still hungry

 

 

 

Tipping in Singapore

Tipping is a far less common practice in Singapore than in many other countries, but here are some guidelines that will help you navigate, especially in business situations.


Restaurants

Locals do not usually tip, but foreigners are expected to have more money.  Many restaurants add a 10% service charge, but this will not likely go to your server. If they provided good service, you can give them a cash tip directly while thanking them. If you do tip, 10% is an acceptable percentage.

Taxi Drivers

Tipping is not expected, though you can round up for convenience

Tour Guides

Tipping is not expected

 

Globig Resources

National Culture books by  Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov 

Map the Dimensions on a World Map - In this video five of the dimensions are explained and then mapped on the world, showing how different parts of the world compare

If you’d like to hear Geert Hofstede himself describe these spectrums, check out the following short videos:

10 Minutes on Power Distance

10 Minutes on Uncertainty Avoidance

10 Minutes on Masculinity vs. Femininity

10 Minutes on Individualism vs. Collectivism

10 Minutes on Long vs. Short Term Orientation

10 Minutes on Indulgence vs. Restraint

KNOWLEDGE BASE Business Culture In Singapore