Etiquette Tips for Singapore
Flying to Singapore? Singapore is a combination of cultures and people of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and European descent. Because of this, etiquette can be a bit confusing. For instance, if giving a gift to someone who is ethnically Malay, you shouldn't give them anything made of leather. If giving a gift to someone who is an ethnically Chinese, you should not give clocks or knives. Below is a list of etiquette to help you out on your trip to Singapore.
- DO dress conservatively for business functions. For men, a white shirt, a tie, and nice pants are suitable. Blouses and skirts or pantsuits are fine for women.
- DO dress how you normally would in other situations. Casual Western dress is common.
- DO allow the host to do the ordering at a restaurant.
- DO expect a banquet by someone of Chinese descent and reciprocate with an equally nice banquet before leaving Singapore.
- DON'T eat until the host begins when dining with people of Chinese descent.
- DON'T eat with your left hand when dining with those of Malay or Indian descent.
- DON'T let the serving spoon touch your plate and don't share leftovers.
- DON'T refuse the first offer of food or beverages. If you want to refuse seconds, put your hand above your plate and tell them, “No, thank you.”
- DO put your spoon and fork next to each other on your plate to indicate that you are done. If eating with chopsticks, put them on your chopstick rest to indicate that you are done.
- DON'T feel obligated to tip. It's not customary in Singapore and it's even frowned down upon by the government. Sometimes a service charge will be included in a bill.
Gift Giving and Accepting Gifts
- DON'T open a gift until later.
- DO use both hands when presenting a gift.
- DON'T wrap gifts in white. White is a mourning color. Red is considered a happy color, so you may wish to wrap a present in red.
- DO understand that gift giving etiquette varies depending on the ethnic background of the individual. See below for gift giving etiquette for those of Chinese, Indian, or Malay descent.
Exchanging gifts to someone of Chinese descent:
- DON'T give cutting utensils to someone, such as a pair of scissors or a set of knives. It represents severing the relationship.
- DON'T give clocks or handkerchiefs. They are associated with death.
- DON'T give flowers. They are traditionally reserved for the ill and for funerals.
- DO refuse a gift three times before accepting to show that you're not greedy.
Exchanging gifts with someone of Malay descent:
- DON'T give alcohol.
- DON'T give anything made of pigskin, as most Malays are Muslim.
- DO give the gift upon departing, not arriving.
- DO use your right hand to give or receive presents. If it's large, you may use both. Never use only your left.
Exchanging gifts with someone of Indian descent:
- DON'T give frangipani if you wish to give flowers. They are for funerals.
- DO use your right hand to give or receive presents and not your left. If it's large, you may use both hands.
- DON'T give something made of leather to a Hindu.
- DON'T give alcohol unless you're sure the recipient drinks.
- DON'T touch someone's head. The head is considered sacred.
- DON'T show the bottoms of your feet or use your feet to point. Feet are considered dirty.
- DON'T tap your foot.
- DO cross your legs only by putting one knee over the other.
- DON'T point at someone with your index finger.
- DON'T pound your fist into the palm of your hand.
- DON'T show affection in public.
- DO greet with a hearty handshake. Shake hands with all who are present.
- DO give a slight bow for older Chinese people.
- DO be aware that some Malays will not always shake hands. Muslims will not shake hands with the opposite sex. When two women meet they might just bow their heads.
- DO wait for a woman to initiate a handshake, if you're a man.
- DON'T be late if going to a Malay home for a meal. The meal will be served right away, without drinks or appetizers beforehand.
- DO expect to be given a small bowl and towel if eating at a Malay home. It's for washing your hands.
- DON'T stay for more than an hour after the meal ends, if dining with Indians.
- DO bring your hosts a gift.
- DON'T bring food if invited to a Chinese home. Your hosts may be insulted, as it could be indicating that you don't think they will be good hosts.
- DO expect business to be conducted formally.
- DO take time to build personal relationships.
- DO make appointments at least two weeks in advance. You may do this by telephone, fax, email, or in a letter.
- DON'T schedule appointments during Chinese New Year.
- DON'T be late.
- DON'T disagree with someone who has a higher rank than you.
- DON'T sit until told where to sit.
- DO be patient throughout negotiations.
- DO exchange business cards using both hands.
- DO treat business cards respectfully. When given one, examine it thoroughly before putting it away. Make sure business cards you hand out are in good condition.
- DO be very direct when communicating.
- DO be aware of some serious Singaporean taboos that are punishable by jail. Never litter, chew gum, sell gum, jaywalk, or smoke in public.
- DON'T discuss religion or politics.
The list of etiquette may seem a little intimidating. However, if you are well-mannered, polite, and aware of the actions of those around you, you will be fine. Have a safe and happy trip to Singapore — and leave that chewing gum at home!