Cultural Tips for Doing Business in Singapore

Cultural tips for Singapore, cultural tips, business travel singapore
••• Singapore. Copyright: David Russo, flickr, CC 2.0

So much of today's business travel destinations are in Asia or Southeast Asia. Travelers from all over the world converge on China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. These nations (and the rest of their nearby Asia and Southeast Asia neighbors) are rich economic engines that drive trade with the rest of the world. But as a business traveler, even though you might be flying into an international airport in Singapore and staying in a large chain hotel that looks just like one in your hometown, it's important to recognize that the culture and business traditions of destinations like Singapore may be very different from ones in the United States.

Avoid Cultural Mistakes in Singapore

Although the basic format of a business meeting or sales transaction might be the same if you're taking a business trip to Singapore, there are a wide number of cultural norms that aren't. That's why it's critical for business travelers heading to Singapore to recognize cultural differences and plan around them. For example, complimenting someone on their appearance may come off as insincere. Instead, compliment them on their accomplishments. Or, make sure that you count to ten before responding to someone. This demonstrates that you're giving careful consideration to what the other person is saying, and is a sign of respect. Another cultural norm that is acceptable in Singapore but that might seem strange to business travelers from the United States is that physical contact between people of the same sex. Thus, you may see men holding hands or walking with their arms around one another.

To better understand all the nuances and cultural tips that can help a business traveler heading to Singapore, I interviewed Gayle Cotton, author of the book Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication. Ms. Cotton is an expert on cultural differences and a distinguished speaker and recognized authority on cross-cultural communication.

She's also President of Circles Of Excellence Inc., and has been featured on many television programs, including: NBC News, BBC News, PBS, Good Morning America, PM Magazine, PM Northwest, and Pacific Report. For more information on Ms. Cotton, please visit Ms. Cotton was happy to share tips with readers to help business travelers avoid potential cultural problems when traveling. 

What Tips Do You Have for Business Travelers Heading to Singapore?

  • When doing business in Singapore, punctuality is essential for business appointments. It is considered an insult to leave a Singaporean business executive waiting.
  • Occasionally, a Singaporean may prefer to arrive a few minutes late so as not to appear overly eager or anxious, especially if the person has been invited to an event in which food will be served.
  • The Singaporean business culture is intensely competitive and has an exceptionally strong work ethic. The group, rather than the individual, prevails and the oldest or most competent member usually assumes the leadership position.
  • Avoid publicly debating, correcting, or disagreeing with an older person or superior. The older person or superior will only "lose face", and, consequently, you will lose the respect of others.
  • In Singapore, it's considered perfectly acceptable to ask people questions about their weight, income, marital status, and related subjects. If this makes you uncomfortable, side-step these questions as graciously as possible so you don’t cause the questioner to "lose face”.
  • Speak in low, calm tones of voice, and avoid raising your voice or becoming overly emotional and showing anger.
  • Age and seniority are revered in this culture. If you are part of a delegation, ensure that the most important members are introduced first. If you are introducing two people, state the name of the most important individual first.
  • Business cards may be printed in English however since a high proportion of Singaporean businesspeople are ethnic Chinese it will be an asset to have the reverse side of your card translated into Chinese.
  • Business cards should be exchanged with every business associate you encounter after the introductions. They are exchanged with both hands and held between the thumbs and forefingers. In some cases, this may be accompanied by a slight bow.
  • The recipient will accept the card with both hands, study it for a moment, make eye contact with you, and then carefully place it on a nearby table or in a card case or pocket. You should do the same when a card is presented to you. Business cards are handled with great respect because they represent a person’s identity. Never write on someone’s business card!
  • If you compliment a Singaporean, it is best that it is based on accomplishments rather than appearance which may be considered insincere.
  • Singaporean listening etiquette dictates that you count to 10 before responding. By waiting a minimum of 10 seconds, you will demonstrate that you have given careful consideration to what you heard before responding.
  • It is considered polite to break eye contact so that you do not seem to be staring or glaring at the other person.
  • Conversely, physical contact between people of the same sex is perfectly acceptable. You'll likely observe men holding hands with men or walking with their arms around each other. These actions are interpreted strictly as gestures of friendship.
  • Singapore has many different cultures and religions. The Muslims and Hindus believe that the left hand is unclean. Consequently, eat only with your right hand, and avoid touching things with your left hand if you can use your right hand instead.
  • Many Indians and Malays believe that the head is the "seat of the soul”, so don’t touch anyone's head or face, even if stroking the hair of a child.
  • Feet are also believed to be unclean, so don’t move or touch anything with your feet, and never cross your legs or feet so the sole of your shoe is pointing at someone.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Tips

  • Travel and the Arts, as the Singaporeans are typically well-traveled and cultured.
  • The modern economic advances and the architecture of Singapore.
  • The variety of foods and the excellent cuisine.
  • Your future plans, business success (without boasting), and personal interests.
  • To beckon someone, hold your hand out, palm downward, and make a scooping motion with the fingers. Beckoning someone with the palm up and wagging one finger will be interpreted as an insult.

5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Taboos

  • The personal life of another individual.
  • Bureaucracy, politics, and religion.
  • Legalities, crime, and punishment in Singapore. Spitting, smoking in public, chewing gum, and jaywalking are all offenses subject to fines.
  • Standing tall with your hands on your hips is typically perceived as an angry, aggressive stance.
  • It is considered rude to point at anyone with the forefinger. Instead, use your entire right hand.

What Is Important to Know about the Decision-Making or Negotiation Process?

  • Negotiations are conducted at a much slower pace than in the U.S. or many European countries.
  • The personal relationship you build in Singapore is often considered more important than the company you represent. A relationship with each group member is essential to conducting business. Your Singaporean counterparts must genuinely like, feel at ease with, and trust you.
  • Business agreements will likely require several trips over a period of months.

Any Tips for Women?

  • Business women don’t typically have problems working in Singapore, however there are many cultures and religions that may have various standards of protocol.
  • With the exception of handshakes, there is no public contact between the sexes in Singapore.
  • Hugging and kissing, even between husbands and wives, is strongly discouraged in public.

Any Tips on Gestures?

  • There are many gestures that may be considered impolite or offensive with the different cultures in Singapore, so do some research before you go.
  • Among Indians, rocking the head from side to side actually signals agreement, although Westerners may interpret this gesture as meaning, "no."