Singapore cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Singaporeans are very informal people, and like nothing better than a good laugh. Most are very uncomfortable in settings where they have to watch what they say and do. So a simple guide to how to behave at a first meeting is to be light-hearted to try to break the ice, e.g. you can talk about the weather—how incredibly hot it is in Singapore compared to Canada, tell people that -10 deg. C suits you just fine, etc. Singaporeans, like any other people, are always interested in living conditions elsewhere, so you can tell them about the history and government of Canada, which are very similar to Singapore’s (British colonial rule, Westminster parliamentary system).
Singaporeans feel very proud of their achievements since separation from Malaysia (August 1967), so you must never give the impression that you think Singapore is some Third World country. Chances are that any such notion you may harbour will be dispelled the moment you step off the plane and retrieve your bags anyway! You will also put people off by pontificating on the freedoms enjoyed in the West compared to the "dictatorship" in Singapore and that sort of thing. They are quite tired of hearing some Westerners’ preaching about freedom of speech and see no need for that in Singapore.
Working in Singapore offers a unique experience to the participant. Rather than a single culture Singapore offers three distinct aspects (Malay, Chinese and Indian). Although, these cultures are very disparate they do offer certain similarities, probably because of the shadow of the "Singaporean" umbrella.
Creating a good impression is a delicate task when one is participating in a different culture. Because of the British influence on Singapore and Singapore’s continual adherence to some of its practices, a person can inadvertently overstep the boundary and take to behaving like one would at home. It would be good practice to remind yourself that you are in an Asian environment. The Asian philosophy to good business rapport is based on getting to know each other on a personal level before commencing a business relationship. Good discussion topics when meeting with someone for the first time would be questions about family, health and family background. When asking about the family of someone it’s best to avoid asking questions about their wife but one can safely ask how many children they have, what grades the children study in, how long has that person been married, and so on.
When in an unfamiliar situation it is best to avoid asking questions about religion and politics. Although these two subjects might provide the most fruitful or interesting discussions they can easily cause offence to your host if a wrong statement is uttered. My advice is to avoid bringing these two topics up unless specifically asked for a comment by your host. The reason for avoiding discussions of religion is that Singapore as mentioned above is a diverse country that prides itself on tolerance and integration of various cultures. Most people are open to other religions and one will find churches, mosques and Hindu/Chinese temples side by side. It would not be a good position for one to show their biases intentionally or accidentally through misconstrued statements only to risk alienation from the host.
Politics is best avoided because Singapore has an authoritarian type government. The Singapore founders engineered the Singapore of today over a 50-year development plan. The founders are revered and glorified by naming bridges and roads after them. Singapore practices mandatory armed forces service laws for its citizens and even though a Canadian might not agree with such policies they are, in the Singaporean context, in the best interest of the country. An innocent comment can easily offend someone who might have a different frame of reference than you.
Humour is a safe option to use when meeting with someone for the first time. Lighthearted jokes involving no putdowns of any of the Singaporean cultures are great icebreakers.
Singapore has a very high literacy rate and most of its people are educated beyond high school either at home or abroad in US, Canada, UK, Malaysia and Australia. Because of this one would encounter fairly open-minded type individuals and small cultural faux pas might be easily over- looked.
There is nothing special about the distance you should keep from the person you are speaking to, or the amount of eye contact. Singaporeans are quite reserved and no touching is expected except for the first handshake. Definitely no hugging and kissing, slapping the back, loud and hearty "How are you?", until you have become good friends. I don’t think this is all that different from the way Canadians behave.
Working in a country with close cultural Asian influence one can be certain that the North American idea of personal space will be violated. When speaking with someone one-on-one, the person will stand usually at a distance of 2 feet from you. Also handshakes are extended and there is a lot of touching on the arms or shoulders. Shaking hands or touching women ought to be avoided. The safest method is to wait for the woman to offer her hand for a handshake rather than offering your own. Eye contact is quite important when having a conversation, maintaining good eye contact conveys attentiveness to the conversation. Acknowledgment of ideas can be represented with facial expressions and gestures. You need to be aware that if you are in a position of authority over another the inferior will not openly disagree with your opinion and will perform as told. People working under you will only make their opinions known when asked and not offer them openly as one might expect in a Canadian context.
Tone of voice should be kept on a moderate tone. Speaking too loudly is construed as rude. Also, the majority of conversations in a business setting are formal in nature. One has to be careful when speaking both to lower staff and upper managers, ensuring that a formal conversation style is adhered to.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection between couples of the opposite sex are becoming more common. This means holding hands, light kissing, arms around the shoulder or waist—anything more than that will get you stares. Anger is rare in public. All arguments are expected to be settled behind closed doors. Again, this isn’t all that different from Canada.
Public displays of affection should be avoided. Most teenagers in the Singaporean society practice hand holding or hugging but kissing and fondling are not acceptable. Especially if one is working as a professional it becomes even more important to maintain decorum in social situations rather than risk losing credibility.
Exhibiting anger in public is not acceptable because of the conservative nature of all three of Singapore’s major cultures. If one does resort to outbursts of anger, one is sure to attract huge crowds. Recommended behaviour is to express your emotions in a calm and collected manner, doing so will bring a fruitful result. In my 18 months of working in Singapore, I didn’t experience any situation where anyone lashed out in anger. Needless to say it’s not a common occurrence.
The Singaporeans are very friendly and cordial people, laughing out loud is not considered rude nor does it attract stares from people.
Dress, punctuality & formality
How to dress and how to address colleagues depends a lot on the corporate culture you find yourself in, although it is usual to address senior managers by their title and surname i.e. Dr. Tan, Mr. Ong, etc. Obviously if Dr. Tan tells you to call him Al, go ahead!
The importance of deadlines, punctuality and so on again depends on the company you work for and your own attitudes. People in higher positions are expected to be more responsible—presumably a Canadian working in Singapore will be in a supervisory position and should act accordingly.
The overall dress code for work is formal. Most of my colleagues used to wear suits or formal pants and shirt with a tie. Because of the tropical climate of the country, light fabrics are recommended for the business attire. For women, the dress code is formal suits (pants or skirts). Your Canadian business attire will translate well into the Singaporean environment. Any parties or outside or work gatherings or meetings would warrant a suit.
Colleagues, higher ups and lower staff all address each other with formal titles (Mr., Ms., Miss, Mrs., Dr. etc). One should adhere to these formal titles until informed otherwise by the addressee. Also, unlike the Canadian practice of attaching a title to the last name of the person the Singaporean’s would do so with the first name. Conversations should be conducted formally with refrain in putting down anyone or their experience or ideas.
Punctuality and absenteeism are treated in the same manner as in Canada. Meetings start on stated times and absenteeism is acceptable with prior notice and reasonable circumstances.
Preferred managerial qualities
I would say the most important qualities are competence, and empathy with subordinates’ problems. This holds for both local and expatriate managers. Being an expatriate, you will be implicitly held to a higher standard ("otherwise why are we paying this guy so much more?"), so in addition you will be expected to use your outside experience to benefit the company you work for. Given that you are a native English speaker, you will be expected to be better at communicating ideas, objectives, etc.
It will not be easy to gauge how staff view you as an expatriate manager because they will almost certainly not be able to reach out to you in the same way that they can to a local manager. I remember a British literature teacher when I was in school, trying to teach us Shakespeare: the class would be so quiet you could hear a pin drop, but with the local teachers the noise level was considerably higher. This is not because we were so enraptured by the teacher that we hung on to her every word, but rather that we treated her like an alien from another planet and so we were scared that she would do something we didn’t expect if were to make noise. So an expatriate manager will usually have trouble getting through to staff and you may find that, at meetings, nobody says a word to challenge even your most hair-brained ideas because they are sitting there thinking, he’s from another place, maybe they do things that way over there.
So at the end of the day, you must convince them that you really want their feedback, that no "they" do not do things all that differently "over there", and no you do not have all the answers.
Education and leadership skills seem to be of paramount importance in the Singaporean culture. Most of the well-off people send their children abroad for higher education only because they realize that a degree from USA or Canada holds more value than a local education. Leadership skills are also very important. The majority of the business environment is based on the top down management style, where the high level managers make the strategic decisions and the lower staff implements it.
As a foreign consultant (or expat) one is automatically directed into this higher influence bracket. Because of our Canadian educational backgrounds and Canadian experience we are without a word considered experts in our fields. Any suggestions that you might have or direction that you may wish to take with your work will be accepted without resistance. From the Singaporean perspective, if you (as an expat) were brought into the company then that for them means that there was no local talent available to do the job, or that your expertise is what qualified you for that position.
Finding out what your employees think of you is a difficult task, similar to how it is in Canada. One has to look for and read subtle clues. If you as a manager are open to new ideas, give out praise when due, recognize good hard work then your employees will also notice this behaviour and will be more candid with you. However, if you practice the same top down management philosophy as the local managers then it would matter less what the employees think of you because they will do what you tell them to do as they are culturally conditioned to do.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions are nearly always taken by the top manager and there is generally little empowerment of lower level staff to make significant decisions. Just about everything (including ideas) flow from the top down. Even though so-called Workplace Improvement Teams (WITS) have been in place in many companies for decades, it is difficult to change the Asian tradition of deferring to your superiors. It is acceptable to meet with your immediate supervisor to talk about your work conditions and performance at any time but it is unusual for the Singaporean worker to be bold enough to demand improvements to his/her terms of employment.
Decisions are made in a top down manner. However, as an expat you have the added benefit of unhindered access to top level mangers. One can easily sidestep their direct supervisor and go to the higher up when needed, without causing any offence. In the same respect as an expat one can freely go to their supervisor for answers or feedback. A local person will generally resort to asking questions of peers before moving to his supervisor but this is not the condition with the expat.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Singapore is still a rather male-centric society at some levels e.g. if you are a male Singaporean and you marry a foreigner, your spouse will be eligible for citizenship but not if you are a female Singaporean. However attitudes have changed tremendously in the last few decades and it is now the norm for females to work. In fact, the rate of female participation in the workforce is probably higher in Singapore than in Canada. At the social level, males and females are treated very equally. There are no such things as all-male clubs, for instance, and there are just as many all-girl schools as there are all-boys schools and they are equally good. The older generation still thinks of the man as the head of the household, but I am not confident that this is true of the younger generation. In the workplace, it is unusual to see a woman in the upper levels of management, but I believe it is only a matter of time before that scene changes. It is very rare indeed for a Malay or a woman to be in a senior position.
Singapore is officially a secular state. Many among the Chinese are Christians (Protestant more than Catholic) or Buddhists; most Malays are Muslims; Indians are either Hindu or Christian. Many people have no religion and are very comfortable with that. Religion should play no role in the workplace at any time.
Singapore prides itself on being a "meritocratic" society. For example, the garbage collector’s son stands just as good a chance of becoming a doctor as the prime minister’s. So the idea of class in the British sense of entitlement through descent is an alien concept. However, people with good academic qualifications definitely form a loose "privileged class" and hold all key appointments in business and politics, but their descendants are not automatic members of that club.
The three main ethnicities are Chinese, Malay and Tamil Indian. Indians and Chinese are at the top of the political and economic standings; Malays lag substantially behind. The Chinese view Malays as friendly but unambitious people who are content with making ends meet. Malays view Chinese as cut-throat money-minded gamblers and business people. The fundamental differences between Malay and Chinese attitudes to life form the basis of continuing tensions between Singapore and Malaysia, which have Chinese and Malay majorities respectively.
Apart from the three races mentioned above, there is a very large population (in the hundreds of thousands) of workers from much other countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. You will notice that most manual work (e.g. construction, cleaning) is carried out by labourers from these three countries, who work under very harsh conditions with very low pay. There are also large numbers of women from these countries working as domestics.
So at the managerial level, you will find mostly Chinese and Indians; jobs such as drivers, clerks and security guards are generally filled by Malays; other jobs are left to the migrant workforce.
The government cabinet is a microcosm of the boardroom in many companies so if you look at who’s who in government, you will see what I mean.
The Singaporean culture as mentioned above is composed of a variety of cultures and religions. It is therefore the case that religion, class, gender and ethnicity are blended well into the social fabric.
Women are well respected in society and play an integral part in the professional setting working side by side with men. Women are not hindered by any constraints and many organizations have woman presidents and CEO etc. Men also have no qualms about having a female boss generally. In the social context women are treated with respect and kindness and no overt sexual comments are passed that I am aware of.
There is wider acceptance of different religions in Singapore. The people have embraced religious diversity and so much so that various religious holidays are followed with fervour by others not belonging to that religion.
The class system is non-existent in Singapore and people integrate very well. There are also no restrictions on a say a person of Sikh background vs. one of Chinese background, they both have the same opportunities available to them and are treated equally by the society and professional structure.
Ethnicity is embraced in the Singaporean society because it adds to the diversity. No one ethnicity is preferred over the other.
Sort of how in Toronto there is a mishmash of cultures and races yet everyone conforms to one identity- that of being a Canadian. Similarly, in Singapore different cultures, races, religions have combined together in a rich social fabric, where everyone is working for the betterment of the country as a whole and setting aside their differences for a peaceful and coexistent environment.
As important as it is in Canada. I don’t see any differences here.
Establishing a personal relationship before commencing business activities is of prime importance. The Singaporean culture is such that it is expected that one form a friendship with their business partner before business can take place. Because of this cultural aspect of professionalism it is good practice to take time to get to know your peer or colleague. In my experience in Singapore, I have gone through instances where a week of "getting to know" period went by before getting down to a business arrangement. Mostly I found that business decisions were made based upon the strength of the relationship that one formed with one’s counter part. I found that the best way to formulate such a relationship was done either by taking your prospective client or partner out to lunch a few times, drinks over the evening or weekend or touristy type things like showing the person around town.
Privileges and favouritism
Never. Corruption and cronyism, especially in government, is considered a serious offence and is severely punished.
Relationships are the basis of the Singaporean business environment. Therefore my answer is a resounding YES to expectation of preferred treatment by people that you know. It’s taken for granted that the boss’ son or daughter or next of kin would receive preferential treatment, at the same time it should be taken for granted that one would receive preferential treatment based upon their adherence to the cultural norm or helping those that are closest to them. I would recommend partaking in such actions so long as they don’t affect the project that you are working on or the company adversely. If there is a position open for example and someone can be promoted into that capacity then one has to search first through the list of available candidates based upon their relationship with you (provided they are qualified to do the job). If however, one is unable to find a qualified person in that lot then only should they move to others or even hire from the outside. Favoritism or nepotism of this sort may seem counterproductive from the Canadian perspective but you have to accept the fact that it’s how you host society functions. Snubbing your boss or other managers in high levels for the sake of doing the right thing can actually have ill effects on your own project.
Conflicts in the workplace
Again, no difference with Canada as far as I know. Would you confront a colleague in public? I can’t imagine that happening anywhere. You can tell when someone is offended with you if he/she stops having coffee with you, or stops asking you to join him/her for lunch, or stops talking to you, etc. It should be pretty obvious.
I feel that the best method of remedying a situation is to do it discretely. Speaking to the colleague in private and in a non-confrontational manner shows that you care enough to respect their reputation and your relationship with that person. Bringing minor issues into the public can cause the offending party to go on the defensive, which is by no means a good position to be in. If the problems continue then the next best step is to have a face-to-face meeting with your boss in the presence of the offending party. The boss will take on the role of a intermediary or an arbitrator and you will ensure that the offending party knows that you haven’t been back biting on them etc.
Behaviour is probably the best indicator of feelings. You can ascertain how someone feels about you by the way they act when you are around. If someone is avoiding you or has a very formal relationship with you while others are intermingling and friendly then probably there is something awry in your relationship with that person. Again, the best course of action would be to speak to that person one-on-one and apologize for your offensive behaviour that might have caused the rift. Patching a relationship is easily done if one approaches the offended person in a sincere and personal manner.
Motivating local colleagues
Job satisfaction, commitment, money, loyalty, good working conditions, fear of failure are all motivating factors. Different people will have different priorities and motivating factors so I cannot generalize.
Loyalty, commitment and fear of failure are probably the most important motivators for the average Singaporean. The aforementioned are culturally programmed into your Singaporean colleagues and probably are constantly present for your colleagues. The areas where you can motivate your peers/ juniors would be through providing recognition when good work is done (one-on-one or in a formal ceremony), giving them a yearly bonus or even through little things like offering them a better work location such as a desk with a view, a more comfortable chair, a fancier computer, tickets to the movies or gift certificated to a restaurant etc.
Recommended books, films & foods
Lee Kuan Yew (first prime minister of Singapore) has written a two-volume autobiography, which gives his view of the history of Singapore from about 1940 to 2000. There aren’t any films or television shows that you can easily obtain in Canada that will tell you about Singapore. You can try the Contact Singapore office in Toronto to obtain relevant material. The government of Singapore website is also useful: http://www.gov.sg.
Lonely Planet Singapore; Groovy Map ’n Guide Singapore by Night; Singapore: a Pictorial History; A Nonya Mosaic: My Mother’s Childhood; and Nalla on Sunday: Nalla Tan.
Hang out at a shopping mall, or at a hawker centre, or at Starbucks. Shopping and eating are the favourite Singapore pastimes. Concerts are usually not very good, particularly if you don’t understand the local lingo that we call Singlish. Singapore is culturally rather backward and the live entertainment scene is only beginning to establish itself.
Singaporeans are big movie buffs. Singapore has the highest movie visits per capita in the world. On average a Singaporean views 8 movies in a year. The best place to meet new people and perhaps movie buffs are by going to the cinema there. Also, one can find interesting people hanging out at the food markets and street side eateries. Most of the people, I found, were very friendly and willing to lend suggestions on what to do or see, one just has to be open to ideas and approachable. It’s not difficult to find a cultural interpreter or guide because the people are so willing to help and showcase their country, it just boils down to the act of asking. Good people to ask, if you are not asked first, are you colleagues, neighbors, church groups or even locals at a bar etc.
Places to see
Empress Place Building, Raffles Hotel; Haw Par Villa, Sim Lim Square, China Town, Raffle’s Landing Site & Singapore River, CHIJMES Market, and Lau Pa Sat Market.
The country is so young that there aren’t very many. I can think of Lee Kuan Yew (first prime minister), Fandi Ahmad (ex-soccer star), Sir Stamford Raffles (British colonial founder of Singapore—more of a famous name than a hero). David Beckham has more of a following in Singapore than any local person.
Singapore has a rich history and therefore a variety of heroes. The following three are my picks because they are widely admired and are important in popular culture: Fandi Ahmad (Football Champion), Li Jiawei (Table Tennis Champion) and Lim Bo Seng (A resistance fighter in the resistance to the Japanese forces in WWII). A native Chinese who moved to Singapore as a child, Lim led efforts to raise funds to help China fight Japanese invasion of Singapore in the 30’s. When Japan captured Singapore he escaped to India and joined Force 136, a group of resistance fighters organized by the British. He was captured after infiltrating Japanese territory in 1944. Despite punishment and torture, he refused to give up names of other resistance fighters. He died in captivity, becoming a martyr to the cause of Singapore.
Shared historical events with Canada
I can’t think of any. The two countries are so far apart geographically.
There are no "bad feeling" historical events that took place between Canada and Singapore so there is no reason for ill affect on work or social relations. Singapore has a widely diverse population so work will not be conducted over Christmas, New Years, Chinese New Year, Hindu New year etc.
I don’t think locals know anything about Canadians at all! They just have this vague notion that Canada is really cold, is north of the US, and that Toronto also had a SARS problem. Maybe you shouldn’t sneeze out loud in Singapore while wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs T-shirt.
I find that because of the relative non participation of Singapore in global politics there is a general lack of attention in the Canadian mind regarding Singapore. It’s not to say that we have any stereotypes about Singapore as a whole or its people, but rather, that we don’t know much about the country and its people.
I did not find any preformed ideas about Singapore amongst my group of Canadians.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born and raised in Singapore, the youngest of two children. He graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the National University of Singapore, and moved to Cambridge, England to continue his studies at the age of 25. He graduated with a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter immigrated to Canada to work in Toronto. He later returned to Singapore for a period of five years, returning in 2000. Currently, he a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department of the University of Toronto.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Peshawar, Pakistan the youngest of three children. He was raised in Toronto and studied Development Management in Maryland (USA) at the University of Maryland, College Park. His work sent him abroad for the first time in 2000 where he worked as an ISO auditor. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Singapore, where he lived for 18 months. He has also worked in Guyana (South America) and most recently in Pakistan. He is a follower of the Islamic religion and his cultural background is Indo-subcontinental-Canadian. He has been living in Toronto for the last three years working in North York.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.