Travel Etiquette 101: Singapore

Merlion Statue in Singapore

2min read

Published 19 July 2011


After taking us all over the world in his Travel Etiquette Series, Adam Barralet takes us to Asia to talk about the culture and people of Singapore. From initial greetings to proper table manners, Adam shares with us his travel etiquette tips when visiting this hidden gem:

Singapore is like a big bowl of Bak kut teh (Singaporean soup) full of different traditions and customs. It has seen many changes in the last four decades as the country has grown from being a developing country to one of the most developed nations in Asia, despite its small population, limited land space and lack of natural resources. Three quarters of the population are Chinese with Malays and Indians making the majority of the other quarter.

Third-party introductions are the norm in Singapore, so wait to be introduced. Handshakes are different from what you are used to. The grip is light and can last up to ten seconds. If you are meeting someone for business reasons, appointments should be made at least two weeks in advance, and on the day, punctuality is important. If you are giving someone your business card, hold it in both hands with the text facing them. If you are given a business card, have a good look at it and then hold it in your hand. Putting the card away is an indication of the meeting being over. Don’t just stuff the card in your pocket as how you treat the card is seen as a reflection of how you value the relationship.

One of the cornerstones of Singaporean etiquette is saving face. You should never behave in a way that will cause embarrassment to someone. You will notice that Singaporeans will prefer to say something such as, “perhaps” or let me think about it”, rather than directly say no. In Singapore you need to use diplomacy and flexibility when interacting with others. Being assertive, forceful, aggressive, direct, raising your voice or disagreeing with someone you do not know will all be viewed unfavourably.

Singapore is an extremely controlled and organized country. Keep in mind that smoking in public, jaywalking, failing to flush a toilet, spitting and littering will cost you $SGD1000 as a first offence (there goes your spending money!). Chewing gum is also banned in Singapore. You are not even allowed to bring it into the country so check your pockets before getting on the plane.

When dining with Singaporeans, it is polite to try everything that is offered to you. When helping yourself from a communal bowl, use the thick end of your chopsticks and don’t go digging for the best bits! At a dinner party Singaporeans will go to great lengths to ensure everything runs smoothly so be sure to acknowledge your host’s efforts. If dining out, tipping is uncommon as a ten percent service charge is generally added to the bill. However if you choose to give a tip, tell the waiter to keep the change rather than handing money directly to the waitperson or leaving cash on the table.

Overall the Singaporeans are a controlled and polite culture. Until you are comfortable with what is expected, then the best choice is to wait until invited to do something rather than jumping in head first. With this as your generally rule you will be sure not to step out of line in this noble country.

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