General etiquette in Singapore

General etiquette in Singapore

To many people outside Singapore, the island may be known as a stepping stone to the rest of Asia. As the country boasts a common lingua franca with many tourists and expatriates, and is considered to be one of the safest and cleanest countries in the region, it’s easy to see how Singapore might be viewed as a good starting point for those who wish to travel or work in Asia.

All around the world, customs and habits are typically ingrained in the locals by way of their own cultural heritage and tradition. But due to the rich multi-ethnic make-up of the population in Singapore which comprises of the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities in the main, the locals are much accustomed to accommodating and respecting a multitude of beliefs. The ease and familiarity with which we conduct and adjust our behaviour in a bid to ensure a peaceful harmony among different communities here, could arguably be the single most important reason why Singapore as a whole, is considered “safe”, and why it rarely provides much of a culture shock to foreigners.

While Singapore may sometimes seem a little bland or overly westernised for the liking of those seeking to experience the exotic Orient, what many may not realise that this may have come as a result of trying to navigate the social currents of disparate cultures at the same time. If you were to stretch out your hand in greeting for instance, you may be unsurprised when a Singaporean pumps your hand in enthusiastic greeting—but why would the same person go on then to bow to others in greeting? Why would they smile at others but refuse to shake their hand? There is no shortage of mystery behind these everyday occurrences, and to get to the bottom of them, one must first appreciate the general sense of etiquette here in Singapore.

When dining out:

  1. Don’t eat with your left hand. To the Malay community, the hand is associated with somewhat less palatable thoughts of using the restroom, and may come across as being just a tad icky.
  2. Be careful of how you use your chopsticks. When you’re done with your meal, place them on the rest beside your plate to signify to the waiter that you’d like to have your plate cleared. When eating, set them against or on your plate, but never leave them sticking up into the air as this symbolises offerings to the departed.
  3. If your host offers you food, do not decline unless those are second helpings that you simply cannot put away. Hosts may continue to persist sometimes, as it is considered a form of good manners to allow the guest, who may have felt too embarrassed to accept initially, to know that the offer had been a genuine one.

When visiting others:

  1. Remember to take your shoes off before stepping over the threshold. Most Singaporeans do not wear shoes indoors. It may seem odd at first, but at least it keeps you from tracking dirt and mud all across the floor and carpet.
  2. Bring a small gift when you visit someone, even it your host says it’s not necessary. Also, as Singapore generally does not have a strong wine drinking culture, and a significant proportion of the population are prohibited by their faith from imbibing alcohol, it is generally safer to avoid bringing a bottle. Flowers and gifts of food are generally acceptable.

When talking to others:

  1. It’s perfectly fine to be more direct when stating your opinion. In a business context, it is also alright to get down to business right away. In fact, sometimes you may find Singaporeans a little too direct when the more friendly ones start prodding you for your ancestral migration history and demanding to know how much you paid for this or that item.
  2. Keep your voice down. On the whole, Singaporeans are generally mindful of creating any disturbance to others, and few speak loudly or play music in public. Talking in a loud voice shows a lack of respect for others at best, and a provoking belligerence at best.
  3. When greeting someone, it’s generally okay to offer a handshake or a friendly nod of the head. The former may be considered too familiar among the older generation in the Malay and Indian communities—especially if it is a man who offers his hand to a lady. In a business context however, a handshake is de rigueur. Older generation Chinese may bow a little, and this is generally considered a form of good manners. When saying goodbye, a slight nod, bow or a wave is alright, but among the Malay community, it is very common to see two people shaking hands for a moment, then pressing their own against their chest. This is both a social and religious custom and would only take place between people of the same gender.
15 Dec 2023
Singapore Expats