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Work Culture and Labour Market for Expats in Singapore

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2015

Work Culture

The Singaporean workplace is formal in nearly all respects. The dress code is strictly suits and ties for men and conservative dresswear or trouser suits for women. People are normally addressed as Mr or Mrs X on introduction. Many Chinese Singaporeans have an English given name, then a Chinese family name plus Chinese given names, for example John Lee Ming Loong. You should address them using the second name; in this example, Mr Lee. When people know you a little better, they will normally ask if first names can be used.

Business meetings in Singapore are highly formal affairs. It is common to shake hands at the beginning of the meeting. Note, however, it is best for men to wait until a woman chooses to shake his hand or not, as Malay women are not permitted body contact with unfamiliar men in public. Note also that it is respectful to bow slightly when meeting older Chinese Singaporeans. Business cards are always exchanged on introduction. You should receive them two-handed (this is a Chinese gesture of respect) and read and treat them with care, rather than simply stuff them in your pocket.

Singaporeans are hard-working and tend to work long hours. They will usually expect you to work hard as well – often beyond regular office hours. Though they themselves may not always be on time, Singaporeans normally expect you to be.

Behaviour in the workplace is reserved and polite. It is important to remain calm; aggression will be politely rebuffed and will get you nowhere. There is also a strict hierarchy to be observed. It is important to address people in the right order, from the top downwards, using the correct title. The concept of ‘face’ is also very important. People often say “maybe” or “we’ll see” instead of an outright “no”, as this gives them some room for manoeuvre. Additionally, there is not normally any body contact, especially not between the sexes. Lastly, note that pointing at people is considered rude and should be avoided.

Finally, networking is an integral part of Singaporean business culture. There are numerous business groups and professional associations in Singapore. For more information, see Business Groups, Associations and Networking.


Labour Market

Singapore is a remarkable economic success story that has been attracting working expats for decades. Like other major centres of world finance, the island city-state did have a difficult time during the global recession and its long aftermath. However, the country has recovered now and has shown some very high GDP growth rates, averaging at more than 5% per annum. Unemployment in Singapore is currently at 2%, which, at only a quarter of the world average, is remarkably low.

This and other indicators show that the Singaporean economy is very healthy. Despite recent government efforts to reduce the reliance on foreign workers, the labour market in Singapore is very favourable for expats. Moving to Singapore for work is likely to be worthwhile in for many areas of work, though skilled workers are most in demand. There are positions available at different levels of seniority in many industries, including healthcare, engineering, construction and finance. A full list of current areas of work in demand is given on the MOM’s Strategic Skills-in-Demand page.

Many positions filled by expats involve intra-company transfers, so this is an option you might want to investigate. Note finally that expats will need an employment pass or work permit to work in Singapore.




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