information for global expats

Guide to Cultural Traits for Expats in Singapore

Submitted: December 2013

Singapore is made up of a multi-ethnic mix predominantly of Chinese, Malay and Indian origin. This diversity is reflected in some of the traits found in many citizens. In all of these groups, respect for the elderly is taught to children from an early age. As is the concept of group cohesion and putting the needs of the family group ahead of one’s own.

Commanding respect in the community, also known as having face, is more important than anything else to Singaporeans. Any loss of face could permanently damage the relationship an individual has with his peers and must therefore be avoided whatever it takes. It is for this reason that Singaporeans will usually be extremely polite and place great emphasis on non-verbal communication, facial expressions and general body language are relied upon to communicate opinions and feeling to other group members rather than verbalising feelings directly and perhaps causing one of the group members to lose face.

Respect for the older members of a family hierarchy and the elderly in general permeates all aspects of day to day life. Elders take first pick of any food on offer at meal times, in a social setting elders are always introduced first and always given the best seats. In fact, the need to respect and protect older family members was enshrined in a law in 1996, whereby children are required to be financially responsible for their parents if need be.

Singaporeans have a long tradition of good behaviour to adhere to. Individuals are expected to respect family hierarchy. This respect is rooted in the teaching of Confucius which describe an individuals’ position in a family or business hierarchy. The same teaching describes the necessary behaviour to be displayed by each individual towards other people on the basis of their relationship to each other.

Singaporeans are generally reluctant to answer a question with a simple yes or no, as this could lead to the enquirer being embarrassed or feeling hurt when the answer they receive is not the one they had hoped for. It is considered rude to answer a question quickly. The individual being addressed should take their time to consider an appropriate response. If the answer is given immediately it implies that the response is thoughtless and that proper consideration has not been given.

Giving gifts to a Singaporean can be complicated. It must first be established which ethnic origin the recipient belongs to in order to ensure that the gift will not offend or send the wrong message. For example: an individual of Chinese ethnicity would probably be offended if they received a gift of scissors or other cutting utensil as this would be interpreted as the giver wishing to sever the relationship with the recipient. For this ethnic group odd numbers are considered unlucky, whereas those of Indian origin deem even numbers to be unlucky.

There is no doubt that the cultural traits in Singapore are complex and this is further compounded by the ethnic mix the expat will encounter during a stay in Singapore. It is better to observe and follow the examples given by those that are experienced in these matters rather than jumping straight in and losing face. There is a useful guide to coping with the effects of culture shock on the Singapore Expats website.



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