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Singapore Business Etiquette

August 29, 2014 | Sharon Cheong

Singapore is home to three ethnic groups comprised of Chinese (76.7% of the population), Malay (14%) and Indian (7.9%). The rest (1.4%) is composed of other Eurasian communities.  Doing business in Singapore may seem quite daunting due to its numerous laws pertaining to seemingly minor infractions with harsh consequences.  Not so, as long as you observe Singaporean laws and regulations.

It is more likely that you will deal with a Singaporean Chinese as business counterpart. However, there is also a probability that you also have to deal with Singaporean Malay and Indian businessmen. It is therefore imperative that you take into consideration the ethnicity of your business associates so you may adapt to their own brand of business culture.

Business Culture

Singaporeans do observe business etiquette and the following are some important considerations.

Singaporeans generally have an open and cosmopolitan attitude so they will not easily take offense if you commit a social blunder.  Whatever you do, be courteous. Veer away from discussing racial issues, politics and religion.

You should set an appointment before a meeting and be punctual on the scheduled date. Exchanging business cards is a formality that is observed and you should receive and give business cards using both hands. It is impolite and disrespectful to write on a business card and stash it haphazardly in a folder or pocket.

Singaporeans are more likely to get right down to the point in business meetings and it is best that you deal straight with them even with money concerns.  Singaporeans are fast-paced and quick decision makers.

Introductions - Informal meetings and  first time introductions, always use the person's title, e.g. Mr., Ms, Mrs., Dr., family name then first name if he has a Chinese name.  If his name is westernized, then the western tradition applies. Malays use their own first name followed by bin (son of) or binti (daughter of) then followed by their father's first name.

Shake hands with everyone present in the meeting or social event upon arrival and before leaving. Bow slightly when greeting a Chinese Singaporean or an older person.

Business Attire - City folks are meticulous with their attire. Expect Singaporean businessmen to be in long-sleeved shirts and ties, while women in smart casuals. On formal occasions, men wear jackets while women wear evening dresses.

Business Activity and Eating - If your business associates are Malay Muslims, do not conduct business on Fridays and during the Ramadan month. Do not serve alcohol and pork.  If your business associate is Indian, do not serve beef and alcohol unless they specifically said that they do prefer alcoholic beverages. If you invited a business group to a social event, it follows that you pay for the bill.

Most Singaporeans prefer a luncheon meeting. Spouses are rarely invited to these events. If you are invited to dine in the home of a Malay associate, be punctual as the meal will be served the moment you arrive.  Do bring a gift for your host. If a Chinese business associate invited you, do not bring food as gift as this is offensive. Remember to leave a little food on the plate as a clean plate may signify that you are still hungry. When dining with Muslim associates, do not eat with your left hand. Business entertainment usually means dinner at a fancy restaurant. When dining with Indian associates, expect to have an hour of conversation after the meal.

Business Gifts - Expressing “thank you” through gift-giving is acceptable. An apt gift is a pen with the company logo. The gift should be wrapped and received/presented with two hands, and opened once the giver takes his leave.  Always consider the ethnicity of the business associate when giving gifts.

For Chinese business associate, handkerchiefs, clocks and anything in a set of four is associated with death. It is not appropriate to give cutting utensils (except for a letter opener) such as knives and scissors as they represent the conflict. Flowers are not acceptable as gifts as they are associated with sickness and death.

Do not give alcoholic beverages or anything made of pigskin to Malay Muslim associates. It is a common practice to give the gift before leaving and not upon arriving.

Giving frangipanis flowers is unacceptable as these are for funerals. Do not give any gift that is made from leather. Do not give alcoholic beverages as a gift unless you are sure that the recipient does drink alcohol. Do not wrap gifts in white as it is associated with mourning.

The official business language is English. The official business hours in Singapore for offices is from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday to Friday; for banks it is 9:00 a.m.to 4:00 p.m., Monday to Friday with some banks opening on Saturdays until noon; shops are open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.

Singapore could be the perfect location for your business. Call Servcorp now for more information on setting up a business in Singapore.