Boasting an advanced economy driven by transparency and cooperation, doing business in Singapore is surprisingly easy. The country is fairly Westernised and boasts high living standards, but with a diverse population, expats will need to familiarise themselves with local business culture and etiquette if they want to be successful in Singapore.
Business hours are Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm, sometimes with a half-day on Saturday.
English is the main language of business in Singapore.
Business dress is fairly casual, in keeping with the island’s humid climate. Smart shirts and ties are standard in business environments. A suit jacket may occasionally be required for formal meetings. Pantsuits or a conservative skirt and blouse are acceptable for women.
In a business context, gifts may be misconstrued as bribery, especially when doing business with government officials in Singapore. Gift-giving customs will also tend to differ between cultural groups, and what is appropriate in one culture may not be appropriate in another. Gifting flowers or alcohol, for example, will have vastly different implications depending on the receiver’s cultural background.
Men and women are generally treated equally in business. See Diversity and Inclusion in Singapore for more on gender equality and women in leadership.
Business culture in Singapore
The business culture in Singapore is based on relationships rather than transactions. Initial meetings may move slowly as a relationship is established, and expats should remain patient as connections are cemented.
In general, the business culture in Singapore is quite formal. Punctuality and presentation are critical to creating the right impression and developing a positive rapport. Respect for elders and status should also be carefully observed.
A handshake is appropriate when greeting business associates. Business cards should be offered formally with both hands. Address colleagues as Mr or Ms until told otherwise. Always address senior associates and older colleagues with respect.
While Singapore may claim to have an egalitarian business world, large corporate companies tend to have a hierarchical structure, and it’s uncommon for junior employees and management to socialise together. This may seem strange if one is used to a more egalitarian society.
Expats need to be aware of how they speak, their body language and their facial expressions. They should also pay close attention to that of their business associates. Flattery or boasting are treated with suspicion, and prolonged eye contact can come across as aggressive. Most Singaporeans are soft-spoken and prefer a calm demeanour over a more aggressive manner.
Singapore is incredibly diverse, with the majority of its population being of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent. The island’s business culture can vary greatly depending on who one is dealing with, and this can have an impact on appropriate greetings, titles and general conduct. It is wise to educate oneself about the various ethnicities and cultures present in Singapore before attempting to do business here.
Attitude towards foreigners
As a modern and multicultural society, the business culture in Singapore is welcoming of foreign businesses and tolerant of other cultures. The government encourages qualified expat business people to move to Singapore.
Dos and don’ts of business in Singapore
- Do be punctual
- Do show respect, particularly to elders, and avoid confrontation
- Don’t speak in a raised voice, as this may be seen as aggressive
- Don’t write on the business cards you receive
- Do ensure that any business cards given to Singaporean associates are in good condition and are not tattered or worn out
What do expats say about Singapore's business culture?
"Well, being a regional hub means you are generally working with various countries close to Singapore, so always be aware of culture and respect. As long as you do that and use your common sense you should be fine." Learn more about Singapore in our interview with Scott, a South African expat.
Are you an expat living in Singapore?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Singapore. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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