Singapore is a unique country, as it blends cultures and customs from a wide variety of countries. It has a strong Chinese influence, but there are many Malays, Arabs, and Indians living and working in the country as well. Doing business in Singapore can be a challenge if you’re unfamiliar with business etiquette, so here’s everything you need to know.
The most commonly spoken language in Singapore is English, so you should have little trouble communicating with most higher-level business professionals.
Some of the professionals you will encounter may speak Chinese, Arabic, or Hindi, or even the creole-like colloquial dialect of the country: Singlish.
When meeting your counterpart, there are different ways to greet them:
- For most of the Malays, you will only shake hands with members of the same sex. When men meet women, they must wait for the woman to extend her hand first. If the hand is not extended, the man must bow with his hand placed over his heart. Malays are often Muslims, and touching between sexes is uncommon.
- Among the Chinese living in Singapore, it is most common to bow instead of shaking hands. If a hand is extended to shake, make sure your handshake isn’t too firm. Note: Chinese are most comfortable shaking hands with women.
- When meeting Indians, it’s common for the younger generation to shake hands. Among older Indians, the "Namaste" greeting--palms together and a slight bow--is more common. Some traditionalist Hindus may have a hard time shaking hands with women, so it’s better to be safe.
ALWAYS greet the eldest person in the room first, as seniority is very important in Singapore.
Singaporeans are often fairly passive-aggressive, and will usually try to avoid direct conflict. They may answer "yes" to an offer or question, but really it means "no". You may want to solicit help from a local professional when communicating with Singaporeans in order to avoid misunderstandings.
People in Singapore are VERY polite, but it can often be confusing when they are too polite in situations when others would react in anger or hostility. You may never hear the word "no", but they have myriad ways of communicating it.
Do not sustain eye contact for too long; it is considered fairly rude or even inappropriate with members of the opposite sex.
If your Singaporean counterpart smiles or laughs at an odd time in a meeting, it’s their way of maintaining balance and protecting their thoughts and feelings. They may be angry, shy, or disapproving, but will not want to show it.
Singaporeans are cautious in business, and they want to feel that they have won when negotiating--particularly with foreigners.
Business attire in Singapore is much less formal than in many other countries, and you will find that your hosts rarely wear jackets and ties. This is due to the heat more than anything else, so you won’t need to bring extremely fancy attire.
Keep it simple with a collar shirt, but have a suit jacket and tie along if you feel the need to dress up. You can always joke about the heat and remove the jacket and tie.
Business Meetings and Punctuality
Being on time is absolutely vital for successful interactions. Always arrive 10 minutes early, but wait patiently until shown into your meeting or appointment.
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