Singapore is by far the most cosmopolitan and Westernised nation in Southeast Asia and it is quite easy to quickly forget the usual standards of behaviour expected in this part of the world such as in Thailand or Indonesia.
Here in Singapore the normal social conventions still apply but with some rather complicated local rules due to the diverse make up of its population.
Singaporeans of all creeds appreciate smart dress and whether visiting a government institution or a local home, people will be first judged on appearance.
Singlets and thongs are a big no and walking around town bare chested will certainly raise a few eye brows.
Tips for good Singapore etiquette
As with elsewhere in Asia, it pays to stay calm and keep emotions in check, whatever the provocation as a raised voice and confrontational attitude will get you nowhere. This is especially true with officialdom.
When dealing with people in authority in Singapore, never offer an ‘inducement’ to speed up matters. A small bribe may work in the Philippines or Indonesia, but in Singapore it is a very touchy subject and could well get you into trouble.
Singapore is infamous throughout the world for its rather draconian rules regarding a whole raft of petty everyday offences. It has a law for every occasion, be it jaywalking, possession of chewing gum or you can even be fined for not flushing a toilet! The vast majority relate to health, safety and hygiene matters and it is not acclaimed as the cleanest and safest city in the world for nothing. It is certainly a big culture shock from the more laissez-faire attitude found in most of Southeast Asia.
Anti-smoking laws are very strict in Singapore and a first offence can command a fine of S$300 (up to S$1,000 if it goes to court). Littering and eating or drinking on the MRT metro can also prove a costly experience with similar fines. It goes without saying that possession of drugs in Southeast Asia will get you into serious trouble and this is no different In Singapore. Depending on the type and quantity, offenders could be facing a caning, a heavy fine or even a death sentence.
Social customs in Singapore
When visiting a Singapore home it is customary to bring a small gift. The etiquette involved in this can be quite different depending on the ethnic background of the hosts. Certain colours and numbers are considered very unlucky for ethnic Chinese and for Malays and Indians, only bring a bottle of wine if you are certain that they imbibe. If in doubt, it is safer to follow the tried and tested Asian rules of removing your shoes when entering a house and using only your right hand to greet people and to give and receive items.
Singapore is famously tolerant of its diversity in race, religion and lifestyle, however visitors should tread very carefully when discussing political or religious affairs. Most Singaporeans, whatever their background, are very proud and patriotic and do not take kindly to criticism of the state. Surprisingly, there is less freedom of speech here than in many other nations of the region.
The main ethnic groups in multicultural Singapore speak Mandarin, Tamil and Malay. In addition, English is spoken by virtually everyone and is the unifying language for communication between Malays, Indians and ethnic Chinese. A hybrid dialect has evolved over the years, comprising a lot of Malay colloquialisms, which is commonly known as ‘Singlish.’
Sentences are finished with suffixes such as ah, lah and ley for emphasis and it can sound quite comical to the untrained ear. Although the words and sounds are all very familiar to English speaking visitors, the context can be very different.
Tipping in Singapore is not common practice as most restaurants and hotels will have already included a ten percent charge on bills. It is not expected but always gratefully appreciated. Most of the smaller hawker centres do not charge a service charge and decent service for tour guides, taxi rides and salons and spas are often rewarded with a few dollars.