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About Singapore

by: Jaime Ong-Yeoh

Basic Information

Currency: Singapore dollar (SGD)                                 
Capital: Singapore
Time Zone: GMT +8
Population: 5.7 million (2020)[1]
Ethnicity (Citizens): Chinese (76%), Malay (15%), Indian (7%), Others (2%)[1]
Religion: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, others [1]
Border countries: Malaysia, Indonesia
Official language: Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, English
 

Overview

 
The culture of Singapore is multifaceted - it manages to have its own uniquely Singaporean culture while at the same time retaining the cultural identities of the various ethnicities that make up the majority of its local population (Chinese, Malays and Indians). It is also strongly influenced by global, urban cosmopolitan culture.
 
The de facto primary language for government matters, business, and as a lingua franca between its multi-ethnic population is English. It is common for people to speak two (or more) languages. In addition to English, this includes Mandarin Chinese (and other Chinese dialects such as Hokkien and Teochew), Malay, or Tamil. Don’t be surprised if you hear the announcements at mass-rapid transit (MRT) stations repeated in 4 languages! Even everyday speech is peppered with Singlish or colloquial Singaporean English phrases that combine words from the different local languages.
 
According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse nation [2]. However, while religious symbols and structures visually reflect its diverse population, religion does not play a significant influence in society and business.  Singapore is a secular state with no state religion; 20% of the population identify with not having any religion [1]. Among the Chinese community, rituals such as burning incense for prayers, altar offerings, and ancestor worship are commonly performed but have more cultural than religious significance.
 
Being a multicultural society, Singapore’s public holidays also celebrate the diversity of its people. Its public holidays include Chinese New Year, Vesak Day, Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid Ul Fitr), Hari Raya Haji (Eid Al Adha), Deepavali (Diwali), Good Friday, and Christmas. In addition to those of the faith, these festivals are seen as a time of general celebration with shopping centres and streets decorated accordingly, people expressing wishes to those celebrating, and visiting family and friends.
 
Up until its independence in 1965, Singapore was a part of Malaysia. The separation was due to political and economic differences between the ruling parties of Singapore and Malaysia [5]. However, both countries have always had and will continue to have strong social and economic ties to each other. In addition to sharing a common history, cultural background and familial ties with Malaysia, Singapore is heavily dependent on Malaysia for much of its water and food supply as well as labour. At the same time, the southern state of Johor in Malaysia benefits economically from its close physical proximity to Singapore. The relationship between Singapore and Malaysia is one of grudging affection with mutual irritations and disputes, and is often referred to as a sibling relationship or a friendly rivalry.
 

Some cornerstones of Singaporean culture

 
Singaporean culture is perhaps best described by the following Hokkien Chinese phrases that Singaporeans themselves famously use when describing the behaviour of their fellow countrymen:
 
  • Kiasu: afraid of losing (i.e. fear of losing out on something, being unnecessarily competitive)
  • Kiasi: afraid of dying (i.e. being overly afraid or timid, afraid of doing something wrong or being wrong)
  • Kiachenghu: afraid of the government
 
And a little less common:
  • Kiabo: afraid of going without
  • Kiabor: afraid of the wife
 
See ‘Level 3 - Dimensions’ for more details on the culture of Singapore as guided by Hofstede’s cultural dimensions.
 

When in Singapore

 
Singapore is a very industrious, driven and hard-working society. In public, people tend to mind their own business and keep to themselves as they are very focused on their daily lives and tasks. However, they are warm and friendly when engaged. Singaporeans are respectful and accepting of the rights and characteristics of other cultures and coexist easily with different cultures and ways of life. People are very forgiving of cultural faux pas that foreigners may make as long as they are not done with malice.
 
  • Expect to be asked what may seem to be personal questions by people you have only just met and do not know well. These are just meant to be friendly ice breakers.
  • Singapore is an orderly, law-abiding society. Compliance with its many rules and regulations is high, as is social pressure to be socially responsible and do one’s civic duty. Tolerance for deliberate rule-breaking or civil disobedience is low. 
  • Unlike many other cultures in Southeast Asia where time is “flexible”, punctuality is expected in a corporate or business setting. This is less the case in social settings where being late is not hugely frowned upon.
  • Forms of address are generally not strict nor formal; you may start with Mr. or Mrs./Mdm./Ms., else it is also acceptable to call someone by their first name both in business and social settings.
  • Openly disagreeing with someone in public on matters of importance is not common but not necessarily frowned upon and generally does not lead to an uncomfortable situation. Different viewpoints can be discussed fruitfully; people tend to be direct, factual and objective with their opinions yet try not to offend.
  • People are generally compliant with decisions made or instructions given by people in positions of authority or power, even if they have reservations. However, they will confide in their peers as an outlet for their true thoughts and complaints.
  • Singapore is a meritocratic society; hence people are keen to make a good impression. If they are not fully confident about something, people may not express a strong opinion or commit to a decision for fear of appearing foolish or being wrong and ‘losing face’ as a result.
  • Singaporeans are sociable and hospitable; you can expect to be taken out for drinks and meals by your hosts.
 

Good to know 

 
Singapore has a large foreign-born population - 38% (2.16 million) of Singapore’s population of 5.7 million are migrants from other countries. Of that, Malaysians make up the most significant percentage at 44% (1 million) with Chinese nationals second at 18% (380,000) [6]
 
This reflects Singapore’s heavy reliance on foreign labour, although more recent efforts have been made to moderate it. Dependence on foreign labour exists at all levels across many industries – while the majority are low-wage, low-skilled migrant workers, it also includes many highly paid C-suite expatriates, professionals, and knowledge workers not just from Asia but all over the world.
 
Therefore, do not assume that the people you meet and deal with come from the same background or have a homogenous culture. Be aware and mindful of different cultural influences, and be adaptable.
 

Body language

 
While they may seem more guarded at first glance compared to other cultures in Southeast Asia, Singaporeans are friendly and approachable. 
 
During introductions, it is perfectly acceptable to extend your hand and shake hands with either gender. In current/post Covid-19 pandemic times, smiling and nodding your head slightly may even become the norm instead.
 
Singaporeans are generally quite reserved and private with their emotions, and you will not often see overt expressions of anger, joy, sadness, etc. in public. An emotional outburst from you will make you seem emotionally unstable to them or will be taken personally. Conversations are held at low to moderate volume, and hand gestures are not extravagant.
 
 

Dress code

 
The workplace dress code in Singapore varies based on the industry - business casual is generally acceptable, but business formal will be more suitable in the financial services and professional services industries, and smart casual in the creative and technology sectors. Singaporeans are stylish and well-dressed, and will appreciate it if you are too.
 
Western-style office attire is worn at the workplace, while traditional dress is perfectly acceptable as well. Remember that the weather is hot and humid, but it can be cold indoors in air-conditioned buildings, so lightweight layers that can be removed or added is advised.
 
The following will be suitable for most occasions:
  • Men: Lightweight blazer, long-sleeved shirt, dress trousers, and leather dress shoes. Wearing a matching suit and a tie is not expected except for formal occasions such as meeting with VIPs, large and important events, or when the media is present.
  • Women: Skirts or dresses (knee-length or even above the knee is fine), trousers, smart shoes and a good quality handbag. A lightweight blazer will add a smart touch. A matching skirt suit/pantsuit is not expected except for formal occasions such as meeting with VIPs, large and important events, or when the media is present.

The expert recommends

 
Due to its size, Singapore has extremely limited natural resources and a relatively small domestic market. Instead, it has very successfully capitalised on its legacy as a strategically located port city to become a prominent international trading hub and financial services centre, enabled by its open-door and free-market policies. It is widely known as one of the big three strategic locations for regional Asia Pacific headquarters of multinational companies (along with Shanghai and Hong Kong that focus on the China market). In addition to housing large international corporations, Singapore also has many homegrown conglomerates, either state- or privately/publicly-owned, that are regionally successful and across diverse industries.
 
A key contributing factor to Singapore’s success is its highly competent and effective government and civil service. Salaries are high to compete with the private sector to attract the best talent and combat corruption - the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and his cabinet ministers are among the highest paid in the world.
 
In general:
  • It is a process-driven society – processes, guidelines and requirements are spelt out and clearly documented. These are understood and followed by both the authorities and society, and the general sentiment is that one feels aided by these processes rather than hindered. As long as one complies with the processes and fulfils the stipulated requirements, one can expect a predictable and timely result.
  • Decision making may take a little longer. Firstly, it is group-based - lower levels generally do not feel comfortable making decisions independently, so recommendations are socialised, discussed and jointly agreed upon in a peer group. Secondly, recommendations then need to travel up several levels of authority, with the decision ultimately being made by the power holder further up.
  • Having good relationships is very important, so make the time and effort to build relationships, especially face-to-face if possible. However, Singapore is a meritocratic society that is objective and results-driven; no relationship, no matter how good, can make up for an unattractive proposal. 
  • Offers of technical expertise and knowledge transfer will be well received. Singaporeans are very professional by nature and are very keen to learn and advance themselves.
  • In order to preserve good relationships and in the interest of future cooperation, prioritise mutual benefit (win-win) and long term relationship over competition (win-lose).

 

Power Distance

 
Singapore has a score of 74, which means it is a high Power Distance society. People accept that power is distributed unequally and that everyone has a place in society. The government, authorities, and people in positions of power are highly respected, have a strong influence, and are able to compel compliance. At the workplace, subordinates prefer to defer to their higher-ups to make important decisions and take accountability, as that is believed to be the role of the supervisor. Society is hierarchical, as manifested by being highly conscious of one’s socioeconomic status by way of materialism.
 

Individualism

 
With a score of 20, Singapore is a collectivist society - being part of a group and one’s responsibilities towards the group are very important. These groups could be one’s immediate and extended family, other formal or informal groups both in and out of the workplace, as well as one’s community and society in general. Compliance and conformity are valued higher than standing out as an individual and pursuing one’s individual needs. At the workplace, group decision making (prior to escalating to a higher-up) is commonplace.
 

Uncertainty Avoidance

 
With a score of 8, Singapore has low Uncertainty Avoidance. This means that society is comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, are highly adaptable, and comfortable with taking risks. Recall how Singapore seceded from Malaysia in the 1960s despite being a very small state and having minimal natural resources.
 
A low Uncertainty Avoidance score may seem counterintuitive given that much is said about Singapore being an orderly and highly structured society with many rules and regulations. However, remember that Singapore also has a high Power Distance –  without inspection by authorities and social pressure, rules may not necessarily be followed. It is the government and authorities that have put in place measures to manage many aspects of political, economic, and social matters, and its people comply with them. This creates a safe and stable environment that allows Singapore to take calculated risks, for example in business, as evidenced by the many successful homegrown companies that have achieved great success in the region.
 
Also see the section below on how the Indulgence dimension influences maintaining order in society.
 
Together, the combination of a high Power Distance and collectivist society that has low Uncertainty Avoidance forms what can be called a ‘Family’ culture [8] - there is a patriarch who provides guidance, one does not speak up against one’s ‘father’, and one is loyal towards one’s own ‘family’ (in-group). Although often described as authoritarian, the first prime minister Lee Kwan Yew is favourably known as the founding father of Singapore. Having held office for more than 30 years, his strategies and policies have been instrumental in making Singapore what it is today. His son Lee Hsien Loong is now the third and current prime minister, in office for 17 years and counting.
 

Masculinity

 
A high score (Masculine) in this dimension indicates that society is driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner/the best. A low score (Feminine) in this dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success, and standing out from the crowd with one’s achievements is not admirable. With an intermediate score of 48, Singapore does not exhibit a strong preference either way - achievement and success are desired, yet care for others also plays an important role in society.
 

Long Term Orientation

 
With a score of 72, Singapore is more Long Term Oriented. Society looks towards the future and focuses its efforts on the foundations that need to be laid today to achieve those goals in the future. The tendency is towards delayed gratification rather than instant gratification. Persistence and perseverance are valued, and one’s efforts are in service of achieving the bigger picture. Money and other resources are used carefully and not wastefully, and it is important to save for the future. Far from being conservative, however, Long Term Oriented societies are pragmatic, open to new ideas and adaptable, and are less likely to hold on to traditions and norms that may no longer be compatible with the future. Singapore is ranked second in Bloomberg’s Innovation Index 2021 [9], only below South Korea that has an even higher Long Term Orientation score.
 

Indulgence

 
With a score of 46, Singapore leans towards being Restrained. Studying hard and working hard is more important than having leisure time and enjoying oneself. As with much of Asia, the working hours in Singapore are longer [10] and the number of vacation days is fewer compared to Europe. There can also be an undertone of pessimism and a tendency to focus on problems. Having moral discipline and maintaining order in society is important, ‘freedom’ is not necessarily desired if it results in chaos. Recall the earlier mentioned high Power Distance as well as influential, long-serving prime ministers and strong government in Singapore – authoritarian rule is more easily accepted in Restrained societies with high Power Distance [8]. 
 

References & Interesting Links

[1] SingStat, Department of Statistics Singapore. https://www.singstat.gov.sg
[2] Pew Research Center (2014, April 4.) Global Religious Diversity. https://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/
[3] Nagumo, J. (2019, December 17.) Singapore rises in gender equality ranking as Philippines slips. Nikkei Asia. https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Singapore-rises-in-gender-equality-ranking-as-Philippines-slips
[4] Global Gender Gap Report 2021. World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2021.pdf
[5] History SG, National Library Board. Singapore separates from Malaysia and becomes independent. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/dc1efe7a-8159-40b2-9244-cdb...
[6] Lim, I. (2020, January 19.) UN data shows Malaysians make up biggest migrant group in Singapore at 44pc. Malay Mail. https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/01/19/un-data-shows-malaysians-make-up-biggest-migrant-group-in-singapore-at-44pc/1829498
[8] Wursten, H. (2019). The 7 Mental Images of National Cultures. Helsinki, Finland: Hofstede Insights.
[9] South Korea Leads World in Innovation as U.S. Exits Top Ten. (3 Feb 2021.) Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-03/south-korea-leads-world-in-innovation-u-s-drops-out-of-top-10
[10] Statistics on Working Time. (24 May 2021.) International Labour Organization (ILO). https://ilostat.ilo.org/topics/working-time/


 

Last updated: 09.09.2021 - 12:09
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