The culture of Singapore was consciously created and supported by legislation to uphold five official shared values including: Nation, Family, Community, Consensus, and Harmony. Understanding how these values are reflected in business practices is critical for working in Singapore.

Singaporean Worldview

It is important to note that Singapore was established as a trading post by the British in 1819, became a crown colony after World War II, was granted self-rule in 1959, merged with the Federation of Malaya in 1963, and has existed as an independent city state only since 1965.  Led by its first prime minister for 31 years, the culture of Singapore was consciously created and supported by legislation.  The five officially shared values are:

  1. NATION before community and society above self
  2. FAMILY as the basic unit of society
  3. COMMUNITY support and respect for the individual
  4. CONSENSUS, not conflict
  5. HARMONY among races and religions

With respect to standard cultural dimensions:

Group Orientation
Family, nation, and community are primary.

Competition / Cooperation
Intensely competitive between groups and individuals, but always within the constraints of harmony and cooperation.

Status and rank determine the structure of all groups and organizations.

Tolerance for Ambiguity
Strong social rules and public laws create a safe environment in which there is plenty of room for individual competition and commercial risk taking.

A strict adherence to rules nevertheless allows considerable freedom in defined environments.

Exact Time
A strong business culture demands strict scheduling and punctual behavior. 

Cultural Assumptions

  • Conformity and consensus with respect to the group
  • Cooperation
  • Honesty
  • Traditional Confucian values, including:
    • Mianxi (face)
    • Guanxi (connections)
    • Reciprocity
    • Politeness (social ritual)
    • Surface calm (self control)
    • Self-cultivation (discipline & strong work ethic)
    • Respect for elders & hierarchy; sense of duty & obligation
    • Loyalty, obedience, and humility
    • Thrift

Singaporean Communication Style

Relationship and face – preservation of harmony – dictate an indirect style in public.  Disagreement and negative replies are muted, especially with superiors.

High Context
Disturbing information may be conveyed in non-verbal channels or via third party. There are many ways of saying “no” without uttering the word.  Relationship determines the nature of the communication

In formal settings, titles and family names are used, but business among acquaintances is conducted on a first name basis, although hierarchy is always respected and acknowledged.

Deference to harmony and cooperation require self control and restrained emotional expression.  Losing one’s temper causes loss of face to both the offended and the offender.


Layers of Culture

Many common influences do not exist in a small island city state, such as urban / rural, inland / coastal, climatic and geographic regionalism.  However, the primary sources of cultural diversity are ethnicity, language, and religion.


  • Chinese – 77% (Hokkien, Cantonese, and Mandarin speakers)
  • Malay – 14%
  • Indian – 8%


  • 4 official languages: Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English
  • Unofficial colloquial dialect: Singlish, based on English with elements from the other 3 languages

Freedom of worship is constitutionally granted and Singaporeans discuss matters of religion freely and openly. While ethnic intermarriage is permitted, religious differences often prevent the cross-ethnic unions.

  • Buddhist – 43% (mostly Chinese; many practice a combination of Buddhism, Taoism, & Confucianism)
  • Taoist – (Chinese) 9%
  • Muslim – 14% (mostly Malay)
  • Christianity – 15% (mostly Chinese & Caucasian)
  • Hindu – 4%
  • Free Thinkers –  15% (atheists or agnostics: mostly Chinese)


A low birth rate has created an aging population and an increasingly bold and demanding youth culture.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Customs differ among the three major ethnic groups, age groups, and, of course, the situation, so follow the lead of your hosts.  In general, shaking hands is acceptable, although that may not occur between the sexes in Malay or Indian contexts. The Asian handshake is gentler than in the West, and may last two to three times as long, and involve both hands.  Be prepared to use titles and family names until given names are offered.  Eye contact is intermittent, and holding a gaze is considered very challenging and impolite.

Polite nods are common when greeting someone.  Due to restrained style, gestures are not as frequent.  Pointing is done with the entire hand, rather than one finger, as in much of the West.

Prefer not to be touched. With similar genders and close friendships there can be some touching.

Minimal physical contact unless in public spaces. Prefer formal recognition of space, particularly with the elderly, who are treated with reverence.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING Inextricably linked with mianzi or face; problems must be approached delicately, without causing embarrassmentM
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Treating people with ren; taking good care of subordinates, benevolent authority.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Informal, subjective; personal relationship (loyalty) as important as performance
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Focus on group harmony & shared accomplishment; qualitative and subjective; includes social & economic concerns
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Proceed slowly, cautiously, patiently, without emotional display, seeking compromise. A signed contract does not preclude later rediscussion of “settled” points.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Protracted group process of leader-mediated compromise
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Meetings are typically formal; behavior is reserved; emotional display is proscribed; attention to hierarchy in the room
Authoritarian management; upward dependence; not much tolerance for initiative
HIRING Hiring and firing based on both merit and perceived loyalty. Does not necessarily involve performance considerations.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Development of strong personal relationships with customers is crucial. This can take a considerable amount of time.