Cultural differences in Singapore

You will meet with different cultures when you start doing business abroad. You'll be more likely to succeed if you're aware of these differences.

Advice

Being familiar with local customs will help you deal successfully with foreign business partners. Mission staff can give you tips and advice. They know the local business culture and can work with language and cultural barriers.

Misunderstandings

Sometimes we even have difficulty understanding business partners from neighbouring countries. This is less likely to be a problem if we understand their background and culture.

Differences

How should you approach your business partner? Are relations hierarchical or egalitarian? Do you need to follow strict rules on etiquette, or is a relaxed approach the norm? Doing business is easier if you know the unspoken rules of conduct.

Do's and don'ts

See the list of countries on the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO.nl) website for up-to-date information on business customs and etiquette (in Dutch).

'NL exporteert' app

You can download the 'NL exporteert' app for an interactive map of the world, with information on each country (in Dutch). This can help you find your way in the local market.

Cultural differences when doing business in this country or region

Singapore is probably the most heavily Western influenced of all the Asian economies with regard to approach to business. The legacy of its colonial past, combined with its status as the number one destination for US and European organisations to locate their Asian Head Offices has resulted in many Western attitudes and processes being adopted. This apparent willingness to assimilate some Western business practices does not, however,

preclude Singapore from being a thoroughly Asian City State. Many of the inherent beliefs and practices reflect the mainly Confucian ethics of the majority Chinese population.

Be prepared

Before coming to Singapore, good preparation is essential. Get to know about the country and its culture, as well as the economic and political climate. Make good use of the knowledge and services available from branch organisations and government authorities. Talk to entrepreneurs with experience of doing business in Singapore, for example via the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in Singapore.

Build relationships

Personal relationships are the cornerstone of all business relationships. Business is a matter of being tied into the proper network which is the result of long standing personal relationships or proper introductions. This is a group-oriented culture, so links are often based on ethnicity, education or working for the same company. Relationships take time to develop. One must be patient as this indicates that your organisation is here for the long-term and not looking for short-term gains. Rank is always respected. Most Singaporeans are soft-spoken and believe a calm demeanour is superior to a more aggressive style. Watch one’s body language and facial expressions (non-verbal communication).

Understand business etiquette

Communication Due to the diverse ethnic mix in Singapore, there are four commonly used languages - English, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, and Malay. English is widely used as the 'common' language because of its apparent neutrality as well as its importance in the international business arena. As in many Asian cultures, 'no' is a difficult word and other ways of expressing disagreement should be sought. Disagreement can affect the harmony of the situation as well as possibly making somebody lose face and needs to be avoided. Vagueness and substitutions are often used to avoid disagreement. Thus 'no' becomes, 'Yes, but it might be difficult' and 'yes' might merely imply 'I have understood your point.' It is therefore important that everything, which is said, is not taken literally. Ask many open questions and go over important points several times. However, should your probing reveal a flaw in the logic of an argument or an actual mistake, try not to point it out in public. Be aware of the 'face' of the other side.

Business structure

As in all Asian countries, organisational structures tend toward the hierarchical. Many Singaporean companies originated as family-run businesses, making respect for seniority even more important. Within traditional Singaporean organisations, all key decisions will be made at the very senior levels, with those decisions being delegated down the chain of command for implementation. The middle tier is not supposed to openly disagree with senior management, as this would infer lack of respect. It is, therefore, important to ensure the right level of contact within an organisation if influence is to be brought to bear on the decision-making process. It is also important to ensure that senior people are dealt with by contacts of similar status. Do not insult by sending in more junior, younger staff than are introduced to you.

Punctuality

People in Singapore are used to stick to schedules that are set in advance and focus on deadlines. When a meeting is arranged, they have reserved a specific timeframe for that purpose. Therefore, it is important to be punctual when you have a meeting.

Dress code

Due to its position on the equator, Singapore is hot and humid all year round. Dress codes in business reflect the climatic conditions and tend to be more informal than in many Western countries or even other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. Thus, men will often wear shirt and trousers without a tie (jackets are not usually worn.) Colours can be lighter than the dark blues and greys of the UK and Japan. Women tend to wear lightweight business suits. Accessories should be of good quality but not overly ostentatious.

Business Cards

After initial introduction, business cards are exchanged with both hands. Examine the card carefully before putting them in a business card case. Treat the card with respect. This is indicative of how one will treat the relationship.

Gift giving

The government has introduced very tight legislation governing the issues around gift giving – wishing to avoid the corruption scandals which have tainted other Asian societies in the past. It is, therefore, less common for gifts to be given and received in Singapore than in many other countries in the region. It is possibly better to give one gift to the group as a whole, but if individual gifts are to be given they should be merely tokens (pens with corporate logos etc.) As with other Asian countries, gifts should be wrapped and are unlikely to be opened in front of the giver.

If you have a specific question about your project in Singapore, please feel free to contact our Economic Department via SIN-EZ@minbuza.nl.