Local Customs in Singapore

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Local Customs and Culture in Singapore

Singaporeans care little about formal politeness. What would be decent behavior at home, wherever home might be, is unlikely to offend anyone in Singapore. In Singapore, unlike much of southeast Asia, women wearing revealing clothing or men wearing shorts and slippers are perfectly acceptable. That said, upmarket bars and restaurants may enforce dress codes and Singaporeans tend to be more socially conservative than Westerners, meaning that public display of affection is still frowned upon and toplessness for women is not acceptable anywhere, even on the beach.

People are generally friendlier in the heartlands, and it is not uncommon to see shopkeepers and customers of multiple races bantering. However, Singaporeans, while not hostile towards foreigners, are generally not overly receptive to any overbearing friendliness from them. Furthermore, the local dialect with its heavy Chinese influences may appear brusque or even rude, but saying "You want beer or not?" is in fact more polite in Chinese than asking if you want beer; after all, the person asking you the question is offering you a choice, not making a demand.

If invited to somebody's house, always remove your shoes before you enter as most Singaporeans do not wear their shoes at home. Socks are perfectly acceptable though, as long as they are not excessively soiled. Many places of worship also require you to remove your shoes before you enter.

At rush hour, be prepared for a lot of pushing on the MRT (even just to get off) and everyone racing for the empty seat, though in a somewhat orderly manner. This is normal, despite signs asking people to be a little more courteous. Just go with the flow.

Beware of taboos if bringing gifts. Any products (food or otherwise) involving animals may cause offence and are best avoided, as are white flowers (usually reserved for funerals). Knives and clocks are also symbols of cutting ties and death, respectively, and some Chinese are superstitious about the number four. Also note that in Singapore, it is considered rude to open a gift in front of the person who gave it to you. Instead, wait till the person has left and open it in private. Many Singaporean Muslims and some Hindus abstain from alcohol.

Swastikas are commonly seen in Buddhist and Hindu temples, as well as among the possessions of Buddhists and Hindus. It is regarded as a religious symbol and does not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism. As such, Western visitors should not feel offended on seeing a swastika in the homes of their hosts, and many locals will wonder what the fuss is all about.

Take dietary restrictions into account when inviting Singaporean friends for a meal. Many Indians (and a few Chinese) are vegetarian. Most Malays, being Muslims, eat only halal food, while most Indians, being Hindu, abstain from beef.


Singaporeans are punctual, so show up on time. The standard greeting is a firm handshake. However, conservative Muslims avoid touching the opposite sex, so a man meeting a Malay woman should let her offer her hand first and a woman meeting a Malay man should wait for him to offer his hand. If they opt to place their hand on the heart and bow slightly instead, just follow suit. Singaporeans generally do not hug, especially if it is someone they have just met, and doing so would probably make your host feel awkward, though the other person will probably be too polite to say anything as saving face is a major Asian value.

For men, standard business attire is a long-sleeved shirt and a tie, although the tie is often omitted, the shirt's collar button opened instead. Jackets are rarely worn because it is too hot most of the time. Women usually wear Western business attire, but a few prefer Malay-style kebaya and sarong.

Business cards are always exchanged when people meet for business for the first time: hold yours with both hands by the top corners, so the text faces the recipient, while simultaneously receiving theirs. (This sounds more complicated than it is.) Study the cards you receive and feel free to ask questions; when you are finished, place them on the table in front of you, not in a shirt pocket or wallet, and do not write on them or otherwise show disrespect.

Business gifts are generally frowned on as they smell of bribery. Small talk and bringing up the subject indirectly are neither necessary nor expected. Most meetings get straight down to business.

What's in a Name?

- Chinese place their family name first, so Phua Chu Kang is Mr. Phua for business and Chu Kang (or just CK) to his friends. Many have Western names, so he may also be known as Terry Phua.
- Malay names are given name + bin or binti (son/daughter) + father's name. Mohammed bin Abdullah would usually be called Mr. Mohammed. Sometimes, the person's given name appears after the Mohammed (example: Mohammed Faizal bin Mohammed Nasser) so, in such a case, he would usually be addressed as Mr. Faizal.
- Indian names are complex, but the south Indian (Tamil) names usually found in Singapore have two patterns: either given name + s/o or d/o (son of/daughter of) + father's name, or father's initial + given name. Given names are often long and may be abbreviated, so Ramanathan s/o Sellapan uses the name S.R. Nathan and would addressed as Mr. Nathan. The foolproof method is to ask how the person wants to be addressed.

Hair Cuts

Singaporeans are particular about their hair and there is no shortage of fancy hair salons charging from $20 up for the latest Chinese popstar look. If you are willing to splurge, there is Passion Hair Salon at Palais Renaissance with celebrity hairstylist David Gan (hairstylist of Zhang Ziyi and other famous celebrities) doing the haircut. Le Salon at Ngee Ann City offers haircuts up to $2000. The middle range hair salons located in town or in the heartlands, offer haircuts with hair wash as well as other frills. Chains include Reds Hairdressing, Supercuts and Toni and Guy salons that are located all over Singapore. For a more backpacker-friendly price, almost every shopping mall in Singapore has a branch of EC House or one of its many imitators, offering fuss-free 10 min haircuts for $10, although the hairdressers are mostly happy to spend as long as necessary on your hair, within reasonable limits. Most HDB estates have barbershops which charge $5 to $10 for adults and less for students and children.

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