Five tips for doing business in Singapore

By Chris C., March 21 2016
Five tips for doing business in Singapore

Singapore is a global financial hub and a major destination for Australian business travellers – and with over 25 flights a day between the two countries and no visa needed when visiting on business, companies here are some of the most convenient in the world to transact with.

But it’s not as simple as flying in, delivering your pitch and scuttling back to the airport lounge: we take a look at the local Singapore business customs and give you five top tips for doing business in the city-state.

1. Singapore is many cultures

Singapore isn’t simply ‘Singapore’: it’s comprised of many different cultures, and although English is the language of choice when doing business here, you should come prepared to meet Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans, who all follow different customs.

For starters, most Chinese Singaporeans and male Malay Singaporeans are happy to greet with a handshake, yet when greeting female Malay Singaporeans it’s polite to wait for their hand to be extended first – and should that not occur, a slight bow with a hand over your heart will suffice.

Indian Singaporeans may either give a handshake or a traditional ‘namaste’, where their hands come together in front of their face or chest in tandem with a slight bow, which you should reciprocate.

Namaste!. Saptarshi Biswas
Saptarshi Biswas

For Western expats, a simple handshake will do, and as with Malays and Indians, addressing people by their first name is acceptable when also preceded by a title such as Mr or Ms, while your Chinese contacts will expect to be addressed as Mr or Ms (Surname).

2. Exchanging business cards in Singapore

Business cards are a much less formal affair in The Lion City than in Japan, as it’s not considered rude to exchange these with the people nearest you, before working your way around the room in larger meetings.

Cards should be presented face-up, held with two hands and with the writing orientated towards the recipient. When receiving a card yourself, accept it also with two hands, take a moment to read it and then thank your counterpart – “thank you Mr Wang” or “thank you Ms Michelle” will suffice.

If a seated meeting follows the exchange of cards, it’s polite to arrange these on the table to correspond with where each person is sitting, so at a four-person table with three new associates, line the cards up so that the card most left is the person to your left, and so forth.

Only once out of view should you place these cards into a holder, wallet or folder – doing so earlier is seen as disrespectful, unless you have your hands full with materials for a presentation.

3. Dressing for the heat

Make no mistake, Singapore doesn’t follow the traditional weather seasons: there’s only one season here, and it’s known as ‘hot’. Temperatures at midday tend to hover around 30°C year-round, while the unwritten dress code for business remains formal.

That means – gasp! – that long sleeve shirts, trousers and ties are expected for men and smart business attire the norm for women, but you’d be forgiven for ditching your suit jacket or carrying it over your arm rather than on your back, at all but formal events.

If you must arrive in a suit, we’d suggest getting dressed at your hotel and taking an air conditioned car straight to the office, rather than catching the MRT (subway) to save a few dollars, walking to and from the stations and arriving all hot and bothered.

4. Etiquette at meetings, negotiations

As in the West, expect business meetings to take place in company offices or worksites as appropriate to your industry, but if talk over a meal is called for, lunch is always the winner in Singapore – not breakfast, brunch or dinner.

Also avoid setting meetings on Fridays with Malay Singaporeans or if you’re genuinely unsure as to your contacts’ beliefs as Friday + Saturday is the Islamic weekend, unlike Saturday + Sunday in Australia – but if invited to meet on a Friday, attend unless your own beliefs prevent this.

During the Holy Islamic month of Ramadan (typically mid-year) when Muslims fast during daylight hours, it’s also best to avoid meeting Malays late in the afternoon as many people’s energy may be lower than usual which can affect their concentration.

Once you’ve ironed out the date and time, it’s important to speak clearly, politely and calmly at all times – even when stressed or frustrated – and be aware that Singaporeans don’t like saying ‘no’ directly, so may use other phrases like “I’m not sure”, “we’ll see” or “I’ll try” to indicate the same.

5. Exchanging business gifts

Small gifts are also appreciated at first meetings, but you should avoid giving anything in a set of four to Chinese Singaporeans as the Chinese word for ‘four’ rhymes with ‘death’, while alcohol and pigskin products conflict with Islamic beliefs and shouldn’t be given to Malay Singaporeans.

Similarly, Indian Singaporeans – many of which are Hindus – won’t appreciate a gift made of leather, which comes from cows, nor is black or white wrapping appreciated as it’s seen as unlucky.

Stick with something elegant and neutral like a beautiful fountain pen with your company name or the recipient’s name engraved or printed and you’ll do just fine.

Also read: Five tips for doing business in Japan

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Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jun 2015

Total posts 57

I'm Indian and honestly I would appreciate a leather gift even though I necessarily don't eat Beef, I use a few leather products myself. I guess it just depends on the person.


12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1518

I also think that it is exaggerated – one day I bought working leather gloves in Bunnings that was clearly marked “Cow Leather” and “Made in India”. Indeed I was amused.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

22 Apr 2013

Total posts 143

I guess it also all depends on the individual workpalce culture of your office and your client's office.

Whenever I turn up to our company office in SG or one of our major client's office with a suit and tie on, I'm mocked. "Wah. Mr. Tough Guy! So hot lah!". Yet in the Melbourne office on a 40 degree day, if I don't turn up in suit and tie, it raises eyebrows. 

So I guess you need to be adaptable not just to macro culture, but also micro cultures and the blend of both.

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