Boasting an advanced economy driven by transparency and cooperation, doing business in Singapore is surprisingly easy. The country is considerably Westernised and boasts high living standards but, with a diverse population, expats will need to familiarise themselves with local business culture and etiquette if they want to be successful in Singapore.
Singapore has an impressive rank of second out of 190 countries in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020, coming first for enforcing contracts and third for protecting minority investors. Its lowest ranking is for trading across borders, at 47th.
Business hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm, sometimes with a half-day on Saturday.
English is the main language of business in Singapore.
Business dress is fairly casual, in keeping with the island's humid climate. Smart shirts and ties are standard in business environments. A suit jacket may occasionally be required for formal meetings. Pantsuits or a conservative skirt and blouse are acceptable for women.
In a business context, gifts may be misconstrued as bribery, especially when doing business with government officials. Gift-giving customs will also tend to differ between cultural groups, and what is appropriate in one culture may not be appropriate in another. Gifting flowers or alcohol, for example, will have vastly different implications depending on the cultural background of the receiver.
Men and women are generally treated equally in business.
Business culture in Singapore
Business culture in Singapore is based on relationships rather than transactions. Initial meetings may move slowly as a relationship is established, and expats should remain patient as connections are cemented.
In general, the business culture in Singapore is quite formal. Punctuality and presentation are critical to creating the right impression and developing a positive rapport. Respect for elders and status should also be carefully observed.
A handshake is appropriate when greeting business associates. Business cards should be offered formally with both hands. Address colleagues as Mr or Ms until told otherwise. Always address senior associates and older colleagues with respect.
While Singapore may claim to have an egalitarian business world, large corporate companies tend to have a hierarchical structure and it’s uncommon for junior employees and management to socialise together. This may seem strange if one is used to a more egalitarian society.
Expats need to be aware of the way they speak as well as their body language and facial expressions. They should also pay close attention to that of their business associates. Flattery or boasting are treated with suspicion and prolonged eye contact can come across as aggressive. Most Singaporeans are soft-spoken and prefer a calm demeanour over a more aggressive manner.
Singapore is incredibly diverse, with the majority of its population being of Chinese, Malay and Indian descent. The island's business culture can vary greatly depending on whom one is dealing with, and this can have an impact on appropriate greetings, titles and general conduct. Therefore, it is wise to educate oneself about the various ethnicities and cultures present in Singapore before attempting to do business there.
Attitude towards foreigners
As a modern and multicultural society, business culture in Singapore is welcoming of foreign businesses and tolerant of other cultures. The government encourages qualified expat business people to move to Singapore.
Dos and don’ts of business in Singapore
Do be punctual
Do show respect, particularly to elders, and avoid confrontation
Don't speak in a raised voice as this may be seen as aggressive
Don't write on business cards you receive
Do ensure that any business cards given to Singaporean associates are in good condition and are not tattered or worn-looking