What you Must know about Business Etiquette in Singapore (A Story of Loosing Face)

I remember the time when I was in Bangkok, and made a real boner, being this peculiar Angmo specimen, who did not bother much about reading about Thai customs. Well, there was this pretty little child, and I could not resist patting him upon the head. Big mistake. That was one of the most insulting thing is that I could do to a little Buddhist child or any Buddhist for that matter.

So, for all we angmos out there, tiptoeing through the intricacies of business etiquette in Singapore, one has to remember that the number of ethnic groups make dealing with all the traditions and cultures is quite a dicey thing, unless one is au courant with the customs.

Losing Face means Losing it All

So, do remember to find out whether your business associates are Malay, Chinese or Indian, the widest represented nationalities here.
Do not focus on one particular individual in the group, but the group as a whole. We angmos do not bother much about ” face”, which in WestSpeak would be “our status in the society, and the standing which we have, which we need to preserve at all costs.”

Losing face means that you have done something totally beyond the pale, and only hara-kiri is going to wipe it out. Remember that the senior citizens are revered here, and you are definitely going to lose face if you do not treat them with the respect they deserve.

  • Information:
  • • Don’t lose face – Note! Don’t interrupt others, don’t criticize openly, simply do not be as emotional as you would be in other places

How to read the Non Verbal Messages

The Chinese, Indians and Malay are a very polite people, and are not going to show you that you are a really ill brought up gaijin, angmo, banda, but there are always going to mark you in their mental list as “that fellow (yes, you can imagine the contempt in that particular inflection), who does not defer to the advice of his elders.
Singaporeans are totally non-confrontational, so they are not going to say, a direct “no.” They are also not going to ask you direct questions or give you direct orders. These communications are non-verbal, so that a person does not lose face. So be on the lookout for body language and facial expressions.

  • Information:
  • • People do communicate non-verbal
  • • Body language is important

Mr Lee? First name or Surname? Or Both?

“So all right, you have the permission to call me by my first name.” As in Western society, do not become hail fellow well met with your business acquaintances, all in the name of bonhomie and good cheer, unless invited to call them by their personal names.

You might want to use the honorific and family name for your Chinese business acquaintances. You would want to know how to address a person, from one of your Singaporean business acquaintances, before you go for the meeting.

  • Information:
  • • Make sure you address your business partner by the right name (especially Asian names can be very confusing for Westerners)

The Holy Business Card!

Take a business card, with both your hands, look at it once or twice, and smile. This shows that you are acknowledging the acceptance of the said card and recognise the giver.

Do not go in for aggressive eye contact, because this is one thing Singaporeans do not accept. The eyes are cast down, because it shows respect and proper etiquette towards a person of higher status.

  • Information:
  • • Take Business card with two hands, study it and smile, do not simply slip it into your wallet

Yes Sir, You Are Right Sir – The Art of knuckling down

Never question authority, you are in the Army now, yours is to do or die yours not to reason why. Never ever touch a business acquaintance of the opposite gender, during business meetings.

A lady may put out your hand to shake your hand, but do not go all aggressive, grabbing her paw in an enthusiastic display of exuberance, when you are first introduced. And never ever compliment the opposite gender on their appearance.

  • Information:
  • • Don’t touch business partners of other gender
  • • Don’t compliment the opposite gender on their appearance

Of Red Envelopes and other gifts

Now, here, one comes to the delicate duty of gift giving, Timeo danaos ferentes . The gifts are going to be given to a group, instead of an individual. If you have to give some individual a gift, do it in private.

No pigskin wallets for Muslims, leather and alcohol for Indians and flowers, because they are associated with death.
No left-handed gift giving, please, that is insulting. Use both hands to give large gifts.

Hold Christmas Day off, the moment you get the gifts, and do not begin unwrapping them like a bairn, cooing with joy.

Your Chinese business associates should never be given handkerchiefs, sandals, clocks, and cutting utensils, because these are negative association items. You would want to wrap up the gifts in yellow as well as red wrapping paper, because these are symbolically lucky colours!

  • Information:
  • • Except gifts with two hands and give gifts with two hands
  • • Make sure the gifts are religiously correct
  • • red is always good




A book I found quite helpful on this topic is CultureShock! Singapore published by Marshall Cavendish publishers


Hmmm, I don’t know where you work or whom your business associates are, but I have worked here for a few years now, and most of what you have said doesn’t really apply. To be honest, I find it very similar to a typical Western work environment. But that’s probably because I work in banking. Also, as an Indian, I have never heard of leather and alcohol being taboo gift objects. I would be delighted if someone presented me with a bottle of cognac or good Scotch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>