Five Tips to Succeed in Business in Singapore
Singapore, despite being one of the world's 20 smallest countries, attracts people from all corners of the globe thanks to its diverse cultures and abundant business opportunities.

Singapore, despite being one of the world’s 20 smallest countries, attracts people from all corners of the globe thanks to its diverse cultures and abundant business opportunities. Its history dates back to 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles recognized the island’s potential as a strategic port, prompting the British to establish a trading post. The influx of Europeans, Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Arabs rapidly transformed Singapore into a multicultural hub. Throughout the years, Singapore maintained its crucial role as a vital link between Europe and Eastern Asia. In the early 20th century, the city-state experienced prosperity but succumbed to Japanese occupation in 1942, followed by British re-occupation in 1945. Subsequently, Singapore embarked on a journey towards independence, achieving self-government, merging with Malaysia, and ultimately gaining complete independence in 1965.

Even today, Singapore continues to flourish. With an estimated 1,424,200 foreign workers comprising a third of the entire workforce as of 2022, the country benefits from a rich tapestry of cultural influences, particularly Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Singapore also boasts a unique language called “Singlish,” a colloquial form of English that incorporates elements from Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and other linguistic sources.

Considering its reputation as a magnet for international business ventures, how can one thrive in Singapore’s multicultural workforce? Here are five tips to succeed in business in Singapore:

1. Put your best “face” forward.

The Asian concept of “face” roughly equates to reputation. It is something that you can gain, lose, save, or even lend. For example, sources of face could include, wealth, intelligence, attractiveness, skills, position, and a good network of personal and business connections (often known as guanxi in Chinese). You might lose face by questioning or disagreeing with your boss in public. Or, you could save face by responding diplomatically to an unreasonable demand. For example, instead of saying “no” outright, you could say, “Yes, however, it may be difficult to complete.” Finally, you could lend face by making a personal introduction for someone.

Maintaining one’s face, as well as respecting the face of others is paramount in social and workplace interactions in Singapore. So remember, putting your best “face” forward is key! 

2. Understand the culture(s).

The Chinese are the largest ethnic group in Singapore, constituting approximately 75% of the population. The Malay community comprises around 15% and the Indian community represents about 7%. It’s important to note that these ethnic groups are not monolithic entities themselves. Within the Chinese population, there is a diverse mix originating from various Chinese provinces. Similarly, the Malay community encompasses speakers of various dialects, adding to its richness. Among the Indian community, Tamils make up the majority, accounting for over half, but there are also Malayalis, Sikhs, as well as Pakistani and Sinhalese communities, making it one of the most diverse groups in Singapore.

With both Asian and Western values shaping Singaporean work culture, it’s important to be aware of cultural nuances. For instance, Chinese cultural values place significance on hierarchy, emphasizing the importance of showing deference to individuals in higher positions. Also, a more authoritarian management style may prevail. On the other hand, Malay values often align closely with Islamic principles. So, one might avoid close contact with the opposite sex in the workplace. Or, when dining with Muslim colleagues, be mindful of serving halal food and drink.

3. Address people properly.

Names can reveal a lot about a culture. Here are some naming conventions that you might encounter in Singapore:

Chinese names: Family Name + Given Name
For example, Chen Wei is made up of Chen (family name) and Wei (given name/first name). The family name is shared by all members of a generation and is written first to show respect to ancestors. It’s also common to use self-given Western names, so follow your colleague’s lead.

Malay names: Given Name + “Bin” [son of] / “Binte” [daughter of] + Father’s Name
For example, Aisyah binte Musa means Aisyah daughter of Musa.

Indian names: Given Name + “s/o” [son of] or “d/o” [daughter of] + Father’s Name
For example, Suguna d/o Rajaratnam means Suguna daughter of Rajaratnam.

4. Don’t miss out.

You may be familiar with FOMO (fear of missing out), but in Singapore, there is an even stronger concept. Kiasu, taken from the Chinese dialect Hokkein, is a Singlish expression for fear of losing out.

Kiasu often manifests in competitive behaviors, particularly in Singapore’s queuing culture, where people wait in long lines to ensure they don’t miss out on anything. For example, “Ah Beng is so kiasu, he arrived at the sale five hours before it started just to ensure he gets the best deals!”

In the workplace, kiasu can translate to a results-oriented, competitive culture that values employees who work hard (often beyond office hours) and produce results. While being aware of kiasu is important, remember that Singaporeans value collectivism as well, which means acting for the greater good of the group rather than just individual gains.

5. Learn about feng shui.

Impress your Singaporean colleagues by familiarizing yourself with feng shui. Translated as “wind-water,” it’s an ancient Taoist-rooted method of arranging objects to harmonize with the flow of natural energy (Qi or Chi). In Singapore, you can see feng shui all around you in the architecture and design of homes, buildings, and monuments. One of the most famous examples is the Marina Bay Sands Resort. The building’s three towers symbolize abundance, prosperity, and longevity. And the curved shape of the towers is believed to promote the flow of positive energy, while the iconic SkyPark on top is designed to resemble a ship, representing good fortune and prosperity. Or, the Merlion is a statue with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. Spurting water into the Singapore River from its mouth, the statue is intended to ensure a constant movement of water–and by extent positive chi–into Singapore.

So we’ll close by saying, “Thank you for reading, lah!” Lah is one of the most famous and commonly heard Singlish expressions (similar to the Canadian “eh”) that is used at the end of a sentence for emphasis. 😉