Singapore is a major expat destination and business hub in Asia. Many expatriates from Western countries are surprised when they realize that the business culture in this country is a lot more formal than what they are probably used to. Observing a strict chain of command and keeping others from “losing face” are essential aspects. Although as a foreigner you will get away with a lot, you should at least know the basics of doing business in Singapore.
Singapore is a country of immigrants and home to various ethnic groups. As a result, the country has four national languages: Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, and English. Although for expats doing business in Singapore it usually enough to be fluent in English, it cannot hurt to learn a new language in Singapore and at least pick up on the basics of the other languages as well.
The way people are addressed depends on their heritage. Chinese people, for instance, usually have three names. Their family name is first, followed by two personal names. You should address your Chinese business partners with their honorific title and their surname. Malays often adopt their father’s name with the connector “bin” (son of) or “binti” (daughter of). Also pay attention to names and titles: people with the title “Haji” or “Hajjah” have made their pilgrimage to Mecca. Your Indian business partners might use a shortened version of their name, as Indian names are often very long. Sikh Indians commonly use the name Singh.
One more thing you should be aware of when doing business in Singapore is that the collective (in your case, the company) is more important than the individual. It is essential to adhere to a strict chain of command. This begins when greeting your business partners. Make sure to start with whoever is most senior and work your way down from there. Proper introductions and strong relationships will improve your chances of doing business in Singapore.
In order to become a successful member of Singapore’s business world, you need to always be respectful and courteous and pay close attention to non-verbal clues. Your Singaporean business partners will not want you to “lose face” and therefore will not openly disagree with you. You will notice that your business partners are very calm and soft spoken. When doing business in Singapore, it is important that you calm your voice as well and do not adopt an aggressive negotiation style as this might appear rather rude.
When doing business in Singapore, it is important to keep in mind that Singaporeans are very reserved in nature. Body language plays an important role and subtle gestures mean more than you might think. While it may be completely acceptable for you to pat someone on the back or put a hand on someone’s shoulder, this gesture might make your Singaporean business partners very uncomfortable. Pointing with a finger and displaying the sole of your shoes is considered very rude in Singapore. Try to gesture instead of point with your palm up and refrain from crossing your legs.
Keep in mind that some of your Indian or Malay business partners may be Muslims. You should try to pass items with your right hand only as the left hand is used for personal hygiene and is therefore “unclean”. It is also important to respect the personal space of others when you are doing business in Singapore. Singaporeans like to keep their counterparts at arm’s length and might back away if you come too close.
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