Due to the diverse ethnic mix in Singapore, there are four languages in common usage – Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and English.
English is widely used as the common language because of its apparent neutrality as well as its importance in the international business arena. Many Singaporean schools run the curriculum in English. Therefore, levels of English are extremely good in Singapore and foreign business people who also have a good command of the English language will have little difficulty communicating.
However, good communication and mutual comprehension often require more than a common language and many misunderstandings flow from differing concepts of the appropriate or inappropriate use of language.
As in many Asian cultures, ‘no’ is a difficult word and other ways of expressing disagreement should be sought. Disagreement can affect the harmony of the situation as well as possibly making somebody lose face and needs to be avoided. Vagueness and substitutions are often used to avoid disagreement. Thus no becomes, ‘Yes, but it might be difficult’ and ‘yes’ might merely imply ‘I have understood your point’. It is therefore important that everything which is said is not taken literally. Ask lots of open questions and go over important points several times. However, should your probing reveal a flaw in the logic of an argument or an actual mistake, try not to point it out in public. Be aware of the face of the other side.
Humour can often be misunderstood or not understood at all and as such is best avoided. It is better to underplay your personal merits, majoring rather on the merits of your organisation or department. Conversation about deeply personal issues should be avoided, as should comments about the Singaporean system.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
Singapore is often seen as a stepping stone into Asia. Singapore is a successful Asian city state which has seemingly managed to marry the best of western influences whilst maintaining a thoroughly Asian feel. Is it any wonder that so many global organisations choose Singapore as their pan-Asia base, seeing it as a perfect blend of geography, economic prosperity and political stability?
The city certainly punches above its weight in terms of economic success, educational achievement and the high standards of living which are almost universally enjoyed. Singapore’s economic miracle has been much documented over the years. The foundations laid during the formative years of Lee Kwan Yew’s tenure as Prime Minister have served well over the decades and managed to keep Singapore right at the top of the global success tables.
If you are looking to do business in Asia, it is difficult to ignore the appeal of Singapore – not just as a base to explore the rest of the region but also as an attractive market. Singapore is a consumer paradise with millions of affluent consumers eager to purchase the best that the world has to offer.
Doing business in Singapore could be very good for you but it is important to take on board local cultural norms and expectations about how business should be conducted. Don’t be fooled by the veneer of westernisation you are likely to encounter when you arrive – the thought processes driving business decisions are decidedly Asian. Don’t assume that the highly cosmopolitan business contacts you meet will automatically understand your approach because such assumptions might well jeopardise an otherwise lucrative relationship.
This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of Singapore business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on: