Singapore is probably the most heavily Western-influenced of all the major Asian economies and, as such, presents a sometimes confusing mix of solidly traditional Asian values and ultra modern business techniques.
Singapore is an eclectic mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians and global expatriates and is therefore difficult to categorise. What is true of the ethnic Chinese approach may be very different in an Indian-oriented company or the regional headquarters of a major MNC.
Business structures tend towards the hierarchical with decisions made at the top by senior management before being cascaded down the chain.
It is unusual for people to display open disagreement with a decision made. Any debate would be held in private.
Ensure that people of a similar status deal with senior people. Do not show disrespect by expecting them to deal with younger, more junior colleagues.
Age is respected and managers tend to be older. As with all Asian countries, age brings automatic respect and it is more difficult for younger people to interface as equals at senior management level.
Managers expect and receive respect. In return for that respect they take a holistic interest in the all-round well being of subordinates.
Performance determines promotion within an organisation – except within family firms where family bonds are strongly felt.
Harmony is sought in meeting situations and everything should be done to promote and maintain that harmony.
Remember the importance of safeguarding face. Relationships are the key in Singapore and relationships become difficult if people have lost face.
Maintain respect for the hierarchy of the delegation at all times. Do not belittle the arguments of the manager in front of his or her team.
Remember that diplomatic and coded language is the norm and that what is said is not what is necessarily meant. Try to look for the meaning beneath the actual words but if in doubt return to the issue later.
Teams work on a consensus decision-making basis, which can be lengthy and frustrating. Patience is definitely a virtue in these situations.
English language levels are almost universally high with much of Singaporean education being conducted in English. In addition, many Singaporeans complete their education in the U.K., U.S.A. or Australia.
No does not always mean no and yes may merely be an indication of comprehension. Always try to explore beneath the surface level as to what may actually be meant.
Humour, although appreciated in social situations, can be confusing and undermining in a more serious business context.
Gift giving is less prevalent in Singapore than in most other Asian countries and gifts should be modest in nature to avoid any whiff of corruption.
Women play an active and senior role in business life and will be found in most functions of an organisation. Overseas women will be dealt with on their merit.
Dress codes are less formal than in many other countries with jackets and ties being used in only the most formal of situations.
Be aware of any potential sensitivities around dealing with Malay Muslims – avoid pork, alcohol etc.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in Singapore. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.
With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in Singapore and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.
Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics: