Singapore’s multiculturalism means that business dealings are influenced by Malay, Chinese and Indian values, as well as the many other cultures represented in the community. Singaporean businesses are generally hierarchical, although some international companies based in the country may have a flatter organisational structure. Although managers try to be egalitarian, senior figures command a lot of respect and so decisions are usually made at the top. However at boardroom level a consensus is usually required before progress can be made, so decisions take time.
As in many Asian countries, the concept of ‘face’ – effectively your personal honour and dignity – is very important in Singapore. Within the hierarchical culture, this means that employees rarely ask questions of their managers as this would imply that their superior had failed to explain effectively. Managers may spend time writing detailed instructions to ensure everyone knows what is required. Lower down the ranks, employees at the same sort of level will work together to reach a successful conclusion. Many smaller businesses in Singapore are run much like a family, with the eldest and wisest typically managing the group. In general, the best managers are regarded as those who can create a harmonious, collaborative environment.
Politeness is valued very highly in Singapore, so take a formal approach when you meet new people. Use titles and surnames unless invited to do otherwise. Many Singaporean people who have a lot of international business dealings will adopt a western name and invite you to use that. First impressions count for a lot in Singaporean culture, so always try to make a good one.
Business relationships with Singaporean contacts take time to develop. Always try to be patient, as rushing people into making business decisions may imply that you are out for short-term gains only and spoil your chances of building long-term relationships. Networking is important, and there are always several business events going on in Singapore.
Business clothing is an important part of making a good first impression, although the exact dress code will depend on the event. It is generally better to err on the side of formal, so long-sleeved shirts with ties and dark trousers are appropriate for men. Women usually wear smart trousers or skirts with a blouse or smart top.
A light handshake is the normal business greeting in Singapore, but be aware that this may vary for people from different cultural backgrounds. If you are not sure what the appropriate greeting will be, follow the lead of the eldest or most senior person in the room. Sometimes women in Singapore will be reluctant to shake hands with men, so if a woman crosses her hands in front of her body during greetings, do not offer your hand – the protocol is a slight shake of the head in acknowledgement.
Unlike some countries, such as neighbouring Malaysia, it is very important to be punctual in Singapore. Deadlines are taken quite seriously and nobody appreciates having their time wasted so always try to deliver on time.
Meetings in Singapore are typically quite well organised and structured, but the communication within them can be quite nuanced. People will typically save face rather than speak their minds, so you may need to read between the lines a little. Many Singaporeans will avoid confrontation and often won’t give a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer for fear of offending the person who asked the question. As a result negotiations can be quite slow, but it is important to remain calm and patient throughout. Be sure to take time to consider a question before answering it as rushing into an answer can be viewed as dismissive. Similarly, if you are offered a business card, take time to look at it before putting it away, as again moving too quickly can appear disrespectful.
Maintaining face is hugely important in Singapore, both for you and your contacts. Expressions and body language are therefore vital – you should make an effort to appear interested at all times and not dismiss anyone’s opinions or ideas out of hand.
Although Singapore has four official languages, English is the most commonly used in a business environment. Most people in Singapore speak English fluently and many are also proficient in Malay, Mandarin or Tamil too, so the language barrier is rarely an issue for business dealings.