Preparing for your trip, you want to know how to behave in Singapore? Look no further since, in this post, I’m preparing you for some culture clashes you should avoid at Asia’s powerful city-state.
All That Matters
Even before I ever set foot on Singapore’s soil, I had heard a thousand myths about rules. Actually, the city-state is being pretty hyped in this sense.
On the upside, all those strict rules and harsh laws make Singapore a very safe and efficient city also for male and even female solo travellers. On the downside, everyone has to obey the city’s strictly enforced laws. Hence, while some actions may not cause a problem in your home country, they can be frown upon or even illegal in Singapore. So to avoid any hassle and enjoy your visit to the fascinating city-state, check out the following list before you travel.
- All That Matters
- In Your Face
- Dress to Impress
- The Point
- In the Cards
- No Politics
- From Head to Toes
- No Crossing
- No Litter
- Join the Queue
- Some Tips to Make Your Stay Easier
- Criminal Offenses
- Anything Else?
- Pinnable Pictures
In general, be always respectful and what might be considered conservative.
In Your Face
As in other Asian countries, courtesy plays an important role in Singapore. In general, the rules of etiquette equal to what is prevalent in China. Also, social life is strongly influenced by the ideas’n’ideals of Confucianism. For example, you have to make sure that your counterpart must not lose face. This means that you do not confront people directly or lose your temper.
Dress to Impress
Despite having a tropical climate, Singapore is a busy, professional, and pretty hip metropolis. Also, Singapore’s culture is rather conservative. While in cities around the US and even Europe, they tolerate your leisurewear and skimpy apparel, you ought to dress conventional’n’classy when exploring the city.
You can wear shorts, but they should reach at least mid-thigh, better just above your knees. Also, your top should not show too much cleavage.
You get more great tips on what to bring so that you can always dress appropriately in my post packing light – travelling in style.
When addressing someone in Singapore, you should refrain from being too casual. Instead of calling them by their first name, it is recommended to use their titles and Mister or Misses as well as their last name. Especially in the work environment, you should use first names exclusively when you’re explicitly invited to do so.
Don’t point with your index finger as it is deemed rude. As you point at something, loosely grip your fingers and point only with your thumb.
If you are calling for someone, beckon that person by extending and waving your hand palm down.
Never use your index fingers when pointing or beckoning.
In the Cards
You have to give and receive business cards with both hands. It is considered rude to just put a just received business card away. You should rather place it on the table in front of you for a while before putting it in your pocket.
Avoid talking about politics and even religion in order not to offend anyone. Singaporeans are a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Taos so that tolerance is key in favor of a harmonic coexistance.
Therefore, when dealing with Muslims such as Malay, do not offer alcohol. When you are offering a gift, do it on departure instead upon arrival. Also, use exclusively your right hand when greeting, offering, touching, and most of all eating. The left one is considered dirty.
When dealing with Chinese, initially refuse to accept a gift before finally hesitantly taking it. This way, you prove that you are not greedy. Do not wrap a gift in white. This color is used in funerals and therefore connotes death.
From Head to Toes
As you are dealing with Hindus, keep in mind that it is believed that a person’s soul resides in the head. This makes it the most revered part of the human body and you should never ever touch it. This applies also to children, therefore, don’t ruffle a child’s hair.
While the head is the body’s most revered part, the feet are seen as filthy.
Hence, you should never point at someone or something with your feet.
When sitting on the floor, you have to sit cross-legged with your feet under your knees, not with your legs stretched out showing the soles.
As you are entering Mosques or Hindu temples, remove your shoes.
Also, take them off at private homes.
I’m a very impatient person. If I have to wait for two minutes, I feel like wasting my life away. Waiting at a traffic light is no exception to this; whereby I’d like to point out that I’m a pedestrian, not a driver.
Hence the only person I put in danger by not respecting traffic lights all the time is me.
Now in Singapore, this is unthinkable no matter what.
If you have to cross a narrow sidestreet at four in the morning, you are expected to wait for the green light. No matter what.
Jaywalkers can receive a 20 SGD fine on the spot and then a fine of up to 1,000 SGD or three months of jail time. The penalty doubles if you’re caught jaywalking for a second time.
In most public places in Singapore, smoking is forbidden. Don’t even think about smoking at stops’n’stations, in restaurants, cinemas, theatres, or offices.
The police enforce this law rigorously. Possible fines of up to 1,000 SGD will make you fume.
Between 1992 and 2004, the sale of chewing gum was banned. To this date, the import of chewing gum is prohibited. Exceptions are those for therapeutical and medical use. Then, the buyer must actually show a doctor’s prescription and ID.
Under the pressure from the company Wrigley, lately also other sugar-free and so-called health-promoting chewing gums have been introduced.
However, it is not actually illegal to chew gum as often claimed. Just import and retail are unlawful and already first-time offenders might be fined 1,000 SGD. This penalty can go up to 100,000 SGD or a prison sentence of up to two years.
We’ll get to this kind of criminal offense further below.
Singapore is known for being impeccably clean. Yet, I must say that I’ve found cities in Japan even cleaner.
Nevertheless, littering the street with small items can cost you a fine of 300 SGD. Larger trash such as cans or bottles can even land you in court.
The punishment includes a so-called corrective work order. Convicts have to clean up designated areas wearing a bright green vest so that everyone knows.
Join the Queue
Singaporeans love their queues. Whether you’re waiting for the train or ordering your food you have to stand in line. Often. For basically everything.
Either it’s because Singaporeans are used to it or because of their Confucian Zen-attitude: They wait in line patiently – without pushing, cutting, getting nervous, or annoyed.
I’m not pushing, I’m not cutting – but I’m getting nervous, I’m annoyed.
It. Drives. Me. Berserk.
The best I can do is not to show it.
I patiently stand in line to not receive unwanted attention and disgruntle.
Some Tips to Make Your Stay Easier
Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit system, abbreviated MRT, is the fastest and cheapest way to move around during your visit. So, take the time to check the network’s routes or download the company’s App.
Most of Singapore’s iconic attractions are close to MRT stations.
However, also the bus network is comprehensive’n’convenient.
I highly recommend the Singapore Tourist Pass that you can get for one, two, or three days. It grants unlimited rides on all public transport for only 10, 16 respectively 20 SGD. You also have to pay an additional 10 SGD for the card that you’ll get back as you return the card.
This Place is Taken
Although Singapore is packed with posh restaurants and hip bars, some of the best eateries at the simple hawker centers. But careful, if you see a pack of paper tissues – or a folded umbrella – on a table, it means it’s taken. Hence, you have to look for another table.
Cash is King
There are tons of vending machines to get snacks, refreshments, and tickets in Singapore. Therefore, cash will be handy during your visit.
Obviously, you can also pay for many things and services by credit card. Yet, it’s helpful to carry some cash since stands at hawker centers and street markets often accept only money.
Tip About Tipping
In most Singaporean restaurants, you don’t pay your waiter, you rather pay at the cash. And that’s probably one of the reasons why you don’t tip.
Some people even claim it’s disrespectful.
I don’t know about that, all I know is you just don’t do it as excellent service is taken for granted, not something that has to be rewarded. On your check, you’ll find a fine print that says GST which stands for goods and services tax. This is basically synonymous with tipping.
Good to Have
It is always a good idea to carry at least one light, large scarf with you to cover up in case you decide to visit a sacred place.
It might also be a good idea to have a pair of old socks with you that you can wear in the noonish heat when walking on the hot stones around the temples.
Especially when you are walking a lot in Singapore’s tropical hot’n’humid climate, you will appreciate a catlick using some wet wipes on your hands, face, and neck. Also, they can be the last resort in case some bathroom along the way has no toilet tissue.
Remember to freshen up your sun protection especially after wiping your face. Therefore, make sure to have a travel-size bottle of sun protection on you.
I have all these things in an extra-pouch that I just stuff in my daypack in the morning without having to remember every single piece.
Of course, you shouldn’t forget to take a hat and good sunshades with you, too.
Don’t Just Snap
In Singapore, it is considered a common courtesy to ask for permission before taking pictures of people, mosques, or temples. Actually, you should do so everywhere in the world.
Although you might be allowed to take pictures, you should turn off the flash – and preferably also the shutter sound. Even though it’s not a very loud noise, hearing this tone can be extremely distracting and disturbing.
There are not only many rules to be followed. Some activities that in your home country are considered acceptable behavior or maybe just a minor felony might be a criminal offense in Singapore.
For instance, graffiti is considered vandalism and can result in prison sentences as well as being beaten with a cane.
On the Go
High fines and social work fines are imposed on people for throw trash such as cigarette butts on the street. For instance, they have to clean the beach and wear a fluorescent vest labeled “order for corrective work”.
On the Ride
Eating, drinking, smoking, and carrying hazardous goods on public transport are subject to heavy fines from 500 to 5,000 SGD. This includes carrying the smelly durian fruits, however, supposedly there is no fine. Also, due to the popularity of the fruit, the ban on buses is often simply ignored.
Obviously, there is a general smoking ban in public buildings, public transport, and restaurants as well as in groups of more than five people for example in queues. Often there are smoking areas outside bars and restaurants and smoking rooms in discos and clubs.
In and Out
Singapore is the only country in the world where cigarettes are not allowed to be imported duty free. The fine for importing a carton of cigarettes is ten times the local price which is currently 110 SGD. Even if you carry an opened box, it can contain 17 cigarettes max.
Tobacco products can be bought officially at Singapore’s Changi Airport when you leave the country.
Lies are punished with high penalties from 2,000 up to 10,000 SGD similar to fraud, obviously, if they can be proven. Incredible but true: You can be also sentenced to being beaten with a cane – usually, the penalties are 3 to 8 strokes.
Sexual practices that are considered “unnatural” by the government are illegal. Shockingly, this applies to every form of homosexual sex. Also, oral and anal intercourse was legalized for heterosexual people aged 16 and over only in October 2007.
So this is my list of rules’n’recommendations for your Singapore trip.
Have you been to Singapore?
Which cultural differences have you noticed there?
If you have something to add – hit me, I and the other readers will be grateful for helping to make this list more complete.
Here you can read about my great trip to Singapore.
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Note: This post is being regularly completed, edited, and updated – last in April 2021.