How (not) to behave in SINGAPORE

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.

Woman shouting at two men through a megaphone
If you don’t obey the rules in Singapore, you might get in big trouble.

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.

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.

Renata Green enjoying a cocktail at the CÉ LA VI Bar at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
Time to dress up when enjoying a cocktail at the Marina Bay Sands’ roof top bar in Singapore.

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.

Salutation

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.

The Point

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.

No Politics

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.

Muslim Family in Singapore
Malay Muslim family.

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.

No Crossing

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.

Smoke

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.

Ryozen Kannon at Kyoto Japan
Incense is the only acceptable smoke in Singapore

The police enforce this law rigorously. Possible fines of up to 1,000 SGD will make you fume.

Gum

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.

Chewing Gum Machines
Chewing gum machines – something you won’t find in Singapore.

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.

No Litter

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.

People standing in line at a food court in Singapore
Who’s next?

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

Go Public

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.

MRT station in Singapore
Even on the MRT platform stands a marshal making sure that passengers board in order.

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.

Singapore Dollar Bill
Considering prices in Singapore, this bill won’t take you far.

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.

Visitors to Tirta Empul on a day trip from Ubud
Covering up.

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.

Man taking a picture
Snap!

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.

Criminal Offenses

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.

Warning sign in Singapore
Some penalties are definitely drastic.

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.

MRT train in Singapore
On the MRT.

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

When entering from Malaysia there is no duty-free limit for goods purchased abroad. When entering from Indonesia, the duty-free limits are staggered depending on how long you left Singapore.

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.

No Lies

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.

No Sex

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.

Street light in Vienna
It’s difficult to do everything correctly in Singapore: Although these two ladies are not jaywalking they are being stigmatized in the powerful city-state. This kind of traffic lights can be found in Austria’s capital Vienna.

Anything Else?

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.

43 Replies to “How (not) to behave in SINGAPORE”

  1. Wow such useful information! A lot of people don’t realize the difference in cultures until they travel. Having the heads up is one step ahead!

  2. This is such an interesting read. I love posts like this. I had no idea that lies are punishable!

  3. Well, the reason Singapore is so clean and orderly are these rules and fines. Some places are so dirty I do not want to go back. They can learn from Singapore.

  4. Yes, have to agree Singapore is a safe city, thanks to their rules. Their rule to avoid talking about politics and religion is a good one and I feel should be followed by all countries. Jaywalkers receiving a 20 SGD fine on the spot is a good one. Great list compiled.

    1. To be honest, I find it rather dangerous if you’re not supposed to talk politics or religion – I’m a big fan of freedom of speech 😉

  5. These are useful tips. I really liked my trips to Singapore, some rules might look OTT at first, but I did enjoy the cleanliness and safety, and as a visitor, I consider it common courtesy to stick to the rules of the country you are visiting. Great post to help not sticking out like a sore thumb in Singapore.

  6. This is very interesting! I always hear about what to do but rarely what not to do. I think it is so important to learn about a culture and respect their way of life when visiting, so it is always helpful to have this kind of information. I do love that they are so strict about littering though!

  7. I remember when I was a child my parents told me about an American tourist who defaced some part of the public and chewed gum while in Singapore. He went to jail of course, and the US president had to get involved to get him out! I carried this story my whole life, thinking Singapore was an impossibly scary and strict place. Funnily, it’s actually very easy to get along in Singapore by basically just being a decent human. I didn’t know about the pointing rule though, will keep that one in mind for next time.

    1. Yes, this chewing gum phobia is just weird. Other ‘offenses’ are pretty disturbing and outdated – for instance, the whole homosexuality thing: In 2021, sexual orientation shouldn’t be an issue anywhere in the world.

  8. I so enjoyed reading this post, Renata. An essential guide for all visitors to Singapore. Your writing on the use or ‘not’ to use the index finger brought on a smile – we were drilled in school as to how rude it was/is to point with an index finger! 🙂 I support the littering laws absolutely and glad that you have spent time researching and writing up this valuable guide.

  9. This is so important and I’m glad you shared this post! I would have never known about any of these laws/rules. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Great article, this is so helpful. Its ver important to be aware and respectful, researching the place you visit beforehand. Saving this for later.

  11. That’s a lot of rules to remember, but so important to follow. I like that you cannot litter. I’m annoyed by that in our own county. Since I’m left handed, I’d have to learn to eat with my right hand! That would be the toughest rule to remember.

  12. Great post & essential reading for anyone planing a trip to Singapore. The cultural taboos are all important to know, I thoroughly agree with the laws on littering etc but the jaywalking one would take a bit of getting used to. Especially at night when there’s no traffic. I have visited Singapore a number of times but never quite clicked with it yet. Maybe it’s because there are so many rules. I look forward to trying again next time & will definitely come back to this post before I do!

  13. Before we travelled to Singapore, we knew there were a lot of rules. So we did check on things to not do before we visited. Waiting for traffic is something we also seldom do. But we did pay more attention in Singapore. But we were happy to see so little litter. And lots of recycling options. We were amused when we saw signs everywhere for “No Durian”.

  14. I was going along agreeing with all the tips you were talking about and BAM! The last one threw me off. I am awake and I was paying attention.

  15. It`s good to know about these tips and information before visiting Singapore. It`s very important to learn about the culture and act accordingly when visiting a country.

  16. Sg is definitely one of the more interesting places I’ve visited, and your tips make me want to visit again! I just remember the memories I had being there and the differences in cultures and all.

  17. I loved the post, so comprehensive and informative. Thanks for putting together all this information about Singapore. Everything was new to me, it has been a really interesting read.

  18. i have heard so much about singapore, It’s the most progressive country in south east asia – a well diverse country and very disciplined.

    1. I’m actually taking a country’s political situation into consideration when travelling – I find it’s important to travel responsibly 😉

  19. I think this is one of the most useful articles to read and bookmark if one is planning to travel to Singapore. thank you for such a detailed write up in the clear and lucid format

  20. Thanks for the headsup…very informative..bottom line is we must respect each and every countries laws culture and tradition to avoid getting into trouble and finally enjoy our vacation..singapore straight to my bucketlist

  21. Some great tips. I always pay, attention to others cultures when travelling. This will be really useful. Thanks!

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