Culture Shock in Singapore

With Singapore's efficient infrastructure and cultural blend of East and West, it's not surprising that the city-state is sometimes referred to as 'Asia-lite'. As a result, most expats don't have to contend with a huge amount of culture shock in Singapore.

English is the Lion City's official language, but it's not uncommon to hear several languages spoken in one day. Singapore's population is mostly comprised of three ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian. This cultural diversity has resulted in a colourful collection of traditions, holidays and customs that expats are sure to experience at some point during their stay. 

Although the culture shock is minimal, there may be some situations that new arrivals in Singapore will be unfamiliar with. If this is the case, don't hesitate to ask someone for advice, as most Singaporeans will be eager to help.  

Once expats get past any initial culture shock, they should start discovering all that Singapore has to offer – there is a lot to experience on the Little Red Dot.

Food in Singapore

As an Asian cuisine capital, there is something for everyone when it comes to food in Singapore. Chilli crab and fish head curry are traditional Singaporean dishes worth trying. For expats wanting something more familiar, there are plenty of Western restaurants on the island, including Italian, Mexican and American-style cuisine, as well as Western fast food chains.  

Alternatively, hawker centres are outdoor food courts where vendors sell various local specialty dishes. Food at hawker centres is cheap, quick and often utterly delicious. Malls also usually have food and beverage establishments.

Take note, if ever coming across a packet of tissues on a table at a hawker centre, that means the table has been choped, or reserved. Look for an empty table somewhere else.


The word kiasu is Hokkien for 'fear of losing' and is used to describe the behaviour of some Singaporeans. Kiasuism manifests itself in many ways, such as queuing in long lines to receive a door prize or giveaway, joining the longest queue at a hawker centre because everyone else is eating there, or grabbing excess amounts of something (such as in a buffet or a sale item at a store) for fear of not getting it later.

Kiasuism is also used to describe ambitious and successful people. To Westerners, this attitude can come off as aggressive and opportunistic, but to Singaporeans it's sometimes seen as a way to succeed within a competitive society.  

Strict laws in Singapore

Singapore is a conservative country with strict laws. No matter where their passport says they are from, if a foreigner commits a crime in Singapore, they'll be subject to the country's laws and punishments.

Perhaps the island-state's most infamous law is its ban on chewing gum – or at least, the sale of chewing gum. This law exists to discourage people from sticking used chewing gum around the city. Similarly, littering and spitting in public are both illegal and can result in punishment. Smokers accustomed to taking a quick smoke break while out and about will need to adjust to Singapore's law that smoking is only allowed on private property.

On a more serious note, drugs are illegal in Singapore and drug traffickers are given the death penalty. Some crimes are punishable by caning, like vandalism. Freedom of expression is also restricted: certain publications and movies are banned, and others are censored before being released to the public.

The policies might sound harsh, but Singapore is one of the safest places to live and is an extremely clean city, and expats should take solace in this final fact.

Singlish in Singapore

Although English is spoken by just about everyone in Singapore, expats may notice some unfamiliar words here and there. This is Singlish – a colloquial, uniquely Singaporean dialect of English. It is commonly spoken in Singapore, and is considered by many to be a reflection of the island's unique blend of cultures. While Singlish is looked down on by some, others will firmly attest that a local who doesn't speak Singlish isn't a true Singaporean.

It's worthwhile brushing up on a few common Singlish phrases before departing to Singapore, even if it's just to understand the locals.