Doing Business in Singapore
Despite being a small island with no natural resources, the government has made all the right moves to encourage economic growth in Singapore. As a result, the city-state boasts an advanced economy driven by transparency and cooperation, and doing business in Singapore is surprisingly easy.
The country is considerably Westernised and boasts high living standards. But with a diverse population, expats will need to familiarise themselves with local business culture and etiquette if they want to be successful in Singapore.
Singapore has an impressive rank of second out of 190 countries in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2017, coming first for protecting minority investors, and second for enforcing contracts. Its lowest ranking is for trading across borders, at 41st.
Business hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm, sometimes with a half day on Saturday.
English is the main language of business in Singapore.
Despite the island's warm weather, businesswear is formal. A dark suit is appropriate for initial meetings, while women should ensure that skirts cover the knee.
In a business context, gifts may be misconstrued as bribery, especially when doing business with government officials. Gift giving customs will also tend to differ between cultural groups, and what is appropriate in one culture may not be appropriate in another. Gifting flowers or alcohol, for example, will have vastly different implications depending on the cultural background of the receiver.
Men and women are treated equally in business.
Business culture in Singapore
Business culture in Singapore is based on relationships rather than transactions. Initial meetings may move slowly as a relationship is established, and expats should remain patient as connections are cemented.
In general, the business culture in Singapore is quite formal. Punctuality and presentation are critical to creating the right impression and developing a positive rapport. Respect for elders and status should also be carefully observed.
A handshake is appropriate when greeting business associates. Business cards should be offered formally with both hands. Address colleagues as Mr or Ms until told otherwise. Always address senior associates and older colleagues with respect. Personal monikers or nicknames shouldn't be used unless specifically invited to do so or if the other party initiates it.
While Singapore may claim to have an egalitarian business world, corporates tend to have a hierarchical structure and it’s uncommon for junior employees and management to socialise together. This may seem strange if one is from a more egalitarian society.
Expats need to be aware of the way they speak as well as their body language and facial expressions. They should also pay close attention to that of their business associates. Flattery or boasting is treated with suspicion and prolonged eye contact can seem aggressive. Most Singaporeans are soft-spoken and prefer a calm demeanour over a more aggressive manner.
Singapore is incredibly diverse and its business culture can vary greatly depending on whom one is dealing with. This can have an impact on appropriate greetings, titles and general conduct. Therefore, it is wise to educate oneself about the various ethnicities and cultures present in Singapore.
Attitude towards foreigners
As a modern and multicultural society, business culture in Singapore is welcoming to foreign businesses and tolerant of other cultures. The government encourages qualified expat businesspeople to move to Singapore.
Dos and don’ts of business in Singapore
Do be punctual
Don't point with your finger as this can be viewed as offensive
Do show respect, particularly to elders, and avoid confrontation
Don't raise your voice in anger or frustration
Don't write on business cards you receive
Do ensure that your own business cards are in good condition and are not tattered or worn-looking