We all know that we don’t pat the back of a colleague in Korea to thank them for a “job well done”. Or eat with your left hand in India, or sip vodka in Russia. In many countries, these actions are harmless. But in others, they can give a wrong impression or cause offense.

In fact, whatever culture you’re from, it’s likely that you routinely do something that could cause offense somewhere else in the world. So here is:

A primer on how to avoid mistakes in Singapore

Singaporeans care little about formal politeness. What would be decent behavior at home, wherever home might be, is unlikely to offend anyone in Singapore. In Singapore, unlike much of southeast Asia, women wearing revealing clothing or men wearing shorts and slippers are perfectly acceptable. That said, upmarket bars and restaurants may enforce dress codes and Singaporeans tend to be more socially conservative than Westerners, meaning that public display of affection is still frowned upon and toplessness for women is not acceptable anywhere, even on the beach.

Singapore Culture photo

Photo by dinokfwong

People are generally friendlier in the heartlands, and it is not uncommon to see shopkeepers and customers of multiple races bantering. However, Singaporeans, while not hostile towards foreigners, are generally not overly receptive to any overbearing friendliness from them. Furthermore, the local dialect with its heavy Chinese influences may appear brusque or even rude, but saying “You want beer or not?” is in fact more polite in Chinese than asking if you want beer; after all, the person asking you the question is offering you a choice, not making a demand. If invited to somebody’s house, always remove your shoes before you enter as most Singaporeans do not wear their shoes at home.

Socks are perfectly acceptable though, as long as they are not excessively soiled. Many places of worship also require you to remove your shoes before you enter. At rush hour, be prepared for a lot of pushing on the MRT (even just to get off) and everyone racing for the empty seat, though in a somewhat orderly manner. This is normal, despite signs asking people to be a little more courteous. Just go with the flow. Beware of taboos if bringing gifts. Any products (food or otherwise) involving animals may cause offence and are best avoided, as are white flowers (usually reserved for funerals). Knives and clocks are also symbols of cutting ties and death, respectively, and some Chinese are superstitious about the number four.

Also note that in Singapore, it is considered rude to open a gift in front of the person who gave it to you. Instead, wait till the person has left and open it in private. Many Singaporean Muslims and some Hindus abstain from alcohol. Swastikas are commonly seen in Buddhist and Hindu temples, as well as among the possessions of Buddhists and Hindus. It is regarded as a religious symbol and does not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism. As such, Western visitors should not feel offended on seeing a swastika in the homes of their hosts, and many locals will wonder what the fuss is all about. Take dietary restrictions into account when inviting Singaporean friends for a meal. Many Indians (and a few Chinese) are vegetarian. Most Malays, being Muslims, eat only halal food, while most Indians, being Hindu, abstain from beef.

With this, you had the primer on key facts about Singapore, and key facts on culture and customs. Another important part of the culture is the local food and the local drinks. Make sure you read our posts on Singapore food and drinks:

Local food you should try in Singapore and No miss drinks in Singapore.

Other tips that you’d like to share on mistakes to avoid in Singapore? Please comment below.