Managing in Singapore
Working in a Melting Pot of Cultures
Many people don't realize how important Singapore is to the global economy. It has the world's fourth-largest financial center, and its port is one of the busiest in the world. It also has the world's third-highest average income per person.
People who live in Singapore enjoy a beautiful cityscape and world-class cuisine. The country is also a melting pot of cultural, ethnic, and religious groups.
Together, these weave a complex and colorful tapestry that illustrates the diverse nature of our world. However, this diversity can make it challenging to manage and work in Singapore.
In this article, we'll explore how to navigate the rich and varied Singaporean culture, and we'll look at how to manage a team in Singapore.
Singapore is an incredibly diverse country, so this article is meant as a general guide only. Always be flexible in your approach, and don't assume that the strategies we cover here will be suitable in every situation.
Singapore consists of 63 islands nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia. The main island is Singapore Island, and most business is conducted here. Many of the smaller islands are uninhabited.
The country covers only 232 square miles (704 square kilometers). However, almost 5.6 million people live here, which makes it one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Singapore is located between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Singapore has a very diverse population, and people of Chinese descent make up the majority. There are also many Malay and Indian people, as well as a mix of people from other parts of the world.
The country has four official languages: Mandarin, English, Malay, and Tamil, and most people speak very good English. Some people speak what's known as "Singlish," which is English peppered with words and phrases from other languages.
In 1968, Singapore introduced the Employment Act, which outlines employment terms and working condition guidelines for most workers. However, some people, including government workers and people in executive or managerial roles, have different protections from those in the Employment Act.
Under the Employment Act, employers must give written notice to terminate someone's job if the employee hasn't breached or violated the terms of her contract. If an individual has worked for the organization for five years or more, four weeks' notice is required.
Maternity leave is also protected under the Employment Act: women are given up to 12 weeks' paid leave, and men are granted one week of paid paternity leave. Dismissal during this time, or immediately afterward, is not allowed.
Singaporean workers are entitled up to 14 days' paid sick leave each year, although this can be extended to 60 days if they are hospitalized.
Because Chinese, Indian, and Malay people make up such a high percentage of Singapore's population, you may find it useful to read our articles on Managing in China, Managing in India, and Managing in Malaysia for further guidance on how to work successfully with people from these cultures.
Vacations and Holidays
Singapore celebrates many public holidays throughout the year. Most holidays are based around celebrations from a variety of religions, which reflects the government's efforts to unify its diverse population and promote ethnic and religious harmony.
People who are covered by the Employment Act are guaranteed at least seven days paid leave each year, in addition to public holidays. For every year of employment, another annual leave day is granted, up to a maximum of 14 days.
Singapore's public holidays are:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Chinese New Year – two days in January or February (February 16 and 17 in 2018; February 5 and 6 in 2019
- Good Friday – March or April (March 25 in 2016; April 19 in 2019.)
- Labor Day – May 1.
- Vesak Day – usually in May (May 29 in 2018; May 18 in 2019.)
- Hari Raya Puasa – date changes each year (June 15 in 2018, June 5 in 2019.)
- National Day – August 9.
- Hari Raya Haji – date changes each year (August 22 in 2018; August 11 in 2019.)
- Deepavali – usually in October or November (November 6 in 2018; October 27 in 2019.)
- Christmas Day – December 25.
If a holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday will be a public holiday.
A large percentage of Singapore's population is Muslim; and there are also many Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu people. This means that you'll likely have a religiously diverse team. Be sensitive to each individual's religious practices, and don't schedule meetings or appointments with people on their religious holy days or holidays.
Getting the Best From Your Team
In Singapore, people may consider sustained eye contact to be hostile and threatening. Therefore, people may not look their superiors in the eye. Don't assume that this means someone is feeling unsure or shy: your team members are simply showing you respect.
Because some Singaporeans don't like to disagree openly, you may not hear a direct "no" from your team members. As a result, it's common for people to evade questions or even say "yes" when they mean "no," which can be confusing for foreigners. If your team members answer "yes" but add conditions to your request, they might really mean "no." Occasionally, they might pretend that you didn't ask the question; if this occurs, this usually means "no."
Many people in Singapore rely heavily on vocal and body language cues in communication, and they will expect you to do the same. Learn more about body language before you begin working with your team, so that you can get a better understanding of people's thoughts and emotions.
Singapore is a meritocracy, which means that people who work hard have more power and influence. Keep in mind that you'll be expected to work longer hours than your team members. Try not to leave the office before they do, or you may lose their trust and respect. Your team members will likely work very hard too, and they will often take great pride in doing a job well.
Singaporeans need time to formulate a response when you've finished speaking. Always allow 10 or 15 seconds to let the other person respond, and never finish someone's sentence or start talking before she has had a chance to speak. You'll also make a better impression if you take your time when you respond to questions or statements; people view quick responses as rude or thoughtless. However, this doesn't mean that you can't be direct with your team members. They will respect and appreciate your assertiveness and honesty.
Civility is extremely important in Singapore. Manners matter here, and people will judge you on how you treat others. However, a cultural faux pas isn't a deal breaker; people will grant you a certain amount of tolerance if you are not familiar with the culture. But, do your best to treat everyone with courtesy, and learn local customs as quickly as possible.
People who can't control their emotions will quickly lose respect and trust. Learn how to manage your emotions at work so that you don't lose your composure in tense situations. Never speak loudly or show anger or frustration. Stay calm, and speak in quiet tones.
Singapore is considered one of the least corrupt countries in the world, and the government is extremely proud of this reputation. Gifts should not be given to government workers in any circumstances. In fact, many organizations also have rules against gift-giving. Before you give anyone a gift, make sure that law or organizational policy allows it.
Finally, because of the cultural and religious diversity in Singapore, handshaking etiquette can be complicated. Muslim Malay men and Hindu Indian men do not shake hands with women. Singaporean Chinese will shake hands with either sex and will often bow too. Because of these differences, wait for the other person to offer a greeting when you first meet.
- Singapore has strict laws against activities that some Westerners might consider trivial. For example, chewing nonprescription gum, littering, spitting in public, jaywalking, and public smoking are all illegal, and these laws are strictly enforced.
- Singapore's climate is hot and humid. There are two monsoon seasons: December through March and June through September. During this time, thunderstorms and heavy rainfall occur regularly. Make sure that you have appropriate clothing to stay comfortable and dry during these times.
- Punctuality is important in Singapore, especially if you're a foreigner. Your contact will be insulted if you arrive late to a meeting or appointment.
See our the articles on Understanding Culture in our Career Skills section for more resources that will help you work successfully in different cultures.
Singapore is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Because of this, it can be challenging to manage a team here. Chinese, Indian, and Malay people make up most of the population.
To work successfully in Singapore, be courteous to everyone, work hard, and always manage your emotions, even in tense situations.
Also, be careful when giving gifts, and learn to read your team members' body language cues.