Being one of the four Asian ‘Tigers’ or ’Dragons’ of the world economy, modern day Singapore has become shaped by its business culture. The World Bank ranked Singapore as the best country in the world for doing business in 2012. It is also listed as having the world’s 7th most motivated workforce. There is a shared focus on creating wealth throughout the country, particularly in the Chinese population. Singaporeans tend to consider Westerners experienced in business and have high expectations for them. However, your experience within Singapore’s business culture will vary depending on whom you are dealing with. Chinese and Indian Singaporeans are generally regarded as the business savvy ethnic groups as they dominate the economy, and Malays are considered to be less business/profit orientated.
- Meetings in Singapore are generally formal, reserved and slow moving. If you are patient, calm and polite, you will most likely be successful enough in negotiations.
- Make it a priority to be punctual, and be sure to apologise for your tardiness if you are late.
- Receiving Business Cards: Asian culture interprets the respect you show one's business card to be indicative of the respect you will show the individual in business. Use both hands (or the right hand only) to receive a business card as the left hand is considered unclean and is used for the removal of dirt and for cleaning. Do not put the card away immediately, but regard it carefully and then place it in on the table before you until everyone is seated. Do not put it in the back pocket of your pants as this could be taken as you sitting on the individual’s face. Similarly, do not write on a card unless directed to do so.
- Presenting Business Cards: Use both hands (or the right hand only) when presenting a business card, making sure that the writing is facing the other person. Do not deal out your cards as though you were playing a game of cards as this risks being interpreted as rude.
- Allow a few moments of social conversation to pass before mentioning business.
- Distinguish early in the meeting who is the most senior person and show deference for their position, asking them for their opinion throughout.
- Singaporeans may not like to challenge authority and sometimes need to be told when it is permissible for them to ask questions. Therefore, be sure to actively encourage questions when talking or presenting and welcome any questions with a smile.
- Do not reject proposals immediately as you risk being interpreted as rejecting the person who said it when doing so. Instead, take an indirect approach to making any corrective or dismissive remarks to avoid causing anyone to lose face.
- Singaporeans are usually quite slow at negotiating. Try to be patient with the amount of protocol they seek to follow.
- Avoid filling in moments of periodic silence as these are usually time for contemplation of what has been said. It may take some Singaporeans 10-15 seconds to speak when given the opportunity to.
- Displaying signs of anger will cause you to lose face or perhaps even the deal.
Singaporeans are very relationship-oriented in business. They prefer to cultivate partnerships that will last as opposed to sealing a ‘quick deal’. As a part of this long-term approach in business relationships, they generally want to know a great deal about their partners in order to build the trust and loyalty needed to support business in the future. You may consider some of the details and questions asked to be irrelevant or unrelated to the point at hand, but try to be tolerant and provide answers for the sake of the business relationship.
Sometimes the time it takes to build rapport and familiarity can be longer than expected, pushing back business. It is worth being patient as the success of your negotiations and business endeavours with them will largely depend on the depth and strength of the friendship formed. Singaporeans make pleasant business partners, keeping a good correspondence between meetings and often taking prospective business partners out to drinks and meals.
One of the most important things to remember when doing business with a Singaporean person is that, though you may distinguish them as an individual, they may regard themselves as a representative or spokesperson for their company and of Singapore. This group orientation means that an individual may not be able to decide on matters there and then without first consulting their colleagues. Decisions are made through group consensus after referring back to the head office. Because of this, the negotiation process is much slower than what most Westerners are used to. Be patient and expect these processes to involve a great deal of correspondence before any final decisions are made. Furthermore, make sure that your own company is in agreement about your goal before meeting with a Singaporean company. If you give them reason to believe that there is a lack of harmony and cooperation on your team, they will be wary of doing business with you.
The Age Hierarchy
Workplaces in Asia are hierarchical based on age and position. Everyone has a distinct place within their business and must observe the tiering of positions during any negotiation. Understand that those who have superior positions will not want to deal with those much younger than them. Age is a large indicator of status in Asia and fresh university graduates or ‘wizz-kids’ are not considered very valuable or time worthy. Therefore, a person much younger than another should not assume that they are equal because they share the same job title. This would be disrespectful in Singapore.
- Your Singaporean counterpart will likely use a Western name followed by their last name.
- Take a delicate approach to all problem solving. Corrective remarks must be made in an indirect fashion to avoid causing individuals to lose face.
- For the sake of saving face, Singaporeans will seldom give a flat negative response to proposals you make, even when they do not agree with it. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation. Listen to what they say, but also pay careful attention to what they my imply.
- Furthermore, consider that a “yes” may simply indicate that the person comprehends what is being said, not necessarily that they agree with it.
- The Singaporeans bargain hard and are tough negotiators, so prepare for negotiations with a number of concessions in mind that you would be able to permit without hurting your business or goals.
- People rarely refute the opinions or decisions of upper management. Therefore, though decisions are apparently reached through group consensus, they are often determined by a senior ranking person’s initial preference.
- Many Singaporean businesses are family owned.
- Singaporeans do not give gifts to business partners as frequently as other Asian business cultures do. This is because it can be interpreted as bribery in Singapore. Therefore, keep your gifts modest, making sure that any gift you are giving to someone is a token gift (e.g. a corporate pen). It is better to give something to a whole group at once to show transparency in the gesture.
- On the Corruption Perception Index (2016), Singapore ranks as 6th out of 180 countries, receiving a score of 84 (on a scale from 0 to 100). This perception suggests that the country’s public sector is very clean from corruption.