Singaporean Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Cultural Atlas Editors,
  • Efficiency
  • Confucianism
  • Discipline
  • Motivation
  • Modesty
  • Cleanliness

Singapore is an island city-state located off the coast of Malaysia. It is a very small country, only measuring 26 km north to south and 50 km east to west, yet it hosts over 5 million people. This makes it the second most densely populated sovereign state in the world.

Singapore served as a central point of trade between the East and West in the 19th century, coming under British rule in 1826 until 1963. Today, it is independent of Britain and Malaysia. However, the influence of its past British governance means that it is one of the most Westernised countries in Asia. Lifestyles are quite cosmopolitan and English (also referred to  as the adapted ‘Singlish’) is the common language spoken among all . Singapore’s economic positioning as one of the four Asian Dragons of the global economy has also made it a big hot spot. There are so many foreigners in Singapore that only about 60% of the population has citizenship. 

The permanent citizens of Singapore are also diverse. While 74.2% are Chinese Singaporeans, there are also large populations of Malay, Indians, Eurasians and Westerners. These different groups maintain the languages, histories, traditions and religions that pertain specifically to them. 

During their 75-year rule (1867-1942), the British maintained and emphasised divides among the three biggest groups – Chinese, Malays and Indians – for political reasons. Subsequent Singaporean governments tried to dissipate these attitudes in the hope of creating a truly multiracial society. Singaporean culture is heavily influenced by Chinese values and one’s is a strong social identifier.

Singaporeans often attribute social behaviour and characteristics (that extend beyond religious or cultural customs) to people’s as well. For example, Chinese and Indian Singaporeans are generally regarded as business-savvy groups as they tend to be profit-oriented, dominating the political and economic facets of society. The Malay population are often considered to be less economically competitive and more content with making ends meet. 

Despite being socially organised to a degree by , Singaporeans don’t consider entitlement to be inheritable through family or . They like to think of their culture as ‘’ where people aren’t privileged over others due to their background. It is acknowledged that those who are academically qualified or well-educated loosely constitute an upper class. But, status is thought to be merit-based as a result of work ethic.

This being said, Singaporean culture is still hierarchical. Interactions between people are tiered as a result of Chinese influences. The Confucian way of thinking puts emphasis on the importance of healthy human interactions by promoting the idea that relationships between people should be unequal with defined hierarchical roles (e.g. ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son). When this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations among individuals and, therefore, in society as a whole. Everyone has a role to fill and for superiors, that role is to protect and be compassionate to those subordinate to them.  

Many aspects of Singaporean culture can be explained by Confucian concepts, such as the efficient nature of its society. While not all Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, the Confucian logic of obedience, responsibility, moderation and adherence to work ethic affects many aspects of Singaporean behaviour and attitudes about virtue. The Chinese sense of duty and societal cohesiveness is encapsulated in the principle of ‘Li’ (social cohesiveness). This is particularly reflective of Chinese Singaporean attitudes, where ‘doing what we are supposed to do’ takes precedence. 

One may notice that within Singaporean society, interactions are tiered and require a level of deference and respect from one party. Within the social , a person's position, occupation and level of education are essential to their status. However, age is often an overriding factor that determines the level of respect people should show. Singaporeans are expected to give their parents and elders utter respect and devotion under the cultural concept of ‘filial piety’. is akin to the reverence of one's ancestors. In this way, Singaporeans tend to show more respect to the opinion of those older than them. In some situations, seniors may expect unconditional obedience. Overall, there is a strong respect for the age that permeates much of Singaporean society and culture.

Another core concept underpinning Singaporean culture is that of . is the quality embedded in most Asian cultures that indicates a person's reputation, influence, dignity and honour. By complimenting people, showing them respect or doing something to increase their self-esteem, you give them face. Similarly, people can lose and save or build . Therefore, individuals in Singapore usually act deliberately and with to protect their self-worth and peer perception. Conservative conduct is the norm, as people don’t want to stand out and/or risk losing by doing something inappropriate.

From this, one can understand that eccentricity is not valued highly in Singapore. Life is generally sober and disciplined. Happiness is found in achievement instead of ; as such, self-control is recognised and admired in people. One of the five national shared values upheld by Singapore is the tenet that the “nation comes before your community and society above yourself”. This exemplifies how Singapore is more than Western societies. Individuals often perceive themselves to be members of groups rather than autonomous actors. A is a faction of people one shares an interest or identity with (e.g. family, business, community, country, etc.). These groups reflect or come to define who its members are and often demand a high degree of loyalty. For example, the group’s interests usually supersede those of the individual, even if they conflict. Furthermore, group members expect to receive preferential treatment over anyone who is not part of the group. In return for this loyalty, an individual gains a sense of belonging, protection and unity.

is also a guiding philosophy in Singapore. It affects many facets of society, particularly those of family and business. Working in is viewed as the crucial element for productivity; thus, the Singaporeans have a predisposition to be , gentle and courteous – even if they disagree with what you are saying. Consensus is sought over conflict in all aspects of decision-making.

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