Guide to Singapore Work Culture for Newcomers

This report will help you better understand the work culture in Singapore.

Although just a tiny dot in map of the world, Singapore – one of the world’s freest economies and an international modern city-state, is not just a dot in map of the world economy. According to IMD World Competitiveness Scoreboard 2007, Singapore came in second just behind the United States of America.

Working the Singaporean Way

Singapore work culture is a unique mix of Asian and Western cultural influences. Singapore is often described as a place where east meets west. These cultural themes bring about unwritten cultural rules and regulations that govern the way Singaporeans act in a place – and in this case, your workplace. The non-interventionist approach taken by the Singapore government provides a relaxed environment for cultural tendencies to predominate.

Large western MNCs located in Singapore will often exhibit predominantly western-style work culture whereas majority of the local government and private companies will have greater influence of traditional Asian culture in their work environment. Local firms are mainly influenced by cultural characteristics: high power distance, collectivism, high-uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation.

Singaporeans have a predominantly strict attitude to life, marked by clear authority structures and distinct social status lines.

Hierarchical Relationships

Most of the local firms have significant influence of the traditional values of the Chinese, who make up 75.2% of Singapore’s population. In relationships, this translates into a culture high in power distance where people at the lower levels would accept their subordinate status, and respect formal hierarchical authority. People seldom violate chains of command or openly question decisions by their superiors.

On the other hand, MNCs in Singapore have less power distance between each level. Higher managers normally will be more willing to share their authorities to subordinates in decision making, and to leave certain latitude for disagreement.

If you have just found a job in Singapore, a good way to conform to hierarchical relationships is to:
  • Treat employers and superiors with utmost respect.

Collectivism

In a traditional western work culture, people look up to personal achievement, innovation, autonomy, and individual heroes. The individual achievement is highly valued, and any individual with a greatest ability will gain the best gains in a company. Being progressive and creative will be appreciated by this culture.

In contrast, majority of Singaporeans and local firms practise group-centredness, that is, the traditional value of cooperation amongst group members to maintain group harmony. In a workplace, teamwork and group efforts (cooperation) are seen as the main means of achieving company goals (group harmony). Anti-group-centredness behaviours such as disagreeing with the group’s decisions, putting individual wants above the group’s needs and boasting about individual efforts are frowned upon as these behaviours jeopardize group harmony. This Collectivist culture has a preference to work together and share rewards more than to strive for individual recognition; sharing responsibilities, helping each other and learning from each other. The younger generation of Singaporeans exhibits more individualistic traits than the older generation.

Rules, Rules, Rules

Singaporean work culture seeks rules appropriate to every situation as opposed to abstract universal principles. Singapore is famous for having strict rules for everything. Majority of the local firms don’t actually want too many employees running around with too many crazy ideas, nor do they want unfocused fragmentations of the core businesses managed by over-enthusiastic entrepreneurs. It’s often thought that mass Singaporeans cannot innovate because they are conditioned to be followers rather than creative idea generators. In the name of creativity, employees may often be encouraged to be "as creative as possible", however, with tonnes of boundaries and restrictions.

While the idea of nurturing selective few ‘innovators’ and the rest of the population to be the ‘followers’ worked beautifully for Singapore’s initial development, the city-state has now realized that to compete in the new global economy, it needs to scatter the seeds of creativity more widely among its population. A number of initiative are being implemented at all levels, however, it won’t change overnight and will more likely be a slow and gradual process.

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Asian "Face"

JoAnn Meriwether Craig, aptly described the concept of face in the Singaporean context, in her book Culture Shock? Singapore (2001, revised ed.) as a “measure of one’s internal quality, status, good name, and good character”. "Face" plays a particularly important role in many Asian cultures. With extreme care taken to maintain one’s own sense of personal and public integrity and the integrity of others in social interaction. It “involves the entire group (the family, the school, the neighbourhood, the work place, the city, and the country)”. If one’s “face” is lost – that is, embarrassed – the whole group’s “face” is lost, hence a group embarrassment rather than a personal embarrassment. In the Singaporean context, causing the loss of someone’s “face” is akin to publicly humiliating him. The preserving of “face” is most obvious in hierarchical relationships i.e. children taking care to preserve the “face” of parents, students taking care to preserve the “face” of teachers, and yes, employees taking care to preserve the “face” of superiors and employers.

As a foreign employee who has just landed a job in Singapore, keep the following "face" saving tips in mind:

  • Do not correct your employer/superior’s mistakes in public.
  • Do not question your employer/superior in public.
  • Do not disagree with their employer/superior in public.
  • Do not refuse your employer/superior outright. Employees may publicly comply to unreasonable demands with an agreeable “yes” but the “yes” is often accompanied with signs of non-compliance (“it might be difficult…”).
  • Do not engage in public display of anger or confrontation against your employer/superiors.
When one causes the loss of a Singaporean’s “face”, the former has somehow publicly humiliated the latter. The consequences of “face” loss are dire i.e. distrust, resentment, bitter feelings etc. The best approach is to discuss matters of disagreement and confrontation discreetly, delicately, indirectly and in private. For example, if you want to request for a higher salary, do so while giving the employer some “face”. Take the pay raise negotiation behind closed doors. Approach your employer with a calm tone and friendly smile. Once he/she has seems receptive, gently steer him towards your contributions for the company. Be careful not to overplay your efforts, though. Finally, allow your employer time to think it through.

Working Hours

Many companies in Singapore have moved from 6 days to 5 days per week schedule. This is especially true for MNCs and companies engaged in white collar work. Normal working hours are 40-45 hours per week. However depending on the workload you may end up spending more hours per week. Normally there is half-an-hour to one-hour lunch break. Over-time is not applicable to most of the professional and managerial jobs.

If overtime is applicable to your job, its one-and-a-half times the basic hourly rate. Pay for time worked on holidays and normal days off is two-and-a-half times the normal rate. If you job is covered under the employment act, an employee cannot be asked to work for more than 12 hours in a day under the Employment Act. Overtime work is limited to 72 hours a month.

Multiple Ethnicities – Multiple Cultures

While it may be true that some Singaporeans (especially the younger and more modern ones) may not wholly practise the Singaporean traditional values of group-centredness, respecting hierarchical relationships and preserving “face”, you are strongly advised to learn and understand the behaviuoral patterns of the Chinese, Indians and Malays of Singapore for one reason: the majority of Singaporeans you will be working still preserve traditional values – regardless of how Westernized they may seem.

Chinese Culture

The traditional values of the Chinese, who make up 75.2% of Singapore’s population, are largely based on respect especially for hierarchical relationships. In respecting the traditional Chinese values, Chinese employees:
  • Perform introductions in order of seniority – even if the junior has a higher rank than the senior. Be sure to practise this when introducing your team to another in future.
  • Do ask your colleagues which names they prefer to be called with, and do also clarify which name you prefer to be called with.

Malay Culture

Most Malays, who make up 13.6% of Singapore’s population, are Muslims and hence their traditional values are closely intertwined with Islamic values. In respecting the traditional Malay/Islamic values, Malay/Muslim employees:

  • Refrain from close contact with the opposite sex – so absolutely no handshaking, kissing and hugging Malay/Muslim colleagues of the opposite sex. A smile would suffice.
  • Perform short prayers during office hours. Usually, Muslim workers are allowed to perform their prayers in allocated, private places within the office. These daily prayers normally occur around 1pm and 4pm. On Fridays, male Muslim workers are usually allowed to take longer lunch breaks to observe the congregational prayers at the mosque.
  • Avoid consuming non-halal products that is in foods and drinks when in the company of your Muslim colleagues.

Happy Working!

It is important to note the unwritten formalities above (which are neither found in the Singapore Employment Act nor your Employment Contract) when dealing with your Singaporean colleagues and employers to ensure smooth working relations and reduce culture shock. These are just few examples; more will be unveiled upon observing and befriending your Chinese, Malay and Indian colleagues. It has been said that local friends are great cures to any forms of culture shock.

In general, maintain harmony, avoid conflict and confrontation during discussions. Mask any feelings of frustration with a smile. It is important not to allow your host to ‘lose face' (avoid, for example, contradicting your host in public). Concentrate on building rapport, and do not be confrontational or forceful nor disagree in public with other people on your team.

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