The People of Singapore

Spanning 42 kilometers from east to west and 23 kilometers north to south, Singapore is a small yet densely populated places on the world map. With almost 4.5 million people living in around 697 sq km, Singapore is a city-state packed with a great variety of people and culture.

Languages spoken

Singapore has a colourful mix of four languages recognised by the Singapore government: English (the most widely spoken language), Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Though the national language remains Malay, it is English that is used as a working language for business. On the streets of Singapore many speak Singlish, a patois language called Singapore Colloquial English by academics.

Various ethnic groups and the history of their migration to Singapore

But how did Singapore’s vivid portrait of diversity emerge? The orginal inhabitants were Malay fishermen. One imagines them scattered across the islands, peacefully casting their nets out to the ocean. However, this picture of simple bliss was to change irrevocably with the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles.  In 1819 he set foot on Singapore, establishing it as a British outpost and trading colony. This British colonial administrator quickly established schools in the native languages and enabled local business to flourish. In 1823, he drafted Singapore’s first constitution, which outlawed gaming and slavery. An abundance of merchants and migrants moved to the island and a web of business and commerce rapidly emerged. Most migrants came from the southern provinces of China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Ceylon and the Middle East, looking for the prospect of a better life. Singapore’s unique advantages stem from this combination of a) a hardworking ethnic mix, bringing with it a diversity of skills, and b) a strict western constitution bringing clear principals and a disciplined approach to business.

General culture and ethnic festivals

This population of Singapore is a melting pot of complementary ethic groups, consisting of 77% Chinese, 14% Malay, 8% Indians, 1% Eurasians, plus a sprinkling of people of other descent. Though each of these racial groups still remain distinctive – for instance, in celebrating their own festivals and religious events – they open-heartedly share and celebrate other cultures, too. Indeed, it is common practice during major festivals like Hari Raya Puasa, Deepavali and Chinese New Year for a family to welcome everyone – friends, relatives and visitors from other ethnic groups – to their home to share in celebrations. This acceptance, sensitivity and respect for other cultures is in clear contrast to the strained ethnic relations that exist within many of its neighbouring countries.

The festivals themselves are extraordinary, too. These highly colourful events are centred around religion, age-old myths and family traditions. All year round the ethnic quarters and temples of Geylang, Little India and Chinatown come to life. These carnivals of music, dance and food even spills out into the surrounding suburbs, town centres and shopping malls – and in true Singaporean style are open to everyone.

Of course these different nationalities produce a variety of different foods – Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Italian, Spanish, French, Thai and even Fusion – something for all tastes. Ethnic diversity has also built a city that reflects its people: old Chinatown, the Muslim characteristics of Arab Street, Little India. Also, British colonial influence is revealed in the neo-Classical buildings all around the city.

Business Communities

The dominant business community in Singapore is the Chinese, who, at the beginning of the last century, began trading companies, became financiers or went into food processing and distribution. They emerged against the backdrop of Singapore as a colonial city: its ruling elite and commerical core was British. There has also been a thriving Indian business community and many Indians worked in the public sector as clerks, teachers and policemen.

The distribution of various ethnic communities in various professional jobs is not uniform.  Chinese are most dominant in professional, technical, administrative and managerial jobs, whereas Malays are the least dominant in these highly-skilled jobs. Indians are somewhere in the middle. Majority of the foreign professionals in Singapore work in hi-tech, finance, and research & development fields.

Foreign professional’s place in society

Singapore aspires to become the ‘talent capital’ of the world, so the city-state has liberalized immigration policies, made it easier for skilled immigrants to gain permanent residency, and launched various programmes at attracting talent. Indeed, recent urban development policies – ‘Renaissance City’ and ‘Global City for the Arts’ – are partially driven by the goal of attracting and retaining foreign talent. Clearly, a foreign professional is a valued member of Singapore society.

It is easy for a Western employee to work and do business in Singapore as the business culture is fairly westernised. Business meetings are formal and polite, though Singaporeans are less likely to make strong gestures, and certain aggressive gestures (such as raising your voice in a meeting, dressing down a subordinate in front of colleagues, etc.) are positively discouraged and should be avoided.

Singapore has a long history of encouraging foreign workers and so most of the problems of relocating and settling in have already been anticipated and solved.

In a nutshell

Singapore has succeeded in creating a multi-cultural society with remarkable tolerance for racial and religious differences. One is first and foremost a Singaporean, and then a Chinese, Malay, Indian, or other. With proactive and liberal immigration policies to attract foreign talent from around the world, a large expatriate population now lives in Singapore and consistently rates the city-state as the best place to work, live, and play in Asia.  Given Singapore’s desire to expand its links in global trade, this multi-ethnic character of the country is here to stay.

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