Due to the diverse ethnic mix in Singapore, there are four languages in common usage – Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and English.
English is widely used as the ‘common’ language because of its apparent neutrality as well as its importance in the international business arena.
Many Singaporean schools run the curriculum in English. Subsequently, levels of English are extremely good in Singapore and foreign business people who also have a good command of the English language will have little difficulty communicating.
That said, many misunderstandings stem from differing concepts of the appropriate or inappropriate use of language. Good communication and mutual comprehension often require more than a common language.
As in many Asian cultures, ‘no’ is a difficult word. Other ways of expressing disagreement should be sought. Disagreement can affect the harmony of the situation, and can also lead to causing someone to lose face which needs to be avoided.
Vagueness and substitutions are often used to avoid disagreement. Thus ‘no’ turn into, ‘Yes, but it might be difficult’, or ‘yes’ might merely imply ‘I have understood your point.’ Therefore it is important that everything which is said is not taken literally. Ask lots of open questions and go over important points several times. Should your probing reveal a flaw in the logic of an argument or an actual mistake, try not to point it out in public. Be aware of the ‘face’ of others.
Humour can often be misunderstood or not understood at all, and as such is best avoided. It is better to major your organisation or department’s merits rather than your personal talents. Conversation about personal issues should be avoided, as should comments about the Singaporean ‘system’.
Tips for Trading in Singapore
Of all the major Asian economies, Singapore is probably the most heavily Western-influenced, and subsequently presents a sometimes confusing mix of solidly traditional Asian values and ultra-modern business techniques.Tip 2
Singapore is an eclectic mix of ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians and global expatriates and is therefore difficult to categorise. What is true in the ethnic Chinese approach may be very different in an Indian-oriented company or the regional headquarters of a major MNC.Tip 3
Business structures tend to be more hierarchical with top senior management making the decisions before being cascaded down the chain.Tip 4
It is unusual for people to openly display feelings of disagreement with decisions made. Any debate would be held in private.
Similarly statured colleagues should work together; ensure that people of a senior status deal with senior people. Do not show disrespect by expecting them to deal with younger, more junior colleagues.
Age is respected and managers tend to be older. As with all Asian countries, age brings automatic respect and it is more difficult for younger people to interface as equals at senior management level.
Managers expect and receive respect. In return for that respect they take holistic interest in the all-round well-being of subordinates.
Performance determines promotion within an organisation – except within family firms where family bonds are strongly felt.
Harmony is sought in meeting situations and everything should be done to promote and maintain that harmony.
Remember the importance of safeguarding ‘face’. Relationships are the key in Singapore and relationships become difficult if people have lost face.
Maintain respect for the hierarchy of the delegation at all times. Do not belittle the arguments of the manager in front of his or her team.Tip 12
Remember that diplomatic and coded language is normal and that what is said is not what is necessarily meant. Try looking for the meaning beneath the actual words. If in doubt return to the issue later.Tip 13
Teams work on a consensus decision-making basis, which can be lengthy and frustrating. Patience is key in these situations.Tip 14
English language levels are almost universally high with much of Singaporean education being conducted in English. In addition, many Singaporeans complete their education in the U.K., U.S.A. or Australia.
‘No’ does not always mean ‘no’ and ‘yes’ may merely be an indication of comprehension. Always try to explore beneath the surface level as to what may actually be meant.
Humour, although appreciated in social situations, can be confusing and undermining in a more serious business context.
Gift giving is less prevalent in Singapore than in most other Asian countries and gifts should be modest in nature to avoid any hint of corruption.
Women play an active and senior role in business life and will be found in most functions of an organisation. Overseas women will be dealt with on their merit.
Dress codes are less formal than in many other countries with jackets and ties being used in only the most formal of situations.
Be aware of any potential sensitivities when dealing with Malay Muslims – avoid pork, alcohol etc.
As in all Asian countries, organisational structures tend to be hierarchical. Many Singaporean companies originated as family-run businesses which adds weight to the push for respect for seniority. The CEO of a family business will tend to be the oldest male family member working at the organisation with other senior employees also being family members. (Obviously these family ties and influences are not a factor when dealing with MNC’s working out of Singapore).
Within traditional Singaporean organisations, all key decisions will be made at the very senior levels, with those decisions being delegated down the chain of command to be implemented. It is not expected that the middle tier will openly disagree with senior management, as this would show lack of respect. Therefore it is important to ensure the right level of contact within an organisation if influence is to be brought to bear on the decision-making process. It is also important to ensure that senior people are dealt with by contacts of similar status. Do not insult senior persons by sending in more junior, younger staff.
Outside the traditional, family-run Singaporean organisation, a whole host of structural approaches can be found – especially in the MNC world. Singaporeans have proved particularly adept at adapting to these differing models. It is often advisable to do some in-depth research before interfacing with a company in Singapore in order to find out exactly what you will be dealing with and so be able to plan your approach accordingly.
It is important that meetings should remain as harmonious and non-confrontational as possible, with due regard being given to the preservation of ‘face’. It could be very detrimental to the long-term health of any business relationship if a meeting descends into recriminations or openly expressed objections. The quality of the relationship is the key determinant of a successful and mutually fruitful partnership. (Although, when dealing with Western educated Singaporeans working with MNC’s, it is possible to encounter a US style frankness.)
The focus of any meeting should be on co-operation and reservation of harmony. It is often a good idea to let any sticking points drop, returning to them later via a different approach or saving them for later in the negotiation process when further progress has been made and the relationship strengthened.
The hierarchy should be respected during the meeting, which includes thoughtful pauses prior to answering questions posed by senior managers. Do not leave your junior members to deal with their senior team whilst you attend to something more important. Being punctual is crucial, as lateness implies a lack of respect.
The use of coded and diplomatic language can make meetings seem inconclusive and confusing, with many items seemingly left hanging in the air. It is important to have a good understanding of Singaporean communication patterns.
The government has introduced very tight legislation governing the issues around gift giving to avoid the corruption scandals which have tainted other Asian societies in the past. It is less common for gifts to be given and received in Singapore than in many other countries in the region.
It is possibly better to give one gift to the group as a whole. If individual gifts are to be given, they should be merely tokens (pens with corporate logos etc). As with other Asian countries, gifts should be wrapped and are unlikely to be opened in front of the giver.