The culture of Singapore is a melange of Malay, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Eurasian culture and influences. The quintessential cosmopolitan, Singaporean culture has transformed greatly over the years. The indigenous culture of Singapore was originally influenced by Austronesian people who arrived here from Taiwan. During the course of many years, Singapore's culture was further influenced and inspired by multiple Chinese dynasties and other Asian countries which have eventually given shape to the eccentric and striking Singaporean culture that we see today.
Singapore's Customs & Traditions
Despite being small-sized, the local customs and cultures of Singapore are a blend of multiple ethnic influences including Chinese, Malay, Indians and others, the reason being the country's history as a trading hub. This diversity is also reflected in terms of spoken languages which include English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay. Some popular Singaporean customs and traditions are:
While meeting a Singaporean formally or informally, make sure to shake hands firmly with all, even when departing. A slight bow while shaking hands is considered respectful.
Take off the shoes before entering anyone's house. Also, remember to take them off before visiting any temple or mosque.
Make sure never to pinpoint someone or something with a finger, just raise your hand for indication.
Gender discrimination is a legal offence in Singapore; thus, take care not to disrespect anyone.
Tipping is not customary in Singapore. Most of the restaurants add a 10% service charge in the bill, in which case, tipping is generally discouraged. Avoid tipping at hawker centres and food courts. Tipping is also completely prohibited at the Changi Airport.
Refer to the middle-aged and elderly people as 'Uncle' or 'Auntie', as it is seen as a sign of respect in Singapore.
While eating with chopsticks, do not stick them upright in the bowl. It is reminiscent of funeral rites and considered bad luck.
Do not touch anyone's head, as it is considered sacred by many. On the contrary, the feet are regarded as dirty, so do not point them directly at someone.
Casual clothes (shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops) are acceptable in most places in Singapore. Pack formal outfit and dress shoes for higher-end restaurants.
Cleanliness in Singapore
Singapore is by far one of the cleanest countries, not only in Asia but the rest of the world. Starting right from the spick and span Changi Airport right up to the spotless streets and by-lanes, there is absolutely no littering anywhere. To maintain the cleanliness, chewing gum is banned in Singapore. Since an open trade agreement with the USA in 2004, only a limited amount of medical chewing gums are allowed, but that too has to be prescribed by a dentist. The country gives away Clean & Green Singapore awards every year to the districts which achieve the most in terms of public hygiene and environmental cleanliness.
Fine City: General Offences
Singapore has its own set of rules and regulations, which heavily criminalises many actions which are considered petty crimes or no-offence acts in most other countries. The general offences of Singapore are:
Possession of chewing gum or trying to bring them into the country without a doctor’s prescription.
Jaywalking - Walking or crossing the street unlawfully, that is not using the zebra crossing, or not following the traffic lights while crossing, or not using the pedestrian sidewalk.
Smoking in public places and areas where ‘No Smoking’ signs are put up for restriction.
Urinating or spitting in public.
Littering on the roads instead of using the dustbin.
Committing affray or a fight between two or more people in a public place, such as bar brawls or street commotions.
Queuing in Singapore
Singaporeans value discipline more than anything. They have no issue with standing in a queue for something that is good. Everywhere else we tend not to queue because as humans we have the need to get that something before someone else gets it, but Singaporeans know that it’s a waste of time and a hassle to not be in a queue and so, in Singapore, you get to see some of the most orderly queues you can find.
Chinese Buddhism happens to be the major religion in Singapore, owing to the large population of Southern Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Hinduism is also prevalent, being the faith of those with South Indian heritage. Christianity is growing quite exponentially as a belief system, and many young Singaporeans are leaning towards it.
Singapore has four official languages – English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin Chinese. Being a former colonial country, English is the most commonly spoken and written language. It is the lingua franca in Singapore and therefore the de facto language used in public service and administration, trade and commerce and in the judicial system. In writing, Singapore follows British English. However, the spoken colloquial version of Singaporean English is locally called “Singlish”. Although Malay is the national language of the country, only 15-17% of Singaporeans speak the language. It is officially present in the Singaporean national anthem, in military commands and in orders and citations only. Most people in the country are bilingual - they can speak reasonably good English and one of the three other languages as their mother tongue.
Singapore is not a cheap place to live, but a very pocket-friendly place to eat. From the street stalls to alfresco cafes to the high-end restaurants, this country lives and breathes delicious, mouth-watering recipes. Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Malay dishes are most common, although being a cosmopolitan hub, Singapore serves all kinds of cuisines. Hawker Centres are a particular speciality of Singapore, where a wide variety of flavours are available to be enjoyed in mostly open-air communal seating. Although the idea of hawker centres are rooted in Singapore’s unparalleled street food heritage, the largest of the centres, which sits on the second floor of Chinatown Complex, is home to the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal at only SGD 2 – a plate soy-sauce chicken rice or noodles.
Seafood, pork or lamb skewers and noodle-and—broth-based dishes are most in demand. Laksa is the common street food, which is basically a bowl of vermicelli noodles with prawns or fishcakes. Among drinks, Tiger beer is a popular choice for drinkers and teetotallers love The Tarik – the traditional Singaporean black tea with milk, made by aerating it between two cups. One thing to know about eating out in Singaporean restaurants is that tipping is not a custom. Most places include a 10% service charge and the country is known for paying its servers at minimum wage rate. Leaving tips is frowned upon and might be misinterpreted.
The culture of Singapore is highly influenced by a large number of religious festivities taking place all around the year. August 9 is the country’s Independence Day, which is celebrated with the National Day Parade since 2005. Other than this, the public holiday list of Singapore is a reflection of the country’s racial, religious and linguistic diversity. Among the assured ones, there is Chinese New Year, Eid-ul-Fitr, Diwali and Buddhist Vesak Day or the Death of Buddha, as well as Good Friday, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Other celebrated festivals are Pongal, Thaipusam, Buddha Jayanti and Hari Raya Haji.
Among cultural festivals, there is Singapore Food Festival every year from June-end to July-end, Singapore Art Festival every January, and Singapore Night Festival which comes alive with different themes every year for two weekends in August, at Bras Basah Bugis art enclave. The Buddhists celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival and offer eatables to the spirits of their deceased. Between May and June, the Dragon Boat Festival or the Zhongxao Festival in Chinese takes place at Bedok Reservoir, where dragon-shaped boats oared by a dozen or so people aside, compete in the race. Mid-Autumn Festival or the Lantern Festival is one of the largest celebrations in the country, which marks the 15th and the last day of Chinese New Year festivities. The sky of Singapore gets covered with flaming dots of paper lanterns set free.
The range of dance comprising traditional, as well as contemporary, is a reflection of the diversity of the culture in Singapore. Predominated by the Chinese community, the island population also consists of Indians, Malays and Indonesians highlighting Singapore as a multicultural country. Lion Dance by the Chinese community is performed during various festivities like New Year while the Malay National Dance - Zapin - is popular among Malays. One can even find Indian Bharatanatyam and Kathak been taught in multiple schools in Singapore. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best places to experience western-style performing arts including Opera and Ballet with the courtesy of the Symphony Orchestra at Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay which offers free jazz and opera performances occasionally by the water's edge. The island is also known to host a range of music festivals like Mosaic Music Festival and the cutting edge Baybeats every year attracting various international stars and rock bands from overseas.
Arts and Crafts in Singapore
There are a number of museums, art galleries and musical orchestras to celebrate the artistic culture of Singapore. National Gallery Singapore is the flagship museum with more than 8,000 works of South Asian artists. Other important names are Singapore Art Museum which focuses on contemporary art and Red Dot Museum with its love for paintings of mundane, everyday objects.
In music, Singaporeans love folk, pop, rock and classical. The musical scene is spearheaded by Singapore Symphony Orchestra, established in 1979, with its chief venue at Esplanade Concert Hall. The Esplanade- Theatres on the Bay is the nation’s largest platform for the celebration of performing arts.
The history of Singapore dates back to 650 A.D under the kingdom of Srivijaya. From there, the island-country changed several hands, like the Kingdom of Singapura, the Malacca Sultanate and the Johor Sultanate. It became a British colony in 1824 and went through a Revolution initiated by Muslim Indian soldiers in 1915 when they were asked to fight the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim State. Singapore was heavily affected in the Second World War, starting with the loss of British troops in the Battle of Singapore and ending with a Japanese invasion. Years after the war, Singapore finally gained its independence on August 9, 1965, but they continue to be a Commonwealth country.
The cityscape of Singapore can easily be divided into the pre-war and post-war eras. The traditional constructions, which were there since before World War II, were mostly old-school Malay houses, shops, schools and places of worship in Neoclassical, Gothic, Renaissance and Palladian style. During the war, the concept of building air-raid shelters was infused. The influence in the post-war constructions is mostly of modernist, postmodernist and art deco style.
Singapore's culture is a celebration of diversity in all its elements and the neighbourhoods like Little India, Chinatown and Tiong Bahru are the burning illustrations of that. On the surface, everything is quintessentially Singaporean. But once you dig deep, it is evident how different heritages have comfortably merged and mingled with each other to create what the world sees as the true culture of Singapore.