A Guide To Cultural Etiquette In Singapore Beyond The Chewing Gum Ban

Dos, don’ts—plus, how to charm the locals.

By Leiti Hsu

25 October 2019

Singapore is a land of wild contrast. It’s a new-ish country, for sure, but with some of the oldest history and culture brought by those who’ve chosen to land here. The paternalistic government rules tightly, and there is a strong traditional Chinese if not Asian core to how the society operates. Yet the citizens are okay with it, because the locals know—and visitors begin to notice not long after arriving—just how nicely the place runs.

And if you’re able to look past jokes about the chewing gum ban and how shiny (and “sterile”) some call the shopping centers, you might notice that there’s plenty more to chew on in terms of the Singaporean obsession for eating out, the availability of mighty fine food—both fine dining and roll-up-your-sleeves, dizzying, raucous hawker centers—and of course, the warm welcome.

Perhaps you’re in Singapore for the first time, you’re preparing for an important business meeting or you simply want to find out, fast, the best tips for what to eat, see and do. Perhaps you’re going to your Singaporean boyfriend or girlfriend’s house for the first time to meet the parents.

Here are rules and etiquette to consider beyond “no chewing gum”—plus, how to charm a Singaporean.

1. When in doubt, talk about food

“If you want doors to open for you in Singapore, just ask anybody about food,” says Singapore-based food writer Annette Tan, who also founded the supper club Fat Fuku.

“Singaporeans are obsessed about food, so I guess you have to be a good cook,” explains Julien Royer, chef-owner of Odette, probably Singapore’s most globally-known restaurant. (Easy for him to say.)

Even just talking about food is a start: “Every conversation, whether you’re talking to a taxi driver, the first thing everyone will talk about is food. What time are we eating next? Where are we eating?,” says Lexie Rodriguez, who runs events at Soho House. “24/7, their mind is on food. Just talk about food, and you’ll totally fit in.


A spread of diverse hawker stall dishes

2. Don’t assume you know where somebody is from. Always ask.

“Singaporeans don't see ourselves as Chinese or Malay, or Eurasian, or whatever. If you asked me, ‘Are you Chinese?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, I'm Chinese, but I'm more Singaporean than I'm Chinese.’ I don't understand what it means to be Chinese in the global context. I know what it means to be Singaporean,” explains Tan.

You’ll find the curiosity and cultural awareness reciprocated. “Everybody speaks English, which is great. So laugh about it being like your starter pack for Asia. It's the first place you go to, if you want to test your boundaries in Asia because everyone speaks English,” says Rodriguez. “Being an international person here, you'll find that Singaporeans really want to get to know where you're from.”

3. Learn a few phrases in colloquial Singaporean English, “Singlish”

“Learn some Singlish,” chef Ivan Brehm of Nouri tells us. “When you can speak and they know that you're with the in crowd, they welcome you into the family. The first few times I tried, it was a disaster, but after a while it works.”

What are some useful phrases to start? “You have to say ‘can la.’ When somebody says, "Can you take spicy?" You just have to say, ‘can.’ You don't say ‘yes,’ you say ‘can,’” Brehm says.

“And if something crappy happens or you miss your taxi or somebody spills something on your dress, you say, ‘aiyo,’” he adds. “And you have to kind of sing it. If you don't sing it, it doesn't work.” But don’t get too singsongy. Otherwise your new Singaporean friends might think you’re drunk. Which turns out isn’t so bad and may even be charming?

“Yeah. That helps too,” says chef Brehm. Singaporeans are having all the fun and keeping it to themselves.

A group of locals enjoying a traditional Singaporean breakfast, bak kut teh, which translates literally to "meat bone tea" and consists of pork ribs simmered for hours with herbs and spices. They've been participating in the daily ritual together for decades. 

4. Always, always be polite

As international as Singapore is, “I think it's still very Asian,” explains Dr. Kwan Lui, founder, At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy. “Your Singaporean parents would like you to be polite, not in a submissive way, but in a very friendly but courteous way.”

“Whether you are Chinese or Malay, you’d greet older folks as ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle,” she says.

It’s a family-driven place, even with people whom you’re not related to. “You refer to everybody as auntie or uncle, or brother or sister,” says culinary consultant Kori Millar of Hatch & Ko. “And this is where your cab driver is an auntie or uncle, you go into your fruit and veggie shop, it's auntie, uncle, brother, or sister, and I find that really sweet.”

And when it comes to doing business? “It’s about having honor and integrity, like you’re not going to take advantage of the person you’re doing business with. Still, very Asian value system,” explains Lui.

How do you gain that trust? It’s back to the food. Break bread (or noodles—or rice). “Families have to eat together. Friends. And definitely business as well. Like, you’re visiting, and I’d take you out this evening, right? Just because you are friends with my nephew. It’s very hospitable,” says Dr. Lui.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Cocktail And Wine Bars In Singapore

5. Be open to trying different foods—and consider how you eat them, too

Even Singaporean chili crab—rather the process of selecting the crab and eating it—plays a part in social etiquette. This heritage dish is not only one of the most beloved dishes in Singapore but also a tool with which to further social outcomes: “When entertaining your guests or prospective business partners, you want huge ones just to elaborate your confidence,” says culinary expert EngKiat Lim

“Some future mother-in-laws, in order to test the person that's coming into their family, whether it's a groom or bride to be, purposely cook the chili crab and see how gracefully they will remove the shell, eat the crab, consume it and don't make a huge mess out of it,” explains Lim.

Chili crab 

“A tidy person is a responsible person,” he says. Note that Singaporean chili crab is a dish that demands so much commitment that it’s nearly impossible to come out not a stained, soppy mess!

Above all else, “don't suck on your fingers. It's a no-no-no. And no double-dipping,” he instructs.

If all else fails, bring a Singaporean a fine specimen of the royalty of fruits: durian, says Ellie Sakrzewski, founder The Big Blow. The famously stinky durian fruit is feared as much as it is revered. The stench is so particular that to know it—and more, to love it—is something of a badge of honor here.

“You could maybe bring them a great durian, take them to a durian place or bring them a great durian dish, especially during durian season,” she suggests.

Above all else, accept that there's a lot of diversity and try anything you want because it is the place to be,” says Dr. Lui. “We are not one dimensional. Our culture is the mixture of all of the cultures, and that’s what makes Singapore authentic.”

So, don’t turn your nose up at the durian fruit. One eater’s stink may be another’s fragrant.

“Culture has a weird way to change and form, morph and the food sometimes can be a bit different. Be open-minded,” says chef Brehm. “If you take the challenge of going out and eating a durian for example, that's a big bonding exercise, I'll tell you.”

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