Excerpted from the Singapore Career Guide
Singapore is a city-state island nation; both the nation and capital city bear the name Singapore. It was originally a small fishing village but, owing to its strategic location on the Malay Peninsula, Singapore became a much-frequented, cosmopolitan trading post. Nowadays, Singapore is a modern and multicultural nation at the crossroads of Eastern and Western cultures. While ethnic Chinese make up the majority of the population (74 percent), there are significant numbers of Indians and Malays, the latter being the original inhabitants. Other ethnic groups include Peranakans (descended from the Chinese), Eurasians and expatriates from around the globe. Singapore officially is a secular state but is tolerant of religions, and Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism all are well represented. There also are Jews, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and Jains.
The Chinese established the first settlements in Singapore from 1298 through 1299 CE, during which time it was known as Temasek, or 'Sea Town.' According to legend, Singapore received its current name in the 14th century when Prince Sang Nila Utama was on a hunting trip and spotted a new animal. He took this as a good sign and founded Singapura, 'The Lion City,' from the Sanskrit words simha (lion) and pura (city). In the centuries that followed, Singapore served as a busy trading post for Chinese, Arab, Indian, Portuguese and Malay traders.
Singapore's constitution declares four official languages in Singapore: English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. In recognition of the original inhabitants, the Malay language, Bahasa Melayu, is the national language. Fortunately for foreigners, English is the typical language of business and most business people speak it rather well. Most Singaporeans are at least bilingual and many speak all four languages. English and Mandarin are the most commonly-used languages in daily life.
In general, Singaporeans strive to maintain harmony and preserve group security. Like other Asian cultures, it is very important to maintain and give face in Singapore. Face is roughly equivalent to honor and dignity; to affront it may insult not only the individual but his or her family or community. The family can include extended family members and close friends, and is at the center of Singapore's society. Great respect is shown to elders.
The culture of Singapore is an accommodating fusion of many cultures, and the business world reflects this. Singapore City has everything from traditional Chinese businesses to Western multinational corporations, but the general business culture in Singapore is modern and cosmopolitan, and business is conducted in English.
Nevertheless, some local Singaporean companies are still run very much like a family, following the traditional Chinese business method. In fact, harmony and paternalism are the foundation upon which most businesses are formed; deference to the group and to authority is common. Respect for elders, patience and politeness are important attributes in developing and maintaining good working relationships in Singapore, as relationships are often considered more important than the company itself.
Most Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, and their management styles reflect this, though this mostly is found in typical local Chinese businesses. Managers tend to be older; younger managers typically are not as well-received. Gray hair signifies wisdom, while youth implies inexperience. Hair color aside, the perfect manager is one who can create harmony among the team — not necessarily the one with the most technical job knowledge.
Negotiations with a Singaporean company are non-confrontational, as it is more important for the participants to save face than to speak their minds. This helps foster long-term relationships among colleagues and contacts, and these relationships hold greater value than any business deal. If the meeting begins to heat up over an issue, it is best to drop it and approach it later from a different angle.
This overriding tact can, however, lead to vague statements. Asians rarely say ‘no.’ When someone says ‘yes,’ it might only mean that he or she understands the idea, not that he or she agrees with it. You should be careful not to take statements literally; rather, you can find out what the parties actually mean by how they say something.
Women in the Workplace
Gender bias is an Asian cultural issue not exclusive to Singapore. About half of the workforce in Singapore consists of women. Women are well-respected in business, and it is not uncommon for them to work their way into the executive levels of a company. Lower occupations, however, are most often filled by women – job such as secretaries and receptionists. Men in Singapore generally have higher starting salaries, thanks to work experience gained during the two years of compulsory National Service.
In Singaporean workplaces, international offices are more open and liberal than smaller, local culture-oriented companies.
This is just a short sample of what you’ll find in over 100 pages of information in the complete Singapore Guide.