A Foreigner Guide To Singapore Culture


When you explore a new country, the last thing you want to do is offend the locals – accidentally or not. Sometimes, you might even commit a faux pas unconsciously. So foreigners travelling to Singapore, fear not! We decided to come up with a series of guides for our tourist who plan on visiting Singapore.

In this first article of the series, we take a look at 13 local customs and traditions in Singapore that everyone should know.

1. Take off your shoes before entering the house

b2ap3_thumbnail_6.-Shoes.jpgSource Most of us don’t have carpets either.

This applies to almost every household in Singapore. We don’t wear shoes in the house, so take off your footwear before coming in. Remember to take off your shoes before entering any temple or mosque too!

DO: Leave your shoes neatly by the door before entering
DON’T: Tramp into the house like you just don’t care

2. Call all older people aunty/uncle

No, we’re not related to everyone on the island, but we’re polite creatures. Calling older people “aunty” and “uncle” is a sign of respect for our elders.

The next time you flag down a cab, try this, “Uncle, Dhoby Ghaut MRT please!”b2ap3_thumbnail_2.-Aunty.jpgSource Disclaimer: not 100% effective

DO: Be respectful
DON’T: Call elderly by their names, even when they have nametags. Yes it’s weird I know.

3. Please ‘Q’

b2ap3_thumbnail_1.-Queue.jpgSource Queue training in progress

We queue for everything – for the train, McDonald’s Hello Kitty toys, iPhone 6s, Llaollao yoghurt and our favourite hawker food. The queue can get long, so there’s one thing we hate: people who cut our queue. Sometimes it’s difficult to ascertain if people are just milling around or creating an arbitrary queue. If you’re unsure if there’s a queue, it’s good to ask before you accidentally offend someone.

If you see a really long queue and you’re not sure why people are queuing, channel your inner Singaporean and join the queue. Chances are, there’s something worth queuing for. b2ap3_thumbnail_1.-Krispy-Kreme.jpgSource…unless the queue is for Krispy Kreme. It’s not worth it.

DO: Join the back of the queue
DON’T: Cut queue or jump queue

3. Mind your chopsticks


Maybe putting your chopsticks in an upright position prevents your chopsticks from rolling around, but doing so might put you on the receiving end of many angry glares. The only time we put chopsticks upright is during funerals. Offering an elder a bowl of rice with chopsticks stuck upright might have another, unintentional meaning. Touch wood.b2ap3_thumbnail_3.-Chopsticks-2.jpgSource Don’t do this either.

It’s good to brush up on your chopstick etiquette too – don’t separate your chopsticks, poke your chopsticks into food and learn to hold your chopsticks properly!

DO: Place your chopsticks across the bowl or on chopstick rests
DON’T: Remind people of funerals

4. Chope with tissue


It’s lunch hour and you’re trying to find a seat in a crowded hawker centre. Suddenly, you spy a suspiciously empty table. Thanking your lucky stars, you sit down, failing to notice a packet of tissue sitting innocuously on the tabletop.

Nope, that little packet of tissue is not given to patrons for free or left behind by a forgetful diner. It’s put there for a purpose – to reserve, or chope, the table. Seriously, don’t ignore the tissue packets. The consequences are dire.b2ap3_thumbnail_4.-Tissue.jpgSource If you can’t beat them, join them

In general, to chope is equivalent to staking your claim on something. Even in informal situations, if someone says they’ve chope-d something, it’s best not to take it.

DO: Chope a table with your own packet of tissue
DON’T: Take someone’s tissue packet away

5. Don’t anyhow smoke

The smoking regulations in Singapore have become so complicated that even locals aren’t sure where you can and cannot smoke. Before lighting up, take a good look at your surroundings. Smoking is prohibited in most public areas, on bridges, hospital outdoor compounds and even within 5 metres of a bus stop.

Can’t remember the prohibitions? We recommend only smoking in designated smoking areas, just to be safe.b2ap3_thumbnail_5.-Smoking.pngSource

DO: Ask for permission before lighting up or smoke only in designated areas (look for yellow boxes!)
DON’T: Smoke wherever and whenever you like

7. Give up your seat

Anyone sitting in reserved seats should be aware of elderly, handicapped, pregnant women or young children who enter the carriage. Failure to give up your seat to those who need it more is a big no-no.

Even if the train is empty, don’t be surprised to see some people avoiding the priority seats like the plague. We’re scared of this happening to us.b2ap3_thumbnail_7.-Seats.jpgSource Especially during the seventh month.

DO: Give up your seats to the elderly, the handicapped, pregnant ladies, children or anyone who looks more tired than you
DON’T: Pretend to fall asleep in a priority seat

8. Get permits for everything

b2ap3_thumbnail_8.-Protest.jpgSource A rare creature spotted in Hong Lim Park

So you’re an aspiring musician who dreams of getting discovered while busking on a street corner. Or maybe you’re gathering a bunch of friends for a friendly protest against our CPF scheme. Go ahead, but get a permit first.

Just because they’re public spaces doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want. You need to get permission from the commissioner before staging any public events, or be licensed under the busking scheme before unleashing your talent. And yes, the “Speaker’s Corner” is the place to voice your discontent, but get a police permit first!

DO: Apply for a permit for public protests, events, begging and busking
DON’T: Grab your guitar and go busking

9. Don’t tip


Tipping is second nature to many foreigners, but it’s unnecessary and even frowned upon here. At restaurants and cafes, your bill will include 7% Goods and Services Tax and 10% Service Charge. Your servers already receive a set pay per hour. There’s no need to tip them.

Furthermore, we’re not used to the idea of tipping. If you leave extra money with the waiters, you might find them running after you with your change! Tip only if the restaurant explicitly accepts tips – some places have little tipping jars next to the cashier for your loose change.

And to all Singaporeans: remember to tip when travelling to other countries!

DO: Thank the waiters for their service
DON’T: Leave extra money on the table

10. Keep to the left


Just like cars on a busy road, our pedestrians follow an unspoken rule: if you’re slow, keep to the left. Singaporeans may be notorious for walking fast, but you can take a leisurely stroll down Orchard Road – just keep to the left.

When you’re taking an escalator, follow this rule religiously. The right side of an escalator is for people walking up the steps. The left is for people content to stand and wait. Be warned: standing on the right side might earn you a few sharp elbow jabs.

gifstache.com_882_1342726012.gifSource That’s TOO left.

DO: Keep to the left
DON’T: Block walkways and escalators (especially if you’re with friends!)

11. Know your acronyms


Sir, go by BKE or PIE?…Got ERP along CTE now, can ah?” – Every taxi driver.

It’s undeniable that Singapore is a land of acronyms and abbreviations. From 4D to URA, these acronyms are incomprehensible to most foreigners. But with time and practice, you’ll be using acronyms and abbreviations like a local.

Our advice: if you don’t know what something means, it’s always a good idea to ask.

DO: Ask if you’re unsure what the acronyms mean
DON’T: Refuse to use acronyms – life is more efficient with them!

12. Don’t bring your dogs near Muslim friends


Put your dog on Instagram instead

Muslims consider dogs to be unclean, so no matter how cute your dog is, don’t bring it near them!

Of course, as Singapore becomes more cosmopolitan, it’s inevitable that religions and races clash. We’re very tolerant of each other’s practices, but still, we suggest you bring halal hot dogs instead of actual dogs when visiting your Muslim friends.

DO: Keep your dog on a leash
DON’T: Visit Muslims with your dog in tow

13. Don’t touch roadside offerings

b2ap3_thumbnail_13.-Offerings.jpgSource Here’s more things you shouldn’t do…just in case.

We recommend extra caution when walking on the grass during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

No, those joss-sticks and candles by the pavements aren’t litter. They’re offerings and items used for prayer to our ancestors. And those cakes and fresh fruit aren’t for stray animals to snack on. They’re for the hungry ghosts. It’s always a bad idea to step on the offerings. We might not know who stepped on them, but the hungry ghosts are always watching you.

Bonus tip: If you see empty seats at street performances during the Hungry Ghost Festival, do not sit on them. They’re purposely left empty for “spiritual visitors”.

DO: Keep your eyes peeled for offerings
DON’T: Steal the hungry ghosts’ food

Do as the Singaporeans do!

Our local customs might seem strange, but you definitely don’t want to offend any locals accidentally. But if you happen to make a mistake, don’t worry, Singaporeans are generally forgiving if they know you don’t mean it. A simple “sorry” will right any grievous wrong. If you still don’t understand Singaporeans, you’re not alone.

Still afraid of making a faux pas? We recommend talking about food. You can’t go wrong. We Singaporeans are self-professed food experts. Join us on our food adventures or debate the merits of two different chicken rice stalls – you’ll find us friendly, open and willing to share our food secrets! Happy #SG50 Singapore!

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