Singapore is one of the world’s major destinations and arguably the most important hub city in South East Asia. Singapore accomplished this amazing feat in a relatively short period of time. In about 50 short years, Singapore has evolved from a sleepy fishing village into a major international city. Millions of visitors flock to this tiny city-state. Maybe you’ll be one of these visitors to Singapore soon. Here are a few things you need to know about Singapore culture and customs. We’ll also throw in some quick facts to know before your visit.

Singapore culture - River
The picturesque Singapore River and Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Is Singapore a country?

Believe it or not, this still comes up. The answer is yes. Singapore is a city-state, and has been recognized as an independent country since its independence from Malaysia in 1965. The Republic of Singapore occupies a tiny island on the southern tip of the Malayan Peninsula, with about 60 smaller islands surrounding the major island. The Singaporean passport is considered to be one of the world’s strongest passports. It allows Singaporean citizens to travel visa-free to 158 countries around the world. That’s a tie with Germany. It’s a top-tier passport, according to the 2017 Global Passport Power Rank.

Update, November 1, 2017: Singapore now has the world’s most powerful passport. It allows Singaporeans to travel visa-free to 159 countries, narrowly edging out Germany for the top spot.

Singapore culture - passport
Singaporean Passport. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Singaporeans Speak Singlish

If you have not heard this dialect of English, you will recognize its uniqueness as soon as you hear it. Singlish is considered to be Singapore’s main language and occupies a special place in Singapore culture. Singlish is short for Singaporean English, and it is the main dialect in the southern Malay Peninsula. It has a heavy Chinese influence, especially in Singapore culture. When the British arrived in the early 1800s, they brought the English language into a heavy Hokkien – Chinese dialect. The mix of the two languages is distinctively unique in the modern-day. Granted, you may not understand it right away, but you will learn very quickly when you visit Singapore.

Here are a few examples on some of the most favorite Singlish phrases:

  • Lah/Leh/Mah: You will usually hear these expressions at the the end of a sentence. They are mostly used to emphasize the sentence, but have no actual meaning. “Come to Singapore, lah. No need to visit Malaysia.”
  • Can-can or can-not: While both are definitely English words, in Singlish, they replace the answer of yes or no. “Can I come to visit you?” “Can-can, see you tomorrow.”
  • Siao: This word is Hokkien Chinese for crazy. It is part of the Singapore culture to used it to express some crazy ideas or proposition. “I woke up at midnight last night to eat big dinner” “You siao ah”
  • Jiak kantang: This is one of my Singlish favorites. It’s actually a derogatory term to refer to a westernized Asian person. Jiak kantang literally means “eat potato” in the Hokkien and Malay languages. Basically, you’re a potato eater, not a proper rice eater! “Siao, his English is good because he jiak kantang one, mah

Singaporeans are well aware of their unique language. But while some speak it with a sort of national pride, many Singaporeans try to embrace other English accents, such as British English or American English. International schools are a popular choice because your kids will learn “proper” English, taught by foreign native English speakers. News presenters and TV personalities are chosen for their ability to speak non-Singlish in front of the cameras. Jiak kantang, anyone?

Different people can live harmoniously

Singapore culture - Holi
Holi ceremony in Singapore

There are four Singapore official languages: Chinese Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, and English.

For the longest time, Singapore has been the perfect model of a tolerant society that works, one where different races and religions can live in harmony. The famous abbreviation CMIO, which stands for Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others, outlines the different ethnicities that make up the people of Singapore. Many of Singapore laws and social guidelines are based on these classifications.

This ideal model society irks some critics, too. The government builds society based on the percentage of these present ethnicities, including regulating their housing placement, education and school, and others.

But overall, it works for the Singapore culture.

Uncle/Auntie

As in most Asian cultures, the elderly are well-respected in Singapore culture. This was carried over from the Chinese and Malaysian culture.

Anywhere you go in Singapore, you may address any of the elderly, especially with Chinese background, as uncle or auntie – even if you don’t have any relationship to them. It’s just polite. It is considered rude to call anybody older than you by their names – even if their names are stated clearly on their name tags.

So the next time you are ordering food in the hawker center, you can practice your respect. “Auntie, one portion of ayam laksa, please.”

A very conservative society

At a quick glance, today’s Singapore may look like an ultra-modern and liberal city. But inside, it is still an extremely conservative and religious society. The ancient traditions and beliefs have not evolved as quickly as the physical city growth. Here are some examples of conservatives things you’ll find in Singapore culture:

  • Homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore.
  • Smoking and non-smoking areas are strictly enforced.
  • Drug trafficking can be punishable by the death penalty. It is clearly printed in the immigration and custom forms that you filled out when entering Singapore.
Singapore cultures - immigration form
Singaporean passport insert warning of the death penalty for drug traffickers.
  • Never do anything in public places without official police permits, including busking, begging or soliciting other people.
  • Minor offenses, such as littering or vandalism can result in hefty fines, caning, and public shaming.
  • Christianity has gained popularity in Singapore culture, especially amongst young Singaporeans. But Chinese Buddhism is still the major religion and belief system overall in the country.
  • Tipping is mostly frowned upon in Singapore. Your restaurants and cafe bills already include a 7% Goods and Service Tax, and a 10% Service Charge. Unlike in the United States, servers already make an hourly minimum wage. There’s no need to tip them.

Alcohol and its ‘Sin’ tax

Singapore culture - Singapore Sling
The famous Singapore Sling from Raffles Hotel

Consuming alcohol is still often viewed as a sin by Singaporeans. As a result, there is a special tax imposed on alcohol, especially on import items, and even more so one hard liquor. The cheapest option is Singapore’s national beer, Tiger. You can get cheap Tiger Beer from many of the hawker centers all around Singapore.

Speaking of alcohol, don’t miss out one the birthplace of the Singapore Sling – a tropical cocktail drink with spiked pineapple flavor. Head to the colonial Raffles Hotel, where you can travel back in time to the British occupation. Order the Singapore Sling at the hotel’s famous Long Bar. Sit back, enjoy your Singapore Sling, eat peanuts and throw the shells on the floor (as is tradition), and pay about $30 for the experience!

Raffles Hotel
1 Beach Road
Singapore 189673
Phone: +65 6337 1886

Singapore Climate

Singapore culture - MBS Pool
Cooling off at the Marina Bay Sands Infinity Pool

Singapore is hot. Just like the rest of South East Asia, there are only two Singapore seasons: wet and dry. Intense heat and humidity occur throughout the year. Even though it’s hot and humid, expect to still see business men and women wearing formal attire and jackets, while tourists wear shorts and t-shirts.

A rule of thumb is that each month that ends in “-ber” signifies the rainy season. And when it rains in Singapore, it pours.

Singapore is very clean

No doubt about it – Singapore is definitely one of the cleanest countries on earth. You will see this as soon as you step out of the plane. Changi International Airport is extremely shiny, as workers constantly clean and detail every single inch of the terminal.

Everywhere you go, the city is spotless. Don’t be tempted to litter, as this may earn you a hefty fine, and may even cause deportation for foreigners.

Chewing gum is banned in Singapore, because they don’t want it littering the city. Having said that, Singapore has lifted the total ban since establishing an open trade agreement with the USA in 2004. You can now have limited amount of chewing gum if you have a prescription from a dentist. But don’t even try to smuggle it in. If you accidentally brought some from abroad, simply discard it quietly.

Expensive, but cheap

Home of the most millionaires in the world, the cost of living in Singapore is one of the most expensive on the planet. Land is extremely limited, and modern apartment housing is in high demand. This creates a very competitive market that benefits developers. As a result, many citizens can’t afford to own their own place. About 80% of Singaporean families live together in stacked public housing.

Singapore cultures - Public housing
Singapore Public Housing

On the other side of the coin, transportation and food are cheap in Singapore. Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is an extensive and efficient public transit system, and it is affordable. The MRT Line Singapore has also expanded to include easy travel from Singapore to Malaysia, although you still need to clear customs and immigration before transiting to any Malaysian buses.

And food – there are so many great and cheap food options at Singapore’s many hawker centers.

Food and Singapore Culture

Singapore culture - Hawker Center
The famous Singapore Hawker Center

Although Singapore’s cost of living is one of the highest in the world, food is a cheap commodity here. Hawker Centers, or food courts with individual stalls, can be found everywhere in the city. They are an embedded part of daily Singapore culture. Here, you can find a huge selection of food, mostly Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and Malay. We love Indonesian food, and you can find plenty of it here! In many of these hawker centers, you can also find western food.

Try the famous Singapore traditional food – Chili Crab – if you can stand a rich spicy dish. Another dish to try is the Laksa, thick vermicelli noodles cut into smaller pieces and served with prawns and fishcakes. And close your meals out with cold Tiger beer, or ‘Teh Tarik.’ Teh Tarik literally means “pulled tea,” – black tea and condensed or evaporated milk. It is prepared by “pulling” the drink between two cups to cool off the beverage. It is common in both Malaysia and Singapore culture, Malaysians consider teh tarik as their national drink, and Singaporeans also claim it as one of their many Singapore traditions.

For the real foodie though, you can find the world’s cheapest Michelin-star meal in Singapore. The now world-famous chicken rice dish only cost SGD2, or USD1.42 per serving. Due to sharp increase in demand, a second location was established recently in a nearby location.

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle
Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre
335 Smith St
Singapore

Hawker Chan
78 Smith St
Singapore

Singapore Culture – Shopping

Singapore has established itself as a major destination for serious shoppers. There are big and famous names throughout the city, from Apple to Nike to Jimmy Choo and super high-end fashion.

For a more exciting shopping experience, head down to the legendary Orchard Road, where big shopping malls attract all types of visitors from big spenders to budget shoppers. Our favorite is the laid back and rough-around-the-edges Lucky Plaza.

Singapore Merlion and Orchid flowers

Singapore cultures - Merlion
The Merlion at Singapore Harbor

These two very different objects are the main symbols of Singaporean pride. The Merlion is the Singapore logo – a creature that is half Mermaid and half Lion. You can find Merlions everywhere in the country, on the coins, bills, and sculptures. The two famous Merlion statues can be found in Singapore Harbor and on Sentosa Island.

The orchid is another symbol of Singapore. They have cultivated many different varietals of orchids here. You can find many of them in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inside this lush tropical garden, you’ll find the National Orchid Garden. See the Vanda Miss Joaquim – an orchid hybrid that is the Singapore national flower, as well as other hybrids that are named after famous world leaders. You can see the Vanda William Catherine Orchid, Dendrobium Rodrigo Roa Duterte, and Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher, to name a few, inside the VIP Orchid Garden.

Singapore cultures - orchid
Vanda Miss Joaquim hybrid orchid – the official Singapore national flower

Other Singapore Landmarks

Singapore has transformed into a world-class tourist destination, as many travelers are drawn to visit some of these famous Singapore landmarks. If you are looking for things to do in Singapore, here are some of the highlights.

  • Marina Bay Sands Hotel: After its completion in 2010, this hotel appears in millions of photos snapped by tourists every year. If you’re not constrained by a budget, the Marina Bay Sands Infinity Pool is a must visit. Admission to the hotel pool is strictly limited to hotel guests, while the Marina Bay Sands Casino is open to the public. We had an unforgettable experience staying at the Marina Bay Sands. You can book a room at the Marina Bay Sands here.
Michael, standing in front of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore
In front of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore
  • Gardens by the Bay: This is definitely a must visit Singapore park. The highlights here are the towering Supertree Grove – treelike structures 25m-50m (82-160 feet) high that seem like they were pulled from the set of Avatar. Check out the special events, including the Gardens by the Bay Light Show, at their main web page.
SingaporeFeatured
Gardens by the Bay – the Supertree Groves
  • Singapore Flyer: This giant observation Ferris wheel is 164m (541 feet) high. It held the record as the world’s largest Ferris wheel from 2008 to 2014, when the High Roller, a giant wheel, opened in Las Vegas. Check out their official web site. You can take some great Singapore pictures from way above the city.
Singapore culture - Flyer
Singapore Flyer
  • S.E.A. Aquarium: SEA Aquarium Singapore is the second largest aquarium in the world. It is part of the Marine Life Park, which includes the Adventure Cove Waterpark. It’s located on the Resort World Sentosa Island in Southern Singapore. You can purchase your S.E.A. Aquarium tickets at the official page of the Sentosa Aquarium. This Singapore Aquarium was the largest aquarium in the world till 2014, when the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Hengqin, China opened.
Singapore culture - Aquarium
S.E.A Aquarium, one of the world’s largest aquarium
  • Haw Par Villa: This is a unique place to absorb both Buddhist teachings and Chinese legends. Built in 1937, this grotesque theme park depicts some gruesome scenes of Chinese folklore’s Ten Courts of Hell, based on Chinese Buddhism. There are about 1,000 statues and 150 dioramas to keep you occupied. You can find more information on their official website.
Singapore culture - Haw Par Villa
These statues are lasting nightmares for many visitors.

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Heading to Singapore? Here are a few things you should know about Singapore Culture before you go!


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Halef moved from Indonesia to the US nearly two decades ago to go to college here. He hasn’t looked back. He’s been to over forty countries and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s a Landscape Architect in Atlanta, GA.


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