People and Culture in Singapore

Ditch the image of Singapore as a dull, sterile Utopia – scratch the surface and you’ll discover a strange brew of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western cultures, a rich social stew that’s anything but boring. Sure, the graffiti-free trains run on time, traffic jams are nonexistent and everyone looks clean-cut and wholesome, but who needs pollution, poverty and chaos?

Read more

Remember how your parents used to tell you to keep your elbows off the table during meals? Or that it’s rude to slurp your soup? Well there’s good news guys, these American cultures and customs don’t always translate to other countries! While the local people you meet won’t expect you to be fluent in their language, culture and customs, it is important to familiarize yourself with them.

Do you know how kissing, snoring and other things sound in other languages? That’s right, even sound effects can be translated!

The most important thing to remember while you’re abroad is that things will be different. But, different doesn’t mean wrong. Be open, be curious, and read more about the culture you will be stepping into. Get excited about LIVING the life you’ve only dreamt and read about until now!

#CISabroadtip: Do some more research and get to know Singapore before you go!

People and Culture in Singapore

Official name: Republic of Singapore

Population: 5.5 million

Capital City: Singapore

Geography: Singapore is a small, heavily urbanised, island, city-state in Southeast Asia, located at the end of the Malayan Peninsula between Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore has a total land area of 714.3 square kilometres (275.8 sq mi).

Ethnic makeup: Chinese 76.7%, Malay 14%, Indian 7.9%, other 1.4%

Religions: Buddhist (Chinese), Muslim (Malays), Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Taoist, Confucianist

Culture in Singapore:

  • The concepts of group, harmony, and mutual security are more important than that of the individual.
  • The family is the centre of the social structure and emphasizes unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly.
  • Singaporeans are very sensitive to retaining face in all aspects of their lives.

Non-verbal communication:

  • Singaporeans are group dependent and rely on facial expression, tone of voice and posture to tell them what someone feels.
  • Rather than say ‘no’, they might say, ‘I will try’, or ‘I’ll see what I can do’. This allows the person making the request and the person turning it down to save face and maintain harmony in their relationship.
  • Pausing before responding to a question indicates that they have given the question appropriate thought and considered their response carefully.

Other customs to be familiar with:

  • Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Introductions are always done in order of age or status.

Phrases to know before you go:


  • Yes – Ya
  • No – Teedak
  • Hello – apa kabar
  • Good bye – se la mat jalan
  • Thank you – terima kasih
  • Same – sama sama
  • Do you speak English? – Ta-hoo-kah ber -da ha sa Ingris?
  • I don’t understand – Sa-ya tee dak fa-ham
  • Help! – To-long!


  • Hello – Ni hao (Nee how)
  • How are you? – Ni hao ma? (Nee how ma)
  • Very good – Hen hao (hun hao)
  • My name is. . . – Wo de mingzi shi. . . (Wuo duh mingzuh shih …)
  • Please – qing (ching)
  • Excuse me – Duì bú qi (dweì bú chi)
  • Thank you – Xiè xiè (shièh shièh)
  • Do you speak English – Ni huì jiang Yingyu ma? (Nee huei jeeang Ying you ma.)
  • I don’t understand – Wo ting bù dong.
  • Danger – weí xiàn (way shien)
  • Friends – péngyou (pung yo)
  • Good-bye – Zaìjiàn (dsaì jiàn)

Singaporeans also have their own language called Singlish which is a blend of English, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin – speak these and you’ll pass for a local!

  • One chicken rice to take away – One Chicken Rice da bao.
  • Don’t be so difficult/hard/agressive – Don’t be so kiasu lah.
  • Don’t need a camera tomorrow – Tomorrow dun need camera
  • Not good – not good one lah
  • Where is the bus stop – Where bas?
  • Oh my gosh!/What – Alamak!
  • Good grief this is expensive – Wah liao so expensive lah
  • Ok – Ok lah
  • Correct – Corright
  • Don’t be like that – dun lai dat lah
  • Black Coffee – Kopi Oh
  • He doesn’t know what he is doing – He so blur lah
  • I am flying Singapore Airlines – I fly SQ lah
  • I can’t hear you, can you repeat – repeat again or Ha?
  • Iced Coffee – Kopi Ais
  • How is that possible – How can lah?
  • I want to go to Orchard Station – I wan go Orchard MRT.

Other Resources:

Important Phrases