Singapore is pretty well known the world over for its architectural feats and gastronomic delights. But what gives our small island an even greater identity is probably our unique culture that’s not found anywhere else. If you are heading here for the first time, there are certain things done by the locals that might leave you scratching your head.
Even my fellow Singaporeans might not be able to answer your questions or be there to help you when you are looking for answers. As such, here’s a bit of a guide to the 10 things foreigners need to know about Singaporean culture when visiting our little country.
You will probably come across the common sight of tissue packets, name cards or even umbrellas lying on tables in Singapore food courts. This indicates that the table has been “choped” – our local slang for ‘Reserved’.
The item has not been left behind by a forgetful patron nor is it there for the taking; it’s a clear sign that the table is occupied, which means you better not make the mistake of sitting down. Quirky? Definitely. So many Singaporeans have adopted this habit that it’s been inculcated into our culture, so keep this in mind.
Majority of Singaporeans speak English but sometimes, it may not sound like we are. That’s because we’re used to a version of it called Singlish. More often than not, foreigners tend to be perplexed when they hear the words coming out from our mouths.
Just a simple word can have very different meanings to it. Singlish phrases are quite easy to pick up and you will definitely earn the hearts of locals if you were to mention some in conversations.
Singaporeans have this unspoken rule that is often abided by – keeping to the left. Be it on pavements or on escalators, keeping to the left side is often the norm that you will see. As part of a campaign to promote courtesy years ago, this behaviour has been instilled into our culture.
For those who are in a rush, the right side is reserved for you to make your way past the orderly line. A word of caution though; try to keep to this rule or you might end up getting shoved or worse, tsk-ed at.
Have you ever heard of 17 variations of a certain item? In Singapore, we have that with a basic cup of coffee. Over the years, many locals have customised and tweaked their cup of joe right down to the specifics.
You will often hear such orders being made at a nearby coffee shop when you visit and the best part, it is priced at a fraction of a regular one from Starbucks. Try to enjoy the local coffee the Singaporean way, starting with the ordering process.
We Singaporeans love to queue. Be it for transport, the latest iPhone or a famous food stall, we are there for the long haul.
As long as there’s a queue, people will start to line up even without knowing what the queue is for. But one thing’s for sure; there is something at the end that is worth queueing up for. You could ask someone at the tail end, but chances are they will not know as well. It’s just So Singaporean to do this.
From text messages to conversational topics, acronyms will always be used in a sentence. To those who are foreign to Singapore, you will be lost in the world of acronyms. But fret not, you will get used to it and soon, you can blend in with the locals as if it is nothing.
Always ask if you are unsure of what the acronyms mean, especially if you are in a cab. A simple “I go by CTE, pass by the ERP, can ah,” could add a couple more bucks to your fare.
You might notice candles, joss sticks and food placed on the sides of pavements. These are not for you to take, nor are they for the stray animals on the street. The offerings are a form of prayer, especially common during the Hungry Ghost Festival. It is frowned upon to step on them and you’ll probably end up with a stroke of bad luck if you do.
If you do accidentally step on anything, especially with the Hungry Ghost Festival approaching, just apologise to the universe and hope for the best.
It is probably second nature in Western countries to tip at restaurants and cafes. However, in Singapore, it is deemed unnecessary as the bill includes a 10% service charge.
You could tip if you wanted to, but don’t be surprised if a staff member comes running after you when you leave to return your money to you.
There are 3Ks that are ingrained in any local – “Kiasu”, “Kiasi” and “Kaypoh”. You might be scratching your head right now at these incomprehensible terms, but let’s break them down for you.
“Kiasu” refers to being afraid of “losing out” to other people. That kind of explains the point about Singaporeans loving queuing. We just cannot stand losing out on something that other people might end up having.
“Kiasi” refers to the attitude of being overly afraid or timid. A classic case in Singapore, parents often ensure that their child receives tuition classes for every single subject, hoping that they will not flunk them. The fear is real.
And of course, every Singaporean that you meet will be “Kaypoh” to a certain extent. The term is used when someone is being nosy. We, as Singaporeans, love to find out the latest happenings and gossips even if we are not involved in them. Again because of some kind of fear of missing out.
Citizen journalism is probably the best platform for news to go viral and spread across the entire country in a matter of hours. STOMP, an online portal in Singapore, exists for this very reason.
And most of the time, the viral content may sound pretty ridiculous, if I do say so myself. Not giving up your seat on the train could land you in the headlines of this portal and it wouldn’t look pretty at all.
Well, as long as you steer clear of trouble (and keep to the left), this web portal can instead turn into a source of entertainment.
Singapore is indeed a nice place to visit, but you will not want to offend any locals or do anything stupid that can ruin your impression of the city and its people. You can’t be blamed for not knowing what to do sometimes though, and a simple “sorry” will usually suffice if you do not mean any harm.
Hopefully, this guide can make your time in Singapore even more fulfilling!