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Singapore Culture, Traditions, and History (FSF Guide)

Singapore Overview

Singapore is a small island city-state located off the coast of Malaysia which stands out for its cleanliness and economic prosperity. The country is highly diverse with only 60% of residents holding citizenship and many native Singaporeans holding strongly to their Malay, Indian, Chinese, and even British heritage. However they do not view themselves as belonging to distinct cultures, but rather as part of a greater whole.

Singapore’s History

The southern portion of Singapore was settled in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles for the British East India Company. By 1824, the entire island fell under British rule, and by 1826, Singapore became part of the British India Strait Settlements. The rubber plantations attracted thousands of Chinese, Indian, and Malay workers.

In the early 1940's, Britain faced its greatest military loss in history when the Japanese Imperial Forces astonishingly and rapidly occupied Singapore. Despite the island being believed to be impregnable, the Japanese army, outnumbered three to one, managed to expel the British in only seven days. Between 1942 and 1945, tens of thousands of locals and Allied soldiers died at the hands of the brutal Japanese rulers. Following their surrender in 1945, Britain regained control of Singapore.

Singapore held its first political elections in 1955, and by 1959 they had their first self-governing parliament under Lee Kuan Yew. However, the decade also saw heavy rioting and civil unrest throughout the country due to Communist influences among the Chinese political parties. Singapore separated from Britain in 1963, after joining the Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak coalition to form the Federation of Malaysia only to be unanimously voted out just two years later over differences in politics, race, and religion.

In 1965, Singapore became an independent republic of the British Commonwealth and on this day, anyone who was residing in the country was granted automatic citizenship. The economy continued to boom during the presidential reign of Lee Kuan Hok, who remained in power until 1990. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis hit the country hard, and in 2004, a SARS epidemic swept through the island. However, continued development reigned with Universal Studios Sentosa opening in 2010 and Marina Bay Sands in 2011.

Singaporean Culture

Societal Values

Singaporeans do not consider entitlement to be inheritable through family or ethnicity. They like to think of their culture as meritocratic, with people’s background providing little to no privilege. Status is thought to be merit based and largely determined by one’s work ethic. Due to this, those who are academically qualified or well-educated loosely constitute an upper class.

Singaporean culture is still highly hierarchical. Interactions between people are based around their hierarchical relationship with one another, largely due to influences from Chinese Confucianism. When this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations among individuals and, therefore, in society as a whole. Everyone has a role to fill and for superiors, that role is to protect and be compassionate to those subordinate to them. One may notice that within Singaporean society, interactions are tiered and require a level of deference and respect from one party. Within the social hierarchy, a person's position, occupation and level of education are essential to their status.

Age is often an overriding factor that determines the level of respect people should show. Singaporeans are expected to give their parents and elders utter respect and devotion under the cultural concept of ‘filial piety’. In this way, Singaporeans tend to show more respect to the opinion of those older than them with unconditional obedience of elders even being expected in certain situations.


  • The national holiday is on 31 August and is celebrated with military parades and culture shows at the national stadium

  • there is Singapore Food Festival every year from the end of June to the end of July

  • The Lantern Festival is one of the largest celebrations in the country, which marks the 15th and the last day of Chinese New Year festivities


Singapore has freedom of religion with few exceptions and has been described as one of the most religious countries in the world. The major religions are Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion, along with a substantial number of Christians of various denominations.

Language and Communication Style

Singapore is a multilingual state, with four official languages: Malay, English, Indian (Tamil), and Chinese (Mandarin). Malay is considered the national language, although only 15-17% of Singaporeans speak the language. English, rather, serves as the de facto language, even being used as the administrative language and the medium of instruction in schools. Pupils also choose one of the "mother tongues'': Malay, Tamil, and Chinese.


Basic Etiquette

  • Punctuality is common and expected

  • It is expected that the elderly are treated with respect

  • While meeting formally or informally, make sure to shake hands firmly with all, even when departing

  • A slight bow while shaking hands is considered respectful

  • Spitting or littering in public is both frowned upon and illegal

  • Public displays of affection between couples is generally considered inappropriate

  • It is common for Singaporeans to reserve their seats in a public setting by placing a packet of tissues or their umbrella on the seat


  • It is expected that a guest will bring a small gift to the host, though the type of gift varies depending on the host’s ethnicity

  • Guests are expected to remove shoes when entering the home

  • Punctuality is vital and it is expected to call the host if running late

  • An invitation should be acknowledged whether or not one is able to attend


  • Food is usually placed on a table with all dishes served at once and shared among everyone

  • Guests should not begin to eat until the host invites them to do so

  • chopsticks and soup spoons are commonly used

  • Burping gently is seen as appreciation for the food

  • Emptying one’s plate suggests the host failed to provide enough food

  • Tipping is not customary in Singapore

Gift Giving

  • Expect elaborate wrapping as the wrapping of gifts is important

  • Both hands are used to give and receive a gift

  • The recipient should not open a gift immediately upon receiving it or in front of the giver

  • Avoid using the colors black or white to wrap gifts as they are associated with mourning

  • The appropriate gift may vary depending on a Singaporean’s ethnicity and religion


  • Rojak is a local style of salad in which the various ingredients are covered by peanut sauce, but with each ingredient clearly discernible

  • Laksa is the common street food and consists of a bowl of vermicelli noodles with prawns or fishcakes

  • Tarik is the traditional Singaporean black tea with milk, made by aerating it between two cups

Singapore Culture: Conclusion

Singapore is a highly diverse nation characterized by its structured society and respect for diversity. One’s value is largely determined by their individual ability and experience. This is used as the basis for a strict hierarchy which characterizes much of everyday life.


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