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Building business relationships

English is the official working language of Singapore, along with the official dialects of Chinese, so being bilingual can be an advantage, along with learning some key phrases.

Singaporeans observe strong hierarchical relationships, including those between employers and employees. There are a number of strict rules and certain protocols you’ll need to follow during your encounters with colleagues and clients; being courteous at all times will be enough and if you do commit a faux pas, your business counterparts are unlikely to take offence. As the government finances many of the large corporations in Singapore, the city-state has a reputation for its efficient, corruption-free, Western business style. 

It’s interesting to note that the business or company you work with or for is viewed as more important than the individual, and the hierarchy within this perspective is very strict. Much of the interaction you have with your Singaporean counterparts will be non-verbal, so you’ll soon become adept at keeping a close eye on facial expressions and body language while paying attention to your own. During a conversation, Singaporeans are often soft-spoken and aren’t given to a dominant or aggressive business style.

Networking

The cornerstone of all business, harmonious and meaningful relationships take time to develop in Singapore and patience is required. Showing respect and taking your time to build a business relationship demonstrates that the company you represent is more interested in the wider, long-term view than any short-term gain that can be afforded by your introduction. Being introduced through long-standing mutual friends or business colleagues will help you become accepted more readily into certain cultural groups.

Meetings

An appointment is almost always necessary for business meetings and should be made as far in advance as possible, and up to two weeks is ideal. Formal letters or emails can be sent to request a meeting, but a call is also acceptable to fix a mutually convenient time. On the day of the meeting, you should make every endeavour to be prompt, a sign of respect. Introductions are made first, then business cards are exchanged. When making introductions for the first time between Singaporean Chinese, always use the person’s title and family name, followed by their personal name. If your counterpart has a Western name, they should be introduced by their given name first and then their family name. The Malays use their personal name followed by bin (son of) or binti (daughter of) before their father’s personal name, while the Indians use their personal name followed by ‘son of’ or ‘daughter of’ and the father’s personal name. Don’t hurry to take a seat or start talking business straightaway — being invited to sit down is a strict formality Singaporeans follow, and some small talk usually precedes the business conversation.

Business card tips:

  • You usually exchange business cards when you first meet someone, so be sure to carry some with you at all times.
  • Cards are usually exchanged using both hands.
  • Consider having a Mandarin translation on one side for when you meet a colleague who is Chinese.
  • Keep your business cards in pristine condition.
  • Don’t just put a business card in your wallet without looking at it; studying the card carefully first shows you are treating it, and your relationship, with respect.

Negotiations

Inform your Singaporean counterparts who will be attending any negotiations in advance. Just like networking, negotiations also happen at a slower pace, and although Singaporeans will make fast-paced decisions, they might pause before answering a question — answering in haste suggests a lack of thought. You should do the same when it’s your turn to talk and remember that a ‘yes’ in reply does not always necessarily mean a tacit agreement. Singaporeans are tough negotiators, and you can be direct when discussing money. If you are willing to make concessions, ensure you’ve considered these in advance, so you are prepared to negotiate.

Entertaining

Business is frequently conducted over lunch, with meetings often being held in restaurants or a good five-star hotel. Remember that dietary restrictions must be considered in this multi-ethnic, multi-faith city-state — Muslims do not eat pork; some Buddhists and Hindus do not eat any meat at all — and you should remember to avoid conducting business on Fridays or during Ramadan (the Muslim fasting month). Once the food arrives, the focus of the meeting will almost certainly be directed to the meal on the table and not the business discussion in hand. Many Singaporeans prefer to enjoy their meal in silence and are passionate about food. If you’ve invited your guests along it’s socially polite to pay the bill and the other party will reciprocate next time. 

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