Singapore attracts people from all over the world so it's important to get familiar with the social customs and rules in Singapore. Between its rich cultural opportunities, delightful food, and reputation as one of the cleanest cities in the world, it is no wonder that over 6 million people visited in 2022 alone. In addition to the tourist attractions, however, countless students also flock for unparalleled learning opportunities and the chance to uncover and experience the luxurious hospitality industry.
Those interested in traveling or relocating to Singapore, however, should also familiarize themselves with the cultural expectations. The city’s reputation for cleanliness and order comes from strict expectations regarding public behavior. To help anyone new to the area successfully adapt and avoid incurring rather large fines, it is important to familiarize yourself with the customs and laws of Singapore. If in doubt, check the government website for the most up-to-date laws.
We've compiled a list of Dos and Don'ts to help every newcomer to Singapore understand the laws and expected behavior when they arrive.
Things to be aware of whilst you are in Singapore
1. Make sure you stand and walk on the proper sides
When using the stairs or an escalator, etiquette in Singapore says that you stand on the left and walk on the right. Therefore, if you prefer to ride up an escalator, step to the left to allow those who want to walk up the ability to easily navigate around you.
Singapore also provides separate cycle and walking paths. Make sure that you walk on the properly designated paths, leaving those with the bicycle signs for those on bikes. This keeps everyone a bit safer and prevents congestion and frustrated people.
2. Join the queues
Singaporeans see the value of forming orderly queues to ensure that everyone gets their turn. These lines are for a variety of common daily activities, such as ordering food or preparing to board a train.
Those new to the area should pay attention to how the locals around them behave. If others begin to form a queue, join them rather than trying to cut in line. This will not be well received by others in the community.
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3. Treat your elders respectfully and like family
In Singapore, people show a level of respect and familiarity with those older than them. Referring to anyone significantly older than you as ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’ is expected and should be followed. It is a way of demonstrating courtesy to one’s elders.
4. Have cash readily available
Although Singapore has adopted a large amount of technology into daily life, many areas still see the value of cash. Having some of the local currency readily available can benefit those in the area in a variety of situations. Smaller neighborhood shops may prefer to have customers pay in cash. Similarly, older eateries or hawker centers (food halls) may also work more on a cash basis than credit cards or contactless payments.
5. Know the climate before you arrive
Those preparing to come to Singapore should ensure that they familiarize themselves with the climate. This will ensure that you have the clothes necessary to remain comfortable throughout your stay.
Generally speaking, Singapore is tropical and extremely humid. The main seasons revolve around being hot, rainy, and even hotter. Whatever you might pack to remain safe and comfortable in other tropical climates should also be used in Singapore. This means you also need to pack your sunscreen and remain prepared for any rain that might suddenly appear.
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6. Freely drink the tap water
Singapore’s commitment to cleanliness and order also extends to its tap water. The water supply is held to a high standard of safety and remains completely healthy for tourists and locals alike to enjoy. Since tap water also comes free for customers in most restaurants and dining options, it is easy to make sure the body remains thoroughly hydrated against the tropical heat and humidity.
7. Experience some of the famous hawker centers
Singapore’s hawker centers have a reputation that extends worldwide. These eating establishments make it easy for people to experience and enjoy a variety of different types of cuisines and tantalizing dining options. Singapore is known for its ability to bring together a diverse number of cultures and culinary traditions, and these hawker centers make it easy to experience some of these benefits personally, and often for very good prices. Take advantage of this opportunity to experience the medley of food cultures available in the region.
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8. Remember the cultural expectations of cleanliness
Law officials and the local people of Singapore take cleanliness very seriously. They know, however, that maintaining this level of tidiness throughout the city requires the participation and cooperation of everyone in the region. Therefore, carefully observe local customs to avoid running afoul of cultural expectations.
For example, you should expect to remove your shoes before you enter anyone’s home or a place of worship. Tracking in outside dirt remains heavily discouraged. As you move about Singapore, watch carefully how locals look to see if other cleanliness expectations emerge that might differ from your home country and culture.
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9. Know how the locals commonly reserve their tables
With the popularity of hawker centers and other dining options, it makes sense that people often find themselves in a position to need to reserve a table while they go order some food. People will often place some personal items on the table, including items ranging from tissue packs to umbrellas and water bottles, to mark this table as their own. If you need a table when going to find some food, do not assume that the umbrella at the empty table was simply forgotten. It can easily designate this table as reserved. Keep looking for a different table to fit your needs.
Things to be aware of whilst you are in Singapore
1. Tipping culture is not the norm
For visitors who come from a culture where tipping wait staff and others in hospitality culture is expected, it may feel surprising to learn that you do not need to tip in Singapore. Instead, you will already pay what is largely the equivalent of a tip through the Goods & Service Tax, which is automatically added to every bill.
2. Do not litter
Singapore has earned a reputation as “The Fine City” for the number of fines given to people for things that might go completely unnoticed in other countries. These fines, and the culture that they help to produce, comprise a large portion of the reason why the city remains so clean and welcoming. One of the biggest types of fines that many newcomers find surprising are those related to littering. Although many cities might have posted signs of up to a few hundred dollars for littering, enforcement is generally rare.
In Singapore, however, fines can reach up to $1,000 and can include sentences for community work as punishment. The local authorities also take these regulations seriously. If you have any type of food or wrapper in public, do not leave anything behind and find a receptacle where you can dispose of it properly.
3. Do not chew gum
The sale and import of chewing gum is illegal in Singapore. This means visitors cannot even bring gum in with them when they enter. This helps to further reduce the levels of trash and dirt around the city, as no one has to worry about accidentally stepping on chewed gum on the sidewalk and finding themselves faced with the unpleasant task of scraping it off the bottom of their shoe. If you enjoy chewing gum, consider adopting an alternative, such as mints, before coming to visit Singapore.
4. Do not eat or drink while on public transportation
To keep public transportation clean and sanitary for everyone, Singapore also places strict regulations on behavior while riding. Food and drink are not allowed on board. This means that even if you find yourself running late for a class or the start of the workday, you cannot enjoy a morning coffee or tea while on public transportation. Make sure you have finished any snacks or drinks before attempting to board, or once again face potentially steep fines. Not only does this help to keep everything cleaner, but it also discourages rodents who might otherwise find the bus or train attractive.
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5. Do not jaywalk
Jaywalking involves illegally crossing roads outside of marked areas. While many people view this as a largely harmless activity, it places both motorists and pedestrians themselves at tremendous risk and can cause unnecessary slowdowns on the roads. Avoid breaking this law to avoid fines or other punishments. Note where the legal crosswalks are, as well as regulations for crossing safely.
6. Do not smoke unless you are in a specifically designated area
Singapore has made smoking illegal in many areas around the city, and people can only partake in the activity in specially designated parts. Those who enjoy smoking should make sure they understand where these designated areas are and not just assume that they can light up a cigarette simply because they are outside.
Those who smoke also need to make sure they remember the rules against littering in the city and avoid tossing garbage, even something they consider small such as a cigarette butt, on the ground. Instead, they need to be properly disposed of in a trash receptacle.
7. Do not use drugs
Singapore also outlaws drugs and offenders can face harsh punishments and fines for breaking the law. Many consider the city’s laws to be some of the strictest with regards to illegal drugs. Even small amounts of drugs can result in harsh prosecution. Getting caught with larger amounts of drugs can result in extremely strict punishments, which apply to both locals and foreigners. Do not attempt to bring any illegal controlled substances into Singapore.
8. Do not forget about alcohol laws
Although alcohol is not completely outlawed like many other types of drugs, those coming to Singapore do need to make sure they completely understand the laws surrounding the selling and consumption of alcohol throughout the city.
Like much of Europe, the drinking age is 18 to purchase and consume alcohol in Singapore. What's more, drinking in public areas between 10.30pm and 7am the next day is banned. Drinking in licensed premises past 11.59pm to 6am the next day is also banned. There are also certain areas (Little India & Geylang) in which have no-public drinking periods from 10.30pm on any Friday ending at 7am the following Monday, as well as 7pm onwards during weeknights. This is called the Liquor Control Zone and was put in place to prevent the spread of Covid.
In other words, those who want to enjoy a night out on the town need to make sure they understand where they can and cannot enjoy their preferred beverages so they can plan accordingly and avoid breaking any laws. Thankfully drinking at home is not forbidden any time of the day or night.
9. Do not try to bring cigarettes into Singapore
Although Singapore does designate certain areas around the city where smoking is permitted, the city strictly regulates the ability of travelers to bring cigarettes into the region. It does not matter if you are a foreigner visiting the country or a local coming home after traveling abroad, you cannot bring cigarettes into the country. Custom officials will specifically check luggage for any packs of cigarettes or other contraband before you can enter the city.
Singapore restricts tax-free cigarettes, and all those purchased within the city are subject to taxes and fees. This makes purchasing them in Singapore expensive, but still significantly cheaper than trying to sneak in a few contraband cigarettes and risking the high fines that you can incur if you are caught by the customs official. Keep in mind that this rule applies to e-cigarettes or other smokeless tobacco products as well.
Singapore can be a fascinating place to visit, explore, live, and learn, but those new to the area need to make sure they familiarize themselves with the local laws and regulations. These laws can impact the ability of newcomers to fit in with the inhabitants and avoid unintentionally breaking laws that can result in fines or other punishments. Singapore authorities and the local people take their laws and regulations very seriously, but the result is a city that is clean and enjoyable for people from around the world. Review this list and then enjoy your time in Singapore and all that the city has to offer.