Communicating with Singaporeans: Understanding 6 Key Aspects

by Ange Teo - Date: 2007-01-06 - Word Count: 642 Share This!

To the first-time visitor, Singapore is a thoroughly Asian country with Western trappings. Not to mention, an English-speaking populace that may cause some discomfort and confusion: apart from Asians speaking English with one another, one has to contend with the varied Singaporean accents - according to the individual's ethnicity.

Worse, if he finds himself in situations whereby the locals do not comprehend him whatsoever. Well, there are Singaporeans who are not confident to speak with foreigners as English is not their mother tongue. Or that their lack of proficiency limits their articulacy.

Hence, to ensure that there is no irretrievable breakdown in communication with Singaporeans, the Assignee could observe the following aspects:

1. There is no singular or homogenous "Singaporean" Culture

Native population of the island-state consists of descendants of immigrants from different parts of Asia, Middle East and Europe. Besides, waves of immigrants came to the island at different periods - some of whom came with or were indentured labour brought by the British. Thus, this is one reason why English is the preferred lingua franca.

It is noteworthy that the original inhabitants are Malay and Aboriginal called "Orang Laut", literally "People [of the] Sea" in Malay.

2. Factors that shaped them

There are several factors that influence Singaporeans' attitudes and mindsets. However, I will list a few that are most relevant to the topic at hand. For instance the following which are self-explanatory:

* Singapore is formerly a British colony for about 150 years or so - that explains why English is the primary business language

* Ethnic, cultural, educational and socio-economic backgrounds have a bearing on their communication skills

* Levels of interaction with people of other cultures - of which some have minimal and/or superficial exposure to Singaporeans of other racial background

3. Jargon-free plain English

English may be the first or working language for many Singaporeans. However, the standard of fluency in reading, comprehending, speaking and writing varies from one individual to another. Hence, do exercise due care while in different scenarios.

Also, what one finds humorous may be lost on some Singaporeans. Likewise, the Assignee may not understand the Singaporean brand of humour. Thus, do not dismiss it as puerile or risk becoming the subject of discussion; or be frozen out altogether.

4. Behavioural and Mindset

Common behavioural patterns which Singaporeans either display or completely unaware of when speaking with foreigners and vice versa; of which the following are self-explanatory:

* Anxiety or Discomfort

* Prejudice and Stereotyping

* Presumptions and Assumptions

* Perceived Cultural Superiority/Inferiority

5. Modern Technology

Singapore is one of the most-wired nations, such that it is ranked second in the world after South Korea in terms of blogging population. In short, Singaporeans are also savvy with other technological tools, for instance: E-mail, Short Message Service [SMS], Video Conferencing/Teleconferencing, and Instant Messenger amongst others.

Again, due care must be taken when communicating, as well as taking into consideration their fluency and proficiency of English.

6. The Singapore Brand of English:

Many Singaporeans have the ability to code-switch from English to Singlish and vice versa. Singlish is an English creole [as opposed to Singaporean English] of a mostly Chinese syntax; with Chinese dialects, Malay and Indian loan words. Never make fun of Singlish as some Singaporeans may take offence; nor should their competency in Standard English questioned.

And there are some who may misinterpret the Assignee's imitating their speech patterns. Again, regardless of the reactions, he may risk becoming the subject of discussion; or be frozen out altogether.

Just like any other Intercultural situations, language is one significant challenge that International Assignees must overcome. Especially when the hosts' English is not the English they speak or familiar with, it is convenient to dismiss the former as poor English speakers. Miscommunication still happens between Americans and the English in spite of sharing a common language, what more communication with Singaporeans?

All it takes are an open mind, the willingness to learn, and a sense of humour. And the Assignee will have a far more pleasant experience.

Related Tags: understanding singaporeans, communicating with singaporeans, singlish, singaporean english

Multi-ethnic and polyglot Ange Teo is the Founder-Managing Director of e2m expat etiquette mentoring, a Singapore-based Cross-Cultural Communications Solutions Provider.

Having worked with some of the world's leading Multinational Companies and Singapore-based Small Medium Enterprises for over 20 years; Ange Teo specialises in the areas of Information Technology, Secretarial/Administration, and Human Resources specifically Executive Search / Headhunting.

For more information about e2m Cultural Intelligence [CQ]-focused Communications Solutions, please visit

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