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How to Do Business in Singapore

There are a lot of options for doing business in Southeast Asia. Between ten nations and tens of thousands of islands, international businesses may find it hard to choose which country to source from.

 

For those going global for the first time, working with a country that has an established track record, and favorable agreements with the US is the safest option.

 

In South East Asia, Singapore is your best bet.

 

Let’s give a little rundown on why Singapore is so good for US small businesses.

 

In 2004, Singapore became the first nation in Asia to establish a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with the US, slashing 99% of duties and tariffs between them.

 

In 2004, Singapore became the first nation in Asia to establish a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with the US, slashing 99% of duties and tariffs between them.

 

Since the agreement was established, Singapore-US trade has steadily increased. Singapore is currently the US’ 19th largest trading partner, and the US is Singapore’s 3rd largest export market behind only China and Malaysia.

 

As a city, capital, and nation all in one, Singapore is often awarded both national and municipal awards for business and trade. It has been called the world’s most technologically-ready nation, the top city for international meetings, and the city and nation with the best investment potential in the region.

 

The World Bank has also ranked Singapore as the world’s best place to do business. As the financial incentives pile up, Singapore continually proves its value to small businesses with non-economic motivations for working in the region.

 

But be warned: chewing gum is banned in Singapore. If you want minty-fresh breath in a pinch, you’ll need to get a prescription. We’re not kidding.

 
 

Introduction to Singapore

 

Major Cities

 
Map of Singapore
 

The Whole Country

Well, this is a bit awkward. Singapore is one of only three nations in the world to be a city, a state, and its capital all at once. The other two are Monaco, and Vatican City.

 

This interesting fact puts all regions in the country under the “Singapore” city umbrella. Economy, infrastructure, demographics, all are covered under the nation-city combination.

 

Singapore is one of only three nations in the world to be a city, a state, and its capital all at once. The other two are Monaco, and Vatican City.

 

Instead, Singapore has begun to recognize 5 “regions” and their accompanying subzones or “Planning Areas.” Planning Areas are as close as Singapore gets to cities. They hold an average of 200,000 inhabitants, and are founded economically in retail businesses.

 

As the regions aren’t technically considered cities, there isn’t much in the way of statistics for industry and economies.

 

However, we can identify some major landmarks important for US businesses: the airport, and the seaport.

 

The Ports

Singapore’s air and seaports are some of the busiest in the world, with the Port of Singapore being the second busiest shipping port in the world.

 

The only thing is, they’re on opposite sides of the island.

 

But, fear not: it’s only a 25-minute drive. The island is so small that access to its entirety is easy, especially due to the country’s transportation record.

 

So, though major city centers are hard to pin down, accessing suppliers through both primary export avenues isn’t as hard as you might think.

 
 

Currency

 

The official currency in Singapore is the Singapore Dollar (SGD). One SGD is valued around 0.74 US dollars (USD). The most common rate of exchange is SGD-MYR, or Malaysian ringgit.

 

USD is the second most popular, but US businesses gain from trading in the local currency.

 

A relatively weak SGD makes paying suppliers in Singapore cheaper for US businesses. By taking advantage of the exchange rate, businesses save money. Though 25 cents might not sound like much, it can mean big savings on wholesale and more expensive supply.

 

A relatively weak SGD makes paying suppliers in Singapore cheaper for US businesses. By taking advantage of the exchange rate, businesses save money

 

The Singapore dollar is also pretty flexible in the region. With SGD, businesses can buy goods in Brunei without exchanging currencies. This promotes monetary cooperation between the two, and allows international businesses to work in multiple regional markets without extra exchange fees.

 
 

Language

 

Singapore has four (yes, four) official languages.

 

They are Tamil, Malay, Mandarin, and English. The first three are related to the three major ethnic groups in the country: Indians, Malay (consisting of people from Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei), and Chinese. English has been adopted for administrative and business purposes.

 

English is the official language of business in Singapore. This will definitely ease your negotiations. But, like in any country, be sure that your supplier is comfortable conversing in your language before you force them to. Offering to bring a translator is a kind gesture, and shows your interest in clarity and avoiding misunderstandings.

 

Because it’s an official language, road signs and other essentials are printed in English as well as the other three. No need for Google Translate here, unless you’re planning to go rural.

 
 

Holidays and Traditions

 

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (yes, they have a Ministry of Manpower) recognizes ten national public holidays per year. The holidays represent the major religious denominations: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.

 

Singapore also celebrates a few festivals per year that aren’t recognized as public holidays. One of the most interesting is the Ghost Festival, where spirits of deceased ancestors and other specters are said to come down to the lower realm. It’s basically Buddhist Halloween, with less candy.

 

HolidayDateObservance
New Year's Day January 1stNationwide
Chinese New YearVariesNationwide
Good FridayFriday before Easter SundayNationwide
Labor DayMay 1stNationwide
Vesak DayMay 29thNationwide
Hari Raya PuasaJune 15thNationwide
National DayAugust 9thNationwide
Hari Raya HajiAugust 22ndNationwide
DeepavaliNovember 6thNationwide
Christmas DayDecember 25thNationwide

 

Communication from the US

 

To call suppliers in Singapore, you must first add +65 to the beginning of the area code. After using the 011 exit code for the US and adding this number, you need only dial the phone number.

 

Email etiquette is very important to suppliers in Singapore. They’re a tech-savvy people, topping the list of the world’s most tech-ready nations. Setting up meetings over the phone or email is perfectly acceptable, but be sure you’re on your best behavior. Keep it formal, respectful, and short.

 

Feel free to speak or write in English, but be sure to ask if your supplier is comfortable with that.

 
 

Finding a Supplier

 

Singapore’s economy already makes it a focal point for international businesses, but the government wants more incentives. The government has set up GeBIZ, a website dedicated entirely to finding suppliers for domestic and international businesses to use.

 

GeBIZ is the one stop shop for supplier directories, and even features a search bar or general directory depending on how specific you are. Whether you’re looking for someone in particular or just want to browse, the intuitive website gives businesses everything they need.

 

On top of that, GeBIZ also provides an “opportunities” section that gives users a list of public sector opportunities and investments in Singapore. The section lists the opportunity, the agency who posted it, and the procurement category.

 

This supplier directory is a great way to get your business off and running in Singapore.

 
 

Traveling to Singapore

 

There aren’t any special requirements for US citizens traveling to Singapore. All you need is an official passport that is valid 6 months after your stay, with at least two blank pages in it.

 

A visa is only required if your stay exceeds 90 days, in which case you can contact the US Embassy at 27 Napier Road in Singapore. Or, if you know your stay will exceed the limit, be sure to apply for your visa beforehand. The form is available free of charge, and can be found here.

 

Using a Cell Phone

When you arrive in Singapore, you’ll need a working cell phone and you’ll probably find that yours no longer does. AT&T is the only US provider that works in the area, and even at that roaming fees are ridiculously high.

 

You’re better off buying a SIM from the airport when you land. All you need is your passport for identity verification. 7-11s and other convenience stores also sell them, with prices varying depending on plan and amount of data.

 

SingTel is one of the three major providers in Singapore, and the country’s most popular. For as low as $15SGD ($11.15USD), you can get a tourist SIM. Check it out here.

 

Wifi

As one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, and cities, Singapore’s wifi is out of this world. It boasts some of the fastest internet speeds on the planet. Even airport wifi is faster than many US home plans. And we think we’re technologically advanced.

 

Your hotel will more than likely have a great internet connection, and the Changi airport has free wifi in the transit areas. Other than that, many shopping malls, tourist sites, and coffee shops offer the service as well. So, you shouldn’t be without a signal.

 

Your hotel will more than likely have a great internet connection, and the Changi airport has free wifi in the transit areas

 

But, you can also choose to rent a pocket wifi device from the airport. It acts as a mobile hotspot that provides data access from your cell phone network. They are available for rental at the Changi airport, and need to be returned before your return flight.

 

There are a ton of options, and each one provides you with a stellar internet connection.

 
 

Trade Shows

 

Singapore is known as an internationally popular trade show environment. As it’s one of the most sought-after destinations for Asia-Pacific business, companies are itching to get into this bustling scene. The popularity means a lot of visitors, and even more competition. To make your mark, check out these few tips.

 

  1. Be Business Card Ready: Business card etiquette is important in the Asia-Pacific region, and Singapore is no different. Be sure to bring plenty, and hand them out properly. Use both hands, to give and receive them, and be sure to look it over before putting it away.
  2. Name Names: Depending on the culture, Singapore business people are referred to by different names. Some prefer last, second last, or first, depending on the situation. It’s best to ask what your potential supplier would like to be called to avoid confusing or offending them.
  3. Keep it Down: Public displays of emotion or affection are generally frowned upon in Singapore culture. “Face” is a common cultural trait associated with shame, and keeping your feelings to yourself is part of that.

 

WhatWhere
WhenWhat about
Greenurban Escape SingaporeSingapore ExpoFall Every Two YearsLandscape, Design, Construction
BeautyAsia – SingaporeSuntec SingaporeWinterHealth and Fitness, Cosmetics
ITB AsiaMariana Bay SandsFallMICE, Leisure, Corporate Travel
The PC ShowMariana Bay SandsOnce YearlyComputer & Gadgets
Singapore International AirshowChangi Expo CenterEvery Two YearsAerospace, Travel
Asia Pacifiic MaritimeMariana Bay SandsWinterShipping, Marine and Offshore Technology

 

Business Culture

 

Singaporean business, while similar to other Asia-Pacific cultures, has its own specifics. Its unique blend of cultures can make it difficult for international businesses to tie down exactly what to do and when to do it.

 

But, because of Singapore’s international, cosmopolitan outlook, foreign business people generally have nothing to fear. Singapore is still ranked as “the best place to do business” for a reason, and is consistently lauded for its accommodating, welcoming, and open professional culture.

 

If nothing else, be polite. Don’t do anything in Singapore you wouldn’t do at home, and you’ll probably be forgiven for any social slip-ups. Your potential suppliers know that you’re a foreigner, and will cut you some slack.

 

Respect the Ladder

True of many Asian cultures , understanding hierarchy is essential to succeeding in business. The eldest and highest-ranking attendees are introduced first, make the decisions, and may even be the only one’s speaking during a meeting.

 

To ease the transition from western business styles and to show respect for your supplier, reflect this structure. Appoint a leader of the meeting, whether or not it’s you, and follow suit.

 

As time goes on, business relationships can become friendly. First names may be used, jokes might be tossed around, and a relaxed atmosphere will eventually take over. Don’t get too comfortable. Keep it as formal as possible without being awkward, and use full or last names until invited to use first.

 

“Face” It

Also highly important is the concept of “face.” From keeping it, to losing it, getting it, and everything in between, face may be the most important part of Singaporean business.

 

Face is related to shame and embarrassment. It’s usually connected to expressing emotions too openly. The concept is also related to reputation and credibility. By revealing your inner feelings, or displaying them overtly in public, Singaporeans believe that you “lose face.”

 

Face is related to shame and embarrassment. It’s usually connected to expressing emotions too openly. The concept is also related to reputation and credibility. By revealing your inner feelings, or displaying them overtly in public, Singaporeans believe that you 'lose face.'

 

By keeping emotions calm and your feelings on a deal or idea to yourself, you maintain face. To be safe, do the same. This results in an indirect, nonverbal communication style. Check out the “Business Communication” section of this guide for more info.

 

Kiasu

Now, this complicates things a bit. While “face” promotes a reserved, non confrontational business style, kiasu throws a wrench at it.

 

Kiasu is derived from Mandarin and is used within all official languages in Singapore. It translates to a “fear of losing,” or fear of failure. The term generally refers to Singaporeans’ strong work ethic, and healthy competitiveness. However, like many traits, it can be negative.

 

Kiasu is derived from Mandarin and is used within all official languages in Singapore. It translates to a “fear of losing,” or fear of failure. The term generally refers to Singaporeans’ strong work ethic, and healthy competitiveness. However, like many traits, it can be negative.

 

Some Singaporeans see this trait as a bit over the top. A few journalists and Singaporean academics have noted the potential for kiasu to hinder entrepreneurial and business innovation, as people would rather retain the status quo than fail.

 

You’ll probably encounter the positive side of kiasu. But, to avoid any issues, be open to suggestions in meetings and, if you can, let your suppliers take the lead. Negotiations can iron out the kinks, and establishing a rapport early on will ease this process later.

 
 

Business Communication

 

As English is the “language of business and administration” in Singapore, you might assume that your supplier will communicate the same way you do. Don’t let that fool you. Style has nothing to do with language. Singaporean culture has more effect on conversational style than you’d think.

 
singapore-business comm
 

“Face” may still be the most important thing to consider when communicating with Singaporean suppliers. Singaporeans prefer the indirect styles of communication that maintain face. If they never say “no,” they maintain reputation. So, instead, Singaporean suppliers will often say “yes” when they mean “no,” and expect their business partners to know the difference.

 

What results from this is a focus on non-verbal, gestural communication. Singaporean suppliers will look to your posture, take hints from your tone of voice, and even the amount of eye contact to determine your true feelings about a business deal. Keep your voice down, back straight, and don’t make direct eye contact. This is often taken as aggression.

 

Silence can be louder than words in Singapore. Taking a moment of silence before responding to questions or countering an offer is a sign of respect and thoughtfulness. Quick responses may be taken as brashness and insensitivity to a deal or issue.

 

But, don’t be too worried. Singapore suppliers know that you’re new to this, and will probably let you off easy. Probably.

 
 

Business Etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts

 

There’s a lot of ground to cover in Singapore’s business environment. So, as a quick how-to, here are a few do’s and don’ts that should get you by on the business etiquette front.

 

  • Make Friends: Business in Singapore relies on a group mentality. Relationships develop through past ones, making networking crucial to finding a supplier. If you can find a local connection, you’re sure to win over your potential partners.
  • Be Punctual: Singapore’s view of time is less flexible than in other Asian countries, and punctuality is highly valued. Be sure to schedule meetings at least two weeks in advance when possible, and show up a little early if you can.
  • Don’t Question It: Hierarchy and authority are important to Singaporean business structure. When an authority figure or senior member of a business says something, don’t question it or disagree outright. Play along, and maybe nod towards disagreement.
  • Small Talk: Part of making relationships is small talk. Singapore business people want to get to know you as a person, as it helps them determine whether or not your business partnership will be long lasting and fruitful. Talk a bit before and after a meeting to do so.
  • Dress Up: Though this seems fairly obvious, it can be hard to decide what to wear to a meeting. Especially because of how hot it can get in Singapore, business people are tempted to dress down for comfort. Keep it formal. Suit and tie, sweat and all.

 

 

Business Negotiations

 

The negotiating table is an entirely different environment. Though many customs can be seen when making deals, they can take an entirely new spin. To help you along, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

 

Take it Easy

All roads lead to “face.” Confrontational tactics, like low-balling, work well in US business. But, this isn’t the case in Singapore. Many US tactics rely on refusal, saying no, and haggling afterward. This doesn’t go over well with Singaporeans, as we’ve established, saying “no” outright causes them to lose face, or feel shameful. Don’t put your potential supplier in a position that forces them to do so. You could destroy your business relationship by trying to build it.

 

Stick to the Point

After some small talk, business negotiations get down to the nitty gritty. Though relationships can take you a long way in negotiations, don’t use them as leverage. Flattery isn’t good either, as it can come off as disrespectful. Your best bet is to bring visual aids, or anything that will keep your presentation focused on factual, tangible information. If you can prove the effectiveness of your deal, it’ll take you further than any relationship or kind word.

 

But, Bargain

 

Bargaining on price, deadlines, and other issues is common in Singapore. Play along, and don’t be shy. But, don’t get too crazy with it. If your offer is disrespectfully low, or could cause conflict, don’t give it

 

This might sound odd considering the first point, but Singaporean suppliers love to haggle. Bargaining on price, deadlines, and other issues is common in Singapore. Play along, and don’t be shy. But, don’t get too crazy with it. If your offer is disrespectfully low, or could cause conflict, don’t give it. You’ll force your potential supplier to say no, and we know what that means.

 
 

Find Decision Makers

 

Singaporean business’ focus on hierarchy can really slow down business. Everything is noted and approved by higher ups, and it’ll take longer depending on who you’re negotiating with. The closer the person is to the company head, the less time decisions take to make. Without asking outright, try to determine who makes the decisions at a negotiation. It shouldn’t be too difficult, as the most senior person will generally be the one talking the most.

 
 

Regulations and Permits

 

Singapore boasts some of the most liberal trade regulations in the world. Due to their over decade-long free trade agreement, US businesses and Singapore suppliers face little to no trade barriers. In fact, US businesses need only comply with standard customs protocol.

 

Tariffs and duties are largely slashed, and the only restrictions facing US businesses are on hazardous materials. To take advantage of the FTA’s preferential tax treatment, US businesses will need to complete and submit a Certificate of Origin to prove the goods are legitimately Singaporean.

 

But, Singaporean suppliers must comply with their own customs regulations, and submit specific permits depending on the goods being exported. Though US businesses don’t really have to worry about that, it’s good to know so you can be sure that your supplier is legit. For more info on that, check out Singapore’s government website on these protocols.

 

US Customs also provides a “What’s my Tariff” tool to help businesses navigate the Singapore FTA. It’s a great way to ensure that you aren’t missing anything, even if you’re a seasoned trader.

 
 

Beware

 

There aren’t many major challenges to doing business in Singapore. Again, it’s consistently ranked as the best place in the world to do business, and it’s cosmopolitan and globalizing outlook make it easy for international businesses to establish a presence there. Even finding a supplier is a breeze. So, what’s not to like?

 

Well, the main issues with doing business in Singapore are long term and loom largely. There aren’t many specific challenges facing US businesses, but the trajectory of the Singaporean economy is cause for concern.

 
 

Competition

 

As arguably the world’s strongest economic power, the US doesn’t usually have much to worry about in terms of competition.

 

But, Singapore’s quickening development and global presence is causing some anxiety for US businesses. A rich economy means increased operating and labor costs, making formerly competitive Singaporean prices higher and higher. This is a good thing for Singapore’s economy, but the US’ ability to keep up may be in jeopardy.

 

Singapore’s growth also attracts global and regional competitors. Countries with geographical advantages, meaning they’re closer and it’s therefore cheaper to ship to Singapore. The US may eventually find it near impossible to compete with cheaper shipping prices elsewhere.

 

As ASEAN affiliated nations find niches in its economy, the US may gradually become less necessary to Singapore’s development.

 
 

Payments

 

US businesses take advantage of a favorable exchange rate between SGD and USD, making supplier goods cheaper.

 

While cash payments may dominate this supplier and vendor space, ecommerce is building a reputation in Singapore. The high labor and rental costs associated with its booming economy have negatively affected brick and mortar businesses.

 

Domestic and international consumers are looking to the online scene for their goods as a result. The market is currently small, but Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign affairs projects major growth in the industry.

 

But, for those businesses that rely on wire transfers, payments are almost always a hassle.

 

With Veem, your international business to business payments are taken care of. Veem is a global payments solution that takes the stress out of international payments by removing hidden fees, tracking payments, and preventing fraud.

 

With a dashboard tracking system, you always know where your payment is, where it’s going, and when it will get there. No more guesswork. Veem takes care of your money. What’s not to love?

 

Don’t let your bank take advantage of you. Go Veem.

 
 

Resources

 

GeBiz

Supplier Directories

GeBIZ Business Opportunities

SingTel Tourist SIM

Certificate of Origin

Singapore Customs Website

What’s My Tariff Tool

Tourist Visa Form

 

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