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Common cultural misconceptions about Singapore

Our breakdown of common cultural misconceptions about Singapore


Tropical, clean and incredibly expensive, most imagine Singapore as either a holiday destination or sterile business hub. An increasingly popular choice for expats, professionals and students alike, Singapore’s non-resident population has increased 170% in the last decade. The nation’s advancing metropolises also boast a unique cosmopolitan lifestyle, with a consistently ranked high quality of life. Let this list of common cultural misconceptions help you discover the truth about Singapore, its culture and ways of life.

‘Nanny State’

Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to chew gum on the street in Singapore. Often imagined as a ‘nanny state’ beneath the authoritarian rule of its government, some Singaporean laws, national attitudes and codes of conduct may colour the country conservative and didactic in the eyes of others. Laws such as a US$ 1,000 fine for spitting in public and another of US$ 150 for forgetting to flush a public toilet do little to dispel this myth (so watch out for these!).

Government campaigns relating to social conduct such as the ‘National Courtesy Campaign’ and the ‘Singapore Kindness Movement’ may seem an initiative to control behaviour, or even modes of thought. These campaigns instead intend to encourage national attitudes of community by openly enforcing national values and celebrating awareness of others.

These laws and social mentalities simply reflect a different national attitude towards governance and social conduct, which, according to the nation’s highly ranked quality of life, is working out just fine for Singaporeans.  Singapore ranked 25th worldwide for quality of life in the 2011 Mercer Quality of Living and Safety survey, making it the highest ranked nation in Asia. Singaporean employment, taxes and poverty rates are also remarkably low.

Public Behaviour

As with most character-based stereotypes, the idea that Singaporeans are arrogant stems from a misunderstanding of politeness markers in their culture. Singaporean culture is comparatively indirect, with displays of affection such as hugging or kissing (even between friends,) in public frowned upon.

Things like forming a queue for the lift or public transport are also not really regarded as important in Singaporean culture. It’s not rude to push past someone to get a spot on the metro: nor is it to hover near your table whilst eating in the hope you’ll finish faster. It’s common knowledge that the nation is densely packed, and so locals don’t feel they need to make the pretence that there will be enough space for everyone. In Singapore, it’s nothing personal: the idea of ‘personal space’ is simply something different.

NOT Boring

This misconception is a partial extension of the idea of Singapore as a highly-regulated ‘nanny state’. Whilst it is true that Singapore is incredibly crowded, its growing international scene and booming economy directly contradicts the idea that the country is boring. As well as playing host to over 7,000 multinational companies and a number of globally regarded universities such as the National University of Singapore, the country boasts the best nightlife in the region. There are no compulsory curfews or closing times for bars, and with a growing number of establishments where one can whet their whistle the only downside is the high price of alcohol.

Singapore’s bustling arts and culture scene also comes as a surprise to most international guests. In 2010, Singaporeans were seen to take part in an average of about 92 arts and culture related activities daily. Increased popularity of schools such as the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts has also bolstered community interest in the arts.

Now that you feel safe chewing gum on the streets of Singapore, why not start browsing courses in Singapore now and discover the country for yourself?

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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.