Planning a trip to Singapore isn’t as simple as booking a quick flight and hotel. Visitors to Singapore should also be aware of some things they should avoid doing.
Despite being economically developed and inheriting many British laws, Singapore typically rejects Western values and local custom is to be tightly followed. Understanding what you should avoid can prevent potentially embarrassing, overly costly, or risky situations while in a foreign country.
From cultural faux pas to avoidable costs, our guide lists everything to be wary of in Singapore, and everything to downright avoid.
Avoid Tipping Waiting Staff
Unlike many Western nations, Singapore doesn’t have a tipping culture and following the footsteps of Singaporeans on this one can help you keep costs down. In some Asian cultures, tipping can actually be perceived as offensive, like in Japan. While it isn’t rude to leave a gratuity for your waiting staff in Singapore, it’s not necessary.
You’ll also find that a ten percent service charge and a seven percent Goods and Services Tax are already applied to most bills. This, on top of the exorbitant restaurant prices in the center of town, is enough to put you off tipping staff who don’t expect it.
Do Not Discuss Politics and Religion
Politics and religion in Singapore, like in a whole host of eastern nations, are not considered appropriate dinner table conversation and are potentially contentious if delved into in public. Not only this but “free speech” as we understand it in the Western world, is suppressed by the government through controlled media, and literary and political activism in Singapore.
Demonstrations are strictly policed, and even discussing race and conflicting religious beliefs could result in criminal charges, especially if done in public. While it’s unlikely that sharing your political standpoint with a Singaporean in a private setting will result in legal punishment, the suggestion of such a conversation is likely to cause offense. Keep discussions to areas of mutual reward.
Littering is Prohibited
Singapore has a solid reputation to uphold as one of the cleanest and most attractive cities and countries in the world. Streets and pavements are virtually litter-free, but that isn’t without a lot of public education and enforcement.
The government is heavily vested in keeping Singapore clean, and there aren’t just plenty of mechanical sweepers, cleaning vehicles, and litter-picking volunteers, but littering is actually strictly prohibited. The active campaign against polluting the streets could see pedestrians fined $750 for dropping as much as a cigarette butt or candy wrapper, and that’s if you’re a first-time offender.
In fact, Singapore is dubbed “The Fine City” as you can get financially penalized for a number of small offenses that most countries would leave unenforced. This is where tourists can easily slip up because something as small as stubbing a cigarette out where you’re not meant to could put you hundreds of dollars out of pocket.
Littering fines can reach up to $10,000 and even come with community service sentences. When they say not to litter, Singapore means it, so keep an eye out for rubbish bins and dispose of wrappers as soon as you can – even dropping the smallest bit of rubbish from your pocket without noticing is a finable offense.
Chewing Gum May Result in a Penalty
This one might sound very odd, but now that you’re familiar with Singapore’s non-lenient attitude to littering, it makes a bit more sense. The selling and importing of chewing gum in Singapore is completely prohibited and you can’t even bring gum with you into the country. While you’re unlikely to get in trouble at customs as long as you declare your chewing gum before trying to enter the country, you could be penalized if you’re found with it after being warned.
Chewing gum might not seem such a huge threat to public safety in western countries, where it decorates the pavements of every cosmopolitan city. But Singapore holds its hygiene standards extremely high and chewing gum on the pavements is seen as dirty. Pedestrians can also step on chewing gum and be tasked with the unpleasant job of scraping someone else’s gum off their shoe.
Penalties are subject to offense, but selling gum, even as a first-offender, could see you receive a prison sentence of two years and a fine of $100,000. If you’re a gum chewer, consider switching to mints when visiting Singapore.
Avoid Eating and Drinking on Public Transport
In line with Singapore’s extensive rules on public sanitation, eating or drinking on public transport is prohibited and food and drink are not allowed aboard trains, busses, and even taxis. This helps to keep everything cleaner and prevent infestations of rodents.
Eating and drinking on transport can incur fines of $500, even if it’s something as small as a cereal bar or can of soda. The consumption of food and drink is also discouraged on the street and street food as you’ll find in cities like Bangkok and Hanoi is now banned in Singapore, replaced instead by traditional Hawker Centers.
You can eat food and drinks in places like parks, but this is only deemed socially acceptable if you’re unable to return home or to the workplace to eat, and most Singaporeans won’t consume anything in public.
Jaywalking is Illegal
You might regard this as a harmless activity that puts only yourself at risk, but jaywalking endangers the lives of motorists and other pedestrians and is a punishable offense in Singapore. Jaywalkers can be fined $20-50 on the spot for their first offense, while repeat offenders can be fined up to $2,000 or receive a jail sentence of three to six months for crossing the road outside of marked areas.
Singapore is heavily patrolled by a highly-trained and professional police force, and even if there are no officers in sight, there is a high chance you’re being watched on CCTV which is prevalent throughout the city. Don’t take the risk and stick to lawful crossing when traffic lights so permit it.
Do Not Smoke in Public
Unsurprisingly, like eating and drinking, there are a number of public spaces where smoking is strictly prohibited and punishable by fines of up to $1,000, even for first-time offenses.
These areas included buildings, food retail establishments, public transport, service vehicles, sports facilities, shopping areas, stairwells and corridors (even in private housing), car parks, and more.
It’s best to avoid smoking in public at all unless you’re in a clearly marked designated smoking area, just to be on the safe side. Even holding a lighted cigarette as you move between spaces can incur the same penalties so always be aware of your surroundings and make sure cigarettes are stubbed out and disposed of in the special receptacles available before heading out to the street.
Do Not Bring Cigarettes into the Country
Although cigarettes are not banned in Singapore, unlike chewing gum, the importation of cigarettes is strictly regulated. Both citizens and tourists are not allowed to bring any tobacco products into or out of Singapore.
Tobacco products sold in Singapore are subject to exorbitant taxes and fees to deter residents from purchasing them. This means visitors have to face the same charges if they want to smoke in the city. It might seem a lot to spend close to $15 on a packet of cigarettes, but the fines for trying to bring them illegally across the border can be one hundred times higher. Keep in mind, that this also applies to e-cigarettes.
Comply with the Alcohol Laws
Alcohol is not outlawed in Singapore like drugs, but there are strict regulations around its consumption that visitors have to adhere to. For example, alcohol cannot be consumed by or sold to anybody under 18 years of age and it cannot be sold or drunk in public places between 10.30 pm and 7 am. Drinking outside of this time frame in certain areas is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
There is a party culture in Singapore but only licensed establishments can distribute alcohol past 10.30 pm and will set their own rules regarding the minimum age of entry, beyond 18. This means you must be 23 to enter and drink alcohol in various venues across the city, in order to control the consumption and the behavior of guests.
All alcohol sale and consumption is also indoors after the designated time frame meaning smoking areas and gardens are usually closed by 10.30 pm.
Avoid Skipping Queues
Orderly queues where everyone waits their turn are highly valued by Singaporeans. Skipping the line or failing to wait in an orderly fashion for food or even to board a train is seen as offensive to many locals. Skipping queues is not illegal, but it won’t be received well, and trying to behave as the locals do will get you far in this country.
Using the Wrong Sides
When using a staircase, an escalator, or simply walking down the street, it’s important to know where you’re allowed to go. The right code of conduct is to keep to the left if you’re standing still and walking on the right if you’re going up or downstairs and escalators, to allow for other passengers to get past if they need to.
Failing to do this is not illegal, but surprisingly rude. Likewise, not sticking to the distinct cycle paths and pedestrian walkways on the sidewalk is also dangerous and can cause congestion.
Always be aware of your surroundings and make sure you observe what others are doing in Singapore. Look around for directions if you’re navigating shopping malls and markets as they will likely have arrows or signs directing you on where to stand and which direction to move. Not doing so will make you stand out and be perceived as obnoxious.
Elders are held in the highest regard throughout Asian culture and the oldest person in any circle is always presented and greeted first in Singapore. Be sure to follow this when interacting with any Singaporean and respect elders like family.
Greetings come in many forms in Singapore and a simple handshake is widely accepted when meeting someone of any age, especially in business. Still, a slight bow can show heightened respect for an elder, and referring to anyone older than you as ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ is generally expected as a way of showing courtesy.
Never signal or point at a person with a forefinger, especially not an elder, and be careful to avoid jerky or impassioned arm movements of any kind as these can be perceived as obscene.
Relying on Card Payments
Singapore is a developed country in many respects, and one of these is the advanced technology that the nation has adopted into all manner of daily life. However, many areas, especially outside the modern center, still value cash and prefer customers to pay with it. Therefore, having some local currency could be a real help especially if something were to go awry or if your cards were to stop working.
Older local places and Hawker Centers are among the establishments that sometimes only take cash, or have card payment minimums. Be sure to order some Singapore Dollars before embarking on your vacation as airports tend to charge high premiums for last-minute money exchange.