Taboo: 14 Things Not to Do in Singapore

Just thought I’d share a list of cultural norms that I am used to since I have been corrected as I was growing up. I thought visitors here might find the list useful. I would love to hear about the cultural norms in your country that I am probably not aware of.

1. Wearing black to a wedding. (it’s considered bad luck and for Indian weddings no white saris for women either as that’s for widows – thanks for reminding me thinkpink)
2. Pointing at someone with your finger.
3. Touching an adult on the head.
4. Kicking or touching a book with your foot (in Indian Culture)
5. Visiting someone without bringing a gift (in Indian Culture)
6. Dogs as pets although cats are ok, which is why you will see a no dog sign at most Indian Muslim prata shops (in Muslim culture)
7. Presenting someone with a bouquet of Frangipani. My French cousin’s favourite flower is the frangipani, but as a child growing up we were often told that if we got a whiff of the scent of this flower it meant a ghost or spirit was lurking and it scared the heck out of us. The white of the frangipani is associated with funerals in Asian culture.
8. Calling an older person by their name instead of addressing them as uncle or aunty is considered very rude
9. Visiting your friend’s house and not saying “hello aunty” or “hello uncle” when you see their parents is a sign of bad manners.
10. Being too abrupt or direct at work (or even at home) may get you in trouble with the boss or client (it’s the opposite of American culture, where directness and speaking your mind is valued and expected). You should pay attention to subtle hints, facial expressions and non verbal queues like significant silence. It comes naturally to locals, but might be a frustrating uphill battle if you’re not used to all these cues.
11. Speaking too loudly in public. You will notice that Asian usually whisper and hardly say a word when in a lift.
12. Public Displays of Affection or what is known as PDA in Singapore is frowned upon. Basically kissing and beyond. But we’re getting more used to this as the country becomes more cosmopolitan. Don’t try this in Malaysia though. It’s considered illegal for locals to kiss, hold hands or hug in public, in East Malaysia.
13. Don’t give watches or clocks as a gift as it’s considered ill will in Chinese culture (thanks Kirsten!)
14. When you give an ang pow during Chinese New Year always give even numbers, odd numbers denote lonliness.

About bookjunkie

Blogging about life in Singapore & recently cancer too.
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28 Responses to Taboo: 14 Things Not to Do in Singapore

  1. kirsten says:

    #11 definitely is changing… there are so many people who talk loudly on mobiles these days!

  2. harlsmits says:

    I am white, but my husband is Taiwanese. When we got married, I wanted my bridesmaids to wear black dresses so that they would be able to wear the dresses again in the future. (Most bridesmaid dresses are so tacky they can never be worn again.) The only thing my future mother-in-law insisted on at the wedding was no black dresses. So they wore a dark silver instead. It’s okay though for men to wear black tuxedoes.

    • bookjunkie says:

      That is so interesting! I am so happy that you shared that intimate story. Kaho, (in the comments thread) who is Japanese just informed me that white would be taboo in Japan – I had no idea, but I am glad I know now. Feels like I am getting an education myself which just reaffirms why I love blogging.

  3. kierstens says:

    no. 10: it’s so true, and especially here in Singapore where so many workplace settings have employees from every different continent and where everyone is trying to adjust to management styles from countries all over the East and West!

  4. Kaho says:

    So interesting! Even though I lived in Singapore for 3 years, I didn’t know some of them. Some of them are similar to the the customs in Japan like no pointing someone with a finger and visiting someone without a gift. It’s not bad to visit someone without a gift, but because everyone does it, it feels proper to do so. In Japan, wearing white to a wedding is taboo and a lot of people wear black kimono for a wedding. In Japan, chrysanthemum is for funeral, so we don’t give a bouquet of chrysanthemum other than funeral in Japan. I never imagined Frangipani being something for funeral. 11 is so different from Vietnam, isn’t it? I felt like I could hear everyone’s conversation in Saigon except I didn’t understand the Vietnamese, so I had no idea what they were talking about. Hopefully not about me.

    • bookjunkie says:

      I had no idea about that wearing white to a wedding in Japan was taboo or that chrysanthemums were taboo too (saw loads in Vietnam for Tet). This is such a wonderful eye opener. I love learning new things about culture, especially when it’s from the source. Some customs are the norm all over Asia like the pointing figure thing – I am also inclined to feel it’s rude, because since I was a toddler I have been scolded for doing it. Now I just can’t change my mindset to think otherwise. Human culture and ethnicity is just so fascinating to me which is why I loved studying anthropology.

  5. jazziefizzle says:

    So interesting to hear about your culture! I would probably get into a lot of trouble there for speaking loudly, pointing at people and kissing my boyfriend! haha. Nice to know these things before you go somewhere!

    In Australia we don’t have many ‘taboo’ things, though one that comes to mind is that you NEVER wear white to a wedding, as that can be seen as taking attention away from the bride. Black is perfectly fine.

    There are no real issues about touching people in particular, but more just the concept of personal space. You would never stand too close to someone on public transport etc (unless it was completely packed and you had no choice – very uncomfortable situation).

    One thing I did notice that was different to many European countries we went to was that people are very polite about waiting their turn in line, very few people will push in front of each other, most will just line up straight without being told to do so.

    Mostly though, Aussies are pretty easy going (though of course there are many people from different places that all have their own beliefs).

    Thanks so much for sharing!!

    • bookjunkie says:

      hahah that was funny! sweet thing like you….don’t think you’d get into too much trouble.

      oh yes…the no white at weddings I probably recall from some movies I’ve seen but didn’t come to the forefront till you just mentioned it.

      love your sharing too…thank you!!

  6. Crystal says:

    I also struggled to think of “taboo” things in the US, so my list is more things that are culturally appropriate/inappropriate

    1-As in Australia, it’s seen as tacky to wear white to a wedding, as white is reserved as the “bride’s color”

    2-It’s considered rude if you don’t make eye contact with a person when they speak to you. Ironically, when we scold our children, one of the first things we Americans usually say is “Look at me,” expecting them to make eye contact while being scolded so that we can see that they’re taking the scolding seriously and understand what they did that was wrong.

    3-We’re big on shaking hands. A weak or limp handshake is a big no-no as is a crushing one. You want a firm, confident handshake. Hugs/kisses are reserved for friends/family.

    4-We tend to be big on the notion of “personal space.” It’s considered rude to stand too closely to someone as you speak to them.

    5-People aren’t very touchy. Here, people freely touch, kiss, and pick up my child. In the US, they’d be too scared that I would accuse them of bad intentions.

    6-We’re pretty informal. I call most adults by their first name. Ironically, with Elanor, I have always been a fan of having her use honorifics (auntie, uncle, Mr, or Ms/Mrs first name) as a sign of respect. I don’t think I became so informal until high school.

    • bookjunkie says:

      for Asians….we are the opposite on eye contact. Wow that’s interesting.

      I had no idea that Americans were not big on touching. Asian people, myself included get excited especially over pan asian kids as we find them extra cute (you will see that most models in Asia tend to be pan Asian). I tend to be quite touchy feely and I noticed my French cousin is not. Although she does the side to side air kiss thing but has now kinda dropped it in favour of our hugs…I think she kinda just gave up being outnumbered and all….poor thing.

  7. thinkpinktoo says:

    Just a quick pack on the cheek to say hello.

    • bookjunkie says:

      I think it’s mostly in our family that we kiss and hug a lot. I recall not liking it as a little kid. I especially had to wipe my cheeks after wet kisses. We were kinda forced to go around and get kissed.

  8. kirsten says:

    Oh, oh, and you can’t give clocks/watches to people as gifts! It’s considered an ill-wish…

  9. Crystal says:

    @Thinkpinktoo–I’m American, not French. 🙂 And I’m from the the Northeast of the US, where we have a reputation of being somewhat reserved.

  10. asiabound says:

    i heard it was illegal to spit in singapore, are there things that are really really bad that u dont want to do?

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