Square mile for square mile, Singapore is the most important wholly independent jurisdiction in Asia. (Hong Kong would quibble, but its association with China renders spurious comparisons with true nation-states.)
Singapore owes its origins to its incomparable strategic position along the Singapore Strait, the choke point of the larger Straits of Malacca region. It’s one of the world’s great shipping ports, host or witness to a significant fraction of total global shipping volumes; only Shanghai sees more container traffic.
Shipping is just one facet of the story of Singapore’s economic miracle, of course. The nation-state is a renowned center for global finance, as well as the home office domicile for a disproportionate number of Asia’s largest businesses (not to mention global conglomerates’ Asian subsidiaries). Amid the growing uncertainty of a multipolar world, Singapore remains a rock: politically stable, economically vital, culturally polyglot (and peaceably so).
It’s no wonder so many growing global businesses seek to establish footholds in Singapore. If you aim to make inroads of your own, you’ll want to keep these 11 things in mind.
- Local Business Etiquette Is More or Less Western
Singapore is a remarkably diverse country. For international visitors, though, business etiquette is recognizably Western.
For starters, business is usually conducted in English rather than the local dialect or other Asian languages, such as Mandarin. A few vernacular words of greeting may endear you to your non-Western contacts, but you needn’t be fluent.
When greeting your contacts, handshakes and smiles are sufficient. Ethnic Malay interlocutors may add a customary palm-to-chest touch
at the finish, but this isn’t expected of non-locals. No bowing is required.
When meeting contacts for the first time, present and receive business cards with two hands. Take a moment to read each card you receive before placing it in a pocket or case. Greeting order generally follows seniority, with the most senior member of your contact delegation addressed first.
- You’ll Almost Certainly Have Competitors on the Ground Here
Singapore’s business landscape is fairly crowded. Unless you operate in a truly cozy niche, you’re almost certain to have direct competitors on the ground in Singapore — or, at least, competitors with a foothold in the Singaporean market. As we’ll see, this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker; the broader regional market can accommodate rivals.
- Singapore Has Plenty of High-Touch Financial Services Providers
If you plan to establish a long-term foothold in Singapore, you’ll need a local financial expert to manage your financial and logistical affairs. Fortunately, high-touch financial services providers are abound here, including independent trust and corporate services firms like Singapore-based Asiaciti Trust. You’ll receive excellent service in depth knowledge by providers with established experience in the local business community
- Local Expertise Matters
Hiring Singaporean talent at your local office endears you to local clients and partners. Additionally, failure to do so may leave you out of compliance with Singapore’s hiring requirements.
- Audit Requirements
In Singapore, firms are exempt from audit requirements when they can demonstrate that they meet any two of the following three criteria: annual revenues less than or equal to SGD$10 million, total assets less than or equal to SGD$10 million, employee count less than or equal to 50. Unless you encounter growth opportunities you simply can’t pass up, it may be in your best interest to remain small and lean.
6 The Dress Code Is Surprisingly Informal
Singapore is squarely in the tropics, barely one degree north of the equator. The climate here is hot, humid, and remarkably consistent, save for a brief rainy season from November through January. The sun rises and sets at pretty much the same time. For mid-latitude expats, the first year in Singapore can be quite jarring.
The upshot of Singapore’s climatic consistency is a fairly informal business dress code. You’ll want to follow your local contacts’ lead, but it’s not at all uncommon to do business in shirtsleeves and light dresses. Fortunately for those relegated to more formal circumstances, air condition is ubiquitous in the city-state’s business districts.
- You’ll Need at Least One Local Director
Regardless of the size of the Singaporean entity, you’ll need at least one local director on its board. This isn’t as daunting a matter as it might sound; many of the aforementioned financial services companies specialize in services of this nature.
- You’ll Need a Local Secretary Too
Don’t neglect Singapore’s corporate secretarial requirements, either. Again, you’ll find a capable pool of corporate services providers ready and willing to handle this piece of your corporate puzzle.
- Annual General Meetings Are Required
Even if your corporate center of gravity is far from the Straits of Malacca, you’ll need to hold regular annual general meetings (AGMs) to remain compliant with Singapore’s corporate codes. When in doubt, check with your corporate services provider or the Singapore Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.
- Singapore Is Best Viewed As a Gateway to the ASEAN Market
Singapore’s population numbers just north of 5 million,and is the most developed member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional economic alliance home to more than 600 million and about a dozen rapidly developing nations. For many international firms, Singapore is a gateway to the ASEAN market — and a foothold on the world’s fastest-developing continent.
- Gifts Are Appreciated
A small gift at an initial meeting will be much appreciated; teas, chocolate, or even a modest non-consumable souvenir from your home country will be received gratefully. Even a modest gift shows that you’re serious about establishing a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. Note that on particular holidays in Singapore, such as Chinese New Year, it is customary to send local treats or specialty gift hampers to celebrate the occasion.
Ready to Break Into the Singaporean Market?
Doing business in Singapore could be a rewarding move. If you’re committed to expanding your international footprint and open to a accommodating a new business vernacular into your corporate culture, you may want to consider Asia’s richest city-state.
If you’ve carefully evaluated the pros and cons of entering the Singaporean market and have concluded that doing so is in your company’s best interests, you’d do well to incorporate these 11 takeaways into your strategy. Your decision to establish an office in Singapore could well turn out to be a watershed moment for your company — if you’re willing to learn from those who came before.