Culture and Language

About Singapore - Culture & LanguageAbout Singapore - Culture & LanguageAbout Singapore - Culture & Language

This page covers information on culture and language of Singapore. Understanding the culture and heritage of Singapore, the different races and languages like Singlish.

Singapore Culture

Singapore is a cosmopolitan society where people live harmoniously and interaction among different races are commonly seen. The pattern of Singapore stems from the inherent cultural diversity of the island. The immigrants of the past have given the place a mixture of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and European influences, all of which have intermingled.

Behind the facade of a modern city, these ethnic races are still evident. The areas for the different races, which were designated to them by Sir Stamford Raffles, still remain although the bulk of Singaporeans do think of themselves as Singaporeans, regardless of race or culture. Each still bears its own unique character.

The old streets of Chinatown can still be seen; the Muslim characteristics are still conspicuous in Arab Street; and Little India along Serangoon Road still has its distinct ambience. Furthermore, there are marks of the British colonial influence in the Neo-Classical buildings all around the city.

Each racial group has its own distinctive religion and there are colorful festivals of special significance all year round. Although the festivals are special to certain races, it is nonetheless enjoyed by all.

In Singapore, food is also readily and widely available. There are lots of cuisines to offer. We have, Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and Western, Italian, Peranakan, Spanish, French, Thai and even Fusion. It is very common to savour other culture's food and some of the food can be very intriguing. Indian food are relatively spicier, whereas Chinese food is less spicier and the Chinese enjoy seafood. Malay cooking uses coconut milk as their main ingredient, that makes their food very tasty.

You can refer to our Eating in Singapore section for a list of recommended food outlets in Singapore.

Religion in Singapore

Most Singaporeans celebrate the major festivals associated with their respective religions. The variety of religions is a direct reflection of the diversity of races living there. The Chinese are predominantly followers of Buddhism, Taoism, Shenism, Christians, Catholics and some considered as 'free-thinkers' (Those who do not belong to any religion). Malays have the Muslims and Indians are Hindus. There is a sizeable number of Muslims and Sikhs in the Indian population.

Religious tolerance is essential in Singapore. In fact, religions often cross racial boundaries and some even merge in unusual ways in this modern country. Younger Singaporeans tend to combine a little of the mysteries of the older generation with the realistic world that they know of today.

Religion is still an integral part of the cosmopolitan Singapore. Many of its most interesting buildings are religious, be it old temples, modern churches, or exotic mosques. An understanding of these buildings do play a part in contributing to the appreciation of their art.

Chinese Temples

Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and ancestral worship are combined into a versatile mix in Chinese temples.

Followers of the Tao (The Way) adhere to the teachings of the ancient Chinese legend, Lao Tzu. They are concerned with the balance of the Yin and Yang, which are opposite forces of heaven and earth, male and female. Feng Shui, literally translated as wind and water, also originated from Yin and Yang. Ancestral worship is common and the spirits of the dead, like the gods themselves, are appeased with offerings.

Most Buddhists are of the Mahayana school although there are some from the Theravada school. In Singapore, the Buddhist faith is linked with Taoism and the practical doctrine of Confucianism.


The Malays in Singapore are Muslims. A few of the Indians are also Muslims, but even more uncommon are the Chinese Muslims.

Islam has a fundamental influence in the lives of those who follow the Prophet of Allah, Muhammad. The religion involves praying five times a day, eating only "halal" food, fasting during Ramadan, and going to Mecca on the Haj (pilgrimage). Halal food means food that has been specially prepared as according to the religion's dietary requirements.


As the Indian immigrants migrate to Singapore, they brought with them Hinduism. The early temples are still the central points of rituals and festivals, which are held throughout the year.


One will be able to find Christian churches of all denominations in Singapore. They were actually established with the arrival of various missionaries after the coming of Sir Stamford Raffles. Together with Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, Christianity is considered one of the four main religions today. There is quite a large number of Christians on the island.


Minority faiths are not forgotten. There are at least two synagogues for the Jews and Sikhs. The Zoroastrians and Jains are also represented in Singapore.

Language in Singapore

The four official languages of Singapore are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. English is the most common language used and is the language which unites the different ethnic groups. Children are taught in English at school but also learn their mother tongue to make sure they don't lose contact with their traditions.

Expatriates and foreigners may encounter language problems in the beginning of their stay in Singapore as many Singaporeans use Singlish to communicate. Singlish is a mix of English with other languages mixed into the English, sometimes phrases can end with funny terms like 'lah', 'leh', mah'. Chinese commonly use their own dialects to communicate, and sometimes, inter-dialect groups don't understand one another's language, as the language is vastly different. Except for Hokkien and Teochew, which have a closer link. The Malays use the language among their fellow races and the Indians speak Tamil. But whatever the race or religion, the country's community unite as one nation, where most religious or racial gaps are being bridged.

Singapore English has its origins in the schools of colonial Singapore. In the nineteenth century very few children went to school at all, and even fewer were educated in English. The people who spoke English and sent their children to English medium schools were mainly the Europeans, the Eurasians (people of mixed racial ancestry), some of the small minorities, such as the Jews, some of the Indians and Ceylonese, and also a group of Chinese people usually called the Straits Chinese, who had ancestors of long residence in the region, and who spoke a variety of Malay usually called Baba Malay which was influenced by Hokkien Chinese and by Bazaar Malay.

The fact that all these children would have known Malay probably explains why most of the loan words in Singapore Colloquial English are from Malay. The largest group of teachers were Eurasians, and there were also many teachers from Ceylon and India. European teachers were never more than a quarter of the total teaching staff in a school, and they usually taught the senior classes. These Europeans may have been from Britain (which at that time included Ireland) but were also from the USA, Belgium and France. The children in these schools would have been exposed to many varieties of English.

In the first twenty years of the twentieth century, English medium education became popular for all groups. Girls started going to school in larger numbers too. By the 1950s nearly all children went to school, and the majority were educated in English. By the 1980s. all education was in the medium of English (with children learning another language alongside English).

Singapore English grew out of the English of the playground of these children of various linguistic backgrounds who were learning English at school. As more and more of its people experienced learning English at school, English became widely spoken, alongside Singapore's many other languages. Since Singapore became an independent Republic in 1965, the use of English has increased still further. For many Singaporeans, English is the main language. Many families speak English at home and it is one of the the first languages learnt by about half of the current pre-school children.

Nearly everyone in Singapore speaks more than one language, with many people speaking three or four. Most children grow up bilingual from infancy and learn more languages as they grow up. Naturally the presence of other languages (especially various varieties of Malay and of Chinese) has influenced the English of Singapore. The influence is especially apparent in the kind of English that is used informally, which is popularly called Singlish. Singlish is a badge of identity for many Singaporeans.


Singapore English usually come from other languages spoken in Singapore, especially Malay and Hokkien. Speakers of Singlish are not necessarily aware of which language they are from however.


  • habis - finished
  • makan - to eat
  • chope - to reserve something
  • cheem - difficult, complicated
  • ang mo - a white person
  • rojak - mixed, a mix of
  • liao - finished, the end
  • kiasu - afraid to lose mentality

Speakers of Singlish will usually end his sentence with a distinctive exclamation. The three most common are ah, lah, ley and what.


  • OK lah, bye bye.
  • Don't like that lah.
  • You are going there ah?
  • No parking lots here, what.
  • The price is too high for me lah.
  • And then how many rooms ah?
  • It is very troublesome ley.
  • Don't be like that ley!
  • I'm not at home lah. That's why ah.
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Re: Expenses Breakdown and Salary Suggestion - Company transfer but no expat package

I was in the same position as you last year - arrived in Singapore as a 26 year old earning just over 100k per year. I think it's more than enough. I am not particularly careful with money, but still comfortable have a 2 bedroom inner-city condo, and manage to save a few thousand per month. Fortunately, I've been promoted, so the savings figure is much higher now.

No offence to those who opt to do this, but there is absolutely no way I would stay in a HDB. I would definitely recommend against that.

Best Way to Send Reasonably Important Documents to Singapore?

Strong Eagle:
I used to have a lot of faith in Singpost but after reading a lot of negative posts here, I'm not so sure.

I need to mail the CPF Board a number of documents... one is an original from ICA, which I could obtain another copy with some pain.

How would you send six pages of docs to CPF from the USA? Fedex and UPS are about $80 US without signature delivery, USPS priority about $60, and USPS first class, registered and return receipt, about $23. I really don't care how long it takes to get to Singapore, I just don't want stuff lost.

Renting a condo unit whose building has termite infestation in some other floor.

Hi fellow expats,

I'm considering renting a condo unit near Dakota MRT station. It's a very good location as there is direct bus with short travel period to both my and my wife's working locations. However there is one problem. We learned that one unit in that building is having termite infestation and that unit is on the 4th floor. The unit we are renting is on the 2nd floor. Any suggestions if we should still rent it? How good is Singapore's pest control? Is there any chance that the whole building might be infected?

Thank you!

Re: Advice On Moving to Singapore

Sent you a PM.

If you haven't started already, I would recommend you start on getting CFA qualifications. Good way of showing employers that you are serious about a career in finance. Level 1 is possible with self study - I wouldn't want to do level 2and3 without company support though!

Singapore govt and firms are very credential focused. Once you have a foot in the door, they don't matter, but they help to get the foot in the door.


Came across this old post by accident, If you are still here would be interesting to get an update from you.

I've lived both in New York and Singapore now for about 5 weeks. I definitely agree, the public transport is better. Subways are clean, there are glass walls and doors on the platforms to keep the crazies from pushing you on the tracks, and, most importantly, they provide a way to keep air conditioning inside!

Rent is FAR more expensive in Singapore. I'd say 40% more than Manhattan, and two to three times what it is in Park Slope, where I used to live. Grocery store food here makes Whole Foods in Manhattan look like a discount center. God forbid you are attached to organics, because they are outrageously priced. It reminds me of New York in that you can get anything here, for a price. If you want your Organic Valley milk, no problem. Just be prepared to hand over S$18. Restaurant food here is cheaper at Hawker centers and food courts, and really tasty. Restaurant food in sit down restaurants is about the same price. A glass of wine at a restaurant cost me S$14 the other night for the house white.

People in stores are nicer, but I have a hard time understanding what people say to me, especially on the phone. It's not the queen's English here. In New York, the cashier at Key Foods will roll her eyes at you for putting your groceries on the counter. Here they will greet you with a smile most of the time, but when they ask you for your passion card or whatever store card is being hawked there, you have to ask them to repeat, sometimes a couple of times, to get what they are saying. Taxis are similar, except they don't want to be hailed on the street. They prefer to be called and booked (for a fee, or course). Just like in New York, there are no taxis to be had when it rains. The difference is it rains most days here.

The weather here feels like August in New York - you know, when everyone escapes to the Hamptons. Here you have a pool at your doorstep, and much nicer beaches an hour away. Haven't located a jitney yet, though.

The restaurant and nightlife scene appears to be similar, there is certainly a lot going on in the evenings. It's not sleepy like in the SF Bay area, as someone else mentioned.

To me it feels very western, more so than in Hong Kong. It is as safe as New York or safer. I always felt safe in New York.

My husband worked at JPMorgan in NYC. He left before the children woke up and got home around 10 or 11 pm every night. He was extremely stressed out. Here he leaves for work at 8:15 and gets home at 7:30 or 8, but often he has phone calls with the US at 11 pm or 12 pm, and again at 6:00 am. He seems more relaxed. He never works on weekends.

I haven't been here long enough to get bored, I'm still finding plenty to do. Plus, you can use Singapore as a jumping off base for lots of travel that you would otherwise never get to experience.

In a lot of ways it is easier here. There are similar issues with needing to go to five stores to get the ingredients for a recipe, but you don't have the trash issues, people are nice, there are plenty of people here from all over the world and it is an interesting melting pot. People don't seem as outwardly angry here, and you don't see as many crazy people. The drivers might be more aggressive, and they don't yield to pedestrians.

I think it is definitely worth doing, and as an ex-New Yorker, I think it compares favorably to New York. It's just a smaller scale, and a little more quiet, but in a good way.

Re: Skype alternatives and overseas communications

I guess not ideal if you are looking at leaving but Starhub have their 018 number which, for $7 a month, gives free calls to 19 countries, including the US. I guess the other telecos have something similar. You probably get locked in though.

Re: Car pricing

COE is included and guaranteed, regardless of price. If a CatB COE comes in at less than 35k then you get some money back......if a CatB COE is over 35k the dealer will absorb the difference without the need for you top top-up further on the price sold.

I half expect the dealer to already be sitting on some COE. Mine was sitting on quite a number of Open Cat when I took mine last year so they play around with what they have and at what price.

Re: Music

Dixie Dregs – Odyssey
The intro is very reminiscent of the tune used for the intro/recurring theme for the film Platoon.

Interesting parallel, and gave cause to hear that piece, it had been years since hearing it.

If you like that Barber piece, there is a similar, well not really, but also melencholy, which I generally do not prefer, and amazing work by the English composer Vaughan Williams.

For Classical music enthusiasts it qualifies as Classical Music 101, but not a lot of people know it. Unlike Baroque, which is great for studying, work around the house, mornings, or at work with headphones, this is not.

Far too moody, and confusing, as it has strong harmonic shifts which carry a lot of emotion, is better heard with the lights low and time to focus and be absorbed by it. Ralph Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Composed in the early 1900s and based on a <1-minute hymn written some 450 years earlier

Too unique in compositional and orchestral arrangement to describe here, Wiki does a good job of it ... mas_Tallis

This guy did a cool synthesizer version of the original hymn:

Once you've heard the Fantasia you might want to see (I love these things) the actual score move through the piece, showing the separate sub-orchestras as they play simultaneously, and, at the start includes the original hymn.

Re: PR Application - Chances/Odds

Strong Eagle:
A Singapore PR must have a legal business entity in order to work. If you work for a foreign company (including your own) and follow equivalent foreign Social Security laws in that country, you are not required to pay additional US Social Security tax. In fact, you can't.

If you were an American working for your own SP in Singapore, you would NOT file a Schedule C with your US income tax form. You would simply record income you received from your Singapore SP. Schedule C is for DOMESTIC SP's only.
Let's just say that your interpretation of how the U.S. side works is "interesting." There is a company formation concept on the U.S. side called a "disregarded entity." I'll just leave it at that since you're hijacking this thread to discuss a non-central point. That said, it is certainly possible, even common, to be a U.S. person self-employed overseas in a non-treaty country...and subject to the U.S. SE Tax. If you want to exclude Singapore, OK, whatever.

Give me an example of how an American citizen with Singapore PR, living and working in Singapore, would file any differently than I have stated. Explain how they work in Singapore. Explain how they pay US SS and the forms they file. I paid a CPA to file my taxes across five Asian countries and the USA, and never have heard of your conjecture.

And who hijacked this thread with respect to taxes?

Re: Legal Representation

Strong Eagle:
Easily S$10,000 to start... and the sky's the limit.

Domestic Helper - Insurance Whilst Overseas

Warning !

I spoke with a broker earlier and they informed me that if your helper takes a trip to say JB on a Sunday with her friend then she is not covered under the standard compulsory Maid Insurance.

This gap could create serious problems for the Employer in the event she has an accident.

Re: No slots left in e-Appointments System for PR Application Submission

I'm still trying to schedule an appointment. Until December 2016 no interview slots available, and from January 2017 onwards there are no released dates. I called and they said beginning of May they would release those dates, but so far nothing. Any thoughts on when they might release this dates?


Re: RE: Re: RE: Re: Need a volunteer in Singapore for a NYC/Singapore test


I checked that topic about "Everyone I know is leaving" but I find it to be all general talk without any specificity. Everyone's case is different.
Perhaps you should read it again, it is far from general.

Some specific areas are Banking and other IT roles - they are leaving or have already left, as are many other banking and technology jobs.

Everyone's case is indeed different.

Your information could well be stale - it has changed in the past 10-12 years. Also depends on your definition of Asia, and if you are talking specifically about Singapore.

was a growth area, and in some cases and industries, still is. Some of us on this forum been here a long time and are intimately associated with this.

You said: ...and were asked to elaborate.

Some of us are seeing jobs leave Singapore and other places in Asia, and them moving or returning to the US.

Your perspective on this could prove valuable to the people on this forum and those responding to you.

Re: Legal Representation

You're asking for a paradox. There are no cheap attorney's in Singapore. I would suggest you decide your price and then just starting ringing the bid firms until you find one who agrees to the price.