Intercultural Differences, close to our heart.

Asia is in an economic point of view, the region with the biggest potential for development. However, the different between Asia and the Western world is completely different. It needs absolutely intense studying and observation to be able to understand the differences between Western and Asian cultures. I found it really hard to relate to this American friend of mine when he started bombarding me with questions about Singapore culture.


To them, it was difficult to understand why are there up to three main ethnic groups in Singapore, which made us religiously and culturally diverse. Singapore is a multi-ethnic society where Chinese, Malay and Indian traditions coexist beneath the western cosmopolitan metropolis. Therefore I felt it would be interesting to touch on the cultural difference of the three main ethnic groups in Singapore.


Starting with the most basic of all, the names. For Chinese, we traditionally have 3 names. The surname or family name is always placed first, followed by two personal names. Addressing the person by their surname directly can be pretty rude; therefore it is important to find out from them first which name the Chinese prefer to be called. For Malays, many do not have surnames. Instead, men would add the father’s name to their own name with the connector “Bin”. In the case of Women, they use the connector “Binti” For Indians, they do not use usually have surnames but rather, they place the initial of their father’s name in front of their own name. The guys use ‘s/o’ (son of), followed by the father’s name, to refer to themselves as the son of their father, and the ladies use ‘d/o’ to refer to themselves as the daughter of their father. At marriage, the Indian lady will drop their father’s name and instead use their first name with their husband’s first name as a sort of surname.


I once had this embarrassing experience when calling the name of an Indian lady when worked as a telemarketer last holiday. At that point of time I did not know there were so much to it behind the names, therefore I randomly choose and called out one part of her name. That Indian lady replied me that her husband was not around, therefore I repeated myself again, by reciting her whole complete name. That was when she realized that I was looking for her, and she sound offended as she told me “you were saying my husband’s name, not my name.”   


Moving on to gift giving etiquette, it is a rather sensitive area which must be handled with care. A gift may be refused a few times by Chinese before it is accepted, as this demonstrates that we are not greedy! Also, when choosing a gift for Chinese, items such as scissors or knives are usually avoided as it might indicate that you want to sever your relationship with that person. For the more traditional Chinese. clocks and straw sandals MUST NOT be given as gift because these items are associated with funerals and death. Giving a clock as a present when translate to Chinese means “送钟”, and traditional Chinese superstitions regard this as counting the seconds to the recipient’s death. Flowers do not make good gifts as well because they are mostly only given to the sick and are used at funerals. Such gifts mentioned above are considered as a curse.


When giving gifts to Malays, anything associated with pigs MUST be avoided as Malays are Muslim. Giving alcohol and liquor to Malays is considered rude because according to their tradition, they are not allowed to consume liquor. Also, another interesting fact I found out recently is that we are not suppose to give toy dogs to Malay children. Malays, like us Chinese, usually avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning. Therefore, gifts are more presentable if they are wrapped in red or green paper. (Red seems to be a safe color to use in any occasion, do it?) While it is more appropriate for Chinese to give the gift when we arrive, the Malays only present the gift when thay are departing, rather than when they first arrive.


Giving gifts to Indians have certain similarities with the Chinese and the Malays, because they would also avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death. On interesting difference between the Indians and Chinese is that for Indians, money should be given in odd numbers and not even numbers, and this is totally opposite of the Chinese culture as we consider odd number as bad luck. Gifts such as leather products again MUST be avoided as most Indians are Hindu, therefore they do not consume or use cow products. 


Honestly, we as Singaporeans, how much of these do we know? Or rather how many of us bothered to find out more about it?  



  1. Thank you, Shi Hui, for this detailed (and slightly rambling) post. You provide lots of info “in a nutshell” about how the three main ethnic groups in Singapore differ, in particular in their view of names and gift giving. What I most appreciate in this post is when you cite the example of how the Indian woman with whom you worked felt offended when you used her husband’s name while referring to her. (Ouch!)

    I have always wondered just how much discussion there is in Singapore schools about the concepts of race, ethnicity and culture. Do you remember learning much in that regard?

  2. Hey Shi Hui! 🙂

    I think that the only organization on this sunny island of ours, in which people actually directly address others by their Chinese surnames, is none other than our very own armed forces. In the military, officers and NCOs, when communicating with their subordinates, address them by their Chinese surnames. Even soldiers of the same rank do so as well! I think this is largely due in part to the very nature of a military organization. Sometimes, orders have to be disseminated in rapid succession to a large group of people you may or may not know. With our surnames printed on the front of our uniforms, addressing people by their Chinese surnames is easy, fast and convenient. However, it is true that, in common everyday context, to address a person so would be considered as a rude gesture.

    How interesting! Even though I’m Chinese, I didn’t know that sharp objects should be avoided as gifts. Is there any reason why toy dogs should not be given to small Malay children as presents?

    It was also rather informative to note that there are actually certain similarities between seemingly different cultures(white wrapping paper should be avoided), and what might be correct in one culture proves completely the opposite in another(odd v.s. even numbers)!

    I learned a lot from this post, and yes, come to think of it, looking at Mr Blackstone’s comment, I don’t think I recall much discussion in schools here with respect to the concepts of race, culture and ethnicity. I think we can certainly do more.



  3. Hi Shi Hui,

    This is a great and informative post regarding the three main ethnic groups. Being from Malaysia (with the same three main ethnic groups), I must say that the issues mentioned above are similar in my country too. Well, for us Chinese (Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese), we normally call each other by our two personal names without addressing the surname. However, I guess that there are some exceptions where we have to address the surname together with the personal name especially when addressing people with a surname and a single personal name. A good example is the name, Zhou Xing, where people would normally call the whole name without leaving the surname as compared to my name, Chew Wee Siong, where people would normally address me using my two personal name and leave out my surname instead. This is my two cents regarding the name issue anyway so correct me if I am wrong. 🙂

    I am not too sure about here in Singapore but race has always been a sensitive issue in Malaysia and any discussion regarding it is highly discouraged. However, I do not agree that this issue should be avoided. Only by discussing openly can we understand each other better and work towards a better multi-racial and multi-ethnic society.

    ws 🙂

  4. Hi Shi Hui,

    Dealing with traditions related to each race is indeed difficult. Besides names and gift-giving, I feel that the use of numbers is one of the most complicated issues. In Chinese tradition, numbers related to 4 are considered unlucky while numbers related to 8 are considered auspicious. Most Chinese families choose their house number very carefully. Nevertheless, the negative effects of the number 4 may be contained by drawing a circle round the number. Conversely, the number 8 should never be constrained by a circle! Superstitions do form a significant part of tradition. Somebody should publish a reference guide to the superstitions of the three major ethnic groups in Singapore. Life will be much easier then!


  5. hey ash,

    It is indeed a slightly lengthy post but it is interesting to read! I do remember the occasion where you mistook the Indian lady’s husband’s name to be hers. It is amazing how ‘harmless’ misunderstandings like this could give us a good laugh, yet be a lesson learnt.

    It is no child’s play when we talk abt taboos of different religions; remember the racial riot that took place in Singapore during the 1960s? It is undeniably the job of all citizen to take the effort to learn and and understand the different cultures in a country, I guess it is one of the most minimal we can do to enforce peace in this not-so-peaceful world.

    Thank you for this interesting post, I leant quite a number of new things today!

    your lovely sister

    ps. I didnt realise that you did not log out of your account, so please delete the previous post from you to you hahah!

  6. Shihui!

    Definitely an informative post! To put it exaggeratingly, I am ‘struggling’ with this whole gift giving traditions! Especially with the chinese, which is ironic, since I am a chinese myself. I am brought up in a Christian family and I was somehow under the impression that these traditions are just mere superstitions that’s not something that we should be practicing.
    Recently, I gave Moses a clock I bought from a craft shop in Taiwan and made myself. He loved it (or even if he did not, he did not let it show) but reminded me that I should not go round giving people clocks. I personally will not be doing that because it would just be plain hilarious for me to go around giving people clocks, but I really stand by my believe that these traditions are just mere superstitions.
    With that being said however, I’d better tone down on my stubborn-ness and find out whether the gift receivers are superstitious before buying them a gift.
    Whatever happened to “its the thought that counts”?

    p.s. Shi hui… remember the time where our class had to exchange gifts for Valentine’s Day or something like that and Mr. Loo gave Foong Sian a freebie alarm clock!!!! LOL!!!

  7. Hello Brad,

    We do learn a lot on the concepts of race, ethnicity and culture in secondary school under “Social Studies”, but sadly most of us did not take the learning seriously but see it as another module that is hard to read and hard to score. The schools also made a lot of marvelous attempts to instill the multi racial society concept to us, with programs and holidays set aside for “Racial Harmony Day” etc, but what we have seen is just the tip of an iceberg. Such a shame, isn’t it?

    Hey Sarah,

    Goodness that last line gave me a really good laugh! How can I forget that incident? I hope FS didn’t mind, because our silly Mr. Loo probably hasn’t got much idea about such superstitions as well. And I do agree with you, you have to stop being stubborn when choosing gifts for you friends! Well I guess the worst thing is to offend someone when it wasn’t your intention, isn’t it? =)

    Hi Sis,

    I realized I have tendency to write extremely long post (sorry to all!) but I have to tell you there is still a zillion more stuffs I want to share! But I guess I’ll do it in another post since I already tripled my word limit here!

    The racial riot was no joke. We really have to be extremely sensitive towards this area, because of where we live in. Most of us tend to neglect that and take no serious than a tasteless joke. Talking about education huh. (sorry about the angsty side of me coming out)

    Hello duane!

    I love your idea on publishing a reference guide to the superstitions of the three major ethnic groups in Singapore! It does save all of us so much trouble, doesn’t it?


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