Have you ever been planning for a trip somewhere abroad and suddenly got paranoid about how little you know about the country?! I don’t usually get worried about the actual travel, but I do get worried about social customs and different ways of life because I’m determined to never come across as a rude or ignorant tourist! I always try to learn the basics of the language to get me around, greet people, and say please/thank you, as well as any different social customs to those I’m used to as a British person – e.g. bowing to people in East Asian countries like Korea and Japan.
I was recently planning my trip to Seoul in South Korea and I found myself wishing there was one book that compiled all the things I was looking at, because there’s nothing more annoying than getting your info from a million different places and having 65 different tabs open in your browser!
Enter Culture Smart! travel guides!
Over the years, I’ve developed a severe case of wanderlust and a fascination for Asia. When I was lucky enough to be offered a free copy of one of the Culture Smart! guides to review, I’d already got my Korea planning in the bag, so I selected Singapore (blame Crazy Rich Asians and the beautiful exterior shots! Well, that and the fact that I’m reading How We Disappeared by Jing Jing Lee, which is set in Singapore).
I have been devouring this guide and learning so much!
But don’t just take my word for it. Let me show you just a few of the things I learned about Singapore!
Singapore is a very new and unique country
Singapore only became independent in 1965, and is very unique in that there’s not just one type of Singaporean. It is a land of immigrants – mostly Chinese, Malay and Indian – which was deliberately engineered by the government to ensure the race riots of 1964 were never repeated. Coupled with Racial Harmony Day, housing projects and free education for all, Singapore is a nation of multicultural harmony that even has 4 official languages – Malay (the national language), Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil, and English. There is a sense of national pride as a Singaporean, but also distinct different cultures within that that thrive together.
Singapore is known as “Lion City”
According to Malay legend, a Sumatran prince saw a lion and founded a town where he’d seen it, naming it Singapura, which is “Lion City” in Sanskrit. The town became a fishing town, and today, Singapore’s official mascot is the merlion – a fish’s body with a lion’s head – to commemorate these two pieces of history.
There are five merlion statues in Singapore, with the oldest being located at the Merlion Park at the mouth of the Singapore River.
Old superstitions in a modern country
Despite being a highly modern, technologically advanced country, many Chinese Singaporeans still subscribe to very traditional beliefs such as Chinese astrology. These influence very important decisions such as births and marriages!
The Chinese Lunar calendar works in a 60-year cycle divided into 12 sets of five years, with each year being named after one of the animals of the zodiac e.g. the Year of the Pig. Half of the animals are domestic, and half are wild, representing the yin-yang balance.
It is said that in the first 30 days after giving birth, a mother’s pores are open and cold air can enter the body. As such, new Chinese mothers are often forbidden to go outdoors or even take a shower or bath! Her diet must be high in food from yang animals, including meat, eggs and liver, and yin foods may be avoided.
When friends visit to celebrate the baby’s birth, they give gifts in red, pink, gold and orange, and always in matching pairs, as these colours are deemed lucky. Colours like white or blue that are common in Western baby clothes are symbols of death to Chinese Singaporeans and therefore definitely not given! Like in Korea, Chinese Singaporeans consider a baby to be one year old at birth.
Don’t send flowers to a new mother – flowers are not given by Chinese Singaporeans as they are associated with illness and death. Never send a card with a stork on it either, as stork adorn women’s funeral processions!
Now this is the lavish occasion you saw in Crazy Rich Asians! Often, the bride will now wear a traditionally Western white wedding dress then change into a lucky red or pink gown for the wedding banquet. Wedding cars must be decorated in red or pink, and guests must wear colours that symbolise new life and happiness such as yellow, orange, or pink. Any monetary gifts should end with the number 8 for good fortune, and not contain the numbers 13 or 4 as they’re unlucky!
Food to try
Kaya toast: Kaya toast is toasted white bread with butter and sweet coconut jam, and is often coupled with coffee and condensed milk for breakfast. You can get both of these things at a “kopitiam”, or coffee shop!
Lo Hei: Eaten at Chinese New Year, this dish is made from shredded white and green radish (which symbolises prosperity at work or eternal youth), carrot (good luck), ginger and onion slices, pomelo, peanut dust (a home filled with gold) and more, guests gather around the dish and toss the ingredients into the air with their chopsticks, shouting “lo hei” – the higher the toss, the greater the fortune!
Otak-otak: A traditional Peranakan dish (influenced by Indonesia), the otak-otak is fish, spices and coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf. Sounds delicious!
Ayam buak keluak: A dish made with chicken and nuts from the kepayang tree.
Nasi lemak: Rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves served with sambal, anchovies and other toppings like peanuts and vegetables.
Roti prata: A fried bread pancake that is served with egg, curry, or sugar in any form, including ice cream!
Some Singaporean phrases
Kayu: It means stupid! Probably don’t use this one if you’re trying to make friends in Singapore!
Lah: It’s used to emphasise something, e.g. “no lah” for instead of just “no” makes it into something like “no way”!
Shiok: From Malay, it is used to show happiness or pleasure, similar to saying “cool!” or “fab!”
Blur: Someone who’s slow to catch on! So if you told a joke and your friend only understood it half an hour later, you could say “Why are you so blur?!”
Aiyah: Use this expressively to signify impatience or dismay! Aiyah, I’ve spilled my tea!
That’s not even all I learned from the book! I hope I’ve given you some of the awesome insight I got from reading the Culture Smart! Guide to Singapore! With almost 200 pages, there’s information on everything from history to values, customs and traditions, food and drink, leisure time, business, travel, health and safety, communicating and more. The guides aim to give their readers a more meaningful experience when travelling through a better understanding of the nation’s culture.
With around 100 guides, let the Culture Smart! experts immerse you in cultures from Europe to Asia, Africa to America and everywhere in between! Check them out here.