Gift-Giving Etiquette in Singapore

It may seem like a relatively easy task, but if you want to give a gift to a Singaporean, there is a whole host of customs and conventions to be aware of! Whilst many people will simply be thankful that you thought of them, without reading too much into any surrounding circumstances, it may be helpful to know a bit about the dos and don’ts of bearing gifts in Singapore. Also, it’s really quite interesting!

As Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural land, there are different customs for the different major groups.

Ethnic Malays

As many Malay people are Muslim, there are also religious factors to take into consideration when planning the perfect gift. You should avoid giving gifts of alcoholic drinks or anything related to pigs and dogs. This includes cuddly toys or figurines for children. Be particularly careful when buying food products that they do not contain pig gelatin (as in the case of some sweets), and ensure that meat products are halal.

If you want to wrap your gifts, green or red wrapping paper is the best.

As the left hand is seen as symbolically unclean, you should hand gifts to the recipient with your right hand. It is okay, however, to use both hands if the item is large.

It is customary to wait until you are leaving to give a person a gift, as opposed to when you first see them. Don’t be offended if they set the gift to one side as they bid you farewell, as it is normal for people to open gifts later rather than in front of the giver.

Ethnic Chinese

The Chinese culture is often seen as having a fair amount of superstitions, and these beliefs are carried over when it comes to receiving gifts. It is not appropriate to give somebody any items that can be used for cutting, as this can be taken as a sign of wanting to chop them out of your life and end the relationship with them! Examples include scissors, nail clippers, saws, decorative daggers, penknives, and knives. Items such as handkerchiefs and clocks are connected with death and funerals. Flowers are not common gifts. If buying sets of things, give an even number; odd numbers are seen as being unlucky. Never give someone four of something though, as four is considered to be a very unlucky number.

The way in which a gift is wrapped is important for Chinese recipients. Appropriate colours of wrapping paper are red, pink, and yellow. If giving money, it is normal for new, unfolded notes to be placed inside a red envelope. Do not, however, use red ink to write a card to a Chinese person, as this signifies death! Blue and black are also colours associated with death, and so you shouldn’t wrap gifts in paper of these colours.

It is usual for people to give a gift with both hands. The recipient will generally take the gift using both hands too. The recipient may politely refuse the gift to start with, and it is normal for people to open gifts in private rather than in front of the giver.

Ethnic Indians

A significant number of Indians in Singapore are Hindu. As it is forbidden in Hinduism to kill a cow, avoid giving gifts made from leather, such as belts, shoes, and bags, and check that confectionery items do not contain beef gelatin. Alcohol is best avoided unless you are absolutely sure that the recipient drinks. In contrast with Chinese recipients, if you choose to give money, give an odd amount.

Avoid black or white gift wrap; bright colours, such as red, orange, pink, green, and yellow, are ideal. Use your right hand to pass a gift to the receiver, or both hands if it’s something big. Gifts will be opened after you have left.