10 Handy Tips for Expats in Singapore and Malaysia

The world of work is increasingly global with a reported 45,000 Brits living in Singapore and 13,000 in Malaysia. Although these areas of Asia are increasingly popular with expats, there are some cultural differences from working in the UK. With our new office now open in Singapore, it's a great opportunity to outline 10 tips we have put together from expats working and living in Singapore and Malaysia to make the transition easier for other workers.

1. The influence of Chinese values

Singapore's population is made up of 74% Chinese, so many local firms may be influenced by traditional Chinese culture and values. A culture of a hierarchy is common within the workplace and superiors are rarely challenged by their subordinates. A sensible approach as a new worker in Singapore is to treat both superiors and employers with respect and also adhere to rules which tend to be present in most workplace situations.

2. Know your working hours

Working hours in Singapore are typically 40-45 hours per week, but this may increase due to work demands and overtime is not generally applicable to professional roles. In Malaysia, the work week is defined as 48 hours, with a maximum of 8 working hours per day and 6 working days per week. Although the Malaysian Labour Law only prescribes a minimum of 10 days of paid holidays in a year, due to the variety of different cultures there are 15 religious public holiday days throughout the year. 

3. Be aware of the culture

Like Singapore, Malaysian work culture is multi-cultural and built on respect. Although Malaysia employs the fewest number of female workers compared to other Asian countries, the number of women in the workforce is increasing as education improves. Then there's the concept of the Asian 'Face', which applies to the idea of not losing face to others. To ensure you don't get this wrong don't question, correct or disagree with your superior or employer in public or engage in any public display of confrontation with your superior in public. It’s better to err on the side of caution as you adapt to this cultural difference. 

4. Where to live 

As an expat in Singapore, you will generally live in a government-owned HDB flat or privately-owned condo. It’s likely that in Malaysia you will live in a condo or a private house in a secure community. In both countries, it’s common to have ‘home help’ and you should make sure that you organise property insurance before you leave. This needs to cover any property you have in storage at home, any property that is relocated to your new home and cover for your residence abroad.

5. Plastic takeaway coffee

Don't be surprised when you are served your morning coffee to go in a transparent plastic bag. This is a key trend in Singapore. Another use of plastic for Singaporeans on the go, is to eat directly from food wrapped in paper carried in plastic bags. This saves on washing up and allows the bag to be tied at the end of the meal and thrown straight into the bin. 

6. Experience the local cuisine

Singaporeans and Malaysians are proud of their local cuisine and food courts are very popular and very reasonably priced compared to other eateries. In Malaysia, you might even get the opportunity to try a bowl of bull penis soup, which is famed for its Viagra-like qualities. You can wash it down with 'Bak Kut Teh', which is a pork bone and herb tea broth often sipped with fried dough or ‘youtiao’.

7. Extreme temperature differences

Singaporeans will avoid the sun if they can by walking in the shade or using an umbrella. As Brits, we don't see a lot of sun so it's a stark contrast to our general culture of trying to soak up any hint of sunshine. In both Singapore and Malaysia, the air conditioning inside can be severe, and because the humidity is so strong outside the contrast can be the Arctic to the desert. You'll probably need to wear a jacket inside which you can take off the minute you get outside. 

8. Local transportation

Buying a car in Singapore is expensive for expats, so taxis are well used. One confusing aspect of taxi riding is communication about destinations. Many streets have the same names but differ only by the number added at the end. Alternatively, the name may be a street, road, lane etc all with different numbers, so be clear when you are communicating where you want to go. Pick the right number otherwise it might go horribly wrong. It’s reported that driving in Malaysia can be pretty daunting and scary. Think twice before choosing the driving seat as your mode of transportation. Taxis are plentiful, city train systems efficient and if you want to travel around there are many cheap flights with Air Asia available.

9. Don't chew gum

Chewing gum is illegal in Singapore, so refrain from taking any with you from the UK. It was banned in 1992 and if you are caught, you could be fined a considerable amount. There are other things you must not do during your stay in Singapore. It is illegal not to flush the toilet after use, and lifts are kitted out with Urine Detection Devices to detect the smell of urine. If they detect urine, an alarm will be triggered and the doors closed until the police arrive. 

10. Multi-racial Malaysia

Malaysia is very multi-racial, and all major religious festivals are public holidays where everyone celebrates. However, despite diversity, Malaysia is still behind other countries in relation to LGBT people. Although LGBT people have the same access to facilities as all Malaysians, gay sex is illegal, same-sex marriage is banned, and transgender people and same-sex couple receive no recognition from the state.

Travelling to and living in Singapore or Malaysia as an expat may be daunting, but hugely exciting. Your company should arrange your accommodation, medical insurance and schooling, but it’s up to you to explore your community. Try different places to eat, use public transport and learn how the locals live. Join expat groups to meet others and make the most of every day in a new workplace in a new country.