The Singaporean Gift-Giving Etiquette
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Gift-giving is an important social practice that helps to cultivate and maintain relationships in our society. According to French sociologist Marcel Mauss, the practice of gift exchange helps to build and sustain social relations, based on the principle of reciprocity. As such, it is important to understand the cultural etiquette of gift-giving, so that gifts are given appropriately and social relations can be sustained. This is especially significant for cultural melting pots such as Singapore, where different cultures are led by different customs, thus differing in their practice of gift giving and exchange.
In the Chinese culture, one of the main taboos in gift-giving would be to give someone a clock, as the direction translation of “giving a clock” from English to Chinese implies to send someone off – in a funeral. Flower gifts are welcomed, but never give white flowers for they are usually associated with funerals as well. Other than that, Chinese also avoid gifting sharp objects such as scissors or knives as that could bode ill for relations between individuals.
If you want to give a good gift, favourable options would be gift items that come in pairs, such as chopsticks. When it comes to giving red packets during Chinese New Year or Chinese weddings, always make sure that the amount of money ends with an even number. Most importantly, do remember to always avoid the number “4”, because in Chinese the words that mean “to die” and “four” have similar pronunciations.
The rule of thumb here is to always gift items that are considered “halal” – as a way of showing respect towards their Muslim faith. This means no alcohol, no cigarettes, no items containing pigskin, and no revealing clothing or intimate items.
Also, always remember to use either both hands, or only your right hand, when you are giving a gift to a member of the Malay community. This is because to the Malay community, the left hand by itself is considered “unclean” and therefore it is inappropriate and rude for one to gift something with only one’s left hand.
Always avoid frangipanis in gifts, because this species of flower is only used for funeral wreaths in the Indian culture. As opposed to the Chinese, Indians prefer odd numbers in their gifts. To them, odd numbers are the ones that would bring luck.
Most importantly, never present a gift that is associated with cows, because cows are considered sacred beings in the Indian culture, and must always be treated with love and respect. Similar to the Malay culture, one should only use either the right hand only, or both hands to present a gift to someone from the Indian community.
In Singapore, it is an unspoken rule that gifts are not to be opened immediately upon received, unless one is being asked to do so. This is to show basic respect towards the gift giver, and more importantly, to avoid potential embarrassment and awkwardness should the gift be something that the recipient does not truly like.
Depending on the degree of superstition, the older generations of Singaporeans may tend to follow the rule of “avoiding white” more than the younger generations, due to the association of the colour white with death and funerals.
Corporate gift-giving among business partners is a common practice in Singapore. When selecting corporate gifts, it is always better to choose something practical and not too expensive – it’s the thought that counts. It would be best if it’s something that can be shared within the office such, as a bottle of champagne or a gift basket.
One should never offer gifts to governmental officials such as police officers, judges, or even social workers, as they may potentially be considered as a form of bribery and suggest corruption and a lack of integrity in the recipient.
It is important that we learn to respect and incorporate the Singaporean gift-giving etiquette into our daily lives. Because Singapore is home to an increasingly diverse population made up of individuals from various ethnicities, this article alone is definitely not enough as a comprehensive guide, but it serves as basic guide to inform you of the fundamental rules of gift-giving locally. Be it a personal or corporate gift, it is important to always research on the customs of your recipients’ culture or home country, so that appropriate gifts are given and positive relations can be forged and maintained.