You Are an Authentic Singaporean When...

For most of us at INSEAD, the MBA experience is also about moving to a completely different geography, and adjusting to a new culture. It was no different for me when I first arrived in Singapore a month and a half ago. I experienced cultural shocks, misunderstandings, and some confusion. Though little by little I started to observe – and in some cases, even mimic – some of the Singaporean ways of living. Let’s say that you are an authentic Singaporean when:

  • You start saying “lah” at the end of each phrase. As a country with a very mixed population (Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnic groups), the spoken English – called Singlish – has its own particularities and slangs, such as the frequent use of “lah”. “How are you lah?”, “Here it is lah”. What does “lah” mean? I don’t know lah…


  • “Can” becomes your new “Yes”. Instead of “Yes”, Singaporeans say simply “Can”. “Can you make it tomorrow?”, “Can you do this?” The answer is always “Can!”


  • You start jaywalking. Before arriving in Singapore, you hear many stories of Singapore’s long-winded non-exhaustive list of forbidden things, among them is jaywalking. At first, at each crossing, you calmly wait for the light to turn green. Later on, you realise that it takes a lot of time to change for pedestrians, so you decide to cross in the red light when and if locals do the same. After a while, you just cross at any time - as long as you are not caught, you are good. For the record, walking around naked in your own apartment and not flushing the toilet in public restrooms are also not allowed, but as long as you are not caught…


  • You buy alcohol at Changi airport. Since alcohol is heavily taxed, it can be quite expensive to buy bottles at bars and even at the market. A bottle of wine that would cost € 2 in France or Italy is SGD 15 (€ 10) in a local grocery store. To escape from the taxes, whenever you arrive from a weekend getaway in Southeast Asia, you will simply drop by the duty free shop to fill the stock. 


  • You give up on cooking. As people here usually have lunch at school or work, and then arrive home late, it seems more convenient to dine out, just like in any other metropolis. However, in Singapore, the concept of not cooking is amplified by the culture of hawker centres, food courts where a meal may cost between SGD 3 – 10 (€ 2 – 7). As soon as you notice, your pans will be accumulating dust. 


  • You get used to eating without a knife. In theory, Indian and Eastern Asian dishes are served cut into small pieces or can be eaten with your hands, so you do not require a knife on the table. In reality, though, you do need a knife to cut that chicken filet or that pancake, but local food courts only provide forks, spoons and chopsticks. What do you do? You either cut the food with your teeth or with the spoon.


  • You have a great respect for other cultures. This list may be a humorous stereotype of Singaporeans, and definitely not all of them act as described, but the true uniqueness of this little country is its tolerance for the different ethnic groups that live here.

Is there any other place in the world that summarises so perfectly INSEAD values?