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Last updated : Nov 2009
Singapore Business
Singapore Business Overview -
Singapore Economy

Singapore’s economy depends on entrepôt trade, shipbuilding and repairing, electronics, oil refining, and information technology, banking and finance and, to a lesser degree, tourism. From the late 1970s, the Government promoted export-oriented and service industries with plans of making Singapore a regional economic centre. Singapore also benefited from the decision of some firms to relocate with reference to the switch of Hong Kong to Chinese administration in 1997. High-technology manufacturing, especially computer and telecommunications equipment, and financial services, chiefly banking and insurance, form the kernel of the economy.

There is also a significant oil-refining industry. The most current adding to the economy is pharmaceuticals: also, the government is now promoting Singapore as a hub for biotechnology, particularly for stem cell research which has proved so controversial elsewhere. The significance of trade to the economy is great and can't be overstated: the total worth of Singapore’s trade is nearly 3 times its GDP (compared with 17% of GDP in the case of Japan).

Healthy economic activity more than compensates for Singapore’s shortage of natural resources. There isn't much agriculture, with the cultivation of plants and vegetables, and some fishing; but, most foodstuffs and raw materials are imported. Singapore’s only important natural resource is its excellent natural harbour, which is the world's busiest behind Rotterdam. This is partly for the heavy re-export trade, which makes up almost half of all trade.

Singapore suffered less than a number of its neighbours by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, due to expert financial management, high savings and investment rates, and huge foreign exchange reserves. However, not long after that, it fell into its worst economic recession for 30 years, mainly due to a dramatic decline of international demand in major industries, particularly electronics. At the lowest level, Singapore’s economy was reducing to an extraordinary rate of 6% per year. Industrial production declined by more than 20% during 2001. A slow recovery has taken place since then: GDP growth was only 0.8% in 2003, but it's expected that figure will rise to between 4 and 5% in 2004/05. Recent inflation is lower than 1%.

Singapore’s trading partners are Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and the USA.

Singapore has membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and of the Asian Pacific Economic Forum (APEC).

Business Profile

Obsessed with productivity, the high standard of education of its workers and its location at the core of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has rendered Singapore the most durable economy in the world. In many leading surveys during 2002, Singapore had passed Hong Kong as the best business centre in Asia.

In 2001, it was ranked number one in Asia for growth competitiveness by the World Economic Forum, and readers of Business Traveller Asian Pacific declared Singapore ahead of Melbourne and Sydney. It garnered a further seal of approval from Forbes Magazine, which held the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore in September 2001.

Although productivity growth was less in the 1990s than in the 1980s, thanks to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Singapore’s decline was much less dramatic than other asian countries and its recovery is well underway. GDP growth of 2.2% was shown in 2002. Current statistics show that the unemployment rate for 2002 was 4.5%, slightly up on 2001 (3.8%) but much better than 2000 (6%).

Of the workforce, 18.2% work in manufacturing, 21.3% in commerce, 10.8% in transport and communication, 17.1% in financial and business services and 25.7% in community and personal services.

Most economic sectors, particularly tourism, suffered the effects of the 11 September terrorist attacks. The Singapore Tourism Board was strategic in their marketing and promoted their efforts into attracting tourists from Australia and China, rather than nervous USA and Japan. Although a slow recovery was taking place, this screeched to a halt following the bomb attack in Bali in October 2002, which meant less people travelling to Bali and subsequently not using Singapore as a stopover. Nevertheless, 2002 welcomed more than 7.5 million international visitors (excluding Malaysian arrivals by land) and the Tourism Board have succeeded in pushing Singapore into Asia’number one convention destination and the fifth best in the world.

The business district is situated towards the island’s east and southernmost tip and includes Orchard Road, Brah Basah Road and Raffles Boulevard, near which are the Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre, Pan Pacific and Suntec City.

Most major international banks are located here as well as international organisations like Nokia, IBM, Canon, National Panasonic, Hitachi, Toshiba, Nike and Sony.

Business Etiquette

The official business language of Singapore is English and business is conducted very much on a Western model. But, Asian – and particularly Chinese – business ethics often prevail. Most offices are built (interior and exterior) with help from a feng shui expert, in order to create the most auspicious environment for creating wealth and harmony, and most have a fish pond or fountain to ensure that money flows in the right direction.

Business cards are exchanged at all business and social occasions; and it is polite to give or receive them with both hands (as with any piece of paper, including money). Corporate entertaining is at the top of the agenda and long lunches are the norm, often with lavish buffets. Smoking is illegal in many locations and is not always socially acceptable, so one should check before lighting up.

There are 12 public holidays each year, the most important is Chinese New Year, usually in February. This is the only time when almost everything shuts down – locals visit their families and ex-pats depart for a long weekend away. During other public holidays, like Christmas Day, offices and banks close but shops stay open.

Business dress is pretty formal, but, men’s suits tend to be lighter shades in Singapore’s tropical climate and, for formal meetings, a jacket is usually dispensed with. Women dress in a skirt or trouser suit and their Malay colleagues wear their national dress for formal functions. Some firms have adopted casual Fridays, although only those departments with no customer contact tend to take advantage of this.

Both locals and ex-pats work long hours. The official working day is 9.00 am to 6.00 pm; however, longer hours are very common.

Commercial Information

The following organisations can offer advice:

Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 101 Cecil Street, Tong Eng Building, Unit 23-01/04, Singapore 069533 (tel: 6224 6634 or 6222 2855; fax: 6223 1707; email:

Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, 10-01 John Hancock Tower, 6 Raffles Quay, Singapore 048580 (tel: 6224 1255; fax: 6224 2785; email:


Singapore is the number one convention city in Asia and is amongst the world's top ten meetings destinations. Plenty of hotels offer abundant conference facilities, as well as the most up to date audio-visual equipment, secretarial services, translation and simultaneous interpretation systems, whilst Raffles City, a self-contained convention city, can hold as many as 6,000 delegates under one roof.

Some additional famous venues for bigger conventions and exhibitions are Suntec Singapore and Singapore Expo (Singapore’s newest addition to conference venues).

Complete details about Singapore as a conference country can be acquired from the Exhibition & Convention Bureau within the Singapore Tourism Board (see Contact section). The Bureau is a non-profitmaking organisation with objectives of promoting Singapore as a convention and an international exhibition city and of helping with the planning and staging of individual events.
Useful travel links
Business In Singapore all about business in Singapore
Cyber Business Network all about cyber business network in Singapore
I.E. Singapore all about International Enterprise in Singapore