Diversity in Singapore

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CIEE wants all our students to feel welcomed, supported, and empowered to succeed while studying abroad. On this page, local CIEE staff have provided details about conditions and cultural attitudes that students with specific identities might encounter at their location. The information below is just a broad overview so if you have specific questions or concerns not covered here, please email inclusion@ciee.org. We would be glad to have local staff share their perspectives, talk with you about accommodations, connect you with resources, and/or put you in touch with a program alum who could speak about their experiences navigating a program in this location.

No matter where you choose to study abroad with CIEE, our staff—all of whom receive regular and comprehensive training in diversity, equity, and inclusion—will be on hand throughout your program to provide advice, resources, and support regarding these issues.

Body Size/Image

Weight and body image are popular topics among young Singaporeans. Though being slim still fits the preference of the majority, working out in the gym to build up muscles is gaining popularity, especially among young men. You may find young Singaporean friends frequently saying that they are “fat” even though they look slim; it's a common conversation topic, especially among young women. They seldom judge others’ body sizes and instead criticize their own. In recent years, body positivity has become increasingly emphasized. However, elderly Singaporeans may comment your body size in a very direct or even seemingly impolite way because they believe it is either a truth or a compliment. This is not intended as discriminatory. Please do not take these comments to heart as “you’ve gained weight” and other related sayings can sometimes mean simple greetings like “it’s good to see you again!”

Disability

Singapore has officially adopted Universal Design principles, making it one of the most accessible cities in the world. All MRT stations have priority lifts, tactile wayfinding, easy-to-follow signage, visual and audible indicators in lifts and on platforms, and wheelchair-accessible toilets. Almost all public buses and tourist attractions are wheelchair-accessible, and wheelchair-accessible taxis can be booked in advance.

Students are encouraged to provide as much information as they can related to their specific disabilities (or related needs) prior to arrival so CIEE staff can assess potential challenges and arrange for appropriate accommodations.

Gender and Gender Identity

In 1961, the Singapore government legally enshrined women’s rights to work outside the home, choose their own husbands, and be protected from gender-related violence. Today, more women enroll in local universities than men and nearly 30% of members of Parliament are women. However, as in many parts of the world, women do most of the housework and childcare, with working women subject to a ‘second shift’ at home. In addition, although most women work outside the home, few have high-level corporate or political positions, and gender discrimination is reportedly common in the workplace. At the same time, Singaporeans increasingly support gender equality, and the government recently launched new initiatives to promote gender equality.

There are few restrictions on gender norms as they apply to women so you may find some women dressed in a more “boyish” fashion and not face many issues. However, that freedom of expression is more restricted for men, so you will not find many men openly dressing in what could be considered a more ‘feminine’ fashion. Singapore is extremely safe, and you will encounter little, if any, catcalling or street harassment, even late at night. That said, women should be advised that outfits revealing cleavage, shoulders, midriff, or legs may be considered sexual, especially when going out at night. Just as it is all over the world, women in Singapore may be blamed or risk unwanted advances when dressed ‘inappropriately.’ Please be mindful of this for both your comfort and safety while studying abroad.

Heritage Seekers

You might think you are home when get back to Singapore, where your parents or grandparents are from. You may meet Singaporeans welcoming you as one of them or you may meet Singaporeans that think you are not Singaporean enough. You may feel irritated or even insulted that locals will hold your language and cultural knowledge to much higher standards than other foreigners. However, getting back to Singapore is the best time for you to explore how you choose to define yourself. You can be both a US passport holder and a heritage seeker learning to appreciate the culture, get involved in the community, and bridge cultural gaps. As a heritage seeker, you will find more opportunities for how to put your life and family history into a local perspective.

Racial and Ethnic Identity

Singapore is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural society, primarily comprised of citizens of Chinese, Malay, and Indian descent, with foreigners accounting for nearly 30% of the total residential population. Singaporeans of Chinese ancestry, who make up 75% of the citizenry, are economically and politically dominant. Laws exist to protect against racial discrimination and to encourage multiculturalism, for example, via ethnic quotas for housing distribution.

Despite Singapore’s diversity, however, interethnic marriage is stigmatized and racial discrimination and prejudice, particularly against Singaporeans of Malay and Indian descent and against foreigners from Asian countries, does exist. Although racism was previously a taboo subject, with some Singaporeans insisting that racism does not exist in Singapore, in recent years it has become a frequent topic of debate. Most people will be welcoming towards foreign students; however, locals may ask you questions or make assumptions about your ethnicity that make you uncomfortable. CIEE Singapore staff are sensitive to these issues and will provide as much information and support as possible.

Religion

Singapore is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, with practitioners of practically every major faith. At nearly one third of the population, Buddhists are the largest group, with Christians, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus, and other groups well-represented. However, note that a handful of religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church, are not sanctioned by the government so please ask CIEE Singapore staff before you join religious activities.  

Sexual Orientation

Singaporean society is generally conservative with regards to sexual orientation. There are no laws to protect LGBTQ+ Singaporeans from discrimination in the workplace, housing, or in other areas. Sexual activity between men is illegal in Singapore, though this is rarely enforced. Despite this, public opinion on the LGBTQ+ community is becoming increasingly progressive and accepting, especially among young people. Events like Pink Dot, Singapore’s version of Pride, attract higher numbers of people every year, and there are plenty of LGBTQ+ bars, businesses, and events. Public displays of affection are generally frowned upon, however, particularly between men.

While students belonging to the LGBTQ+ community might face some challenges navigating societal conventions in Singapore, many still enjoy their experiences and have successful semesters abroad. CIEE Throughout your program, CIEE staff are on hand to provide advice and support regarding your LGBTQ+ identity, community gatherings, or cultural norms.

Socioeconomic Status

Singapore has a variety of options when it comes to places to eat that can accommodate your budget. Even though Singapore is an expensive city, you can still find cheap places to eat; in fact, most Singaporeans eat out every day because food is so cheap. Hawker centers, coffee shops, canteens, and food courts offer some of the best deals. You’ll find that you can dine cheaply on noodles and rice dishes, and you may find places that sell traditional breakfast and other local snacks that are quite filling for a low price. Western or other international food is generally pricier in comparison to the local options, but there are some restaurants that have reasonable prices if you want to indulge.

Programs in Singapore

Live from Singapore

A hub of international commerce, Singapore is one of the world’s most globalized economies. This island city-state hosts the Asian headquarters of many multinational corporations across a range of industries. It is an ideal venue for a challenging and rewarding internship program as well as an exciting place to explore - with its remarkable landscape and diverse blend of cultures and cuisines.  Learn more about programs in Singapore