Gift-Giving by Different Ethnic Groups in Singapore

Publication Type

Journal Article

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Intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic gift-giving by Chinese, Malays and Indians in Singapore are explained in terms of age, traditional inclination within one's ethnic community, and cultural sensitivity to other ethnicities for gift types, ending digits for cash amounts and wrapper colors for weddings and newborns. Within each ethnic group but not necessarily across groups, flowers are not given as they are associated with rituals, funerals and ancestral worship. Though each ethnic group tries to conform to its respective customs, a few practices are being discontinued. For instance, the Chinese appears no longer averse to avoiding 4 that sounds like die in Mandarin and Chinese dialects. Rather than the Chinese, it is Indians who are most sensitive to numbers. In their case, odd numbers are lucky, though they would end cash gifts with 5 but not 1. Culturally sensitive Indians are even willing to disregard their own aversion for 8 and pick it for Chinese weddings and newborns. Interestingly, Malays, for whom numbers per se have no special meanings, would choose 1 for Indians. The effect is to make a number uneven and hence lucky for Indians. Malays are most consistent in avoiding products such as alcohol that are prohibited (haram) by their religion. Although knives are taboo among many Asians, the Chinese do not actively reject them for fellow Chinese, but the culturally sensitive ones will avoid them for Malays and Indians. Malays will try not to give these among themselves or to others, but Indians will avoid them only among themselves. In respect of colors, dull ones such as blue, brown and gray are not suitable for cheerful occasions, and Singaporeans choose either red/pink or yellow/orange wrappers. Given that it is difficult to be cross-ethnically correct, and in cases where cross-cultural conventions conflict, it is best to avoid taboos and blunders by giving things that are neutral.



Research Areas

Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources


Sasin Journal of Management





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