Because each culture in Singapore has its own set of rules and taboos when it comes to gifting. Follow this handy guide to prevent a faux pas!
Flowers make great gifts, but be careful with the type of flower. Avoid chrysanthemums and white flowers like frangipani, as they are often seen as funeral flowers for the Chinese (and even in Indian communities). Gifts like ginseng, bird’s nest, essence of chicken and premium liquors are great options. You can also present hongbaos (red packets) to young children or unmarried adults during special occasions. Tip: Money packed in the hongbao should be an even number or opt for amounts that end with the number 8, which signifies prosperity.
Sharp objects like scissors, knives or cutting utensils are no-nos, as many believe these symbolise a severing or end of a relationship or friendship. Shoes are a bad choice, too, because the Chinese word for footwear sounds like the word xie, which means “evil”. Clocks and other timepieces are viewed as reminders of mortality and as wishing someone death. Yikes!
If you’re invited to a Malay person’s home and need to bring a hosting gift, forget the guesswork and simply ask what they would like to have, or opt for halal-certified coffees, teas, cookies and chocolates, which are permissible under Islamic law. Give your gift to your host with two hands as a sign of respect.
Never gift pork or goods made with pig leather, if the recipient is a practising Muslim. Ditto any alcohol products. Gifts should not be wrapped with white wrapping paper, which is thought to symbolise mourning and death. Avoid giving gifts with images or likenesses of dogs or pigs, too.
If you know your host drinks, a bottle of Scotch or whisky can go a long way (otherwise, avoid it). Gift wrappers should be in bright colours especially yellow, green and red, since these colours usually represent good fortune. If you haven’t had the time to buy a gift, you can give monetary gifts to your host, but be sure that the amount is an odd number (contrary to the Chinese). This is done usually by adding a single dollar (e.g., $11 instead of $10). Tip: Presents are typically opened only after all the guests have left.
The cow is sacred in Hinduism (and to a lot of Indian people), so don’t gift products made with cowhide or oxhide. A considerable number of Indians observe vegetarianism, so avoid meat, dairy or egg products if you’re unsure. Never present your gift with your left hand, as it is often considered to be “unclean”.
By Joshua Tan, The Finder (Issue 289), December 2017 / Updated by Jashleen Kaur, November 2020
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