Global Success

Networking Etiquette in Southeast Asian Countries

Posted 06 April 2016 | BY Sansan

According to a Reuters report, 2014 marked the second consecutive year where the combined major economies of Southeast Asia attracted more foreign direct investment (FDI) than China. The trend is set to continue, with accounting group PwC highlighting Southeast Asia’s surging growth as the potential key to success for global companies in Japan, the EU and the US, as all three compete to consolidate their foothold in the ASEAN region.

Indeed, since its formation in 1967, the Southeast Asian bloc has seen meteoric growth: it now accounts for 8.8 per cent of the world’s population, and the OECD forecasts growth in the region to average 5.6 per cent per annum between 2015 and 2019. Euromonitor International expects ASEAN consumer spending to exceed US$3 trillion by 2030, making the region a consumer market that no global company can ignore.

These emerging markets present unprecedented opportunities for developed countries as the demand for higher quality products and services will continue to escalate. Singaporean companies are in a particularly advantageous position and should act now to establish their brand before the markets become saturated.

However, the diversity of our neighbours’ cultures must be well heeded before we presume to earn their business. For the Singaporean entrepreneur hoping to make a good impression on our fellow Southeast Asian businesspeople, these networking etiquette tips for the ASEAN-5 nations ought to come in handy.


  • Display your title on your business card to enhance your image and credibility.
  • Speak quietly and with a subdued tone so as not to sound aggressive.
  • Be patient. Initial meetings may not be productive at all, as they seek to get to know you and establish familiarity and trust first. Business relationships must be allowed to develop over time.
  • Indonesians abhor confrontation or any negativity that can potentially cause them to lose face. They may say something they think you want to hear, just to be polite.


  • A handshake is the official greeting, but after that you place your right hand over your heart. Foreigners may do the same. This also applies to Indonesia.
  • Do not be offended if your business associate asks you personal questions. Malay business professionals prefer to know their business counterparts personally before doing business with them.
  • At a business dinner, ensure you only use your right hand when handling food.


  • At the end of the meeting, be sure to remain for a period of social conversation – do not rush off once the business talk has been concluded.
  • Filipinos are status conscious, so be quick to use formal titles, such as Doctor Rodriguez, Secretary Mercado, and so on. Avoid using someone's first name until they ask you to be more informal.
  • Like other Asian cultures, saving face and maintaining self-esteem is important. Avoid criticising or arguing with a Filipino associate in public. Displaying anger in public, trying to prove someone wrong in front of others, or disrespecting one’s rank or position can also cause loss of face.


  • When doing business in Thailand, don't expect to shake hands. Instead, Thais will perform a wai, where they place their palms together just in front of their face, close their mouth and bow slightly. It is acceptable for foreigners to do the same.
  • Thais still respect hierarchical relationships and will try to place you in your ‘hierarchy’ so they know how to treat you. Women tend to be treated as secondary to men.
  • Physical presence is required to develop relationships. Don’t rely on your local counterpart or expect things to get done quickly; like other Asian cultures, business relationships require time and patience to develop here.
  • Thais prefer to work later in the evening rather than being morning persons.
  • Family takes priority before business.


  • Discuss business over a meal, but don’t get right to the point – keep the conversation social at first.
  • You will most likely be served tea and something to eat – usually Vietnamese green tea or soft drinks. Be sure to sample them, as failure to taste or drink a small amount of anything is considered impolite.
  • It is important for the Vietnamese to be able to trust their business partners. The Vietnamese will take you at your word and, therefore, you should never make promises you cannot keep or backtrack on an agreement, as this will negatively impact your future business proceedings.

As residents of a highly multicultural country ourselves, Singaporeans already have a leg up over many other nationalities in dealing with our Southeast Asian neighbours, since we understand how to navigate cultural sensitivities carefully.

Many of these networking basics are common across Asia. It gives the local entrepreneur yet another natural advantage, but it never hurts to be as respectful and knowledgeable as possible when it comes to making a good first impression on potential business partners. With these tips, you can rest assured that your etiquette will be greatly appreciated as you venture into other countries for work.