Post-travel gift exchange in Singapore

Singaporeans know themselves to be both avid travelers and shoppers, taking travel as an opportunity to shop even more. Items that are deemed “worth” buying are local products that cannot be found at home, or products that would be much more expensive in Singapore. While most items bought during one’s travels is for personal consumption, I believe that most Singaporeans also shop because they are part of a unique form of exchange that obliges them to buy items for their friends and family back home. I can identify two kinds of exchanges, although they can occur simultaneously in reality and are not mutually exclusive. These two exchanges differ not only in the kind of products that Singaporeans would shop for, but also in the value being exchanged for them.


Two kinds of exchanges
The first kind of exchange is gift-giving, which occurs when one buys small items to distribute among one’s social circle back home. Singaporeans can easily recount numerous occasions when one received small gifts of foreign snacks or tiny souvenirs (eg. key chains) from one’s friends or relatives who had just returned from a travel. Most Singaporeans can also relate to having purposely shopped for such small items while travelling so that one would have adequate products to distribute to others back home.

The second kind of exchange involves doing a favour, helping a friend or a relative to buy a highly specific item either unavailable in Singapore, or sold at a much lower price in the country one is travelling to. In such cases, the monetary cost of the item will be paid for by the requestor after one returns home with said item.

Three meanings embedded

From these two forms of gift-giving, the system of exchange here carries three meanings. It is firstly understood as being perpetuated by a certain degree of collective delayed reciprocity. Secondly, the exchange further entails an opportunity to gain status, as the reciprocity cannot be guaranteed and hence, cannot be fully depended on to sustain the system. Thirdly, it also would serve as a way for people to give or return favours in personal relationships, thus affirming or reaffirming one’s relationship with the other.

1) Collective delayed reciprocity

Like birthday present and angbaos, shopping for small items during one’s travels to give to one’s friends and relatives is embedded in a culture of delayed reciprocity. Most Singaporeans travel regularly for holidays, and it is widely understood that one should buy a little something home to distribute to friends and relatives in Singapore. While one gives such gifts to a group of people following one’s return from a holiday, one also receives from others who have travelled and bought similar small items to distribute. This may take place during the same or different period of time, depending largely on when one decides to go on holiday. Hence, we can observe here a system of delayed reciprocity that, although not strictly scheduled, is nonetheless perpetuated by the exchange involved in distributing gifts and receiving them in return.

However, the delayed reciprocity mentioned above is only reliable to a certain degree in sustaining this system of exchange. This is because purely relying on such delayed reciprocity makes the system unstable as some travel more than others and thus, are more frequently obliged to distribute gifts while receiving relatively less in return. Some may also travel to countries where one is unable to find suitable gifts to distribute back home, or one might simply not have the time to shop for such items. In that case, they may not give gifts after their return at all. Both situations lead to an imbalance in the reciprocal relationship as some give or receive significantly more than others.

2) Status enhancement

The above can be addressed by the idea that this system of exchange is not based solely on delayed reciprocity, but also on the opportunity for one to gain status by distributing gifts from one’s travels. The act of giving emphasizes both one’s generosity and one’s affluence. One gains status by distributing gifts to many people and through this, proves one’s generosity. One is also making a subtle statement about one’s ability to travel for a holiday by distributing items that cannot be found locally, and can only be bought in the country one has travelled to. The emphasis here is really on the fact that one has distributed gifts after one’s travels and not on the value of one’s gifts, as the gifts tend to be of little monetary value given that they need to be shared among a group of people and reciprocity is not guaranteed.

3) Affirmation of personal relationships

So far, we have dealt only with the first kind of gift exchange where gifts are distributed. I now note that the second form of gift exchange is a way in which favours between people are given and received, serving to strengthen one’s relationship with another person. Often, the second form of exchange requires one to help someone purchase a very specific item from the country one is travelling, like an Louis Vuitton wallet of a particular design and colour from Paris for example. Because the monetary value of this item is usually substantial, it will be paid for by the person who requested it and hence, the reciprocity here is not based on the item bought. Rather, it is based on the favour one has given to the other person, the act of having gone to the trouble of buying that item for him/her despite being on holiday.

This favour is identical to the favour that we understand as taking place between personal relationships where it may or may not be reciprocated, and if reciprocated, may or may not be done so in a similar way. Whichever the case, the exchange has now been personalized and it not only rests on the possible delayed reciprocity of the favour, but also on the reaffirmed relationship between the two people, the idea binding them that one is willing to do something for the other. In an abstract sense, it is a manifestation of the intangible exchange of values like commitment and loyalty in a relationship.


To conclude, I would like to debunk the notion of the superficial Singaporean tourist who shops compulsively during travelling. As I have explained, Singaporeans shop while travelling also because of their involvement in this system of exchange that rests on collective delayed reciprocity, opportunities for status enhancement and a way to exchange favours and reaffirm their personal relationships. These three meanings embedded in culture therefore, serve this unique system of exchange that would require one to engage in either the first or second form of gift-giving or even both.

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