Many an expat has arrived in Singapore widely telling everyone who will listen that they are staying for just a couple of years only to be prised out five, ten, even fifteen years later, having rooted themselves in deep after falling in love with the Lion City.
That Singapore carries this most majestic of nicknames in tandem with another much less flattering moniker, the Little Red Dot - a name which conjures up images of a place of so little significance on the world stage that it is marked by a mere dot - is exactly what draws people in. Singapore is a city of contrasts and hidden depths.
Singapore is often unfavourably compared to Hong Kong and other Asian cities by being described as Asia-lite, a seemingly boring and sterile environment with clean and orderly streets devoid of the chaos normally found in Asian cities. But scratch beneath the surface and you find pockets of culture and identity that remind you on a daily basis that this is still Asia after all.
For every shiny modern building of the Central Business District (CBD) and iconic architecture of hotels such as Marina Bay Sands, you will find a makeshift Chinese temple at the top of a car park or discover live frogs being skinned in Chinatown’s wet market; for every fancy restaurant and bar, there is a delicious and cheap hawker (read, food) market serving Singapore’s famous chicken rice or chili crab for less than the cost of a drink in one of said fancy bars.
Yet at the same time, Singapore is a modern thriving first-world city (you can’t quite call it a metropolis with a population of only 5.6 million) with an ambition to be the world’s first Smart Nation; integrating full use of technology to live, work and play; to create an improved quality of life for its citizens and futuristic business opportunities for global enterprises. From humming WiFi in every building to the automated Electronic Parking System (EPS) that controls traffic and parking payments in your daily drive about town, there are a multitude of ways in which life in Singapore is made easier thanks to technology, each of which evolve and are integrated as quickly as the need arises.
Singapore is a city brimming with confidence about the future, sure of its place on the world stage despite its small size and with a population happy to be compliant with the renowned political control and order when that means they can all enjoy the fruits of this tropical city state.Those living as an expat in Singapore will also quickly find any initial misgivings replaced by the seduction of living in a city where everything works efficiently. First world citizenship is a tough club to leave.
Combine this easy living with access to a rich and varied community of international friends, a low tax rate, globally competitive schools and a safe and secure environment and you start to understand why Singapore can never be described as a hardship posting. As the Singaporean’s themselves would say, if you are moving to Singapore you are very lucky, lah.
However, be warned, Singapore doesn’t come cheap and it is regularly listed as one of the world’s most expensive cities in which to live. So, unless you are one of the lucky few still able to negotiate an expat package with housing and education, you will want to do your financial homework before you even consider leaving home.
Whether you are British or not, and therefore by default obsessed by weather, your first impression of Singapore will undoubtedly revolve around its weather. Heat, rain and humidity; Singapore is right on the equator and you cannot fail to notice it. The temperature dial rarely deviates from 24°C (75°F) to 32°C (90°F) with 90% humidity in the air: the lowest recorded temperature ever being 19°C (66.2°F) back in 1989 when Singaporeans gleefully dressed in scarves and jumpers for a mere 24 hours.
Rain falls like you have never seen before; tropical rain and thunder lands somewhere on the island for a portion of every day. You’ll learn to never follow the weather apps as to do so would lead you to believe that it only ever rained, instead you follow the WBR rule, wind before rain, when the wind picks up you can be sure the rain will quickly follow. But the sun will just as quickly follow too.
Even the wettest of mornings can give way to the sunniest of afternoons with no hint of the deluge that recently occurred. You will miss the seasons as you know them but will instead learn to identify the rainy seasons; the very wet Northeast monsoon from December to February and the slightly milder Southwest monsoon from June to September.
Don’t, however, be fooled into thinking this means you can leave your warm clothes behind. Air conditioning abounds in offices, shops, homes and a trip to the cinema or theatre will leave you shivering.
All this heat, rain and humidity combines to create the perfect environment for mould and damp to thrive so don’t be surprised to find that the pages of your favourite books start to curl, your photos stick to their glass frames and your soft furnishings quickly start to rot. Best to leave it all behind. And let’s face it, your grandparents’ antique chairs are never going to look quite right in your new tropical abode. Embrace the tropical living and you will do just fine, and that includes your new frizzy hair (although expat hairdressers do a roaring trade in straightening treatments if you can’t take it any more).
The drive from Changi airport to the centre of town is the perfect first 20 minute introduction to Singapore, for that is exactly how long it will take you; Singapore is only 42 km at its widest point. As you drive along the Express way (you can take the PIE or the AYE, Singapore loves its acronyms, and pronounces them as individual letters not as a whole, it is P, I, E, not PIE as in apple pie), the pretty flower lined roads give way to the glass buildings of the CBD and the iconic sky line of Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer.
Should you be driven in by taxi, this may also be your first introduction to Singlish, colloquial Singapore English. Your taxi uncle, the Singlish reference for any elder man (substitute auntie for woman) will want to chat. Engaging in this chat will be your first cultural language immersion with direct questions about what you have eaten, how much you earn and the cost of the house/apartment you plan to live in. Don’t take affront, this is how the Singaporeans roll.
Singapore has four official and equal languages, English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay & Tamil. You will most commonly note this on health and safety signs at construction sites and will become proficient at understanding ‘Danger – Keep Out’ in all four languages. For day to day use however you will most commonly see and converse in English but will frequently overhear shop or service staff engaging with one another in one of the other three languages.
English is the predominant language of education in all schools, local and international alike, as since the 1970s the Singapore government prudently decided it wanted Singaporeans to communicate easily on a global level.
However, don’t be surprised if you often find yourself hearing but not understanding what you think is English. Chances are you are being spoken to in Singlish. As already mentioned, Singlish is the local colloquially blended use of English. Every day words and phrases are abbreviated or given a slightly different slant. ‘Can’ is the affirmative answer for most things. No prizes for guessing when ‘cannot’ is used. Other common phrases include ‘ang moh’ for foreigner, ‘siao’ for crazy and ‘shiok’ for cool. It sounds confusing but actually it’s amazing how quickly you attune your ear and even find yourself going local and slipping into Singlish the second you step foot in a taxi or shop.
Thoughts of any family move generally prompts two immediate questions; will the children make new friends easily and can we bring our pets? The answer to both of these, in regards to Singapore, is a resounding yes.
Singapore is well suited to family life and in fact you find many a family leaving Hong Kong, Japan or another destination with the express intention of landing in Singapore. One of the city’s big draws is the space and greenery. Singapore is also known as the Garden City with its plethora of green spaces and integration of nature into built up areas. In any one day your children can swim off the beach, hike in the jungle, cycle the park connector routes or simply splash in a water park. Pollution levels are low and families are spoilt with choice on whether to live in a house with a garden or condominium with fantastic shared facilities and green space.
Singapore is a friendly, welcoming city with existing families swiftly reaching out to connect with new families on arrival. After all, we’ve all been the newbie at least once ourselves. International schools are used to a constant stream of new arrivals and have strong buddy systems in place with schools such as Dover Court International School and German European School Singapore matching up whole family buddies and others such as Tanglin Trust School offering new family coffee mornings. Rest assured that in no time at all you and your children will all find it easy to meet and make new friends.
As for pets? Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, bring them all. There are many open spaces and dog walking areas where new friendships are formed, both four and two legged. Other than the eye-watering expense of shipping animals there are few downsides to letting your furry friend enjoy your new home with you.
Setting up home in Singapore is relatively easy compared to many other cities as service providers, and especially utility providers, are generally highly organised and efficient. Power is supplied by SP Services who are also the agent for the water board. One of Singapore’s four telecom companies (Singtel, Starhub, TPG Telecom and M1) can provide you with a fixed phone line. There isn’t much to choose between them. Starhub can also provide you with cable TV which you may want for following sport, but most expats simply enjoy Netflix, Apple TV or Amazon Prime by way of watching their favourite shows.
Your estate agent might help you contact the relevant service provider. You may need to supply them with a copy of your employment pass and tenancy agreement as proof of residency. Itemized bills will be sent monthly.
Don’t get excited that living in Asia means access to cheaper technology. Gone are those days and with global pricing policies in place, an Apple or Samsung phone will cost the same here as in London or New York. However the good news is that contracts are relatively cheap by international standards and with a competitive market there are always new deals on offer. But if you are in the market for a good quality second-hand phone, think teenagers, head down to Sim Lim Square and get haggling.
Accommodation in Singapore often comes with a maid’s room, though you would be forgiven if you mistook it for a broom cupboard. Plenty of locals and expats have live-in maids known locally as ‘helpers’. Most are from the Philippines, though some come from Indonesia or Sri Lanka and nearly all speak English to some level. A maid’s role is negotiable but will generally involve cleaning and cleaning and some degree of looking after children and pets.
Though many expats feel uncomfortable at first at the thought of having a stranger living in their home, those that take the plunge are overwhelmingly happy with their decision. Plenty decide against it, however, and manage perfectly well without.
Should you decide to look into employing a maid, contact an agency, who will find you a maid for a fee, or look on the notice boards at shopping centres popular with expats for recommendations. Expats leaving the country will advertise the availability of their maid to help her find work: if the maid doesn’t find new employment, her former employer will have to pay to repatriate her (a maid can only stay in Singapore for as long as she is employed, plus a short time to look for more work after her employment contact ends, so you might be repatriating her all the way back to her home country).
Whether you find a maid through an agency, a notice board, or word of mouth, it is always a good idea to interview the maid at least once and speak to the former employer to try to get her honest opinion of her maid’s strengths and weaknesses. A good maid is a wonderful luxury which does not cost the earth and it’s worth putting a bit of effort into finding the right one.
Once you have set up home, you’ll want to venture out. Getting around is easy. Public transport is cheap, clean and efficient and taxis are plentiful, except on a rainy Monday morning when they are scarce on the ground. The Mass Rapid Transit system (the MRT, Singapore’s subway) and Light Rapid Transit system (LRT) cover the most heavily populated parts of the island. There is also a fantastic network of bus routes. Taxis can be flagged down anywhere, or found at taxi stands and hotels. Taxi companies, ComfortDelGro, Grab Taxi and GoJek all operate off apps although you can still dial up a cab from local firm, ComfortDelGro, if you are feeling old school.
If you would rather drive yourself around, you had better have a deep pocket. The number of cars on the road is restricted by the government and car prices are high. Every vehicle owner must pay registration fees and road tax, and have a Certificate of Entitlement (COE), the price of which varies month-to-month. On top of that, cars are heavily taxed and the total cost of getting a car on the road can be extortionate. The second-hand market, however, is strong and there are some real bargains to be had if you do your homework.
Try looking in the classifieds of the local papers. Older vehicles are not popular with locals and often the more affordable option chosen by expats. Renting is also an option but is not necessarily cheaper than buying. Whether you rent or buy, if you drive over here you will need to convert your licence to a Singaporean one within 12 months of your arrival. All you will need to do is pass a Basic Theory Test. Whatever car you end up with, it might take you a while to get used to local driving idiosyncrasies: traffic moves slowly and drivers tend to veer between lanes at will; few local drivers will give you space to change lanes and signalling is erratic at best. Road signs are plentiful though.
A trip down Orchard Road at the weekend will reveal another local obsession: shopping. The number and variety of shops in Singapore is staggering. Orchard Road is lined with shopping centres selling instantly recognisable international brands as well as local products. Well-known American and European designers have flagship stores here. This is not the place to try and strike a bargain, as there are fixed prices in most of the stores.
A bit more off the beaten track, and a world away from the modern shopping centres of Orchard Road, is Dempsey Road, a former army barracks which houses a mix of antique and furniture shops, as well as many good wine bars and restaurants - should you start wilting in the heat. In Chinatown you can buy cheap and cheerful jewellery and clothes, as well as good quality Chinese furniture and antiques. Or you could bargain for silks and saris alongside tourists and locals in Arab Street and Little India.
Also popular are the appropriately named “expat fairs”, the most popular of which, Boutique Fair, is held twice a year in the huge F1 Pit Building and draws local and expat businesses alike selling a good selection of locally-made and imported clothes, furniture, toys and accessories, amongst other things. You will always bump into people you know at these fairs. You can buy pretty much anything you need in Singapore, plus a whole lot more. Only larger sized clothes and shoes are difficult to find, mainly because the local population are so petite, so stock up before you come.
Western food stuffs including organic food, gluten-free and other specialist ranges, are readily available at most supermarkets, the most ubiquitous of which are Cold Storage and NTUC Fairprice. Jason’s and The Marketplace are slightly more expensive than most but they have more imported goods from Europe and the States (both US and Australia), and the quality of food is high. All of these supermarkets offer online shopping and home delivery services as well.
Some locals and a few expats (or their maids) shop for food at wet markets which, as you can probably guess, are so called because of the water that sloshes around on the floors. Shopping here is totally different from anything you are likely to experience back home: the smell of fish, poultry, herbs and spices is strong; the heat and noise can be overwhelming. A trip here is definitely an assault on the senses but if you are feeling adventurous and fancy trying some chickens’ feet or making a fish head curry, then this is where you might find what you’re looking for.
In addition there are some wonderful luxury food providers such as Sasha’s Fine Foods and The Fishwives if you are looking for the finest quality meat and fish from hand-picked and trusted sources around the world.
If you would rather eat out, then you won’t have to go far from home: there are eating places on virtually every street. For an authentic Singaporean experience, try one of the hawker centres or food courts, collections of food stalls that provide good, local food, and occasionally some western food, for as little as S$8 or S$10. Hawker centres are outdoor and very basic whereas food courts are inside, often located in the basements of shopping centres. Places that are popular with locals and expats include Newton Circus and Lau Pa Sat in the CBD.
Restaurants are too numerous and varied to attempt to list, but if you head to the river (Boat Quay, Clarke Quay or Robertson Quay) or to Holland Village, then you will have plenty to choose from. Less touristy places to try include Club Street and the surrounding areas (between Chinatown and the CBD) or Dempsey. New places spring up all the time.
Prices at restaurants vary enormously but, wherever you are, your bill will soar if you order anything alcoholic. For those who want to drink at leisure without breaking the bank, try one of the fabulous Sunday brunches held at all the big hotels, where you can eat and drink as much as you want for a set price.
When moving abroad, health and safety are common concerns but there is little to worry about if you are relocating to Singapore: the standard of health care is amongst the highest in the world and crime rates are very low. Although there are public hospitals, most are private and you will have to pay for any treatment or medication you receive. Most expats have insurance provided by their employer. Many clinics have a walk-in service and if you need to see a specialist, you can usually get an appointment the same day if not an online appointment with your prescription delivered to your door in minutes.
There is no malaria in Singapore, but Dengue Fever is something you should guard against: although it occurs infrequently, it’s nasty and in extreme cases, fatal. As for crime, well of course there is some, though much of it is petty, not violent: you hear of the odd bag being snatched, or purse being stolen, but it is safe to walk around on your own at any time of the day or night and women are not pestered. Security at embassies, family clubs and international schools is in place, but expats here don’t feel threatened in any way in their day-to-day lives
Typically Singaporean, banks here are modern and efficient. You can open an account and get your ATM card and cheque book in a matter of minutes. Requirements vary from bank to bank but generally you will need to have your employment card and contract (or a dependent’s pass for non-working spouses) and a mailing address to set up an account. The biggest local banks are the United Overseas Bank (UOB), the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) and the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC). They have ATMs all over the island. The big international banks are here too, should you need them, although they have a very restricted number of ATMs. Credit cards are widely accepted in shops and restaurants with contactless payment the preferred option by most.
Treats and travel
New residents and tourists alike will want to sip an obligatory Singapore Sling at the Long Bar in the legendary Raffles Hotel; see the orchids at the Botanical Gardens; visit the fantastic Singapore Zoo and Night Safari; maybe have a couple of beers on the man-made beach on Sentosa Island or enjoy the sun setting with a cocktail at the rooftop terrace bar at Marina Bay Sands. Less touristy time-fillers include a visit to the old colonial (est. 1886) but surprisingly unpretentious Singapore Polo Club, where you can have tea on the terrace whilst watching a match, or join locals on a trip to East Coast Park to cycle, roller blade and have lunch.
There are plenty of green spaces to let the kids run around in, many of which have playgrounds and picnic areas. If you are really stuck for things to do, then one of the best things about this place is that it is so easy to get away. With budget airlines making trips abroad highly affordable, it is common to jump on a plane to Bali, Thailand or Malaysia for the weekend, all of which are just one or two hours away. Singapore is enjoyed as much for its proximity to other destinations as a city in its own right.
It’s easy to get used to this spotlessly clean, efficient city state, where there’s virtually no crime or obvious poverty. It’s hard to imagine giving up the swimming pools, balmy weather, Tiger Beer, cheap taxis and chicken rice. The quality of life here is good. It’s always summertime in Singapore, and the living is easy.