You might have heard that it’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore and that you could be arrested for jaywalking, littering and not flushing the toilet. You might have been told that it’s a dull, sterile place and, if you’re about to move here, that you’ll be bored.
You won’t. It is true that Singapore is tightly regulated, and that it is unlikely, at present, to be voted the world’s most exciting city by Vanity Fair, Time magazine or whatever publications print such polls. But Singapore is surprisingly seductive. Things have loosened up here and although perhaps it still lacks the excited chaos and buzz of some other Asian cities, Singapore is definitely not the booby prize in the lottery of expat postings. It is an easy, comfortable place to live and a hard place to leave.
Whatever time of year you arrive, whatever time of day or night, as you step out of the airport, the heat and humidity will hit you like a wall. The weather in Singapore is, I’ll admit, boringly predictable with temperatures ranging from 24°C (75°F) to 32°C (90°F): great if you want to maintain a year-round tan but not if you enjoy the changing seasons. That doesn’t mean you won’t need something warm to throw on from time to time. Every building is air conditioned, often to what seems like freezing point, and a trip to the cinema is akin to a trip to the Antarctic. Rain falls most days somewhere on the island, often in torrential downpours, and there is little to distinguish the rainy season (November to January) from any other time of the year.
The drive into the city from Changi airport is a wonderful introduction to Singapore life. The roads are pristine and palm-tree lined and you will see breathtaking views of the river and Central Business District (CBD) with its soaring skyscrapers, especially if you arrive after dark. Your driver will almost certainly speak English, or a Singaporean variation known as Singlish, and he’ll be keen to chat. Be warned, he is quite likely to ask some rather personal questions: it isn’t considered rude to show interest in a stranger’s marital and financial circumstances. Football is also quite likely to be a topic of conversation as a lot of Singaporeans are fans of the game.
Once you have settled into your hotel or serviced apartment and recovered from your jet-lag, you will need to start looking for your new home. Space is limited in Singapore. The main island has a total land area of just 680 square km, an area roughly the same size as the Isle of Wight. As a consequence, buildings tend to go up, rather than out, and a large proportion of residents live in condominiums.
85% of Singaporeans live in high rise apartments built by the Housing and Development Board. Most residents of these HDBs, as they are known, have bought their home, and the housing estates in which they are located are generally very well-maintained. HDBs are well-served by public transport and have their own shops and eating places. However, the facilities and the ambience of the estates do not compare favourably with private condominiums, and recreational facilities pale in comparison. Although rental on an HDB is much cheaper than the alternatives, the number of HDBs available for rent is quite heavily restricted. As a consequence, only a small minority of expats explore this option.
Private condominiums, however, are very popular with expats and come in all shapes and sizes. Some condos have as many as thirty floors but there are plenty of low-rise apartments too. They can be found all over the island and come fully or partially furnished, or totally empty. They offer a wide range of facilities, all of which are free to residents: almost all have a pool, and often a separate children’s pool; many have gyms, tennis courts and bar-b-q pits; some of the larger or more exclusive condos have squash courts, a driving range and even a tardis-like shop, crammed with everyday essentials. Although private outside space is limited, ground floor condos sometimes have a small private patio, and condos on higher floors often have balconies - most of which are, or can be made, child-friendly. Private condos are very secure with guards on site 24 hours a day. One of the best things about condo-life though, especially for newcomers to Singapore, is that it is very easy for you and your children to meet people: many a firm friendship has been formed at the condo’s playground or pool.
If living in an apartment doesn’t really appeal, then there are plenty of houses to suit all budgets. Few modern homes, whether they are terraced, semi-detached or detached, have much in the way of outside space (a small yard or garden generally) or facilities, although some squeeze in a pool. For those wanting a large garden, an old colonial house, known as a black and white (refers to facades: white walls with black woodwork), is a better option. These government owned properties were formerly the homes of British army officers and civil servants.
Though there are a few small black and whites, many are palatial with separate maid’s quarters and plenty of space for a pool in their huge gardens. They are hard to come by, however, and you might have to put your name on a waitlist to get one. If you are lucky enough to find one, it won’t come cheap. On top of high rents, you, the tenant, will be responsible for fitting out the property and for maintaining it. You might, for example, have to buy air conditioning units and white goods (appliances), and pay for pool maintenance, a gardener, and someone to come and kill the bugs every week. As well as unwelcome visitors of the insect variety, don’t be surprised if you get the odd visit from a snake or two.
If you are looking for something out of the ordinary, but don’t fancy the hassle of a black and white, or simply can’t find or afford one, then have a look at a shophouse. These terraced houses are so named because their original owners operated a business on the ground floor and lived upstairs. Built in the 19th and 20th centuries and left to rack and ruin for years, many have now been restored and house restaurants, shops and offices. Some are used as private homes. They are usually two or three stories high, quite often brightly coloured and have no outside space, apart from an occasional roof terrace. Many are beautiful inside but not all are child friendly, with koi ponds and open staircases. Shophouses are generally centrally located.
With all condos and houses, prices vary enormously depending on size, location and condition of the property. Find yourself a good estate agent, give them a list of your requirements and let them do the leg work for you. They will drive you round to view suitable properties, and probably a few that are totally wrong for you. You won’t have to pay an agent’s fee unless the lease is under S$2,500 a month or for a black and white. It’s worth knowing that agents split a percentage of the rent you pay with the landlord’s own agent, so they might not always work that hard to get the landlord to accept the lowest possible rent.
The standard rental agreement is for two years with an option to renew for one year. Make sure the agreement includes a diplomatic clause that will enable you to break the lease if you leave Singapore. A typical diplomatic clause will state that if you leave Singapore or cease working there during the first 12 months of the lease then the landlord will be paid 14 months’ rent, covering the first year plus two months’ rent for the two months’ notice that is required. Thereafter, you can break the lease without penalty if you leave Singapore.
Having decided the type of accommodation you want, you then have to decide on location. Few people who work in the Central Business District (the CBD, in the south central part of the island) have the luxury of being able to walk to work as there are only a few houses or apartments in this area. There is an abundance of property within10 minutes drive, however. Popular places include River Valley Road, which is lined by condos, and Orchard Road, the main shopping street in Singapore, which has condos and a few houses - including the gorgeous shophouses on Emerald Hill, lying just behind the many shopping centres. Tanglin Road is at the top end of Orchard Road and has condos and some fabulous houses. These are prime districts, however, and prices are high.
Slightly further afield, to the west, the cosmopolitan Bukit Timah and Holland Village are hugely popular with expats, though there are still plenty of locals in the area. There is an abundance of good restaurants and bars in these areas and they are close to a few of the international schools, all of which adds to their appeal. Transport links are improving, too, with a new MRT station due to open soon. Whilst property in Bukit Timah and Holland Village comes at a premium, areas such as Queenstown and Clementi, which are close by, are more affordable.
The East Coast area, which runs along the southeastern coast towards the airport, also has its fans. Proximity to the airport and East Coast Park, with its beach-front restaurants, picnic areas and cycle paths, are big selling points. New condos which line the East Coast Parkway have sea views and excellent facilities, and houses often have more outside space than those that are centrally located. Rents here are much lower, too, although this is not enough of an incentive to go east for some who feel that the 20 to 30 minute drive to and from city is too far to travel. Also further afield, 30 –40 minutes drive to the north, Woodlands is popular with American expats mainly because of its proximity to the American School.
Sorting out utilities should be hassle-free, as service providers in Singapore are generally highly organised and efficient. Power is supplied by SP Services who are also agent for the water board. One of Singapore’s three phone companies (Singtel, Starhub 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 expats are generally quite keen to install: local channels show some popular American and British series and films but many programmes are produced locally and are quite unsophisticated. 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.
Mobile phones are a bit of an obsession in Singapore: nearly everyone has one. Although mobile phones, or hand phones as they are known over here, can be expensive, calls are relatively cheap by international standards. There are also big discounts if you subscribe for a fixed period, as opposed to buying a pre-paid SIM card. This is a competitive market and there are always new deals on offer.
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. Most are from the Philippines, though some come from Indonesia or Sri Lanka and nearly all speak English to varying degrees. Salaries start as low as S$350 per month for Philippino maids and even less for other nationalities. A more experienced maid, especially one who has worked for expat families, will expect to be paid more: S$500- 700. A maid’s role is negotiable. Some employ their maid to cook and clean. Others, especially families with both parents working, employ a maid primarily to look after their children. Most maids do a bit of both. 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 and new MRT stations are popping up all over the island. There is also a fantastic network of bus routs. Taxis can be flagged down anywhere, or found at taxi stands and hotels. Taxi companies all offer a dial-a-cab service for a small fee.
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 now houses a mix of antique and furniture shops, as well as a couple of good wine bars and restaurants - should you start wilting in the heat. Another quieter, less well-known place to shop, especially good if you are setting up home, is Lock Road which has a couple of good, though expensive, furniture shops. 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”, a few of which are held every month in big hotels or stores frequented by expats. A collection of businesses, usually set up and run by expat wives, sell 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 are readily available at most supermarkets, the most ubiquitous of which are Cold Storage and NTUC Fairprice. Carrefour also has a local presence and is popular amongst Singaporeans and expats. 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.
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.
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$3 or S$4. 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 chose from. Less touristy places to try include Club Street and the surrounding areas (between Chinatown and the CBD) or Rochester Park. 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.
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, expat clubs and international schools has tightened up since the terrorist attacks in Bali, 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.
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, 10 minutes drive from the city. Less touristy time-fillers include a visit to the old colonial (est. 1886) but surprisingly unpretentious 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 new budget airlines making trips abroad more affordable, it is increasingly common to jump on a plane to Bali, Thailand or Malaysia for the weekend, all of which are just one or two hours away.
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.