January 30 Pamela MacNaughtan

8 Things I Didn’t Know Before Moving to Singapore

About the AuthorEdna is a Pennsylvanian who recently graduated with a degree in political science she never plans on using. After a year and a half of studying, teaching, writing (and making the occasional Gaelic football appearance) in China, she moved to Singapore to work for the Youth Olympic Games and is currently working on an Asian supermodel reality tv show, while wondering daily how she got here. You can follow her adventures at Expat Edna and on twitter @ednacz


Eight months ago, I couldn’t tell you where Singapore was on a map. It was a month to go until graduation, and while I’d started planning my escape abroad, I had no clue where to actually run off to. Speaking to a best friend from college one night, he revealed his company was planning on transferring him to Singapore for a few months. “I’ll have a spare room, want to come live with me?”

I paused to consider the implications of moving to a country I barely knew a thing about and frankly, never had the desire to check out.

“Sure, why not.

Two months later, off I was to sunny Singapore with all my worldly possessions in one suitcase and one backpack. Before I left though, I thought I’d get some advice on this tropical island from my more well-traveled friends. What I heard wasn’t exactly heartening: Singapore’s boring. Singapore’s expensive. Singapore’s only good for a couple days, max. Food is good, though (Okay, so that last part was actually kind of heartening).

Six months later, even though the college buddy who brought me out has gone home, I’m still here, still exploring all that Singapore has to offer. I’ll admit I had my doubts, but life here is better than I ever could have imagined it to be post-graduation. Ultimately, I’m glad I booked that one way ticket and took that shot in the dark – not least because now I finally know where to find Singapore on the map.

Myth #1: Singapore is expensive

Merlion and MBS

True. For the most part, anyway. While, like most countries, you can find your splurges and steals, in general the base costs in Singapore are higher. Rent and auto prices are through the roof due to the land-vs-population ratio (a $20,000 Honda in the US will run you about $100,000 in Singapore). Of course, perspective also depends on where you’re coming from: my European friends find most living costs totally bearable, whereas those who’ve been around the Asia block cringe at the thought of even a three dollar can of beer, as they’re used to it being cheaper than water in say Thailand or Vietnam. What everyone does agree on though, is that alcohol prices can be pretty outrageous. A pint at the bar or club is usually S$12-16 dollars; anything below S$10 is a steal.

That’s not to say everything costs your first-born child. A filling meal at a hawker centre runs you S$4-6, and the MRT (subway) system costs about a dollar a ride and is so well-planned, there are very few instances where you’d find it absolutely necessary to take a taxi.

Myth #2: Singapore is one giant shopping mall

ION Orchard

False. Of course a general sweeping statement like that is bound to be false, but really, it’s not far off. It’s oft-said the Singaporeans have two favorite national pastimes: eating and shopping. (Not far off from this is their love for blasting air con everywhere.) There are a LOT of malls in Singapore. And they are always packed. If you love window shopping and/or not being able to escape floor upon floor of Asian crowds, Singapore malls are the place for you.

Myth #3: Singapore is hot. Really hot

Botanical Gardens, Singapore

True, obviously. What else would you expect living one degree above the equator? They still have four seasons though: hot, hotter, rainy, rainier. It’s really not so bad though; as I mentioned, there is quite the love affair with air conditioning here.

Myth #4: Singapore is clean and efficient.

MBS Infinity Pool

True. This might be another one of those perspective things, but coming from a couple years in China, I personally find Singapore a fantastically well-oiled city. I feel totally safe walking around back alleyways at 3 am on my way home. Impressive island-wide insect control ensures that even I, the tastiest mosquito morsel in the world, can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been bitten in Singapore. If there’s the rare occasion you see a graffiti-ed wall, rest assured it will be painted over by morning. People actually wait for the other passengers to get off a subway car before entering! I mean, I’ve never once gotten a dirty or crumpled dollar bill – even the money is clean. And forget about littering or jaywalking – even when nobody’s watching, you can’t help but feel somewhat badwhen you do it.

Myth #5: Singapore is so strict, chewing gum’s illegal

Protected Sign Singapore

False. Yes, caning is still an allowed form of punishment, and yes, there is a fine for almost everything, including bringing durian fruit on the MRT; and yes, there might be cameras all over the island watching you….but no, chewing gum is not illegal. The importing and selling of it is, though, so the place to get your gum fix will be at your local pharmacy.

Myth #6: Singapore is a Melting Pot

Hindu temple Singapore

True. Having spent my summers growing up in Shanghai, I never really experienced true culture shock when I moved to China. So I certainly didn’t expect to encounter much of it when I moved to Singapore, a pretty Westernized country. However I was surprised, and my culture shock manifested itself in how I found myself feeling constantly aware of just how blissfully unaware people seemed to be of each other here. Churches and temples and mosques all stand peacefully within blocks of each other; public holidays are given for not just Christian holidays but also Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu ones. A subway car could be full of Singaporeans, Indians, Africans, Europeans, and no one bats an eye. Everyone just…coexists. Of course after time I came to learn that there are racial tensions, like anywhere else in the world, but the degree to which everyone tolerates other cultures is highly laudable in comparison to other countries.

Myth #7: Singapore is a foodie paradise

Hawker Centre

True. I wouldn’t generally even consider myself a foodie, but I can see where Singapore’s appeal is well-deserved. Going along the lines of Myth #5 above, the fusion of cultures over the years has led to a fantastically diverse smorgasbord of options across the island. It’s simple to satisfy almost any craving that may strike – Italian, French, American and other Western cuisine restaurants abound (although quality Mexican is still lacking, but as I’m from Pennsylvania it’s not as huge a contention point for me as it is for the Californians). And of course there are your more local southeast Asian cuisines, which you can switch up at any hawker centre, walking between stalls of Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese food. Singaporeans get pretty defensive about their favorite stalls as well: go to any hawker centre at lunchtime and you’ll see people gladly waiting in line for half an hour for their favorite three dollar bowl of noodles. If you ever find yourself in a hawker centre at a loss for what to eat, go to that stall.

Myth #8: Singapore is Asia light/ Sterile/ Boring

Sunset from my apartment window

It’s no secret, Singapore is largely a financial hub. Until very recently, it was the world’s largest trading port. My first couple months here, every time I met someone new, I’d ask: “Lawyer or banker?”  because it was almost guaranteed one or the other. The average age of the expats here I’d say are early 30s, and at 21 I’m not just the youngest, but I’m a baby in comparison to the rest of my friends. It’s not a place you come to find work (as I learned the hard, expensive way), it’s a place you get sent after establishing your career a bit. Singapore is often where the Asia expats land when they’re ready to settle down from their wild days and start a family, but still want to maintain an Asian base.

So the final question remains. After six months here, do I agree with everyone who says Singapore is ultimately boring? No. Of course not. I can see how for the passing-through traveler, Singapore doesn’t have the excitement of its cheaper, wilder neighbors. I understand that to many, the Full Moon Party sounds infinitely more exciting than the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo (highly recommended, though). So yes, you have to establish your social circle a bit; so you have to make your own fun, so you occasionally book a cheap flight for a weekend away to combat cabin fever. Six months later, I’m still here, still exploring all that Singapore has to offer. I’ll admit I had my doubts, but life here is better than I ever could have imagined it to be post-graduation. Ultimately I’m glad I booked that one way ticket and gave took that shot in the dark – not least because now I finally know where to find Singapore on the map.

Resources

  • There are several travel guidebooks for Singapore, the one I recommend is Lonely Planet Singapore. Over the years, I have used several different guidebooks, and Lonely Planet has been the most reliable brand thus far.
  • Singapore: A Biography – One of the more enjoyable biographies I have read about a country, this book by Mark Ravinder Frost was written in collaboration with the National Museum of Singapore. I highly recommend reading this book before visiting or moving to Singapore.
  • Don’t leave home without: All-in-one universal adapter, Singapore map (makes exploring a lot easier), and chopsticks (you can find them anywhere, but I prefer to travel with my own).

About the Author

Pamela MacNaughtan I'm a travel writer and photographer who specializes in bespoke travel experiences. I write about boutique, savvy and cultural travel. My writing has been featured in Outpost Magazine, Travel + Escape, and UP! Magazine.

Comments (18)

  1. I spent two and a half months in Singapore about ten years ago and it sounds like it hasn’t changed too much. I really liked it and would consider moving there now that I’m older (was 21 too, haha) Have you been inside the new casino complex? Looks spectacular! ~Andrea

  2. KimKs

    I love this post. I really liked Singapore even though lots of backpackers told us the same things about it being boring and one big shopping mall. There is a lot more to discover if you give it a chance. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  3. Great post! I spend a few days in Singapore during my RTW trip and have a photo of that same warning sign! I must say, the alcohol prices were insanely high… but it was a pleasant place to visit. Thanks for sharing your tips.

  4. Cool article about Singapore. I’ve only spent a few days in the city and I mostly focused on avoiding the shopping and solely focusing my attention on points #6 and #7, the melting pot and food! The diversity of cultures and people from around the world living together in Singapore is amazing…and the food that comes with it, is a true highlight!

  5. My family is from Singapore and I’ve been there countless times. It’s definitely not the cheapest Asian city or has the biggest party atmosphere – but I love the food and the shopping. I love how you can be at an expensive shopping mall filled with luxury brands and still go to the food hall for a cheap meal!

  6. After reading the article we have come to know many things about Singapore. People who are planning to visit Singapore will get something informative. Those who want to visit Singapore should apply for Singapore visa or they can apply for visa on arrival if they produce the return ticket.

  7. Nina

    Your post is definitely helpful. My husband & I have moved to Bombay,India 2 years ago after living in U.S for years. We went to school there and though I’m not from India when he decided he wants to explore the opportunities there, I agreed. Now after living here 2 years we have our doubts. It’s definitely expensive (maybe not as expensive as Singapore but not as cheap as the other Indian cities) & it is crowded and dirty. There is no quality of life. So we are looking back into moving. Our options are going back to U.S which doesn’t excite me anymore or Singapore or Australia. Can anyone suggest what is the best route of moving to Singapore if you are not one of those expats sent by your company? If you have to do it on your own?

  8. Jen

    I have to say this is really informative and really helpful. Theres a 50/50 shot ill end up doing the exact same thing, moving in with a college friend who’s going there for a Doctorate. I’m 21 now, by then, I’ll probably be about 23, but I’ve found there is such slim advice written BY that age group FOR that age group and this has been really helpful. Between the college bills, and the first time move its nerve wracking but this sets my mind at ease quite a bit 🙂 Though, any advice for someone who will have a B.A. in Creative Writing, minor in Art? Hows the job market?

    Again this is very helpful and thank you!

  9. Mark

    Nice article. Very insightful. After living in Europe for many years I an accustomed to getting around the city on bicycle, what is the infrastructure like in Singapore for cyclists. Do they have bike lanes? Can someone ride to work if inclined?

    • Nutsoid Singaporean

      There is no infrastructure for cyclists. The roads are packed and everyone is in a hurry. We would happily run down a cyclist if we didnt have laws against killing people in tights

  10. paul chapman

    Great advice – I know Sing a little and am thinking about relocating there (with wife plus multiple daughters) and thoughtful balanced pieces like this are v useful. You seem to have a good, sensible outlook on life and I wish you well with everything.

  11. Edward Shaw

    This is a most well rounded bit of information. I am so glad to see someone only twenty one years old presenting such a mature and well grounded view of another country/culture.
    Thank you so much and your writing is great, your sense of humor subtle and ticklish. You should really consider continuing along this line as a serious hobby or even as a partial career.

    I have entertained the idea of escaping to Singapore for the peaceful, environmentally conscious, and all-round quality life! I am surprised to hear that it is that expensive though. I love the weather and just about everything else-especially the mixed population…and yes, there are, no matter where we are, the underpinnings of ethnic, religious, and regional differences. Glad to hear it is not as pronounced in Singapore though.

    How is it for older folk who want to still work-say in education, and look toward retirement in ten to 20 years?

    Thank you again for this post.

    Ed.

  12. I moved to Singapore last year for a year long assignment and am in love with this place for 3 reasons. Singapore is one country in Asia that opens its arms wide enough to accept different religions, cultures and backgrounds. Not once did I feel I was not a part of this country. Second, the food is really amazing. From the local 5$ street food to the 30$ restaurant food, I have had an amazing experience trying different cuisines. Lastly, the shopping! I’ve mostly stuck to the street shopping but I am just amazed at the quality you get in return for 10sgd.

  13. I have been to Singapore thrice before, the first time over 16 yrs ago and recently twice. I have never found it boring, and as for the great shopping, I head to Arab street or Little India. Love the Mustafa Centre and the wet markets. Food! YES! cheap – why go to a fancy resto when you can chill out in a hawker centre or canteen. I would miss the good wine one can buy in Oz , NZ and Europe. The only thing boring about Singapore are all of this bland overpriced designer clothing stores. My husband and I plus our two ‘kids’ ( one BSH cat and a beagle) are about to move to Singapore. The one thing we dread is that it is not so pet friendly and the stifling heat.

  14. Sue Carswell

    After the U.S. election results of Nov. 8, I am looking for a country that values different religions and ethnic groups. It sure isn’t the U.S. of A. As a retired teacher and an old person I wonder/wish I could make it in another country and Singapore sounds amazing.

  15. I recently got transfer in Singapore previously i was not agree to go there but after reading this blog. I will be happy to go there such a interesting places there i will love to enjoy. Thanx for sharing with us.

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