Singapore, Singapore Report of what it's like to live there - 12/02/08

Personal Experiences from Singapore, Singapore

Singapore, Singapore 12/02/08

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Second after Sardinia.

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2. How long have you lived here?

4 months.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Spouse is an educator.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

25 hours to New York, one or two legs depending on carrier. Of major airlines, Northwest is generally cheapest, if booked online. Their Asian service isn't noticeably inferior to, say, JAL's, though once you're over American soil, forget about it.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Miami-ish condos with pools and other facilities the norm for expats; most locals live in highrise government housing (HDB flats) that are uniformly ugly: they look like the banlieue suburbs of Paris or Milan, though without the social unrest and bad upkeep of Paris's version. Charm is in short supply in Singapore.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Everything's available. If it's imported from beyond SE Asia, you pay more, but not punishingly more. If you buy American brands, you'll pay on average maybe 30% more than at home. Breakfast cereal is oddly expensive, and beer and wine are ridiculous: an Australian wine retailing at US$8 in US is US$20 and up. We shop at Fairprice and Cold Storage: the first is cheaper, with smaller selection, and smells of durian; the second is standard US-style supermarket with lots of international foods.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

OTC drugs. I would not have shipped any countertop appliances: breadmaker, mixer, etc. Buy local and pay the premium, or expect to ruin your own stuff working out the right converter device, if there is one.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Every fast food franchise known to Americans, and all over the place, plus lots of local franchises (the Breadtalk outlets are my own favorite for street snacks and decent French bread).For some reason the only place I've been able to find a milkshake is Carl Jr.'s. Hawker centers have food cheaper than you can make at home, but their ambience leaves everything to be desired, and the labeling tends to be in Chinese, so sometimes you're surprised at what you've ordered from a luridly-rendered picture. Noisy and chaotic environments, daunting to small children who don't recognize the food. Restaurants in malls have higher standards and higher prices. Stand-alone and hotel restaurants are outside our experience.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Singpost is fine; their version of Express Mail is equal to US.FedEx is all over the place.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Very available. Cost is openended: I've read real horror stories of people liable for their foreign maid's medical expenses. We share a cleaning lady (the U.S. term) with an expat neighbor: she comes in 4 hours a week and cleans a 2 BR flat, does the dishes and the laundry, changes the sheets (but no ironing) for US$50, which may be high by local standards, but she's great. She also comes in when we need a sitter. Lots of people we know have fulltime and even live-in help; my family thrives without it.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Easy. We use DBS bank. Get a local credit card for local purchases.

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Sure, even if you're a Korean Baptist. Almost all churches hew to the conservative end of whatever their doctrine is.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Yes. NYT not so easy to find, WSJ Asia edition S$3.Every imaginable glossy magazine in the few big bookstores.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

None, but often it's difficult to make out what people are telling you on the phone: local schools aim at universal fluency in English, but except at the elite level, they tend to settle for 'Singlish.'

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

There are elevators in subway stations and some wheelchair-adapted public buses. The biggest issue, I think, would be sidewalks: narrow, cluttered with poorly designed street furniture, and with steep and unprotected drops to the drainage ditches that are everywhere to deal with the rainfall.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Left. And the more expensive your car, the ruder you're allowed to be to pedestrians.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Yes.

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3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Cars are expensive to own and use here. Plenty of cabs, decent and cheap bus network, subway is fine for longer trips.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. Not expensive as part of the usual phone/cable package.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Everyone carries one, called a 'handphone' here. Service providers are Singtel and Starhub. We use Starhub, but probably not much difference.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

Probably Skype.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

No pets; but there are retail outlets catering to pet care everywhere here. I wouldn't subject a dog to the climate, myself. It's strange to see Singaporeans walking their huskies: poor beasts!

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Way fewer than six months ago, I imagine.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Casual, unless you're a Muslim woman.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Good so far; we haven't yet experienced the brushburning smoke from Indonesia that people talk about, but clearly it's a real problem. (So why doesn't Singapore government just pay the Indonesians to declare and enforce forested areas as preserves?). On a daily basis, though, most sidewalks are narrow and streets are crowded with buses, taxis, trucks, etc., with little apparent concern about emissions. So if you're walking, you're blasted by exhaust heat and fumes regularly.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Minimal, but local government has a current poster campaign advising "Low crime doesn't mean no crime;" for what it's worth, local friends advise us not to let our 10-year-old travel unaccompanied in Singapore.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Excellent and immediate care:I've had various scans and surgery on a day or two of notice, no complaints at all about several hospital stays and lots of outpatient treatment.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot & humid, intense sun interspersed with bucketing rain. People tell me you adjust to it eventually; I can't wait.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Expensive, oversubscribed, and difficult of access. The American school (SAS) would be an hour on the bus, I'm told, from our west-of-center address, and the school buses cost US$70 or more per month. Our son attends one of the few centrally located international schools (OFS), a short city bus ride from home. OFS shares the usual school issues: huge (most serve K thru 12), crowded (24 kids in a classroom), and hard to create a child's social life around it, since the kids come from all over the island and disperse at the end of the school day. That said, it's great (we keep telling ourselves) that he's with kids from everywhere, and where else would his favorite subject be Mandarin? You will do yourself and your kids a huge service if you insist on a scouting visit here and see the schools you've researched online. We didn't have that opportunity and we came out all right, but we'd have done it all differently if we could.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Most international school websites note specifically that they are not set up for special needs. There is a network of local schools, Association for Persons with Special Needs (one down the block from us), but I don't know whether it follows the same guidelines as other local schools regarding expat applicants: you're the last on the list, with admission possible after citizens and permanent residents have been accommodated. Though waitlists at some schools are short: it's all dependent on local demand and the attitude of individual school principals, I am told.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Huge; Singapore is SE Asia HQ for a lot of multinationals.

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2. Morale among expats:

Depends on sector. Low in financial area at present, others talk about hunkering down in Singapore as a comfortable haven till the storm passes. In our dreams . . .

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Little bit of an arts scene for a city this size: till now it hasn't been an important target for gov't, so not much happens. Theatre in particular is weak. Mostly Hollywood movies, and they don't stay in town long: see it this weekend or wait for the DVD. Restaurants and recreation as noted above.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It ain't New York. A very expensive party town, if you're single. If married and/or with kids, you may find yourself staying tight with other expats, depending on your own and your neighbors' class and status issues. Once you've used up the obvious choices (the zoo, a few hikes in nature preserves, the 'beach' at Sentosa) there isn't a lot of kid-oriented stuff. Actual parks are poorly distributed, and much of the green area is actually just land-banked by gov't for eventual development. The fallback activity for everyone is shopping: AC'd malls everywhere in central areas, each one identical to the next, except those in the highest-end blocks of Orchard Road, which are identical to Rodeo Drive and Rue de Rivoli, except located in a steam room.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Only compared to lots of other Asian cities. We attend the one 'open and affirming' Christian church here, and local and expat members only speak of gender orientation problems in terms of family: the dominant Chinese culture is very conservative, and the overall Christian culture even more so. A number of sex acts are illegal, but private sexuality isn't prosecuted at this point. There are plenty of bars, publications, etc., that cater to GLBT.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Local attitudes are a mess. Caucasian models dominate in local advertising, and there's considerable plastic surgery apparent if you look at girls' eyes. The ethnically Chinese dominate all sought-after job sectors, and the lower the status of a job, the darker the worker's face tends to be. Black Americans are OK, though: coolness trumps reflexive prejudice, as long as you're well-dressed. LikeI said, a mess.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Mentioned above. My favorite places are Pulau Ubin, an island off the north shore of Singapore that's green and undeveloped, few cars, lots of bike rental shops, and VivoCity, one of those horrible malls, but with rooftop run-around playspaces for my son. A rare and special place is the Arts House in a renovated public building downtown, the incubator for most of what passes for culture in Singapore. As above, it ain't New York.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Sad to say, but 'unique local' is hard to come by in Singapore: it works in ways its neighbors can only dream of, but it's a cobbled-together culture whose values, at least as perceived by many outsiders, begin and end at financial success.

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9. Can you save money?

We can't, and we expected to: it's more expensive than we planned on. Our high costs are school fees and regional travel. But it's the only time we'll ever live an hour's flight from Bali, so there you are.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

No. Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, maybe HongKong for a far more exciting living experience in Asia. In comparison Singapore is a one-note town with frills.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Down jacket.

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3. But don't forget your:

Antiperspirant.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Check out Paul Theroux: he's gimlet-eyed about everyplace, but he seems to hate Singapore.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Check out Paul Theroux: he's gimlet-eyed about everyplace, but he seems to hate Singapore.

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

If there were one of interest to any but a local audience . . .

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7. Do you have any other comments?

I wish I were able to be more positive about the place. Lots of people say they love it. If I were interested in shopping and indifferent to the climate, I might agree with them.

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