What is it like living in Singapore? ‘Different’ is the obvious answer (humid also springs to mind), we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto! Clearly, we’re not. But neither, are we somewhere deep in sub-Saharan Africa, miles from the nearest watering hole, being hunted by lions and trying to avoid stepping on scorpions. This is Singapore people, the worlds 3rd richest country (as reported by the IMF anyway), and about as global and multi cultural as you can get.
According to the people at Lonely Planet, the tiny city-state of Singapore is worth a look in, which I certainly agree with! That being said, Singapore does still get more than its fair share of negative press (plenty of examples online like this, or this).
Why? Well, a few reasons come to mind… Radiohead’s fake plastic trees starts to play in my head. The country does really seem to still polarise opinions, and there are plenty of people online who are more than happy to voice those opinions, so where do I sit on this sliding scale? Well, I’ll tell you, read on!
Singapore is an interesting place to live, and there are a number of great things I love about living in the tiny city-state. There are good aspects and bad aspects of living anywhere and I really believe that enjoying a new place is a matter of embracing it, finding the bits you like, and where you can, staying away from the bits you don’t.
So why visit Singapore? To answer this question, you HAVE to start with the food. The variety of cuisine is fantastic, it is literally an Asian food lovers wet-dream (and by that I mean rains a lot here). Also, there are 365 days a year of warm weather which means that you get to wear thongs (flip flops for all you Northerners) every day and save money not buying warm clothes. It’s also certainly possible to do a cheap trip to Singapore despite it’s (deserving) reputation as one of the worlds most expensive cities.
The mash-up of cultures in the country are interesting to witness too, one block over you may as well be in China while a little further down the road it’s as if you’ve materialised in the middle of India. The mishmash of cultures that have been coexisting on this spot almost since the British flipped the Dutch the bird and set up the free-port of Singapore in order to keep selling narcotics to China (douche move England, douche move), still live and work together today. This makes for a vibrant mix of cultures and a very varied city scape separated by only tiny distances.
The other reason many people visit Singapore is of course, for the shopping. Singapore loves to shop.. If going to malls were an Olympic sport, Singapore would take gold, silver and bronze all at once. While it’s not my thing, if you have the money and the inclination to spend it (and wow can you spend it here) Singapore is at the top of the list for one of the best shopping destinations in the world.
Another great aspect of living in Singapore is that efficiency is the name of the game, and as such things tend to ‘just work’ which is really nice. You know the other day I had to wait five (yep you read that right, FIVE) whole minutes for a train, I was outraged! My hands still quiver with the injustice of the memory. This efficiency however can be a bit of a double edged sword. Singapore is a bit like an old lady’s garden; immaculately pruned, poked and prodded into a delicate and precise shape. It seems that every aspect of the place is planned out, engineered and designed, sounds great! And when you visit it’s really nice to see a city so well kept, BUT…
When it’s your everyday reality it can get a little on the boring side. I guess it’s partially the fact that the place is so small but it can sometimes seem like there’s a lack of depth to anything with none of the randomness that can be one of the most interesting features of a city. This is probably partly due to the Singaporean government’s ingrained need for the country to constantly look forward, which has obviously worked really well economically, but has led to the constant ‘updating’ of the past, causing, in my opinion, an ‘overly planned’ country which can come across rather sterile at times.
This adherence to structure is noticeable anywhere a less than usual approach to something is required day to day. Disrupt the time proven process and through a bewildering series of ‘cannot! cannots!’, wide eyed stares, and frenzied hand-shakes, it’s abundantly clear that any unorthodox change to the norm will not be tolerated. It’s not a big thing, but it does get a little tiresome.
i.e. This legitimately happened:
In the spirit of drama, I’m going to lay our scene in the format of a Shakespearean epic! Bare with me.
Two expats both alike in dignity,
In fair Singapore where we lay our scene,
From recent grudge, break to new mutiny,
Where civil planning makes civil life so clean
[Peter and Sarina enter stage from left and sit down in a café to order lunch]
[Jeff the staff member, shuffles towards them]
Peter: “Hi there, I’d like the Cheeseburger but no lettuce please”
Jeff the staff member: [3-second blank stare]
“Ok umm so I’d like to order the Cheeseburger but no lettuce on the burger, please take off the lettuce and throw it away or give it to a rabbit ”
Jeff the staff member: “You don’t want lettuce? Ummm, oh, ummm, oh dear.. “ [starts to sweat & drops the notepad he was carrying] “ Hang on. I need to ask my manager!”
[Jeff the staff member runs away]
5 minutes later…
[Barry the senior staff member approaches the table, with Jeff in the background trying not to make eye contact]
Barry: “excuse me sir, Jeff here has told me that you have an exceedingly unusual request. But I have met with the Head-Chef and he has informed me that this time, we can accommodate, but only because it is not a busy period.”
Peter: “Oh right, thanks, how generous of you” [deeply sarcastic tone]
20 minutes later…
[Jeff the staff member brings 2 burgers to the table, both clearly contain lettuce]
[Fade to scene with Peter violently strangling Jeff the staff member]
So once I was released from custody after attempting to force-feed ‘Jeff’ fistfuls of lettuce…
Apart from the occasional vegetable inspired assassination attempt on hospitality staff. Singapore is as a whole, a very safe place to spend your time. In fact, the last time a serious crime happened in Singapore was in 1942 when the Japanese invaded! This might also partially be due to the countries famous intolerance of disorder, which in the 90’s seemed to be largely punished with the hangman’s noose (Singapore had the 2nd highest per-capita number of executions in the world after Turkmenistan).
Safety is a good thing though, the fact that my girlfriend can walk around by herself at night down any dark and ominous street she likes is a great comfort. But on the other hand, the excessive safety stuff can be a touch on the ‘paranoid’ side. I visited a friend the other day and so thorough was the security check that I’d aged several years between arriving at his condo and emerging into his apartment. Michael Jackson had just released Thriller when I got there but when I finally emerged, bedraggled, haggard and starving into the light of day, I discovered to my horror that MJ had died, Tony Abbot was the Prime minister of Australia and somehow, there was yet another goddamn Fast and the Furious movie!
I find that the best description of Singapore in 2015 is that the country is acting a bit like an angsty teenager: growing up very quickly but still trying to outgrow the overbearing occasionally draconian rules of its parents. The infamous, uptight approach of the government still plays a large part in the day to day lives of Singaporeans, something that people here are very much aware of, it’s just that before the explosion of social media, opinions were a lot harder to voice! Today Singaporeans express themselves and their opinions about the way the country is run passionately online and this chorus of voices are starting to affect some changes. It’s personality as a country is really only just starting to emerge with the younger generations today showing some interesting signs of rebelling against toeing the ‘party line’ and with this attitude change, the country is starting to move in a more culturally progressive and creative manner.
If you know where to look, there are funky markets on the weekends, a thriving and vibrant food scene and emerging signs of life from artists and creatives all over the country. Examples of such can be seen every day in the various (government approved of course) murals that are starting to adorn the sides of buildings, the increasing number of little handmade goods and art fairs broadcast via social media and the climbing numbers of design and cultural events throughout the year.
That being said, the country has a long way to go before grassroots or underground type movements and sub-cultures can make a noticeable difference to how the country and the culture feel day to day. In my opinion, while it’s definitely on the right track, Singapore just seems to lack the ‘buzz’ and the atmosphere of the other, oft compared, East meets West city: Hong Kong.
While I do find Hong Kong more interesting, I still really enjoy wandering the streets of Singapore as the sun dips below the horizon. The city comes alive at night, and as the office buildings empty, the click of Tiger beer bottles and chatter in food halls creates a pleasant atmosphere that permeates the place once the heat of Hades, I mean the day, fades into a warm, humid evening. There are a number of excellent walks that will take you through some of the more lively areas that can give a new visitor a real sense of Singapore. Though instead if you want to get a more traditional sense of the country, go further inland away from the CBD and waterfront and wander the HDB’s to experience life a little more like a local.
Now I say ‘wander’ because it’s hard to actually ‘walk’ anywhere in Singapore, and words like brisk, spry and speedy are apparently not in the vocabulary of anyone living here (and is not currently sitting in a car). People have a tendency to shuffle at a pace that would only marginally embarrass a snail or a zombie from Shaun of The Dead. Maybe it’s the weather which is only slightly cooler than a sauna but for me, 5 minutes of sweaty hard-core walking before hitting the inevitable AC is better any day than the 20-minute burning death shuffle that people here seem to opt for. Still, I guess whatever floats your boat.
Living in Singapore as an expat does give you a rather warped perspective of what the place is actually like for the majority of the people who call Singapore home. Most Singaporeans don’t live the luxury resort lifestyle that gets’s broadcast around the world, in fact, due to the ridiculous prices of cars most Singaporeans don’t even own a car (actually a good move, given the limited space in the country). The bulk of the population live away from Downtown Singapore, in the vast number of government run public housing apartments (HDB’s) that dot the country and are serviced with the super efficient public transport system that covers the majority of the island. They also don’t earn the ridiculous sums of money the country is notorious for paying its many high flying executives.
Speaking of which, sky-high property prices, soaring education costs and the generally high cost of living have sadly made existence a bit of a struggle for many local people. I still find it hard to call the fact that an army of the countries elderly people are forced to work in foodhalls so as not to starve, progress. Maybe it’s me but I find it difficult to watch someone’s great grandmother, clear away the sloppy remnants of lunch left by slobs less than half their age, all the while shaking worse than a 5-year-old with an espresso.
So what’s it actually like living in Singapore day to day? That’s hard to answer and I can obviously only answer from the point of view of an expat: It has everything you need to live well if you can afford it. It’s inner city living in a well planned and well thought out country. I don’t need a car, I make good money and I’ve met some fantastic people from all over the world I would otherwise have never had the chance to hang out with. I’m not a huge fan of the weather and I miss the space of home (Australia) but these are trade off’s I’m willing to live with for a while.
Honestly the countries controversial politics seem to pass me by without any real impact on my life, sure there are more rules than I’m used to and they are heavily enforced but these things have had very little impact on my day to day existence so far, and I don’t really expect them to. I’m not a huge fan of the draconian drug laws on a personal level or the excessive cost of living but these facts don’t heavily impact my life at all. But then again I don’t expect to be living in Singapore for that much longer. I do think that I’d have more of an emotional investment in the way the country was run if I was not simply stopping by for a couple of years.
Singaporean ‘efficiency’ is both a blessing and a curse day to day, with the pros and cons being fairly well balanced in my mind. If you plan ahead there are plenty of things to do with your spare time, lots of special interest groups to keep the wolves of boredom at bay if you’re open to putting yourself out there which is really great to see. Day to day though I do find the city can be rather tedious and there’s a distinct lack of spontaneity that becomes apparent once you settle in. Speaking of which, Singapore is often criticised for being boring, something I don’t totally disagree with. I will say one thing though if you do have the opportunity to move to Singapore, it is worth doing, I have no regrets about being here at all, just make sure you have a hobby to keep you occupied in your down time, or else take something up when you get here. There is lots on offer if you look for things.
So all up (like anywhere, let’s be honest) there are both plusses and minuses for living in Singapore. There are some really great things that I do enjoy (and will miss once I leave), but if I am being totally honest, I’m not sure that Singapore could be a truly long term destination for me. There just seems to be something missing in the abundant shiny malls, growling super cars and immaculately kept public parks.
Obviously, not everyone will agree with me and I’ve met a number of people from all over the world now living in Singapore who couldn’t imagine a better place to live. More power to them if that’s what makes their pants tight, I’m happy for them, but I think perhaps, long term, it’s just not for me.
On a final note, I think we can all agree that there is no doubt Singapore has a bright future ahead of it. I can’t wait to see the country and the culture progress into something really exciting in the coming years, and when it does, I’ll definitely stop back in for a visit.