Living in Singapore as an Expatriate
Tips from an Insider
A mosque in Singapore.
Modern day Singapore, largely founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, began as a thriving colonial outpost in the late 19th century. The city we know today was born of multiple nationalities striving to make a life in a previously uninhabited part of the Malaysian peninsula. The island floundered in chaos after the end of WWII and inhabitants became increasingly disgruntled with British rule. By 1965, independence was declared for the city-state. Progress has been the mantra from the government since then. Singapore has embarked upon aggressive growth strategies to increase employment, improve education, housing, boost manufacturing, and industrial capacity. The racially tolerant nation has created an economy that has grown by an average of 9% yearly since its independence. Such progress does not come without a cost.
Before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived on this small island the area was mostly swampland, infested by tropical creatures and bugs, unfit for human habitation. The geographical location however lent itself favorably to British efforts in establishing control over this part of the world. Build it and they will come, and so the Malays, Chinese, and Indians did come, along with the British. A 2-tier society developed from the beginning. The British took the best jobs, made the most money, and lived in the best locations. The Brits constructed colonial buildings and imported the comforts of home into what was for them a tropical jungle. Many entrepreneurial Chinese and Indian businessmen also fared well during this period, and thus a new elite class emerged. The history is important because it forms the basis of what is still a multi-tier society today.
The history of Singapore is also relevant to the current climate in the city. On the surface, all of Singapore gleams. The high-rise buildings tower above the city streets, luring in the bankers, insurance brokers, and lawyers. The government actively encourages big firms to set up here, providing advantageous tax rates and requiring locals to be employed as part of their set up. The global financial crisis that has affected most advanced economies since 2007 has been largely avoided in Singapore. Whereas Switzerland and Europe have seen a decrease in wealth derived from foreigners’ banking, Singapore has become the new world-banking hub given their favorable privacy policies towards wealthy investors.
Expats in Singapore fall into two major categories. There are the well-paid foreigners from Britain, Australia, the United States, China, India, and other countries. These expats work in Singapore courtesy of employment passes provided by the government, passes provided to those with a tertiary education and a professional background. Then there are the low paid foreign workers. The combination of these two groups has created a massive increase in foreigners working in Singapore. Official figures are not published, but it has been written that between 30 to 40 percent of the population are foreigners.
The Construction Workers and Maids
Many expats arrive as families and employ live-in help, otherwise known as "maids" or "helpers." These helpers are usually low paid foreign workers from the Philippines or Indonesia. As well as poorly paid helpers, there are vast numbers of Indians and Bangladeshis arriving in Singapore to work in construction. A city creating so many new buildings requires many construction workers. Every morning, no matter where you are in Singapore, you will see the Indians and Bangladeshis heading off to construction sites, safety helmet in hand ready to slog it out as the hot sun rises and beats upon them for another working day. These workers are in Singapore courtesy of a work permit, designed for lower salaried employees.
Most Singaporeans live in public housing called "HDBs" (Housing and Development Board). HDBs in Singapore are not necessarily for the poor and complexes are built in a range of standards to suit different income groups. HDBs are effectively estates, built in a high-rise style and incorporating shopping, schools and other facilities. HDBs were built to resolve the chronic housing shortages that arose in Singapore both before and after WWII. Only permanent residents are allowed to live in HDBs. The government has actively developed this style of living from an urban planning perspective and the old Kampong villages have been gradually eliminated. Only one Kampong remains on the main island of Singapore today. This is a distinct contrast to the housing of higher salaried expats who usually live in condominiums, high rises, and privately built residences all around Singapore.
From the time of early settlement in Singapore, housing has evolved into areas where different nationalities congregate. There is Little India, where you could be fooled into thinking you were actually in the namesake country; Arab Street with the surrounding streets of Haji Lane, Kandahar Street and Muscat Street; Chinatown which is now primarily a tourist destination with many higher paid expats living in the old shop houses; and Geylang where there is a large Chinese community in what is known as Singapore’s red light district.
Eating and Shopping
Singaporeans are famous for two things in particular: eating and shopping. Often the two activities are combined in gleaming shopping centers or malls as they are more often called here. These dens of consumerism offer goods from all over the world--from high-end brands such as Gucci to mass-produced Chinese trinkets. Food courts provide a vast array of Asian food items for the hungry shopper, all in air-conditioned comfort. Singapore is also famous for their hawker centers. From the touristy Lau Pa Sat and Newton Circus, to the Uncles favorite at Old Airport Road hawker center, it is easy to find food that is not only tasty but very reasonably priced. The third dimension of the food scene in Singapore is the medium to high-end restaurants, largely catering to expats but increasingly to middle class Singaporeans. Although international hotels host a range of eateries, there are many more interesting and reasonably priced options. You can find excellent Spanish, Middle Eastern, French and of course Singaporean Peranakan restaurants to tempt your taste buds. All offer good wine lists and would not look out of place on a street in Melbourne or London.
Bahru market in Singapore.
Expat Immersion in Local Culture
I always think the best way to achieve some immersion in a local culture is to start with food, and Singapore offers a many such options. Visit the markets and see where and what the locals are buying. Singapore has no shortage of options on this front. Tiong Bahru and the Tekka Centre are two of my favorites. I thoroughly enjoy the experience of buying from locals, chatting about the weather, or learning how to make the best fish head curry.
Singaporeans are also very fond of exercise. On any morning in various locations around the island; near the coast, or in the Botanic Gardens, or anywhere with a bit of space, you’ll see large groups of Singaporeans practicing their Tai Chi. Sometimes the tinkle of guzhengs can be heard first, then you’ll see participants making their meditative poses as they start their day. It is beautiful to watch and sometimes there are even a few Ang Moh’s to be seen joining in.
It must be said though, an expat could happily live in Singapore, in the air-conditioned comfort of a high-rise condo, running on a treadmill in the air conditioned gym, shopping at Cold Storage, buying Waitrose products and Australian beef, and rarely interact with locals.
A Multi-tiered Society
When it comes to attempting total immersion in the local culture, Singapore is not unlike other places I have lived. Most Aussies moving to London will have a few mates that are already on the ground. Inevitably, you initially start hanging out with fellow expats from your home country. After about a year, you will find yourself both more interested in, and interesting to, locals. The locals realize you may be in for the long haul and they treat you a little more seriously. It is not entirely different in Singapore, but there does seem to be some resentment for expats who appear to be coming in and "stealing" the most highly paid jobs. The difference is that the income gap in Singapore between high and low paid workers, as well as locals and expats, effectively creates a multi-tier society. If you are not paid much, you generally cannot afford to go out drinking highly taxed beer and wine with your "rich" expat colleagues. Instead, you are more likely to go to your local hawker center for a couple of beers with your local friends.
Singapore should be congratulated for its aim to progress from a rural backwater to a global financial hub, and it has improved the lives of many of its citizens along the way. But there has undeniably been a loss of traditional culture in the process, and the city’s inhabitants could be viewed as ones that eat and shop their way along, caring little for those around them. Beneath the gleaming surface, you can find pockets of history. Be it local shopping experiences that have gone largely unchanged from previous decades, families gathering to celebrate Chinese New Year, Indians celebrating Deepavali, or a visit to the red light district, the culture is there for those interested enough to find it. Part of the history though is the development of a class culture and current policies will ensure this legacy remains for a long time to come.
Victoria Milner is the host of Singapore Foodie. Originally from Melbourne, Victoria recently moved to Singapore. She has also lived in Sydney, London and Salt Lake City. Victoria has traveled extensively through Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the United States, and Africa.