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Living in Singapore as an Expatriate
2012 Expatriate Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Living Abroad in Singapore

An Expat Goes East

Singapore at Night
Singapore night skyline.

Being an expat is a process, one that evolves as you adapt to a new life in a new city. Some of the experiences are common no matter where you go, and some are distinct to the environment you move to. Becoming an expat is not event that you can sum up in one neat anecdote.

My most recent move has been to Singapore. Although Singapore is part of Asia, it is often described as the "Golf course of Asia" due to the manicured gardens, strict rules, and Western influence. Such factors might make it seem like an easy relocation for two well traveled "expats," but the move refreshed my memory regarding the difficulties faced for those of us lucky enough to have previously experienced living in another culture and country.

Singapore decoration in front of mall
The lively statue in front of a Singapore shopping center.

One Week Prior To Moving

This part is no fun. It’s all about creating and reading your checklist, then discovering that there are 25 things you haven’t done yet that should have been done three days ago. It’s about trying madly to catch up with all your friends and family before you depart. It’s about eating what’s left in the fridge (which is difficult when you’re out for every meal). It’s about discovering that you can’t transport your freshly opened bottle of Bombay Sapphire, or any of your carefully collected secret herbs and spices. It's about realizing that you’ve packed your favorite pair of shoes and that you need them on Saturday. Everyone keeps asking, “are you looking forward to the move?” Frankly, the answer is usually yes.

Arrival

New city, new people, new life. All good fun now. This is the adventurous time. Time to explore. Time to try new things. Little India, Chinatown,  Arab Town, and the Quays. Walk a lot. Feel the vibe. Start thinking about the areas you like and don’t like. Try to make some friends.

Complications

"We regret to inform you that your shipment is delayed by three weeks, the earliest we can expect arrival of your [worldly possessions] is [five weeks from now]." This is not the email you want to see when you have just found your ideal apartment that is available immediately. Although my instincts are to plan, plan, plan, it has to be said that allowing flexibility in your plans for the first two months is crucial to your initial experience of settling into a new country. You need to go with the flow, adopt the, "everything happens for a reason" attitude, and don’t let obstacles stand in the way of finding your place in a new city.

Making New Friends

You will often find that people in your own network will suggest contacts for you to acquaint yourself with in the new city. Follow these up. It is important to move out of your comfort zone and make initial contact with as many people as possible. In Singapore this is really quite easy. Most expats are open to meeting new people and it doesn’t take long to build up a group of people whose company you enjoy. The bigger problem in Singapore is finding a way to "meet the locals." There are so many expats in Singapore, of so many different nationalities, that this can be quite difficult. Many people also commute from Malaysia for work (it’s only 25km away on the commuter bus), so that puts them relatively out of the picture in terms of socializing.

One of the most difficult things when you move to cities or countries is inevitably trying to find new friends. Usually you can rely on some sort of network to set you up. It might be your job, your kids’ school or even your partner’s workplace. I happen to be a freelancer and this is not the ideal scenario for meeting people on a daily basis. In addition, I also don’t have kids. I don’t want kids. But they would be handy right now and would give me the all important "common ground" with which we establish relationships. It’s all very well meeting strangers, partners of colleagues etc., but there has to be some common ground by which to establish a mutually compatible relationship. And obviously this involves time. Time in which to have the conversations until you get the that "oh my god" moment where you discover you’re both passionate about Formula 1 and your friendship is sealed forever. My tactic is to sign up for and accept invitations to the strangest sounding event; you never know who you might meet and they may end up being a lifelong friend.

Housing

Finding a place to live in Singapore is a serious business. The leases here are for two years. That’s a pretty long time if you make the wrong decision. Consideration needs to be paid to many factors: are there too many kids in the building? (I learnt the way to determine this is by looking in the garage to see how many small bikes were around). Do we need to be near public transport? Do we need to be near the airport? Is a building site going to pop up beside us and ruin our ambience for the next two years? Not all of these questions are easy to answer, but it’s safe to say that if there is any space around your building that is vacant, there is a good chance someone will put a building on it at some point. Every centimeter of land space is a) valuable and b) sought after. If you get a recommendation for an estate agent, use it--especially if the agent can identify with your situation and circumstances.

Helpers

If you want to open a can of worms in Singapore then just mention the words, "do you have a helper?," or put more simply, "do you have a maid?" In Singapore, many expats have helpers. I had said from the start that we wouldn’t need a helper--we have no kids and I can’t see why it would be more necessary in Singapore than in London. The fact is that it’s not really more necessary, it’s just very cheap to have home help. Most helpers live with the family they work for, quite often in what is called the "bomb shelter" that most homes in Singapore have. It is a 6' by 6' windowless room, usually off the kitchen where there will be a single bed and perhaps some room for a few personal items. A helper usually works six days a week for a very small wage (the minimum is about SGD400 per month) and may be lucky enough to get a couple of weeks’ break during the year. I’m told that helpers generally like working for :"Westerners" because they are treated more kindly than if they work for Chinese or Indian families. The difference a helper can make to an expats life can be quite phenomenal though, especially if you have children. It is the reason that people in Singapore are often willing to come out on a week night at short notice, there’s no need to worry about baby sitters because the helper can look after the kids. There is definitely an upside to having a helper if you have children but otherwise I struggle to see the appeal of having live-in help. It is possible to have part time help, i.e. a cleaner who can visit once a week to clean the house. This also provides much needed income for locals and a helping hand for you.

The Weather

Hot and humid. That’s about it really. Well, there are the thunderstorms. Sydney has some pretty good storms, but nothing like here. Apparently the monsoon arrived early last year, which sounds menacing in itself. We awoke one morning to the sound of a tree splitting, lightning to rival a Vegas light show and raindrops as big as your head. One second outside and it’s like you’ve just walked under the Niagara Falls.

If you like air conditioning then living in Singapore will be blissful. Buildings are usually air conditioned to within an inch of their life. If you don’t like air conditioning then a condo on a high floor, or on the East Coast, will provide a much appreciated breeze. If you are negatively impacted by the heat when you walk outside, i.e. you perspire, then Singapore poses a problem. A 5-minute walk to the train station will often mean a change in shirt is required afterwards, a fact worth bearing in mind when you are deciding on your home location and whether or not to have your own vehicle.

Expectation Management

Holland Village. Everyone talks about it in Singapore. It has a ring to it like a quaint English Tudor town. So off I went to investigate. On arrival it shows great promise, a few Asian stores, people about, a general buzz. And then into the main part of the "village" and it’s the same old, same old. A few fruit stalls in the market and a few trinket stores amongst the usual chain restaurants that are found everywhere in Singapore. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but all the restaurants here have the aura of a chain about them. I can’t work out if they are or aren’t, but they all look the same. My point is that it’s all about expectations. I was expecting a quaint English village, I got a Mall on the street.

Expectation management can work in the reverse too. Prior to arriving here, everyone had said how clean and pristine Singapore was, it was often described as sterile. On arriving I have to say it doesn’t seem that way to me. While you don’t see people hurling litter about as you might in London or Sydney, you also see lots of workmen around the place, sitting on the curb with a cigarette in hand, watching the world go by or sleeping under the shade of an awning to escape the midday sun.

Food and Wine

I love red wine. It is one of my favorite things in the world. Especially when accompanied a tantalizing plate of cheeses from around the globe. Unfortunately I’ve discovered a side effect from living in this hot and humid land. I can’t drink red wine. Who would have thought? Goodness knows I managed to consume a good deal of it previously. I guess the upside is that cheese is so expensive here I’ve had to knock both things off the list.

On the upside. A chilled glass of rose` in the afternoon is tonic for the soul. And luckily downstairs from the serviced apartment where we stayed initially was the Wine Connection. Food can be really cheap in Singapore (it can also be really expensive), but wine is always expensive. The Wine Connection however sells wine at wholesale prices. Bingo.

The food scene in Singapore is something the country is famous for and rightly so. Chinatown, Newton Circus, and Little India are full of restaurants where you can eat very cheaply and not compromise quality. For SGD20 (US$15) you can easily get a plate of noodles and prawns, a meat dish and some vegetables to share between two people. Add another SGD5.80 (US$4.50) and you can get a 750ml bottle of beer to complement your plate. High end restaurants are also prolific but can be very hit and miss in terms of quality and value for money.

The Language

I don’t mean the Mandarin or Malay or Cantonese or even Singlish. I mean the terminology. Every town has its own. The tube, the Subway.....etc....the MRT. It took me exactly 18 days to realize I was on my way to becoming a local. I was explaining to a newcomer that a meeting point was, “near the Little India MRT”, and watching the confused expression when I realized they didn’t know that the MRT was the local train network. One step closer to integration. 

Rules and Regulations

Question: What kind of country prohibits a fruit from the train? You can guess that the answer is Singapore. The durian fruit, known for its offensive aroma, is actually banned on the MRT.

And don’t even think about cycling underneath a bridge, the fine is SGD1,000 (US$780)!

Discoveries

I suppose the lack of "edge" in Singapore can be put down to the law-abiding nature of the citizens. Generally they are law-abiding because serious misdemeanors result in jail and serious offences result in death. Fairly harsh penalties do tend to act as a good deterrent it has to be said. However, Singapore is home to almost five million people, many of whom have creative outlets to explore. I’ve discovered Tiong Bahru is a little enclave of independent and creative talent. Tiong Bahru has character, lots of art deco apartments, a bit "rough around the edges," a few good restaurants and a good market...what more could you ask for?

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of the "real" Singapore, and I think a lot of it is to do with money. Many expats have a lot of money here, so when you can pay for anything, it’s easy to obtain what you want. When you have less funds at your disposal, or you’re interested in "value for money" then it can be more of a challenge to fulfill your needs.

I set myself certain rules to help maintain exposure to locals here. I walk or get public transport wherever I can. This may not sound like a big deal but taxis are very cheap in Singapore and it is extremely tempting to over use them. I resist this urge as often as possible. I also try and explore new areas, find the markets, and find the locals. The benefits in doing so can be significant. If you shop in "Cold Storage" (the upscale supermarket), you’ll pay something ridiculous like SGD4.00 for a bunch of coriander. If you buy chinese parsley from the market, or even from the same shop, it will cost you less than half that much and it’s the same thing.

Next Stop?

Many expats would have to admit that part of the novelty of being an expat is the feeling of being "different" in your new homeland. Even in London, with what seems like one million other Australians there is undoubtedly a novelty factor that attracts English people to you. In an Asian culture the difference is more prominent, as non-natives visually stand out in a crowd. You actually need to adjust to being stared at because you are in the minority, which is quite an unusual feeling if you’ve not experienced it before. The other big difference is history. For a Caucasian Australian, with English ancestry, there is a historical link with England, and combined with commonalities like sport and language this gives you a common ground that proves immensely helpful in building relationships. Growing up in an area of Melbourne where there was a great deal of European influence, but less so from Asia, I was unaccustomed to this facet of settling in an Asian country.

Getting used to Asia will undoubtedly be full of more challenges and differences from the adjustment in other countries. This is all the more reason to persevere, learn as much as possible about the culture, and get to a point where I can call myself a local to some extent. Until it’s time to move on again.

Useful notes

Currency conversion — Units per 1 Singapore Dollar (SGD) as of 3 December 2013:

Currency Unit

Description

Units per SGD

AUD

Australian Dollar

0.87

GBP

Great British Pound

0.49

USD

US Dollar

0.80

Victoria Milner is the host of Singapore Foodie. Victoria is currently studying a Masters of Arts (Writing) and has previously worked in media, commerce, not-for-profit, and government roles. 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. Victoria has developed a love of travel that she is now leveraging to establish a career of sorts. Her life mission is to encourage every person with the means to experience travel in a way that enriches their lives and the lives of others.