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Living in Singapore as an Expat

Tips from an Insider

A mosque in Singapore.
A mosque in Singapore.

Modern-day Singapore, founded mainly 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 WWII ended, and inhabitants became increasingly disgruntled with British rule. By 1965, the city-state declared its independence. Progress has been the mantra of the government since then. Singapore has embarked upon aggressive growth strategies to increase employment, improve education, increase 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 comes with a cost.

The History

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, so the Malays, Chinese, and Indians arrived, 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 business people also fared well during this period; thus, a new elite class emerged. The history is important because it forms the basis of a multi-tier society today.

City Slickers

The history of Singapore is also relevant to the current atmosphere in the city. On the surface, all of Singapore gleams. The high-rise buildings tower above the city streets, luring in 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 arrangement. The global financial crisis that affected most advanced economies since 2007 was largely avoided in Singapore. Whereas Switzerland and Europe saw decreased wealth from banking foreigners' money, Singapore has become the new world banking hub, given its favorable privacy policies towards wealthy investors.

The Expats

Expats in Singapore fall into two major categories. There are 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 offered 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 is reported from multiple sources that more than 40 percent of the population are foreigners.

The Construction Workers and Maids

Many expats arrive as families and employ live-in help, or "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 helmets 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 for lower-salaried employees.


Most Singaporeans live in public housing called "HDBs" (Housing and Development Board). HDBs in Singapore are not necessarily for people experiencing poverty, and complexes are built with various 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 created to resolve the chronic housing shortages in Singapore 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. The surrounding circumstances stand in distinct contrast to the housing of higher salaried expats who usually live in condominiums, high rises, and privately built residences all around Singapore.

Ethnic Separation

Since the 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 sizeable 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. The two activities are often combined in gleaming shopping centers or malls. 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 many Asian food items for the hungry shopper, all in air-conditioned comfort. Singapore is also famous for its 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, mainly catering to expats but increasingly to middle-class Singaporeans. Although international hotels host a range of eateries, many more exciting and reasonably priced options exist. You can find excellent Spanish, Middle Eastern, French, and 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.
Bahru market in Singapore.

Expat Immersion in Local Culture    

The best way to immerse yourself in a local culture is to start with food, and Singapore offers many such options. Visit the markets and see where and what the locals are buying. Singapore has plenty 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, in the Botanic Gardens, or anywhere with a bit of space, you'll see large groups of Singaporeans practicing their Tai Chi. Sometimes, you hear the tinkle of guzhengs, and then you'll see participants making their meditative poses as they start their day. It is beautiful to watch, and sometimes, even a few Ang Mohs to join in.

On the other hand, 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 seldom interacting 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 already on the ground. Inevitably, you initially start hanging out with fellow expats from your home country. After about a year, you will be more interested in and attractive to locals. The locals realize you may be in for the long haul and treat you 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 and locals and expats effectively creates a multi-tier society. If your pay is not substantial, you generally cannot afford to go out drinking highly taxed beer and wine with your "rich" expat colleagues. Instead, you are more likely to visit your local hawker center for beers with your friends.

The Reality

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 essentially 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. However, part of the history is the development of its class culture. Current policies will ensure this legacy remains so for a long time.

For More Information

Information on how to obtain an employment pass in Singapore, including a self-assessment tool, can be found on the official government website.

For information about traveling to and getting around in Singapore and general blogs, see the great Travelfish website.

One Singapore expat site summarizes the history and other helpful expat information.

The Pros and Cons of Moving to Singapore lays out many issues involved in the process and what is involved in moving to and living in the expensive country.

InterNations – Your Expat Community in Singapore provides essential information for expats and the option to register with an expat community to share experiences and opportunities.

Numbeo: Cost of Living in Singapore — The crowdsourced site provides detailed information about living expenses in the city to help prepare you for the transition.

See these other useful websites for Singapore expatriates including articles, travel information, print, and online resources for expatriates.

Victoria Milner is 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.

Related Article by Victoria Milner
Living Abroad in Singapore
Related Topics
Living in Singapore: Expatriate Articles and Resources
Teaching English and Living in Singapore

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