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Living Abroad in Singapore: An Expat Goes East

Singapore skyline at night.
Singapore night skyline.

Being an expat is a process that evolves as you adapt to a new life in a new city. Some experiences are common no matter where you go, and some are distinct to the environment where you move. Becoming an expat is generally not realized in a single moment or epiphany.

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." Nonetheless, the move refreshed my memory regarding the difficulties faced by those of us lucky enough to have previously experienced living in another culture and country.

The lively statue in front of a Singapore shopping center.
The lively and colorful dragon in front of a Singapore shopping center.

One Week Before Moving

I have to be honest. This part is no fun. It's all about creating and reading your checklist, then discovering 25 things you still need to do that should have been done three days ago. It's about hurriedly catching 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 you've packed your favorite pair of shoes and 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. It's all good fun now. This is an 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]." It's not the email you want to see when finding your ideal apartment. 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 not let obstacles hinder finding your place in a new city.

Making New Friends

You will often find that people in your network will suggest contacts to acquaint yourself with the new city. Follow these up. Moving out of your comfort zone and making initial contact with as many people as possible is essential. In Singapore, this is really relatively easy. Most expats are open to meeting new people, and it takes little time 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 is difficult. Many people commute from Malaysia for work (only 25km or 15 miles away on the commuter bus), which puts them relatively out of the picture regarding socializing.

One of the most significant challenges when you move to cities or countries is inevitably trying to find new friends. Usually, you can rely on some network to set you up. It might be your job, kids' school, or your partner's workplace. I am a freelancer, and this is not ideal for meeting people daily. In addition, I also don't have kids. I don't want kids. But they would be handy now and give me the all-important "common ground" to establish relationships. It's all very well meeting strangers, partners of colleagues, etc. Nevertheless, there must be some common ground to establish a mutually compatible relationship. And obviously, this involves time. It is a time to have the conversations until you get 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 become lifelong friends.

Housing

Finding a place to live in Singapore is a serious business. The leases here are for two years. That's a long time if you make the wrong decision. Many factors must be considered: are there too many kids in the building? (I learned how to determine this 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? Will a building site near us ruin our ambiance 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 vacant space around your building, 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 cause trouble in Singapore, mention the words, "Do you have a helper?" or, 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 essential. It's just very cheap to have home help. Most helpers often live with the family they work for in the "bomb shelter" that most homes in Singapore have. It is a 6' by 6' windowless room, usually off the kitchen, with a single bed and perhaps some space for a few personal items. A helper usually works six days a week for a minimal wage (the minimum is about SGD400 per month) and may be lucky enough to get a break for a few weeks during the year. I'm told that helpers generally like working for "Westerners" because they are treated more kindly than those working for Chinese or Indian families. The difference a helper can make in an expat's life can be phenomenal, though, especially if you have children. This is why people in Singapore are often willing to come out on a weeknight at short notice. No need to worry about babysitters because the helper can look after the kids. There is definitely an upside to having a helper if you have children. Otherwise, I fail to see the appeal of having live-in help. It is possible to have part-time help, i.e., a cleaner visiting weekly 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 good storms, but the intensity is different in Singapore. Apparently, the monsoon arrived early last year, which sounds menacing. 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, it looks like you've just walked under 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, 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 sweat, then Singapore poses a problem. A 5-minute walk to the train station will often mean a shirt change is required afterward, a fact worth considering when deciding on your home location and whether or not to have your own vehicle.

Managing Expectations

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 by a tempting plate of cheeses from around the globe. Unfortunately, I've discovered a side effect of 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. The upside is that cheese is so expensive here I've had to knock both things off the list.

Let's look at all the upsides to living in Singapore. A chilled glass of rose` in the afternoon is a tonic for the soul. And luckily, downstairs from the serviced apartment where we stayed initially was a store called the "Wine Connection." Food can be really cheap in Singapore (it can also be costly), but wine is always expensive. The Wine Connection, however, sells wine at wholesale prices. That's a big plus.

The food scene in Singapore is something for which the country is famous, and rightly so. Chinatown, Newton Circus, and Little India are full of restaurants where you can eat cheaply and not compromise quality. For SGD20 (US$15), you can readily get a plate of noodles and prawns, a meat dish, and some vegetables to share between two people. Add another SGD5.80 (US$4.25), and get a 750ml bottle of beer to complement your plate. High-end restaurants are also prolific but can be very hit-and-miss regarding quality and value for money.

The Language

I don't mean 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 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? The answer is Singapore. The durian fruit, known for its offensive aroma, is banned on the MRT.

And don't even think about cycling underneath a bridge. The fine is SGD1,000 (US$740)!

Discoveries

I suppose Singapore's lack of "edge" can be attributed to the citizens' law-abiding nature. Generally, they are law-abiding because serious misdemeanors result in jail, and serious offenses result in death. Harsh penalties act as a good deterrent. However, Singapore has almost five million people, many with creative outlets to explore. 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 scratched the surface of the "real" Singapore, and I think much of it concerns money. Many expats have a lot of money here, so it's easy to obtain what you want when you can pay for anything. When you have fewer funds or are interested in "value for money," it can be more of a challenge to fulfill your needs.

I set myself specific rules to help maintain exposure to locals here. I walk or get public transport wherever I can. This may sound like a minor deal, but taxis are very cheap in Singapore, and it is incredibly tempting to overuse them. I resist this urge as often as possible. I also explore new areas, locate the markets, and find the locals. The benefits of 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 with 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 challenges and differences compared to adjustments needed 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 degree. Until it's time to move on again.

Useful Notes

Currency conversion for 1 Singapore Dollar (SGD) as of October 24, 2023:

Currency Unit Description Units per SGD
USD US Dollar
0.73
AUD Australian Dollar
1.15
GBP British Pound
0.60

Victoria Milner is originally from Melbourne. 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. 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.

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


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