Singapore, Singapore Report of what it's like to live there - 03/14/22
Personal Experiences from Singapore, Singapore
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
We’ve lived in Japan, Indonesia, and China.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
We’re from Massachusetts. On U.S. carriers (required on USG official travel) the trip is about 36 hours, which includes a layover/plane change in Tokyo or Seoul, usually. There are nonstops from several major U.S. cities.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
US diplomatic mission.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
U.S. Embassy staff and families live in nice condos near the embassy. Average commutes range from a 5-minute walk to a 20-minute bus ride.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can get almost everything here, but pricing depends on where and how you shop. Alcohol is very expensive everywhere. At the expat grocery stores, grocery prices are comparable to major US cities, with some things like U.S. dairy and U.S. meat being much much more expensive. Keep costs down by shopping outside of the embassy/expat bubble at Sheng Siong, Giant, and other grocers aimed at the local market.
redmart.com is a good online grocer
tadafresh.com pulls your order from local wet markets
There are also local authentic regional shops, such as lamexicana.sg for Mexican ingredients.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Alcohol. It’s literally twice the price (or more) compared to the U.S.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Foodpanda, Grab, and Deliveroo all deliver from local restaurants and some fast food places. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Little Caesar’s, KFC, Burger King are all here, with local flavors on the menu in addition to what Americans are used to.
Note, pizza places often do not use pork for toppings as the restaurants may be halal due to Singapore’s substantial Muslim population. Other restaurants as well, but many Americans may be surprised they can only get beef pepperoni at Pizza Hut.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants, roaches, and geckos are all around - even in big fancy condos! Be careful and don’t leave food, crumbs, or water on your counters.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
US Embassy DPO and local post. Local postal facilities are excellent, but a bit expensive for sending overseas.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Expats often employ full-time, live-in domestic workers, with average wages of US$700-900 depending on experience. Agency fees can be in the thousands of US dollars if you hire a “new maid”, but transferring a domestic worker from one employer to another runs about $900 USD, which includes an agency doing all the paperwork, the first annual insurance premium, and a required bond.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Haven’t ever looked into private gyms. We use our gym condo, tennis court, and pool, and frequently run/hike/walk outdoors. Many people hire trainers or instructors to come to their condo gym for group or individual sessions.
ActiveSG is Singapore’s national sports/rec agency, and operates dozens of pools, fields, and other facilities across the country. Classes are very affordable. There are also many Meetup groups for yoga in the park, hikes around town, etc.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Cash is common in hawker centers and smaller shops. ATMs tend to be in MRT stations and inside shopping centers. They are plentiful, but they are intentionally tucked out of the way, so you may need to rely on signage, Google Maps, or your bank’s app to find one.
For some reason, Visa cards issued overseas frequently run into problems when paying online. In person there’s usually no problem, and MasterCards don’t seem to have the same issue. Amazon.sg adds a surcharge when paying by Visa (not MasterCard). Best to have at least one of each, in case one doesn’t work.
Currently contactless chip cards are very commonly accepted and easy to use (called “Paywave” here).
You should get a local bank account, though going to the bank has been a huge hassle for us. Opening an account included tons of nonsensical, duplicative, bureaucracy, waiting in queues, talking to dozens of staff, etc. The concept of a basic checking account for just paying bills seemed foreign here — the local market is interested higher-yield accounts and accounts that come with strange extras like health insurance. But once you’re established, you can pay by NETS (like a debit card app exclusive to Singapore - many merchants accept NETS or cash only because it’s cheaper for them), PayNow, and Paylah (direct bank transfer using mobile phone number).
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
It seems like everything is here. We are not religious, but there are places of worship everywhere and services are available in many languages.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Most people speak English. The more local your friend circle is, the more Singlish (local patois), Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, and other languages you will hear. Locals may dip into and out of these languages all within one conversation.
To an American, the English here will sound fast, clipped, and will have British-isms and phrases you’ve never heard before. The accent is distinctive and you will get used to it.
The Mandarin Chinese spoken here has a more Southern China/Taiwan accent compared to Beijing or other parts of China.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I don’t have great insight on this, but Singapore is constantly upgrading and so newer facilities and buildings will be wheelchair accessible, to include sidewalks and public transit. Bus drivers are happy to help with wheelchairs and all buses are accessible. Older facilities and neighborhoods may be more challenging. Overall there is definitely public awareness of accessibility issues, and the government is trying to be inclusive.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. Bus and subway fares are around $2 USD. Trip fares can be calculated here: https://www.lta.gov.sg/content/ltagov/en/map/fare-calculator.html
Taxi flag-drop price is about $3 USD. Full fare info from one popular provider is here: https://www.cdgtaxi.com.sg/ride-with-us/fares/. You can load your credit card to their app and book and pay that way.
Grab is also very popular, like Uber/Lyft.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Check with your sponsoring agency/office on this, as the rules and timelines are strict and may change. The whole process can be bureaucratic and cumbersome.
Buying a used car locally, unless from a departing diplomat, is impossible, in our experience (and we tried!). Cars are extremely expensive here due to the taxes piled on top of the sales price - think $100K USD for a Corolla - and availability can be limited because dealers don’t have massive lots full of cars. It’s a very complicated formula to try and price out the “stripped down” retail price of a car - you will have to directly inquire with dealers. With diplomatic pricing, an entry-level SUV or sedan from BMW, Audi, VW, or Mazda was about $30K to $40K USD in 2021. Most embassy staff try to buy from a departing diplomat.
Locals do not keep cars very long, so repair shops are not used to seeing cars older than 5-10 years. Some go to Malaysia for service as prices are cheaper and there’s more experience with older cars.
Your condo will probably have tight garage parking, as do many shopping centers. Public parking is generally cheap and available, surprisingly.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. You need your FIN number before you can get permanent internet services. Until then you will have to rely on phone data or a router that will accept a prepaid SIM card.
Super high-speed internet is about $50/mo USD. Singtel and Starhub are common carriers.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We have a local provider SIM and a VOIP e-sim (with my U.S. number) on a dual-SIM iphone. I brought an unlocked iphone bought in the U.S. and it's been fine.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Most private-sector expatriate spouses do not work, it seems. This is partially due to local laws that make it impossible for private sector dependents to work; embassy spouses are treated differently under this law, however, and so embassy spouses tend to be more varied employment-wise compared to the private sector spouses. Some embassy spouses telework (though the time zone difference can be brutal, depending on where your home office is), some also work at the embassy, others work on the local economy at local companies or schools, and others don’t work. Local salaries seem good.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
American Women’s Association, Friends of the Museums, volunteer.gov.sg, lots of nonprofits benefiting animals, children, wildlife, horticulture, etc.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Out and about, you'll see the whole range of athleisure to designer outfits to flip flops and shorts to conservative religious attire. People are appearance-conscious and tend to dress with an eye towards fitting in or making a particular impression rather than standing out and making a statement.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Excellent health care, both at public and private facilities. Prices are better than the U.S., and are transparent (amazing!). No medical evacuation is required.
It takes a while to acclimate to the heat and humidity and learn when and how to go outdoors without getting heatstroke. Hint: don’t blast your home air conditioners all the time.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality can be a little hazy in the summer months.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Be your own advocate and ask specific questions about your allergens. Thankfully you can ask detailed/specific questions in English here AND understand the answers. All food labels have English ingredient lists (however note that the generic term “permitted additives” is allowed as a named ingredient!). There’s general awareness of allergies, particularly nuts. But a lot of the foods here contain soy, ground peanuts or candlenuts and ground shrimp paste, and labeling might not be what you’re used to.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Maybe Tropical Doldrums from the eternal summer?
People have felt isolated and restricted due to Covid rules, many not having left Singapore in two years, some stranded from their families. The lockdowns and rules have taken a toll on everyone's mental health, for sure.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot and humid. Can be quite lovely at night and in the mornings. You’ll learn to plan your activities around it.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Our kids are under 5 and attend local preschool. No experience with the international schools personally, but there are many.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Early Intervention is available as are other accommodations, but parents need to advocate and discern for themselves. Preschools will not necessarily screen for issues the way a parent or medical professional would.
Unfortunately there is still societal stigma surrounding these issues in some segments of the local population. Some families would rather keep a special needs child at home with a nanny rather than enroll the child in a special school or program. I do not get the sense that parents of special needs kids are adequately supported here.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Early learning programs at the international schools are very expensive ($30K US/year).
Church preschools and local preschools (called “child care” here) can be cheaper but the range is large - $500 to $1200 USD per month for full time M-F. PCF Sparkletots is the most local/common/subsidized preschool and is not available to diplomats. Child care centers are regulated by Singapore’s Early Childhood Development Agency. Search for centers/schools here: https://www.ecda.gov.sg/Parents/Pages/Preschool-Search-Portal.aspx
We’ve been happy with the local child care/preschool. It has several branches island-wide, and each branch reflects its neighborhood population; ours has a lot of diplomat/expat kiddos. Instruction is in English with second-language class depending on the child’s at-home language (Mandarin for kids who speak English or Mandarin at home). Our kids have made great progress in terms of language and social and motor development, and we think their lives are better for being in these programs.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes. Private lessons and clubs can be expensive but ActiveSG has many affordable options.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There’s definitely an embassy bubble and we don’t truly live in the local expatriate community. We’re here very temporarily, we don’t use a lot of the normal local services that are the backbone of daily life (banking, post office, etc.), and we’re a bit limited in what we can/should say and do in public due to being de facto US govt. “representatives” (even though we may not be employed as such).
Based on my experience in WhatsApp groups and the like, most expats seem pretty happy. But, covid and the way Singapore has handled it has taken a toll, and many expats left during the pandemic and will not return. This is partially due to companies changing how they do business (why pay an expat package when you could have that person work remotely in Kansas?), but also due to people not wanting to be so far from loved ones and so restricted compared to their home countries.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
People here love to eat together! Eating outside of the home is very common - food courts, hawker centers, cafes, restaurants, takeaway picnic in the park, cheap, expensive — it’s all here.
As mentioned, alcohol is expensive. $10 for a bottle of entry-level beer at a bar, $150 for a bottle of Scotch that’s $50 at home, $25 cocktails…all very typical! Also, public drinking after 10:30pm is illegal, so last call is typically at 9:45 or so. You’ll see older gentlemen order a bucket of beers at a hawker center at night and sit around the tables playing cards, eating sunflower seeds, and getting tipsy.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for all. Tons of entertainment for all groups, all ages, all interests.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
There is some underlying tension between the expat community and the local community, due to the island's colonial history as well as the sentiment that highly paid expat "talent" takes away job opportunities for local Singaporeans.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Experience seems to vary. There is social stigma, and the government has been less than friendly to LGBT+ people and initiatives. Sex between males is still illegal, same-sex relationships are not legally recognized (nor are same-sex adoptions possible). There are no anti-discrimination or hate crimes protections for LGBT+ people.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a lot of information out there on the ethnicity/race topic. Keep in mind that nothing in Singapore is random or an accident; that vibrant multiethnic streetscape that people love to romanticize in Singapore’s public housing districts (where the vast majority of Singaporeans live) is due to formal racial quota policies to avoid residential ethnic enclaves. Singapore’s current “CMIO” (Chinese Malay Indian Other) classification policy came into force after race riots during the country’s early years as an independent city-state. Read a bit about it here: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/singapores-cmio-race-model-an-administrative-tool-to-manage-policies-ips-panel
Singapore is multiethnic, multicultural, multifaith. But there are deliberate policies governing these facets of life, which are designed to promote a peaceful, secure, and prosperous Singapore. Note that this is different from what some Americans may want to think of as justice, inclusivity, equity, diversity.
Gender roles are more “traditional” here, with the background expectation that women will marry by 25/30, quit their careers, run the household, and raise several children, while men are expected to be the breadwinner with no hand in domestic life. This seems to be slowly changing, but multigenerational living — which has a slowing effect (for better or worse) on traditions changing — is still very much a thing here.
There definitely seem to be tensions and prejudices surrounding foreign migrant workers who come to Singapore to work construction and domestic jobs. Their living/working conditions would surprise many Americans.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Covid has prevented much travel, which used to be a major draw of this post. We’ve seen a lot more of Singapore, though, and that has been a blessing. Our goal is to visit all of the National Parks and hike the 36-km island-wide national park connector trail: https://www.nparks.gov.sg › gardens-parks-and-nature
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Great hiking and biking trails, tons of green space, recreational opportunities abound! Cultural activities are slowly coming back after the pandemic as well — plays and concerts at the Esplanade, art, music, dance, too many museums to name. Wildlife is everywhere. We’ve seen monkeys, monitor lizards, exotic birds, turtles, geckos, peacocks, all kinds of things, just out and about.
Kranji Countryside has lots of farms that are fun to visit.
Malaysia has been closed since we arrived but we’re excited to drive up and visit.
The National Heritage Board has lots of interesting programming. Check out the Friends of Museums guided tours and walking tours, and any walking tour you can find, for that matter. Singapore is best seen on foot!
Buy batik and other fabrics on Arab Street.
Visit Mustafa Center to buy everything you can imagine.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Can be. You can find textiles, woodwork, crafts, art, etc. from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India, reflecting the various ethnic groups and nationalities that have made their homes here. Peranakan culture is unique to the Straits region and has its own design language - definitely get some Peranakan tiles or other distinctive pieces here!
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
For Americans, English being here is a huge advantage. Personal and public safety are top notch, medical care is amazing and accessible, and the food is the best!
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Ethnic and linguistic history - I really knew nothing about it and it is so important to national and individual identity.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Cool weather clothes, heavy blankets, fuzzy slippers, leather shoes and belts (the humidity and frequent showers aren’t kind to leather), black clothes (too hot and you’ll look weird)
4. But don't forget your:
Sun protection: it’s intense! Breathable clothes and shoes.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Anything from Singapore book publisher Epigram Books, “a one-stop online bookstore specialising in Singaporean titles, including novels, recipe books, children's books, graphic novels and more.”
Tanamera by Neil Barber for a fictional saga of WWII Singapore from the perspective of a self-congratulatory white male colonialist