After two weeks in Singapore, despite its reputation as a strict society my first impression is positive. Singapore seems to be a great city to live in although a little less exciting for the average tourist. It is hugely multicultural, very family-friendly, and the locals are obsessed with food. For a country so small its position as a financial services and IT hub in the region is impressive and people enjoy a good life and standard of living.
More multicultural than London
Spend a day in the central business district (CBD) and you will see equal numbers of local and foreign workers. There are a lot of American and European expats along with Australians, New Zealanders and people from other Asian countries including Japan, Korea, China and India. People are attracted to Singapore because it is one of the cleanest and safest cities in the region. It is the least impacted by the heavy pollution that drifts from China plus natural disasters like typhoons, black rain and earthquakes are rare. Low taxation is another big perk and as English is the official language it is easy for multinational businesses to thrive.
Individuals can gain an Employment Pass to live and work in Singapore relatively easily if they have an offer of employment. Up until recently it was also easy to obtain Permanent Residency (PR) however greater restrictions have been placed on this to appease growing discontent among locals that foreigners are taking all the jobs. Previously, you could apply for PR soon after settling in Singapore and the process had no minimum length of residence required. Nowadays younger people at an age where they could settle down and marry a local or have a family in Singapore are the most likely to be granted PR. It is not unheard of for a rich CEO who has lived in Singapore for over ten years to be rejected. But not everybody wants PR as if you have any male children, they will be required to complete 2 years of military service when they are 18 years old.
A family friendly place
In Singapore, children seem to be everywhere. You see them in restaurants, cafes, on public transport, in the park, on the street and literally everywhere. After years living in London I found it surprising at first. In London children are kept out of sight. I mean you are aware they exist in theory but they are well hidden so you don’t need to see them when you go out.
In Singapore, I frequently stop, take a deep breath and remind myself that children must be children and I need to be more patient when I hear loud squeals, or when a child steps on my toe or swiftly grabs the last free seat on the MRT.
It is great that Singapore is such a family friendly country and I can understand why it attracts a lot of people looking to settle down. Additionally there are lots of schools, green open spaces for playing, and nannies and childcare are very affordable. A nanny costs approximately $600 per month. The government also allows residents with young children to have 6 extra days of leave per year.
Food, glorious food!
There is only one thing the locals love more than eating and that is talking about food. There is a good variety of food in Singapore from local dishes to Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and even Western cuisines. If you work in an office, you will observe a mass exodus occurs at lunch time when people go out to eat. Eating out is extremely affordable and quite often cheaper than cooking at home. The quality of dishes might not be as good as in Hong Kong or Sydney however you are spoilt for choice with the great variety here. I could pass for a true Singaporean as I have been taking photos of almost all the food I eat.
For breakfast, I usually have pastries during the week with my morning coffee. My favourite is the custard egg tarts from Barcook at Clarke Quay. The custard is firm and the pastry is crunchy and crumbly.
However on the weekends dumplings is a nice treat for breakfast and I have found a couple of good places in Chinatown. My favourite is Din Tai Fung, which is a Taiwanese dumpling house and they do delicious steamed dumplings made in-house that have meat, seafood or vegetables inside with a little hot soup. They also make an excellent sliced duck spring roll with crispy spring onion pastry.
Victor’s Kitchen in Chinatown point is a humble little establishment that I have also visited. The owner is from Hong Kong and the place gets busy during lunch hours. To place your order, you first need to fill out a slip of paper with the dumplings you want to order and that is handed into the cashier. The place is famous for its custard buns that are steamed and filled with gooey custard egg. I’m not a fan of egg but I really enjoyed the Siew Mai here, which are steamed pork dim sum.
For a proper Chinese yum cha experience, where the waiters walk around with trollies of assorted dim sum to order then Yum Cha restaurant in Chinatown is great. Each plate costs around $4 or $5 each. Must try dishes here are the scallop pea-shoot dumplings and steamed mixed mushroom dim sum.
For lunch and dinner I usually order something from one of the many places in the CBD and it rarely costs more than $7 for a filling meal, which is a bargain. An excellent no frills Muslim-Indian joint is the new Shah Alam restaurant located on 20 Circular Road. The place is always busy and for only $5 I had a chicken briyani meal which included a mountain of seasoned rice and a quarter of a chicken with the wing and additional spicy dipping sauce on the side.
For the best Nasi Padang in the CBD I went to Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang on 13 Circular Road. For $6 I enjoyed this West Sumatra favourite, which consisted of Padang steamed rice with grilled curry chicken, cabbage, begedil (fried mash potato) and two spicy sambals (hot sauces). The combination of flavours was tasty but not too spicy.
A favourite choice for lunch is Chirashi, which is basically like a Japanese sushi bowl and consists of rice with chopped fish and vegetables. The Kaisen-Don at Teppei is considered the best in town and has marinated chunks of salmon and tuna sashimi topped with salmon roe and costs around $16.
Hawker centres are a very popular lunchtime option and are usually floors of a building occupied by a variety of cheap food stands. The Golden Shoe hawker centre in the CBD is one of the most rustic and there are a lot of great cheap eats here. One of my favourites is Market Street Teochew Kway Teow Mee where you can get flat chili noodles with prawns and a side soup for only $4!
Rules are rules
Singapore has a reputation for being a strict place. Chewing gum is illegal, there is a zero tolerance policy towards drugs, and all 18 year old men must do two years of military service. Even gambling is frowned upon and although there are two major casinos in Singapore they are there to make money from foreigners as locals are deterred from entering by a $100 to admittance fee.
The most unusual rule in Singapore would have to be the public ban on durians. They are a popular fruit to eat however apparently they are extremely smelly and their strong odour causes much offence. You will see a lot of signs prohibiting durians on public transport and in public places around Singapore.
So far my Singaporean experience has been great and I am looking forward to checking out more of the local cuisine as well as the beaches and many other beautiful sites Singapore has to offer.