Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Top five tips for settling in to life in Singapore

1. Accept that it's a paradoxical Shopper's Paradise. For a country that has over two million malls, one might say that Singaporeans must be obsessed with retail: both online and offline. Wrong. Here, it's all about the 'look look, see see' past time of window shopping and saving on the electricity bill by cooling off in the air-conditioned surroundings of a mall rather than putting your own unit on at home. Give it time - you will catch yourself doing this at some point.

There's no Amazon, there are few pickings on eBay's empty shelves (there's no chance to bargain, you see) and even if you can buy stuff over the phone (rare), you will no doubt find the conversation 'challenging' unless you speak good Singlish (remember: it's 'oreddy' not 'already').

Fear not, if the thronging crowds of Orchard Road scare you, a plethora of items to quench your materialistic thirst awaits you in the forgotten malls of Singapore (if you know which one you need). Added to those, forums such as Singapore Expats, Adpost and Gumtree are the place to find locals of all ages selling a huge variety of secondhand items. Note: You will have to arrange a pick up yourself in person and be prepared to negotiate on the price.

2. Get used to going 'marketing'.

No, I'm not talking about business development. Here, they distinguish food shopping from other types of purchasing adventures and call it 'marketing'. So, don your best t-shirt and shorts combo, slide into your flip-flops and head to your nearest 'wet market'. Often the best place for sourcing fresh fish and quality vegetables at prices that are kind on the wallet. Warning 1: The floors can get quite slippery. Warning 2: Chinatown market even sells turtles and frogs... for consumption.

The three main contenders in the supermarket space are (in order of cost): Fair Price (it does what it says on the tin, but if you're whipping up a Western feast, you may find it challenging to grab everything on your shopping list); Carrefour (excellent for wine and cheese); and Cold Storage (you can buy everything here but certain European items are shockingly expensive). Both Fair Price and Cold Storage offer online shopping, which are solid services except that the websites are not as user-friendly as they could be.

Finally, just deal with it: alcohol is unbelievably expensive, especially when compared to the rock-bottom duty free prices charged at Changi airport. Just make sure you journey further afield than Malaysia, lest you be stopped in your tracks at the checkout on your return to Sin City. It's embarrassing, you'll look a fool and don't bother trying to pretend you're from another flight - they might wrestle you to the ground and cart you off for terrorist questioning.

3. Take up eating as a past time. Famous for their love of all things edible, Singaporeans think, talk and dream about food. During lunchtimes with your colleagues, conversations on planned or past consumption are the norm. There are huge numbers of food bloggers who you will see with their cameras out getting the best angles before diving in, bib first. Some places, like Tippling Club, even expressly forbid cameras at the dinner table lest the constant flashing annoy fellow diners.

The Singapore food bible, Makansutra actually has an index listed by dish and contributors to recommendation site, Hungry Go Where often list out their experience course by course, mouthful by mouthful. Be warned: Hungry Go Where can be infuriatingly confusing with some diners giving a restaurant the highest accolades and others labelling it as the worst dining experience in the history of mankind. I recently found this out and was involved in an online battle of the tastebuds, between myself, Massive Dynamic and low ernest. Fun!

Quick tips for eating out at
(i) Hawker centres:
  • Carry tissues at all times to chope your seats.

  • Grade B is dirtier but it tastes better.

  • Learn to sweat while you eat (aforementioned tissues will help).

(ii) Low to mid-range restaurants:
  • Despite what it says on the menu, even if you order starters, all dishes will likely come at the same time.

  • Waiters often can't explain what is on the menu, so be patient.

  • If wine is on the menu, don't expect it to be anything to write home about unless you're spending more than S$70.

If you can't face leaving the house and are hungry as sin, look no further than Hungry Go Where's Delivery Service. With a huge variety of offerings, you will find something you desire. The only odd thing is that you proceed with a 'normal' online order but at the last moment, you have to call a number. Through some astonishing technical wizardry, the person at the call centre will know everything about you and you only need confirm your order, lessening the time you have to spend practicing your Singlish. Die die, must try.

Finally, be warned that Durian-flavoured anything is available. Try it if you dare.

Durianmisu anyone? Anyone?

4. Marvel at the transport options but laugh at the way they are used.

Singapore Taxi Drivers to Learn French.

Taxi: Enjoy bouncing around the back of old cabs, the smell of rotting pandan leaves (to ward away cockroaches) and odd conversations ("Dogs. Do you like dogs? I like dogs."). Whilst you may be shocked at some drivers' poor navigation skills ("I dunno, you teach me, ah?") a read of the famous Taxi Drivers' Blog (you can also now buy the book) will, no doubt, leave you feeling less angry and more compassion for those in this difficult line of work.

MRT: Despite this politeness campaign being played everyday on the MRT and large pictures of Phua Chu Kang everywhere, aunties are oblivious and will routinely barge their way to the front, when embarking and disembarking, of people waiting to board the MRT and then getting on before anyone else has had a chance to leave the train. Sadly, auntie assault is a punishable offence.

Bus: Good luck deciphering the bus network. You cannot just walk to a bus stop and figure out which bus you need to take you where you're going: the stops just list the buses stopping there and where they are going. So, unless you are naturally lucky in life, please consult gothere before you embark on a bus journey, lest you end up going from Tiong Bahru to Orchard Road via Ang Mo Kio.

Elevator: For some unknown reason, it appears to be a commonly held belief amongst Singaporeans that jabbing one's finger on the elevator button will make the deck appear faster. Being half-Singaporean, I must confess that I have found myself doing this, on the off-chance it really works. Try it for yourself and feel closer to this unique culture.

Walking: Walk at a snail's pace. That's all you need to do to walk like a local.

Driving: Pick a lane, any lane. Swerving and braking hard are all acceptable. Just don't dare to jump any red lights and for goodness sake, don't do an OJ Simpson if you are summoned by sirens.

5. Come to terms with island fever.

Apparently, the 'victim' is so traumatised that she cannot get out of bed...

Accept that you won't find much of interest in the Straits Times, and that some of your favourite websites may be blocked. Instead, charter a yacht, hire a private island, or escape to one of the many destinations you can get to for a weekend without taking any time off work (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia) and enjoy the bliss of arriving back to Singapore through the world's best airport. Now that it houses the world's tallest slide (in an airport), there's all the more reason to just hang out at the airport even if you haven't got a plane to catch. For real: it's on my 'to do' list.

And it's not all about leaving the island: explore the organic farms, go condo crashing (and head straight for the pool), organise a picnic in the Botanic Gardens or a BBQ in Labrador Park.

All in all, you will hear the following phrase on repeat: "Life in Singapore is just so easy." It's true: the weather is almost permanently superb (save for the occasional monsoon rains), good food is ubiquitous, and there's hardly any crime. One the flip side, it lacks avant-garde creativity and has been likened to a warm bath.

I'm lucky because I get to see both sides, being part local and part ang mo. It was very baffling indeed for my colleagues when I first arrived. How could they categorise this person speaking with a plummy English accent about how much they love to eat century eggs who could then flick into finely tuned Singaporean patter on the subject of contract law, hor?

If you're even faintly interested in exploring Southeast Asia and having the cash to do so, come to live and work in Singapore to experience it for yourself. It's the closest you can get to taking a gap year and seeing the world without actually having to give up your job.

Further Reading: Complete Resident's Guide to Singapore; Angry Ang Mo.


Sam Brick McF said...

Another great post Kay, always a pleasure to read.... makes me want to see Singapore x

Kay Vasey said...

Please come to Singapore any time, or just come back to Southeast Asia and we can meet on some amazing beach somewhere and then you can come to stay in our house. Yippee!

Felicity said...

Ditto.... can I bring my tribe to come visit??

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Of two evils choose the least.............................................................

davo said...

superb post

davo said...

superb post

Anonymous said...