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Living in Singapore

A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Singapore

Our guide explores everything you need to know about living in Singapore, including a deep dive into the concept of Kiasu. We offer practical tips, such as how to exchange your driver’s license after living for 12 months in the city-state.

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What is it like to live in Singapore? For some, relocating to Singapore is a welcome opportunity for luxury. The nation offers amazing cultural opportunities, from incredible dining experiences to world-class golf courses and more. For others, Singapore is primarily an opportunity to climb the career ladder. They might be more interested in cultivating relationships through endless dinners and building their professional knowledge in the process.

No matter the reasons for your move, this section will provide you with everything you need to know about the pros and cons of living in Singapore. We also explore the practicalities of living in the city-state. From knowing local emergency numbers (you call 999 for a police emergency) to understanding driving rules and the public transportation systems, you have all the information you need to feel comfortable when you move.

Knowing about your new country also helps you integrate smoothly. Our guide offers an overview of cultural communications, so you can break the ice instead of breaking cultural etiquette.

Pros and Cons of Living in Singapore

As with moving to any big city, there are many pros and cons of living in Singapore. Although there are usually specific reasons behind the decision to relocate, such as pursuing career goals or living closer to family, you should also consider the bigger picture. We have compiled some key benefits and disadvantages of life in Singapore.

Benefits of Living in Singapore

  • If you speak English or Mandarin, or want to improve your skills in these languages, they are two of the official four state languages of Singapore. All public signs are in English, and it is the main business language.
  • Changi Airport is a transport hub for Asia, allowing you to easily explore the continent at relatively inexpensive prices.
  • Modern and efficient, Singapore is a comfortable city to live in. Its good infrastructure, schools, and healthcare system make it a pleasant place for expats of all ages to reside.
  • The taxation system in Singapore is very low and is considered to be generous. This means that although Singapore is an expensive country to live in, it is relatively easy for many expats to experience a high quality of life.
  • The city-state has an incredible mix of people and extensive cultural diversity. Tolerance is promoted and expats from a huge range of backgrounds feel comfortable calling Singapore their home.

Difficulties

  • Singapore is a large city. Living here comes with all the trappings of a hectic urban lifestyle, making it more difficult to lead a laid-back life. Expect people to be in a rush and generally busy.
  • Buying and renting property in this city is very expensive. It is also difficult to purchase certain property types unless you are a Singapore Citizen or permanent resident. See our housing section for more information.
  • Singapore does not have very distinctive seasons. It can be difficult for expats to adjust to the hot and humid weather that is present all year round.
  • Employment visas are tied to your job. If you lose your job and your employment pass is cancelled, you have 30 days to find a new job or leave the country.
  • As a small country, expats find themselves traveling out of Singapore to explore surrounding countries and look for new experiences. While this might be attractive to some people, others might find the size of the city to be restrictive.

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Practical information

Emergency Numbers

Police 999
Police  SMS  (if unable to call) 71999
Police Hotline 1800 255 0000
Fire 995
Ambulance  (Public) 995
Non-Emergency Ambulance  (Public) 1777
City Gas (leakages and disruptions) 1800 752 1800

 

Public Holidays

Singapore is incredibly diverse and strives to be inclusive and tolerant. Holidays from multiple faiths are celebrated.

If a holiday falls on a Sunday, then the public holiday will be observed on a  Monday.

The main public holidays are:

 

New  Years  Day January 1
Chinese New Year January/February (dates vary)
Good Friday March/April (dates vary)
Labor Day May 1
Vesak Day Usually May (dates vary)
Hari Raya  Puasa End of Ramadan (dates vary)
Hari Raya Haji 70 days after Ramadan (dates vary)
National Day August 9
Deepavali Mid-October to mid-November (dates vary)
Christmas Day December 25

 

Main Embassies

As of February 2020, there are  70 resident foreign high commissions and embassies, 43 foreign consular posts, and 11 international organizations  located  in Singapore.

  • US Embassy:  27 Napier Road,  Singapore 258508,  singaporefrontoffice@state.gov
  • UK Embassy:  100 Tanglin Road,  Singapore 247919,  consular.singapore@fco.gov.uk
  • Canadian Embassy:  1 George Street #11-00,  Singapore 049145,  spore@international.gc.ca
  • Australian Embassy:  25 Napier Road,  Singapore 258507,  enquiries-sg@dfat.gov.au
  • Indian Embassy:  31 Grange Road, India House,  Singapore 239702,  hc.singapore@mea.gov.in

For all other embassies, please check the  Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs  website.

Main Airports

Singapore has two public airports, Changi (SIN) and Seletar (XSP).

Changi, in the eastern part of the country, is the most famous and one of the largest transport hubs in Asia. More than 100 airlines operate out of Changi and it serves 380 cities in 100 countries. It is easily accessible from the city center via taxi, public bus, train, and car.

Culture and Social Etiquette

Singapore is an incredibly popular expat destination because of its diverse mix of cultures. The country’s population has a make-up of around 74% ethnic Chinese, 13% ethnic Malay, and 9% ethnic Indian. This results in a wide range of South and East Asian cultures and religions being represented at a national level. This diversity creates a vibrant cultural landscape with its own etiquette that expats must learn to navigate.

Staying Polite

Singapore aims to be a meritocratic society, where hard work takes you to the top. This has created quite a hierarchical structure, with a key concept being deference and politeness for those senior to you.

Singaporeans rely a lot on indirect communication to remain polite. This covers body language, expressions, and tone of voice, as well as listening closely to others.

Quick Tips
  • Speaking loudly can be seen as being rude, as is maintaining eye contact for too long.
  • People may avoid answering a question with “no.” If someone hesitates or seems to give you an indirect answer, they might be trying to refuse your offer without offending you.
  • Pointing with just your index finger is impolite. Use your whole hand or head to gesture.
  • It is disrespectful to touch someone’s head.
  • It is respectful to remove your shoes when entering into someone’s home.

For more information on business etiquette, please see our Working section.

Religion

Singapore is considered a spiritual country with much religious tolerance. Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism are all represented in the country. However, Jehovah’s Witness meetings are illegal.

Cultural Customs and Religious Practices

Different cultural customs and religious practices should be respected. For instance, Muslim Malay women may not wish to shake someone’s hand when greeting them. The best way to respect another person’s religious and cultural beliefs is to allow them to introduce themselves first and to follow their lead regarding personal space.

Similarly, naming is an important custom that should be respected. As people come from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Call someone by the name they use to introduce themselves and do not try to shorten it unless directed.

Day-to-Day Dress

Western clothing is prevalent in Singapore. Casual clothing is preferred on the weekends, especially in the heat of summer. Dressing out of the norm tends to attract a lot of attention. There are even gossip sites for the country where pictures of “outrageous” outfits are posted.

It is common to carry both an umbrella and sunglasses. This is because the weather can change quickly, and an umbrella protects against both the sun and rain.

Dining

Any dining experience is likely to be determined by the cultural background of your host. It is usually polite to let the host choose the dishes. They are likely to be served all together and with everyone sharing.

For instance, Malay people are predominantly Muslim. This means they will serve halal food at a meal and no alcohol will be consumed. You should not bring alcohol as a gift to a Malay Muslim household. In contrast, a Chinese household is likely to use chopsticks and alcohol will be consumed.

Quick Tips

If you have any doubts about dining cultural etiquette, you can politely ask your host questions. Alternatively, online forums such as InterNations can often answer common questions.

Remember to never give a gift to a Singaporean official, even if you are dining together. This can be perceived as bribery, an offence which is taken very seriously.

LGBT Acceptance

It is currently illegal for men to engage in homosexual acts in Singapore. This is punishable with a prison sentence of up to two years. This law does not apply to women. Though the government has stated that they will not proactively enforce this law, it is a factor in Singapore being considered an unfriendly place for expat members of the LGBT community.

Foreign same-sex marriages are not acknowledged in Singapore and same-sex marriage is illegal. There are also no anti-discrimination laws for members of the LGBT community.

A Positive Future

There is a growing and increasingly open LGBT community in Singapore. Recent polls even suggest that support for same-sex marriage is on the rise among the general public, though the process is slow. There are LGBT nightclubs, bars, and a yearly gay pride event called Pink Dot. Because foreigners are not allowed to take part in protests, they are not able to join Pink Dot.

LGBT members in Singapore can contact Oogachaga, a local support group.

Kiasu

Kiasu is the term for a Singapore characteristic that often confuses expats. The closest meaning in English is a “fear of losing,” or a “fear of missing out.”  For example, if a new restaurant or shop opens in Singapore, everyone will want to be the first to try it.

Expats tend to stay out of this trend to avoid the crowds. You don’t have to get involved – but it will definitely be a cultural experience to try it at least once.

Cutting the Line

If you stand in line in Singapore you cannot cut in front of anyone, though people are often too polite to scold you if you do. If the cashier has a problem with the person who cut the queue, they may not serve them. Expats have many stories of older people deliberately cutting queues; if this happens to you, remember that the elderly are highly respected in Singapore. Showing disrespect to the elderly should be avoided, and you should not raise your voice—or argue with—them.

Things to Note
  • Singapore is relatively conservative when it comes to public displays of affection (PDA). However, PDA is most often met with stares or confusion, rather than violence.
  • You should seek approval from the Ministry of Manpower before giving a talk on racial, religious, or political topics.
  • It is illegal to drink alcohol in public places from 22:30 to 07:00 (and all day on weekends) in designated areas and Liquor Control Zones. If you are caught being drunk and disorderly, you can face a fine of up to 5,000 SGD (3,600 USD), up to 15 years’ imprisonment, or even caning.
  • Drugs are illegal in Singapore, with severe penalties for offences. Possession of even very small quantities can lead to imprisonment, caning, or possibly the death penalty.

Driving in Singapore

Driving in Singapore is straightforward. If you need to learn to drive, you can get get a Singapore driving license how you would in your own country: by passing a theory and practical test. You must be over the age of 18 and a permanent resident to be eligible to pass the Basic Driving Theory Test and the Practical Driving Test. Singaporean instructors are notoriously tough to please, so practice makes perfect.

Driving in Singapore with a Foreign License

Tourists and temporary visitors to Singapore can drive on a foreign driving license, including UK, US, and EU licenses. You are only allowed to drive on a foreign license for a maximum of 12 months.

If you are relocating to Singapore, you should convert your home country license into a Singaporean driver’s license. If you decide to move back home, you can convert it back. Exchanging your license is easy—anecdotally easier than taking the Singapore driving test!

To convert your license, you need:
  • to be at least 18 years old;
  • have a valid work pass;
  • take a Singapore driving theory test;
  • to convert your license within a year of moving to Singapore (6 months for S pass holders).

Singapore permanent residents have to apply to convert their license within three months of obtaining residency.

Expats need to head to their local Traffic Police Driving Test Center to exchange their license.

The following documents are necessary:
  • original and photocopy of your passport and residency documents;
  • original and photocopy of your valid foreign driver’s license;
  • passport photo taken within the past three months, with a matt-white background;
  • your certificate for passing the Singapore Basic Driving Theory Test;
  • translation of your driving license (if it is not in English).

There will be a 50 SGD (36 USD) processing fee, which can be paid through NETS or a cash card.

Your driving license needs to show the first date of issue. If it does not, you will need to present documentation showing this.

Rules for Driving in Singapore

The legal driving age is 18 years old. Drivers must wear a seatbelt and drive on the left. Be aware that the standard speed limit in Singapore is 50 km/h (31 mph) on regular roads and 70-90 km/h (43-55 mph) on expressways (highways).

You should also:
  • use a child seat for anyone below the height of 1.35m;
  • turn your headlights on between 19:00 and 07:00;
  • follow mandatory circular signs in red or blue;
  • give way to traffic from the right at uncontrolled junctions.

Renting a Car in Singapore

It is possible for foreigners to rent a car in Singapore. International car rental companies found in the city-state include:

  • AVIS
  • Europcar
  • Hertz

In general, the shorter the rental duration, the higher the cost per day. Surcharges are also imposed during public holidays.

If you are interested in driving a rental car, you usually need to:

  • be between the age of 23 and 65;
  • have at least a year’s driving experience;
  • own a valid driver’s license or international driving permit.

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Public Transportation in Singapore

Public transportation in Singapore is extensive, covering all areas of the city. In fact, it is recommended that you take air-conditioned public transport because walking around, especially in the humid summer months, can be uncomfortable.

Helpful apps to navigate around Singapore include CityMapper and GoThere.sg, as well as Google Maps.

What is Public Transportation Like in Singapore?

Singapore transportation is known to be efficient. It is, after all, a small nation; you can get from Changi Airport in the east to Jurong bird park in the west in around half an hour by car.

Expats enjoy this efficient and easy-to-understand system because it takes very little time to adjust to it. Unlike in huge cities, you can understand the city-state’s layout and ride public transport like a local in very little time.

Commuters should note that public transport can become very busy during rush hour: between 07:00 and 10:00. It is usually less packed for the commute home from work.

Cost of Public Transportation in Singapore

Expats in Singapore can purchase an EZ-Link Card. This contactless stored value card costs 10 SGD (7 USD) when purchased from a 7-Eleven store. It comes with 5 SGD (4 USD) pre-paid and can be topped up via an app or at 7-Eleven stores and TransitLink ticket offices.

It works across the transport system, including many taxi services. The card can also be used as payment in certain shops and restaurants across the city.

MRT

The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system has six lines and operates from 05:30 to 00:00 (later on holidays). Trains usually arrive every 2-3 minutes between 07:00 and 09:00, and every 5-7 minutes for the rest of the day.

Price (single trip): 1.40 to 2.50 SGD (1 to 2 USD)

Buses

Buses have extensive routes. They run between 05:30 am and 00:00 am and arrive every 5-30 minutes. Night buses are also available along some routes until 02:00.

Price is based on the distance traveled. It will generally be between 0.42 to 1.05 SGD (0.30 to 0.75 USD).

Trains

Apart from the MRT, there is no railway network around the city. Only a short section of railway connects Singapore to the Malaysian rail network. Two more international stations are planned.

Taxis

Singapore has both local taxis and ride-sharing apps. Designated taxi ranks are available around the city. These are the only places where taxis are permitted to stop, although it is possible to flag one down.

Popular ride-sharing and ride-hailing apps include:

  • Grab
  • Gojek
  • Ryde

Uber does not operate in Singapore.

Price varies based on the time of day. Keep in mind that local taxis may be subject to different surcharges. Ride-hailing app taxis are generally cheaper. Expect to pay around 10 SGD (7 USD) for a 10 km journey before surcharges.

Do you want to relocate? If you have never moved abroad, the process will be overwhelming, and if you have, you know the burden that lies ahead. Whatever stage you are at, InterNations GO! can help you with a complete set of relocation services, such as home finding, school search, visa solutions, and even pet relocation. Our expert expat team is ready to get your relocation going, so why not jump-start your move abroad and contact us today? Best to start early!

Updated on: April 21, 2020

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