This month I made a new blogger friend. Sarah Emery is a Filipina British American living in Singapore. Sarah and I bonded over our shared pains to find a reasonably priced apartment in our foreign lands. In this guest post Sarah gives the lowdown on life in Singapore…
About Sarah’s life in Singapore
Hello! I’m Sarah, a traveling expat blogger.
My global nature stems from my family. My two brothers and I were born on different continents. I was born in the Philippines, my older brother in the States and my younger brother was born in England.
Before living on this mighty and tiny island called Singapore, my husband and I were in the Bay Area of San Francisco, California.
Recently, we celebrated our fourth expat-anniversary on the Little Red Dot, as Singapore is affectionately known.
What is Singapore like?
Living in the Lion City is fantastic.
This mighty city-state is a cosmopolitan, vibrant island. No wonder it’s known as the city in a garden.
Visually, the architecture is like no other. The combination of the futuristic skyscrapers serves as a backdrop against the early colonial shophouses and 19th century temples.
These settings provide such a strong visual juxtaposition of how much time and history has passed through Singapore. It’s no wonder so many travellers frequent here to see it in person. And some of those tourists get inspired to come here for work.
Work life in Singapore
Singapore’s expat community is strong in numbers and community. This adds more to the already established multicultural nation.
Before the pandemic, office workers would make their way to their headquarters on a regular Monday – Friday schedule.
Office hours vary between companies and fluctuate between individual contributors and C-suite executives. Now, many can work from home or a nearby cafe.
Because of numerous global companies, it’s not uncommon to see workers step away during evening (late) hours to take work calls. Teams are spread around the world. For many many workers here, their boss might not live here in Singapore, but in another country.
Downtime in Singapore
During off-work hours, life is centred around food. The island is no stranger to gastronomy delights.
The food scene is unreal. I’ve never seen the extreme amounts of eateries, cafes, hawker centers, and restaurants all piled up on one another.
It is a unique food haven here. You can find inexpensive ($5-$10) Michelin Star and Bib Gourmand meals. It’s no wonder Anthony Bourdain loved coming here!
Located in South East Asia, Changi’s airport stands out as a major travel hub. Weekend jaunts to such beautiful places like Bali or Borneo are the norm.
In just a few hours you can get to the airport, get on a flight, and end up sipping on Mai Tais on a beach in Thailand. Sometimes it’s even cheaper to do this compared to a weekend of entertainment, food, and drinks in Singapore.
Life in Singapore after the pandemic
Things are now vastly different. Because of the pandemic, current restrictions continue to impede our return to normalcy.
Like many places, today’s Singapore doesn’t shine brightly as it did two years ago. The music scene pretty much died – currently music is not allowed at restaurants and bars, and last call is 10:30pm. Group social distancing is in place too, so you can’t meet up in groups like before.
On top of that, leisure travel is ridden with quarantines, multiple Covid testing, vaccinations, and health declarations certifications. All this requires a lot of admin, time, and money. And that’s if you’re allowed back into the country (you have to apply for entry to Singapore).
With all that said, I hope we’ll soon be in a place where restrictions can be lifted. It’s been challenging not being able to visit family for over two years. Unfortunately this is a common theme amongst expatriates.
The best and worst things about living in Singapore
My pro list triumphantly outweighs my con list.
Everything that I’ve already chatted about are huge pros. The quality of life is truly great.
Being here means I can travel around extensively. Singapore’s Changi airport is an efficient hub, with easy access to Southeast Asia and Oceania. In the first year of living here, I travelled to 14 countries.
In addition to multiculturalism, food, easy travel, and city life are the friendships we have developed here. We’ve been so blessed with such a fantastic community that has filled our hearts to no end. Even though we’ve had to say a few farewells (a part of expat life), we appreciate the strong bonds formed in global friendships.
It truly goes against the saying that it’s hard to find friends as we get older. This may sound ridiculous, but I believe it takes more effort not to form friendships here.
Another pro is the safety, but more on that below…
My con list is weather and the ongoing Covid restrictions.
I believe I go against the grain when it comes to the weather here. It’s hot and humid every day, all day. There’s no change of seasons, and the sun rises and sets at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a lowkey sun worshipper. I love being outside and recognize vitamin D is beneficial. However Singapore is located a few degrees from the equator and receives direct sunlight, and high levels of UV radiation.
It’s no wonder umbrellas are a standard carry-around. They serve a dual purpose – protection from the sun and rain.
The biggest downer (of everyone’s lives) is Covid. I feel that while the rest of the world seems to be opening up, here in Singapore we are experiencing huge FOMO. Of course I am thankful that we are very safe, and low risk.
Is Singapore expensive?
I would say Singapore is expensive in general.
Obviously, this depends on your lifestyle, your expat package, plus the number of dependents. All play a big part in the cost of living.
Rent and food prices are comparable to New York City and London, UK. Depending on what you’re used to, it can be quite a price sticker shock for some, because space is a luxury in Singapore and it comes with a big price tag.
A two-bedroom condominium in the heart of the CBD, averages S$5,600 (GBP $3,068, US $4,141) per month for 1100-1200 square feet. Housing prices are contingent on region, the type of housing, and the view.
I’m not going to lie… I love our current view. From my couch I have a sea view with both Singaporean and Indonesian islands spreading across the horizon.
We live in a one-bedroom in the CBD and utilities average $100 (GBP $55, US $74) per month and groceries can be $450 (GBP $247, US $333).
Alcohol is very expensive. For a decent bottle of wine, expect to pay S $50+ (GBP $27, US $37) at a grocery store, S $15-30 per glass at a restaurant, and S $7-25 for a beer (craft beers are very pricey). It’s the tax on alcohol that skyrockets the price. Thank goodness for ladies’ night price specials every Wednesday!
Since we do not have a car, we take full advantage of public transportation and shared car services (Grab, Tada, etc). I’ve never paid more than S $2 for a bus or metro ride, and Grab can be S $6-$30. Everything is so convenient being in a city. To have a car would be a waste of money and unnecessary.
For families with a dual income and a robust expat package life here is very feasible. A decent expat package is crucial when it comes to schools for children. International schools are expensive.
An international student from an ASEAN country is around S $450 (GBP $247 US $333) a month and for non-ASEAN countries an average of S $750 (GBP $ 411, US $555) a month. The price increases from primary education to secondary education. But the education is first class, for sure.
Speaking of families, it’s very common to hire a domestic helper. These ladies are usually from neighbouring countries who live with their families (employer). They provide extra hands in terms of household needs, chores, children assistance and some help with pet care too. The average monthly salary ranges around S $600-$1000+. While I do not employ anyone myself, I understand that on top of fees, employers would be expected to pay for annual flights to their home country.
As far as health insurance, many expatriates are covered by their employers. This is in contrast to Singaporean citizens and PR (permanent residences) who are covered by the universal healthcare.
If you are not covered by your employer, there are private insurance plans that average S $3,500 a year (GBP $1,918 , US $2,589).
A big bonus to living in Singapore is the low-income taxes. This is a huge benefit for those who come to work here. The tax is tiered based on salary earned that averages 5%.
Life in Singapore as a foreigner
Singapore has a lot of expatriates, who are eager to meet, and are your biggest welcome wagon. The social circles that we have made are so diverse and continue to be a big factor on why we love living here.
I have read about xenophobia, but we don’t associate with those people and they are not common.
Also, because of the proximity to and ease of visiting other countries, I’ve had many friends and family come to visit. This is so lovely.
Some friends pass through during a layover. So we meet for a quick lunch/tour, with enough time for them to get back to the airport and make their next flight.
I’ve also been contacted by friends of friends who visit Singapore during their Southeast Asia tour. How fantastic is that?! It’s been such a privilege to connect and tour around friends of friends.
The social circles that we have made are so diverse and continue to be a big factor on why we love living here.
Life in Singapore vs USA and UK
There are surface differences between the USA and the UK, and Singapore. These include languages, cuisine, and limited space.
Then there are others differences that I like to call the unwritten rules. The type of things that you learn on the job.
For example, in western cultures, work days usually have a stop time that marks the end of the workday. Here in Asia, it’s not uncommon for subordinates to leave the office only after the boss leaves.
Another difference is weddings. In western tradition a wedding ceremony is over within hours and the whole reception within a single day. Meanwhile, a Singaporean wedding has a list of customs and traditions that are done over a period of time. And this changes again if it’s a Hindu Singaporean wedding.
The finale is the wedding banquet. This is a full on dining experience. It’s a spectacle of many dishes. My advice to anyone attending a Singaporean wedding is to arrive famished and expect 10+ dishes. And be aware that as a guest, it’s customary to gift a generous amount of cash presented in a red envelope. This envelope is called an ‘ang bao’, and it’s also given during Chinese New Year.
Speaking of marriage, it’s perfectly normal for young adults to live with their parents until they are married.
Also, lunchtime can be quite a sight at food courts and hawker centres. People reserve (or as we say here in Singapore, ‘chope’) a seat in advance by placing a business card, a pack of tissues or an umbrella on a table. This is widely accepted. This type of reservation style can start as early as 9:30am! Of course, since the pandemic, hardly anyone comes to the office anymore, so ‘choping’ has become a thing of the past.
Another difference that I will never wrap my head around is whitening creams. A large amount of beauty products have whitening agents in them. Plus marketing really pushes for pale skin. In the West, people love a sun kissed tan.
I wish we would stop the emphasis that light skin color is more beautiful than others. We need to show that all skin colors are beautiful.
Is Singapore a safe country to live in?
Singapore is very safe. Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. But it didn’t get here without rules.
Adding to its many names, the island is also known as the Fine City, as fines are imposed to eliminate unruly behavior and activity. This marks Singapore as a very low crime free nation.
By the way, can I quickly address the chewing gum myth?! I don’t know how the statement, “you will get caned for chewing gum in Singapore” became such a repeated and misconstrued remark! To burst this bubble, I will correct the statement and say, it is not illegal to chew gum in Singapore!
You will certainly not be canned for chewing gum or bringing it in for your own personal use. I’ve brought in gum and I am spank and fine free! However it is illegal to import gum to sell. Also, spitting out gum on the street is punishable with a fine, as it’s littering.
In comparison to the States and UK, Singapore is extremely safe. Many women remark on how safe they feel and are walking around the city (even late at night) on their own. Personally, I feel zero threat about being verbally harassed or assaulted.
Petty theft isn’t too much of a concern either. You can walk around, chatting on your phones (probably more than normal compared to other cities!) without any fear that it will be snatched from your hands.
Speaking of phones, I’ve noticed some people leave them on a restaurant table while they go outside to have a cigarette. I know I don’t have to be concerned about having my bag or purse open in public or hanging on the back of a chair when dining.
I’ve also witnessed young children without their parents or any adult supervision taking public transport to and from schools.
While it isn’t a 100% crime free utopian, personally I feel 99.99% safe. I’m more concerned with being scammed on Facebook Marketplace if I’m being honest!
Dating and social life in Singapore
Hmmm, can I phone a friend? Ha ha!
The solo female friends I have here are all thriving. One recently purchased a home, renovated it, and had it beautifully designed. Three others advanced their careers and were promoted. One friend was even promoted during the hiring process itself!
While many places have their challenges, I hear the dating pool is one of them. On a girl’s night out, the topic of dating is at the forefront (and the stories are entertaining!).
The pandemic added another layer of hardship for socializing and dating. We are currently limited to fraternizing with no more than max two people a day.
Prior to this socializing was great. Restaurants, clubs, karaoke, and bars were all very lively. Many hosted house gatherings, barbeque cook outs, pool parties, boat parties, and dinner parties. Meeting new people and partaking in social events that filled your social calendar was never an issue. The only challenge was juggling your diary!
Since the pandemic hit, travel has taken a bit of a back seat as well. I’ve noticed my friends are participating in activities they wouldn’t usually wouldn’t do. For instance, dance, cookery or mahjong classes.
You don’t need to be single to try these activities, of course. It’s just that because of Covid, these big party type, group gatherings are forbidden. So these these type of classes are a way to socialise.
I’m pleased to say that my single female friends here have truly designed a life that is filling, rewarding, and rich with a lot of advantages.
Family life in Singapore
Being in the city centre, we don’t see nearly the same amount of families as I did when we lived 1.6 miles (2.6 km) out. Mostly, because of the obvious reason for space and reasonably priced housing.
The nation is very family friendly, and many families like the condo’s. The neighbourhoods are built for families as well. They offer nearby parks, afterschool activities, and easy access to public transport. Add to this safety and the quality of education, and Singapore is very attractive for families.
I think international children have such a unique experience in Singapore. I was visiting a friend one day, and their six-year old daughter was telling me about her school mates. She would say, my best friend so and so – she is from Italy, and my other best friend- so and so from Taiwan. At such a young age, they are already discussing with their friends where they are from, and getting a geographical sense of the world.
All in all, is life in Singapore good?
Yes, life is good in Singapore. Even with all the Covid restrictions, life is great here.
There is much to do and people to meet. If you’re starting out on your expat journey, I believe Singapore is a great starting point.
English is widely used, and if that’s not your primary language, there’s Tamil, Mandarin and Malay. It is a safe country that provides a good quality of life.
If you’re starting out on your expat journey, Singapore is a great starting point.
Tips for moving to Singapore
A lot of my questions about how things work, or where to find things have been answered on Facebook expat groups.
On Facebook groups, you will find questions and the answers to the how to’s on a multiple of topics. Such as, bank setups, if certain rental housing protocols are reasonable or even legal, hiring a domestic helper, or what certain items they should bring that they can’t get in Singapore.
I didn’t sign up to Facebook until after I arrived (as I’ve never needed the app). But I have discovered these groups to be very helpful in ways that Google isn’t. If you can’t find the answer to your particular situation, there’s always someone who has already experienced it and can help guide you through.
The compassion and willingness to help strangers in these groups – this is what the world needs more of! I truly appreciate these groups and the enormous amounts of people who engage in them.
I find them to be a wealth of information and the insight is worth their weight in gold.
For more on life in Singapore and beyond, follow Sarah at sarahwithasmile.com