Country Facts – Singapore
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
An expatriate’s guide to Singapore
Situated in south-east Asia, the Republic of Singapore comprises 63 islands, with a population of more than five million people.
Singapore has a long and varied history. During the early 19th century, it became an important trading post for the British East India company and it wasn’t long before the region became a British territory. During the second world war, Britain lost control of Singapore to the Imperial Japanese Army, but reclaimed it after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
In 1959, Singapore became a self-governing state within the Commonwealth, and it declared independence in 1963.
Visitors and expatriates are drawn to Singapore for a number of reasons. It’s a prime spot for international business, while its interesting history, tropical climate and cosmopolitan atmosphere are also reasons people may choose to relocate to Singapore or spend time travelling around the region.
Local laws and customs
The laws in Singapore can be very strict and there are severe punishments for many offences. The rattan cane is used as corporal punishment, while a mandatory death penalty exists for capital offences like murder and drug trafficking.
Expatriates and visitors are advised to avoid activities that could be construed as molestation – such as men behaving inappropriately towards women – as this could result in heavy punishments. Meanwhile, most homosexual acts are illegal in Singapore, although the government has stated they don’t usually proactively enforce those laws.
It is also illegal to possess Jehovah’s Witness publications like their translation of the bible, or to hold meetings based on Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. Measures against the Unification Church also exist.
Visitors to Singapore should be aware that fines are regularly given on the spot for behaviours that are generally tolerated in other countries – such as chewing gum on the transport system, littering and smoking in public places.
For those who are thinking about gaining permanent residence in Singapore, you should also know that the country does not recognise dual nationality beyond the age of 21.
In addition, male citizens and male children granted permanent resident status as part of their parents’ applications are all responsible for carrying out national service duties from the age of 16.
Due to the country’s past as a colonial trading settlement, Singapore has four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. However, more than 20 languages have been identified as being spoken in the country.
For the most part, English is the lingua franca of Singapore, serving as a commonly spoken tongue of those who speak various other languages. It’s also the primary language used in education.
Mandarin is the most common form of Chinese used in Singapore, although this varies, depending on current government policies. Other Chinese languages are typically classified as dialects – such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.
Singapore has a strong universal healthcare system and was ranked sixth in the WHO’s list of the best world health systems in 2000 and the country has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.
No service is provided free of charge – this is intended to reduce overuse of the system – but most treatments are heavily subsidised and prices are controlled. All citizens are enrolled in a compulsory savings scheme to help them pay for services. Many people in Singapore also enrol in private healthcare.
For visitors, however, the cost of healthcare can be extremely high, so it’s generally recommended that those travelling to Singapore find suitable international medical cover before their trip.
It’s also important to note that some medicines available in other countries – both over the counter and via prescription – may be considered controlled substances in Singapore.
Before you travel to Singapore, it’s essential to check any medications you may be bringing into the country. You may need to get prior authorisation and a permit to carry these medications and this should be arranged at least ten days before you travel.
In most cases, you will be able to bring up to a three months’ supply with you and you will need a letter from your doctor and a copy of the prescription.
Also see our detailed guide to expat healthcare in Singapore.
Schooling for kids
Education in Singapore is extremely important – it has been described as ‘world-leading’ – and a massive 20 per cent of the national budget goes towards education.
There is compulsory education for children of primary school age (6-12) and it can be a criminal offence if parents do not enrol their children in school and ensure they attend regularly.
The Residential Property Act (1973) placed restrictions on foreign ownership of land in Singapore and aimed to give citizens the opportunity to buy property at an affordable price, while also making it possible for permanent residents and companies to purchase homes, subject to their ability to contribute to the local economy.
This legislation was amended in 2005, and the newer rules allow foreigners to purchase certain properties without approval from the government. However, if you want to purchase a restricted residential property, you will need to apply for permission.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Singapore please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.