Singapore Expat Country Guide
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).
Situated in south-east Asia, the Republic of Singapore is comprised of 63 islands, with a population of more than five million people. In 1959, Singapore became a self-governing state within the Commonwealth, and it declared independence in 1963.
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.
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 incentives for people to choose reallocation in Singapore or spend time travelling around the region.
Singapore is located just a few degrees away from the equator and, for this reason, it is no surprise that Singapore has a tropical climate. Annually the weather is warm, wet, and humid. The temperature throughout the year hovers around 30°C and showers are part and parcel of life. However, it is the humidity (which is generally over 90%) that most people consider the most uncomfortable factor about expat life in Singapore. Winds and breezes are a rarity, providing little relief from the stickiness.
However, January, February, and March do provide some respite. Temperatures during these months tend to hover around a much more bearable 25°C, with much lower humidity levels; very similar to a Mediterranean climate. This weather is very welcome after December, which is hit by the northeast monsoon, resulting in incessant rain. The monsoon season as a whole tends to run from November to January.
The hottest months in Singapore are April and May and, from July to October, the sky is ignited by a glowing haze caused by bush fires happening on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
June to September marks the southwest monsoon, and it has been known to rain continuously for entire days during this period.
The population of Singapore is multi-ethnic, with many of Chinese, Malaysian, or Indian origin. This diversity is reflected in the cultural traits, which are very similar to many in Asia. Having face, which is synonymous with many Asian cultures, is the most important thing in Singapore. A loss of face would damage an individual’s reputation and it is avoided at all costs.
Expats will notice that Singaporeans speak extremely politely, and take great care in their body language and facial expressions. Mannerisms and posture are used to convey opinions as opposed to verbalising feelings so that an individual does not lose face.
On a comparable note, Singaporeans are often reluctant to answer a question with yes or no. They never want the enquirer to feel hurt or embarrassed if they do not receive the answer they were expecting. Therefore, do not expect a quick response if you ask a Singaporean a question as they will take their time to consider an appropriate response. Expats should endeavour to do the same, as an immediate answer implies thoughtlessness.
Similar to the Vietnamese belief system of Confucianism, respect for elders and hierarchy in all social scenarios (including business) is paramount and affects the running of everyday life. The eldest members of any group will always be introduced first, given the best seats, and served food first. In 1996, it became law that children will be financially responsible for their parents if needed.
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.
However, do not be alarmed if you are sure that a Singaporean is speaking English but you cannot understand it – it is Singlish. Singlish is a portmanteau word made from ‘Singapore’ and ‘English’ and the language borrows terms from Chinese, Malay, and Tamil languages. Sentences are often not complete and peppered with ‘lah’, ‘leh’, ‘ah’, ‘meh’, or ‘lor’. Often expats are baffled by Singlish when first arriving in Singapore, but start using it regularly after living in the country for a while.
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.
If you only intend on staying in Singapore for less than six months, you need to know that expats are not required to convert their foreign license to a Singapore license. However, if you are in Singapore on an Employment Pass, Dependant Pass, Student Pass, or Work Permit, you will be legally required to convert your foreign license within six months of landing in the country.
Converting your foreign license is relatively straightforward; you are required to pass the Basic Theory Test (BTT) to familiarise yourself with Singapore’s Highway Code. Expats do not need to take a practical driving test unless they require a Class 3 license which allows them to drive motor cars up to a weight of 3000kg, holding 7 passengers, or tractors. The process of conversion can be a long one, and buying a car is very expensive, so many expats choose to rely on public transport instead.
Getting around Singapore is a stress-free experience and the city-state is heavily pedestrianised. Although, walking is not always the most efficient way to get around, it is certainly the easiest when it comes to navigating the city, and you will often remain much cooler!
Cycling is also increasing in popularity despite Singapore having no dedicated cycle lanes. Cycling on the pavement is perfectly legal, and you will often hear the rings of bicycle bells as courteous cyclists alert pedestrians. Cyclists are welcome to use the roads, but drivers can often play by their own rules, so it is best to stick to the harmonious sanctuary of the sidewalks.
There are wide lanes referred to as Park Connectors which are often very scenic and provide quick cut-throughs for those navigating Singapore on two wheels or by foot. They often link up to MRT lines which is handy for those wanting to catch a train and park their bike up.
The MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) in Singapore is somewhat of a luxury; clean and air-conditioned. Similar to a lot of tube systems around the world, the MRT is a system of overground and underground trains with stops about two minutes apart. MRT services run from 5.30am until midnight, with the usual rush hour chaos at peak times. MRT stations are easily laid out and have handy location maps which are very beneficial to new expats. Station employees usually have a basic level of English and can help with any queries. However, keep your eye on the exit signs; they are labelled with landmarks (as opposed to road or building names) to help you go in the right direction.
Expats who plan on using buses or the MRT should purchase a rechargeable EZ-Link card which is available at most MRT stations and 7-Eleven stores. Like the Oyster card in London, commuters tap their card when boarding a bus or entering an MRT station, and money is deducted based upon distance. Cards can be topped up at stations or online.
Although buses are not as quick or comfortable as the MRT, they are slightly cheaper and help expats get to residential destinations not served by MRT. There are 300 routes throughout Singapore and, like the MRT, services run from 5.30am until midnight. Most bus stops are named after landmarks they are close to, and each bus stop clearly explains what buses stop there, their route, and whether they stop at an MRT station. Buses can be paid for by EZ-Link or cash, and passengers simply hail the bus to stop.
Taxis are everywhere in Singapore and are relatively inexpensive, however, they are not always the most convenient as you can often get stuck in traffic. Taxi ranks are usually located near busy areas and you simply queue and hop in the next available vehicle. If hailing a taxi in the street, a green light means the taxi is available, whereas a red indicates it is occupied. Taxis can also be pre-booked and expats should make a note of a few taxi firms local to them.
Singapore has a strong universal healthcare system; ranked sixth in the World Health Organisation’s list of the best world health systems. The country has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Unlike many countries in the world, both the public and private healthcare sectors function efficiently and professionally. More often than not, expats will use private hospitals for primary care, and public hospitals for emergency services.
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. Understandably, the private fees are more expensive than the public healthcare facilities. 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.
The unit of currency in Singapore is the Singapore dollar (SGD) and represent as S$. Each dollar is divided into 100 cents. Notes are available in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 50, 100, 1,000 and 10,000 SDG. Coins are available in 1 SGD and 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents.
Singapore is one of the world’s leading financial centres, meaning that expats benefit from leading banking systems – around 700 local and foreign institutions. There is also a cashless payment system known as NETS in Singapore, which is a convenient way to make purchases and most expats will find their Singapore bank card will have this facility automatically.
ATMs are readily available, and credit cards are widely accepted. Expats should shop around when choosing a bank account in Singapore as different banks will charge different service fees and require different account balances.
Expats wishing to open a bank account in Singapore will find the process incredibly easy and they can be up and running in under a day. There is no need to head to a central branch, simply pop in to the nearest local branch of your desired provider. English is the professional language in Singapore, so expats will not face any barriers when it comes to managing their finances.
Like most banks in the world, expats will need their passport, employment pass, and a deposit to open their account. They will then receive an ATM card, passbook, and a security ring that will be used for internet banking.
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.
Expat children can attend public, private, or independent schools, but it is best for parents to weight up the pros and cons of each option before enrolling their child.
The best public schools in Singapore have long waiting lists and places are given to Singaporeans before expat children. Even permanent expat residents struggle to secure a spot for their child in a public school. Public schools are much more affordable than international schools, and allow children to integrate themselves in to Singaporean life much more quickly. Getting your foot in the door early is key if you are adamant on your child attending a public school in Singapore, but be prepared that your child will be learning the local curriculum.
In private schools, students are highly competitive and families put a lot of pressure on their children to succeed. This is the way of life in Singapore and many expat children can feel ostracised as they struggle to assimilate with the new educational culture. The best schools often dismiss average and underperforming students.
Western parents must keep in mind that corporal punishment is legal and regularly used in schools in Singapore. Caning is permitted for boys only in Singapore, but both sexes can be struck with an open hand or paddle as a form of punishment.
Due to a large expat population in Singapore, there are many international schools serving the children of the foreign community and most parents end up placing their children in these schools. Most of the schools implement the International Baccalaureate curriculum, but some uphold the system used in their country of origin. Popular international schools have waiting lists so it is best for expat parents to research and make informed decisions quickly if they want their first choice.
It is no myth that international schools are very expensive but many expats moving to Singapore will have their child’s school fees payed for by their employer as part of their relocation package.
Food & Drink
Due to Singapore’s multi-ethnic population, culture, and heritage, there are a multitude of colourful cuisines available, each with its own aroma and flavour. Chinese, Malay, and Indian cooking make up the basis for most meals, but there are some cross-cultural dishes.
Fish head curry is a hybrid dish created by Singapore’s Malayalee – an Indian ethnic group from Kerala with Chinese and Malay influences. Red snapper is usually the fish of choice, and the head is stewed in a curry consisting of coconut milk and vegetables. Other multi-ethnic dishes include Peranakan chicken curry, Singapore rice noodles with peanut sauce and cuttle fish, as well as a Eurasian Singaporean curry dish called Kari Debal.
There are a lot of Indian and Chinese dishes that many expats will recognise when dining out in Singapore, but it is highly recommendable branching out and indulging in new dishes that will surprise your taste buds!
Singaporeans make the most of being surrounded by water, and seafood is a staple. Aside from the traditional fish, you will also find a vast amount of crab, oyster, squid, and stingray.
Traditional soft drinks in Singapore tend to be very sweet. Sugar cane juice, lemon barley, and milo (a chocolate malt drink) are very popular. Bandung is a speciality of rose syrup mixed with evaporated milk. For those who prefer something warm, the halia tarik is a ginger tea with ‘pulled milk’ and Kopi is the local coffee in Singapore.
Beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice in Singapore and Beerfest Asia is held annually in the country, in June. The main domestic beer brand is Tiger, which has been brewed in Singapore since 1932.
Broadly speaking, Singapore is not a dangerous city and it is considered as one of the least corrupt destinations in the world. Although there are fines in place for smoking in public, jaywalking, and chewing gum, it has an extremely low crime rate.
Due to Singapore being a world centre for the finance sector, there is a threat of terrorism in the country. Terrorists can target major financial institutions as well as national landmarks. However, the threat of terrorist attacks is no greater than in any other major city in the world.
Petty crime is the most prevalent in Singapore, mainly made up of pickpocketing and street theft. Like most destinations, this occurs around tourist traps, train stations, and airports. There is a small level of burglary, but, this is very rare. Similarly, you rarely hear of violent crimes happening in Singapore.
Murder, rape, and drugs related crimes are virtually unheard of. The most pressing issue is that of money laundering and scams, with financial crimes the only real sinister presence shadowing Singapore.
Places to Visit
Often Singapore has been deemed sterile and nothing more than a stopover on long haul flights to exotic locations. However, this isn’t the case. Singapore is steeped in culture that juxtaposes brilliantly against the futuristic edge of the city. There are some must-visit places in Singapore, for travellers and expats alike.
The centre of Singapore’s Indian community is a colourful and buzzing neighbourhood known as Little India. Multi-coloured shop fronts line the streets, and the air is full of chants from temples, and the aromas of delicious traditional cooking. Little India is one of Singapore’s most loved districts and expats and visitors alike and welcomed by a warm embrace of Indian culture and tradition.
Built as a place for sheer fun, the manmade island of Sentosa is home to Universal Studios Singapore, Tiger Sky Tower, Singapore Insect Kingdom, and SWA Aquarium. It is a lively and harmonious place, and draws in visitors from all over the world. Visitors can access Sentosa via a 12-minute cable car ride from Vivo City which boasts astounding panoramic views of Singapore. The island is home to idyllic sandy beaches and it is a perfect place to relax at the weekend.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum
Located in the popular Chinatown district, the Buddha Tooth Temple is a Buddhist temple and museum complex. The temple is based on the Tang dynasty architectural style and was built to house the left canine tooth of Buddha himself, after his cremation. The relic can be viewed on the 4th floor of the magnificent temple, along with a variety of other ancient relics and historical artefacts.
Known as the party hub of Singapore, Clarke Quay is a hive of dazzling lights and buzzing night time venues. Originally, Clarke Quay was a centre of commerce on the Singapore River. Today, it is a maze of restaurants, bars, and shops. Bar Cocoon and Bamboo Bar in The Forbidden City are very popular, but head to Lunar for fantastic shows, and Attica or Canvas to dance the night away.
Singapore Night Safari
Unlike any other attraction in the world, Singapore Night Safari is a unique opportunity for visitors. The centre not only provides wonderment, but also dedication to the conservation and rescue of both captivate animals in their care, and those who are able to live in the wild. Thousands of animals from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas can be seen in the spacious natural environments of Night Safari.