Guest POV-Jim’s observations on Singapore

My friend Jim recently visited Singapore for the first time.  Here is the note he wrote up for facebook detailing his experiences.

One of the fun parts of traveling is experiencing cultures that are different from your own, and Singapore was no exception.  In no particular order, here are some of the things I noticed while I was there.


  • In the week I was there, I think I only heard emergency vehicle sirens twice.  In Boston, I hear them nearly every day.
  • According to my friends, car ownership is incredibly expensive over there.  Unlike here, where you haggle to pay less than the sticker price, you routinely pay more than sticker price there.  I’m told a Honda Accord can cost around $80,000 USD, which is 3-4 times more expensive than here.  Therefore, cars are really only for the rich (although there are still plenty on the roads).
  • Perhaps because of that, taxis are ubiquitous and cheap.  There are taxi queues almost everywhere, and taxis are way cheaper than in Boston.  To get from my friends’ apartment to the airport cost me $31 SGD, or around $25 USD.  For a journey of about the same distance from my house to Logan Airport, I pay $40-50 USD.  And for $2-3 SGD extra ($1.50-$2.25 USD), you can text for a cab and get a reply telling you when the cab will arrive and what the license plate number is.
  • The restaurant across from my friends’ apartment was jam-packed at 3:30 AM on Saturday night when I was leaving for the airport to fly back home.  Does anyone know what time the bars close in Singapore?  Was that the post-last call crowd?
  • I’m told that Singapore is a rather patriarchal society.  My friend Crystal and her friends Emily and Mishelle all said that they often don’t get results when talking to people in authority, whereas their husbands do.  I can only imagine how frustrating that must be.
  • Like other Asian countries, shoes aren’t worn in homes.  Also, giving and receiving things (e.g. change) is usually done with two hands, not one.
  • At the hawker centres (i.e. food courts), you don’t bus your own tray: you just leave it on the table when you’re done.  I did go to one hawker centre which asked you to bus your own tray, but I’m told this is quite rare.  (For locals, it was the Zion Road Hawker Centre near Great World City).
  • At sit-down restaurants, you get a wet-wipe in addition to (or sometimes instead of) a napkin.
  • Except for malls and the airport, I saw very few recycling bins around.  I don’t recall seeing any on the street like we have in Cambridge.
  • Western food is readily available, but it’s considerably more expensive than local food, and you’ll pay a markup over what you’d pay in the US.  For example, a small iced coffee from Coffee Bean (a Western coffee shop) cost me $4.20 SGD, or around $3.40 USD.  A small iced coffee at the Dunkin Donuts by my house costs only $2.10 USD.  However, I could have gotten an iced kopi (Singaporean-style coffee) for $1.70 SGD ($1.40 USD).  A muffin at Coffee Bean was $3.60 SGD, but at a local coffee shop, I got toast, coffee, and eggs for $3.70 SGD.
  • The four official languages of Singapore are English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, but English is the most dominant, with Mandarin close behind.  Malay is a distant third, and Tamil gets shafted a lot.  Outside of Little India, I only saw Tamil in the subway and on certain warning signs.  Otherwise, I didn’t see it, and I saw a number of signs where Japanese was the fourth language instead of Tamil, presumably for the benefit of tourists.
  • At the airport, security screening is done at the gate, not before.  Also, you hand in your boarding pass when you enter the gate area, not when you board the plane.
  • Despite being a former British colony, I noticed a number of Americanisms in the English spoken there.  I saw references to “cash machines” and “ATMs”, not “cashpoints”, and I saw signs for “stroller parking” instead of “pram parking”.  There are still plenty of Britishisms, though (e.g. “alight here”, “mind the gap”, “way out”, “plasters”, etc.).
  • The toilets were frequently labeled “Gents” and “Ladies”, not “Men” and “Women”.  I don’t remember it being like that in the UK, but it’s been a while, so I may be misremembering.
  • I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me to see a Buddhist monk doing his grocery shopping, but it did.
  • Tipping doesn’t really exist in Singapore.  You sometimes tell taxi drivers to keep the change, but even that’s not common nor required.
  • Condiment-wise, chili sauce dominates.  Ketchup is close behind.
  • At restaurants, you have to ask for the bill: they won’t bring it to you automatically.  It seems there are some restaurants where you give the money to the server and some where you bring it up to the counter, but I’m not sure how you tell which is which.
  • Following the rules is apparently a fundamental part of Singaporean society.  Crystal tells me that non-Western restaurants will almost never do substitutions.  Contrast this with American restaurants, which let you substitute nearly anything (and frequently say so explicitly on their menus).  Also, store employees won’t go outside the box to solve problems, where American employees will usually go to their manager to try and find solutions to customer problems.
  • Perhaps not surprisingly, I saw almost no Black people while I was in Singapore.  Does anyone know how many Black expats there are on the island?
  • Government social control is very heavy-handed by American standards.  For example, Singapore now has casinos (gambling was illegal until recently), but locals have to pay $100 SGD to enter, which is used to fund anti-gambling addiction campaigns.  Foreigners get in for free.  Clearly, the government wants to discourage locals from becoming addicted to gambling, but wants foreign money.
  • While Singapore’s constitution does grant freedom of assembly, it explicitly grants Parliament the right to restrict this “in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality”.  By comparison, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution explicitly states that Congress cannot make any law prohibiting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”.  This is a huge and fundamental difference between our two countries, and as an American raised to believe in the Constitution, it seems quite shocking that such restrictions could be allowed.  As I commented on Crystal’s blog once, Singapore fundamentally values the good of the societal group over individual rights, whereas the US fundamentally values individual expression over the group.  I’m not sure if these two positions can be reconciled, as they’re diametrically opposed in many ways.
  • Unlike Vegas, Singapore casinos have dress codes.  I didn’t go into the casino at Sentosa because I was wearing shorts, which aren’t allowed.  This seems silly, as I was dressed for the adjacent Universal Studios theme park, but if they don’t want my money, that’s their business.
  • Obligatory gripe about the state of infrastructure investment in the US: in Singapore, they’re building several new subway lines, and construction is ongoing throughout the city.  Here in the US, these sorts of projects have declined to a trickle.  Remember when America used to lead the world instead of following it?
  • The American Embassy in Singapore looks like a giant fortress: it’s a gray, imposing building with a giant eagle seal on it.  It looks very unfriendly and unwelcoming, and can’t be helping our reputation abroad.
  • People seem to dress very fashionably in Singapore, especially the women.
  • Try as I might, I couldn’t really identify a Singaporean accent.  I heard accents that owed a lot to British English, accents that sounded very American (not just from Americans in Singapore), and accents with such a thick Chinese overtone that it was difficult to understand people.

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7 Responses to Guest POV-Jim’s observations on Singapore

  1. kierstenS says:

    Sounds like Jim had a great time!

    Re black people in Singapore: I once met a black girl from the states who told me her mission was to make friends with all the other black people in Singapore. She would literally stop people in the MRT or approach strangers in restaurants.

    After one year she knew 12 black expats. She said most of the others were tourists or students.

    • Crystal says:

      After teaching in a majority minority school, it’s really strange to me how few black people I see here.

      That’s kind of depressing to hear. 12 after a year. Yikes. Did she ever have any issues with discrimination here?

    • Jim says:

      Kiersten, I did indeed have an awesome time while I was there. Sorry I didn’t get to meet you.

  2. bookjunkie says:

    Thanks so much for sharing Jim’s insights. A very interesting read indeed. I honestly learnt quite a bit and it confirmed certain things for me.

    There is definitely discrimination in Singapore. I hardly see any black people here either and when I do I wonder how they feel that they get stared at because they are a minority and people are probably just staring out of curiosity. It’s rude though.

    Yeah Tamil definitely gets shafted. It takes someone from another country to point that out to us, even though as one of the minorities it’s quite clear to us, but left unsaid. Some day it’s really sucks to be a minority. When jobs state bi-lingual they mean Mandarin and that’s a sore point for me…because to me that’s language discrimination…isn’t it? There are just guidelines in place to prevent discrimination but no laws.

    • Crystal says:

      I remember when the census taker came to the door, it wasn’t enough to identify Ravi ethnically as Indian, but his sub-group as Gujarati. They also wanted clarification on languages he spoke (English only, sorry) and how suprised I was by that. In the US, he barely has to go further than Asian.

      I’ve noticed that bi-lingual translates to English/Mandarin here. I’ve found it interesting as the official position is that there are four languages. I almost never see Maylay, I think, though. Perhaps even less than Tamil (or I might just have a skewed understanding as I spend far more time than most in Little India).

  3. Pingback: Things you don’t see/hear in Singapore & visitor from Boston, Jim’s Observations (via Expat Bostonians) | Tiny Island

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