What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

Hey guys! Welcome to American Expats, a new series that shows you what expat life is like in cities around the world.

Our first interview is with Sarah, a Tennessee native who lives in Singapore with her husband and 15-year old daughter. Here she shares about what living as an expat in Singapore is really like – warts and all.

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

Sarah's background:

I actually spent my teenage years living in Singapore in the late '90s, so I’ve always had a special place in my heart for this tiny country. When an opportunity came up for my husband’s job to transfer from London to Singapore, we jumped on it!

I don’t hold a regular 9-to-5 job here in Singapore, but I keep myself busy working freelance, writing about our travels on The Wanderblogger, and volunteering for an NGO that supports education in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

Char kway teow, a popular dish in Malaysia and Singapore

On the passion for food: Eating is practically a national pastime in Singapore, and for good reason. The food here is a delicious blend of Malay, Indonesian, and Chinese influence with a Singaporean twist. My absolute favorite is char kway teow, which is made up of stir fried flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, fish cake, Chinese sausage, prawns, and squid. Although quite a bit less exotic, Singapore’s most popular dish, Hainanese chicken rice, is another of my favorites.

If it’s your first time in Singapore, you must try the chili crab. More sweet than spicy, eating chili crab is as much about the food as it is the experience, as most people prefer to eat it with their bare hands. (You’re even provided a little bowl of water to wash up with afterwards because, believe me, you’re going to get messy!)

On the tea-drinking culture: Traditionally, Singaporeans drink tea after every meal. If you visit the hawker stalls, you’ll notice hardly anyone local drinking anything at all (even water) while they eat their food. After their meal, however, most people will then have tea.

On the pace of life: Compared to the majority of Southeast Asia, Singapore would probably be considered somewhat fast-paced, but having moved from London, everything about life here feels slower to me. For a city, Singapore is very relaxed. People even walk slower here than I’m used to, so I’ve had to learn to slow down just a little to fit in.

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

On the high cost of living: Singapore is often ranked as the most expensive country in the world to live in. I have no idea what metrics they use to determine that, but I do know I’ve paid $16 for a zucchini before. And the rent on our apartment for one month is almost as much as our mortgage was in Tennessee for the whole year. Between the cost of a car (over $100,000 for something like a Toyota Corolla), the taxes and fees, and the petrol, you’d practically need to be a millionaire to drive in Singapore as well.

There are ways to cut down on costs – living in HDBs (Singaporean public housing), only eating at hawker centers (which are often cheaper than cooking at home), and taking public transport – but you’ll likely still be spending more than you would anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

On the public transit: I live centrally, so I tend to walk most everywhere. Both Singapore’s MRT (subway) and bus system are excellent, so if I’m heading out a little further I’ll take either of those. Taxis and Ubers are another popular way to get around and are considerably cheaper than they are in many other places (e.g., London), but I still prefer public transport.

If you’re visiting, I suggest downloading the Citymapper app to your phone – it makes navigating Singapore on your own super easy!

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

On the expat community: The expat community in Singapore is excellent, and the easiest way to infiltrate it if you’re moving here without any prior connections (or kids) is to join one of the many expat groups on Facebook. There are always meet-ups going on and events to attend.

On the many languages (including Singlish!): Since Singapore is made up of so many nationalities, in a single trip to the grocery, I normally hear at least five different languages. Besides English, though, the official language in Singapore is Mandarin. Most Chinese Singaporeans can speak both.

And then there’s Singapore’s unofficial language – Singlish! Singlish is an informal way of speaking that mixes English and various Chinese and Malay dialects to create a one-of-a-kind language that’s actually pretty fun to use. My local friends get a huge kick out of hearing me try to speak it.

On the (super hot and humid) weather: Singapore is hot year round, so I’m usually wearing either a light cotton sundress or shorts and a tank top, and yet I’ll still be sweating within seconds of walking outdoors. The only places in Singapore that require you to cover up are the temples, but I often carry a light sweater or wrap with me anyway if I plan to be indoors. Singapore likes to help everyone forget how hot it is outside by making all shopping malls, restaurants, and movie theaters feel like the Arctic Circle.  

On the nightlife: When I’m on my morning runs, people are still spilling out of the clubs at 6am, even on weekdays, so if partying until sunrise is your thing, you’ll be well taken care of in Singapore. If it’s a more relaxed, drinks with friends sort of vibe you’re after, Boat Quay and Clarke Quay offer lots of different choices, all with pretty views of the Singapore River. The craft beer scene has been picking up here quite a bit in recent years, so there are options for that, too. But be prepared to drop some cash on a night out. Alcohol in Singapore isn’t cheap!

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

On staying active in Singapore: I’m a runner, so I tend to wake up well before sunrise to get my workout in before the humidity gets too unbearable. Yoga, pilates, tai chi, and all sorts of boot camp-style classes are offered (some for free) every morning in the Botanic Gardens, a gorgeous public park in central Singapore.

Otherwise, there’s always hiking on one of Singapore’s many nature trails or watersports along the coasts, both of which are excellent options if you need a break from the city.

On Singaporean laws: Most everybody knows that Singapore doesn’t play around when it comes to laws and the penalties for those who break them. And you’ve surely heard about Singapore’s ban on chewing gum (that’s often the first thing people ask me about when they hear I live in Singapore), but there are quite a few other laws in place here that most of us from outside Singapore would never even think about. For instance, you can be fined if you forget to flush a toilet in a public place. Or if someone sees you naked in your own home. While in most places we’d just laugh about breaking these sorts of rules, that’s definitely not something you’d want to do in Singapore!

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

The view from Sarah's apartment

On renting an apartment: Landlords in Singapore typically rent apartments and houses on two-year leases, so it’s important to be sure you’re perfectly happy with the area before you sign anything.

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

Street art in Tiong Bahru

On the best neighborhoods for expats: The neighborhoods in Tiong Bahru and Katong/Joo Chiat both have loads of personality, a more relaxed vibe, and a unique cafe culture. (Of the two, Tiong Bahru has easier access to Singapore’s center and business district.) If location wasn’t an issue, I’d absolutely consider the East Coast for its sea views and breezes, too!

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

On the lack of seasons: With the lack of seasons, the weeks and months all start to run together creating what we like to call the Groundhog Day effect.

On living in Singapore long-term: I have a hard time imagining staying anywhere long-term, but it’s even harder in a place as small as Singapore. It can start to feel a little claustrophobic after awhile, especially for those of us used to endless highways and wide open spaces.

Singapore is a wonderful place to live, especially if you want a taste of Asia with all the comforts of the west, but I think most people will find their enjoyment of living in such a small country has an expiration date.

What living as an expat in Singapore is really like

Thank you so much, Sarah! Your photos are gorgeous.

Other posts you might enjoy: What Living in Kampala, Uganda Is Like and My Top Eats in Singapore.

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