Back to Personal Home Page

Singapore Arrival Shock - February 2009

Arrival shock

Expensive Drinking Water picture
Expensive Drinks

Travelling through Asia as a very lazy tourist before starting work in uptight Singapore initially seemed like a jolly good idea but, actually, the contrasts between the previous tourist time in the much poorer neighbouring countries and now being in Singapore have only amplified my arrival shock - particularly now that I am a full-time employee again. In Vietnam, I found so much history, happy families and cheap wonderful beach hotels, in Thailand I fell in love with the big smiles, temples, fabulous food, more beaches, warm laid-back people, and delightfully low prices.

Singapore Sling picture

Despite the earning and shopping focus, here in Singapore, there are occasional happy bright spots: last week, I met a Swiss banker who shared a bottle of Kiwi wine ($100) with me in exchange for travellers tales and then, a day later, I met some old mates from Cambridge who were in Singapore on expenses. (I'll say no more - but you never expected that sampling the original Singapore Sling cocktail at the Long Bar at beautiful Raffles Hotel would be cheap ?)

Singapore really is a lovely place for a short stay because its government has got all the big stuff right. That includes: work, taxes, safe clean drinking water, science support, public transport (the metro, buses and airport are excellent), mosquitoes and all their diseases (are all ruthlessly controlled) and public hygiene in general is watched carefully. However, once you actually try to live here, every happy discovery seems to end with a small, slightly unpleasant unexpected twist.

Bicycle Fine Sign picture
Fine City

For instance, walking along Boat Quay to the statue of Stanford Raffles and the Asian Cultures museum is a magnificent tourist treat: blue skies, clear water, fun restaurants, historic old buildings and a skyscraper backdrop, then you remember that you are at Clarke Quay to be photographed and fingerprinted so you can stay a little longer than a normal shopper. After the very efficient (and jolly friendly) fingerprinting you probably return in glorious tourist-standard sunshine and then pass a sign advertising $1000 cycling fines and remember that punishments here are severe: drug importers get death, chewing gum sellers are not far behind. However, all the guide books had helpful sections on how to pay fines which, happily, only motorists are the most likely to face: if, for instance, they carry the wrong number plate at the wrong time, failed to win an auction for their car's Certificate of Entitlement (CoE), put mud on the road, or, horrifically, let their electronic road pricing card expire. A CoE for a car can be over $30,000 at auction. The standard joke is that it is a "fine city" - in every sense.

Clarke Quay picture

When I arrived, after the government mandated fingerprinting and photographing, there came a trip to the university health centre for a health check: a chest x-ray, measurements of height and weight and, finally, multiple blood tests but they were possibly for my own good. The peculiar fact that I could have been thrown out of the country immediately if I failed any test and that the results were sent to my employer first but then also later disclosed to me were just normal Singaporean practicalities. All in all, Singapore, for good or bad, is pretty close to what I would have designed myself if I had been a social scientist dictator in the 60s. It has been a brilliant experimental success and in that way is much more important that its actual size. If you want to control drug abuse or learn anything about how to run a country, I would strongly suggest that you spend a year in Singapore to learn how it can be done: data always trumps theory! The most important point to learn is that well-paid intelligent civil servants can make a big difference but Singapore's size and population mix are important unique features too.

Harbour_view1 picture

History, Politics and Economy

Don't try and engage a young Singaporean in conversation on the subjects of politics, economy or history because it will frequently end with a soft pillow-like silence of probably genuine disinterest and be followed by a gentle change of subject. So this stuff was dug out of my brain, made up, or borrowed from Wikipedia.

To British military history buffs, (most British males) Singapore is famous for what Churchill called Britain's worst military defeat. In WWII, we shipped large numbers of soldiers to the island to fight the Japanese and then next day decided to almost instantly surrender to a smaller attacking force that had almost run out of ammunition. The Japanese then did absolutely terrible things to the prisoners and the locals. All fine examples of bad military government.

Update: An excellent museum on the top of Kent Ridge behind my apartment has explained the military disaster. It turns out that after the collapse of all the other countries in Europe, the British Empire was rather busy fighting The Nazis at home and around The Mediterranean and there were few aircraft spare for defending The East so The Japanese attacked with air superiority and they started WWII proper by fighting Britain and landing troops in Malaya a few hours before Pearl Harbour (Britain Vs all the bad guys). The sneaky Japanese had long prepared for war with "tourists" taking photographs of all the British ports, fuel depots and telephone exchanges so all the strategic points in Singapore were all soon bombed very efficiently in 1941 until February 1942. The British had even trained the Japanese how to do it all: directly and with spies.

Japan had long coveted Malaya and its riches: fast roads and railways had been laid already by the British so British Malaya was producing half of the World's rubber and tin. A variety of Empire troops fought bravely against the Japanese but were sometimes locally outnumbered, ran out of ammunition and fell back quickly. Unfortunately, the Japanese had been landed with a secret weapon: they were each given (or stole) a bicycle so they chased down the peninsula in just over a month in a series of outflanking manouvers often through jungle. War with Japan had been expected (except by the USA when it actually started), even the probable location and route of attack was anticipated by Army Intelligence officer Joe Vindon but the Japanese bicycles were too fast and the long-planned British reinforcements arrived just in time to surrender. The newly trained local Malay regiments fought bravely (the last battle was directly behind my apartment) but this loyalty and patriotism annoyed the Japanese so much that they went into the big local hospital and then shot or bayonetted literally hundreds of people including the surgeons working at, and patients on, the hospital operating table! The Japanese carried on killing everyone long after the surrender - especially the Chinese community.


Banking History at Singapore_Asian_Cultures_Museum picture
Banking History

After Singaporean independence (1965), those clever Dutch folk who had already taught the British about central banking (also the World's first company and proper stock-exchange) and the wonders of weak constitutional monarchs also, apparently, lent their very own economist: Dr Albert Winsemius to the Singapore government where his development advice was appreciated and executed brilliantly. Singapore is tiny (The whole country is covered using just three metro lines) and started with little apart from good colonial government, a busy port, and the English language but has subsequently grown (with much hard work) to be ever wealthier and is now as expensive as London. The real locals can be rather cocky about this growth but otherwise it can be seen as the perfect contrast with vast Argentina which started with a land named for its Silver but is also stuffed with Gold, oil and gas all topped off with soy beans, grapevines and tasty cow pasture and also had the World's second highest GDP per capita after the Second World War but then blew it all in a huge debt splurge that has never been repaid. Singapore had good government with hard workers and Argentina has not. The contrast with neighbouring Malaysia is also interesting due mostly to problems like corruption and peculiar Malaysian Muslim protection laws but also to political time-wasting like, for example, regularly convicting opposition leaders of sodomy and then pardoning them.

New Parliament picture Politics

Singapore may technically be a democracy but the party in power has never changed and it just so happens that the current prime minister is the son of Lee Kuan Yew (very smart Cambridge graduate) who was the first Prime Minister. I guess, like in many things, the Singaporeans are now following the USA where Al Gore's father was a senator, The Kennedy clan were everywhere (when not being shot - no wonder Republicans love guns) and there was a George Bush as president just a few years before W. At least in Britain we separate the aristocracy from the commons and ask the former to stay out of trouble. However, I do love Prince Charles irritating the Hell out of out-of-touch architects who try and design buildings that look good on a sheet of paper or a table-sized model and then wonder why the people who see the actual building full-size, live in it and touch it are less happy. (By the way, many other people forget scale effects: even the Wright brothers famous for the first (powered controlled manned) flight and celebrated for using a wind-tunnel for aerodynamics tests did not notice the difference between a bumble bee and an albatross and "optimised" their flyer's wing aerofoil from good to bad - oops !)

Old Parliament picture

The Singapore government just erected a huge flying saucer down-town to be the new Supreme Court building. It is impressive for something modern and designed by British architects but not as pretty as the old building which thankfully will now be a museum.

The government seems to be desperate to make the country economically big quickly so all the new government-owned HDB apartment blocks are 40 stories tall. One wonders if the folks in power here really know the difference between GDP, GDP per capita, GDI and happiness or is it all an ingenious real estate bubble ? Incidentally, before getting here, I stayed in the poor Isan area of North East Thailand. In all the surveys, it comes out as both the happiest and the poorest region of Thailand. It seems that the Isan locals like each other, love their families and have space to live which is not all really true here in Singapore. Money and the philosophy of joy, contentment and happiness in general is best explored by others.

Getting About

Disabled Diversions picture

Disabled Diversions

Singapore is an awful place to be a pedestrian and if you are in a wheelchair, you should be careful planning your trip here. Step-free routes sometimes involve huge (200m) diversions if possible at all. Even for those with testosterone and two legs, crossing a road via 100 steps over a 5 metre high concrete overpass is a pain, so illegally playing human "Frogger" needs to be prevented by high metal mid-road barriers. One must try to never see a desirable shop on the opposite side of the road - put on the blinkers - much less frustrating.

For the past few million years our ancestors got around by walking on the ground, swinging from tree to tree or, occasionally, getting drunk in a boat then drifting off and discovering themselves all alone in a new uninhabited land and wishing their girlfriend had come fishing and drinking too. Walking being by far the most common locomotion both then and now. However, Singaporeans are trying to change all that and appear to discourage walking wherever possible. Given a choice, nobody walks anywhere and everyone gets instant paralysis as soon as they step foot on an escalator no matter on which side they are standing or how slowly it is moving. The government just announced cut backs in teaching time for serious subjects so the kids can get more exercise and learn about something called team spirit. If one wants a real walk/wheel in Singapore, The Southern Ridges from Kent Ridge to Henderson Wave and Mount Faber Park are excellent with tree top canopy promenades and natural history plaques.

In a normal country, ground-level is where you can walk around freely but in Singapore it is the opposite. At Orchard metro station, Marks and Spencer's is built around a helter skelter of escalators and the ground is as holey as a Swiss Cheese but ground level is blocked by two intersecting highways - 5 lanes wide through the middle of the biggest shopping district in both directions! Most countries bury their ugly roads underground but, instead, Singapore buries its zig zaggy people shopping tubes (think air-conditioning). However, on Orchard Street ground level, the cars are a luxurious step up from the international average motor and I seemed to be plagued by noisy beautiful Lamborghinis for my first few days of shopping - a bit like the 50 CC motorbike in the Scottish film "Local Hero". My experience was normal: Singapore does have the highest proportion of millionaires of any city in the World ! The high cost of the Certificate of Entitlement for a car is actually a wonderful way to manage traffic congestion at source through market forces and also raise taxes from the addictions of Singapore's richest people for their car whilst also allowing them to display their wealth directly. I used to observe one maid being forced to wash her boss's car by hand each morning to make sure it was proper bling!

Cyclists at Singapore West Coast Park picture

Public Transport

I'd hope that one day Singapore finds a way to put in lanes and charging points for electrical bicycles and e-motor bikes (like gogoro) - but, for now, Vietnam is leading in personal urban transport but they use noisy polluting normal motorbikes and Singapore pushes public transport instead. Ordinary Singaporeans take over 5 million public transport journeys per day but there are less than 5 million people living here. The apparent paradox is not puzzling once you know that the Metro is excellent and buses go everywhere both morning and night so it is not so hard combining both train and bus with a discount for any transfer via a clever smart card - very very cheap relative to the UK.

The frequent terrorism warnings broadcast on the Singapore Metro video screens, especially when I am carrying a backpack or two between airports and hotels, make one almost hope that Singapore does one day get challenged (without success of course) so that all its anxiety and preparation will have been useful.


Some women I know believe that Singapore is their favourite place in the whole World. However, if you pay the bills, knowing the price of something here is really hard. Firstly, it will be higher than you expect, and may not even be shown and then, just to confuse you, the price shown is never what you pay. For instance, the big glowing dollar sign and digits shining back at you in the taxi are probably just there to distract you and the fare will actually sometimes be double that starkly shown due to: VAT, central zone fee and rush hour fee ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) or pick-up fees. In case you do not believe the discrepancy with the blatant big digits, the taxi meter itself actually speaks to you and can print a receipt with a list of all the additional call-out or special pick-up charges.

Food pricing also has occasional unpleasant confusions and, in menus, is often listed with two prices and no explanation - it is for small and large portions. A sneaky chunk of VAT and a 10% service charge will normally also be automatically added later. Drinks are also often listed with two prices but I unhappily discovered that is not for different sizes but actually for happy hour versus non-happy hour which is not specified and applies equally to soft and hard drinks and can come early or late on any day but will often not be shown. Also, the posh bars never seem to want to sell one beer, only two with 1 for 1 deals (what everyone else calls two for one). Once, I found a voucher for half-price beer for "Standard Chartered employees" and tried my best banker impersonation but got the nastiest look from the barmaid when I did not leave a big tip. (Apologies, but the half-price beer in Harry's Bar was still the most expensive beer of my life - up to that point). To eat cheaply in Singapore, you must join the Chinese community in their hawker centres. The food is always good value and pricing is obvious.

After some international money movements, I tried to give one bank 8000 Singapore dollars for them to play with whilst I stayed homeless and away from the bars but the bank also wanted to charge me 7 dollars per month to hold the cash and I had to stay over 3000 in credit or all kinds of special extra fees were applied. To compensate, the interest offered was less than 0.1 % per year ! After Switzerland has invaded Lichtenstein and Monaco, (they really should) they should come here: Singapore does not seem to be short of cash. The other reason the banks are loaded is that the ATMs (cash machines) are always busy. HSBC is the cruellest of them all because they have 10 times as many adverts as they do ATMs - some adverts are as big as a building. They even put illuminated HSBC plastic banners around ATM shaped boxes next to other banks' ATMs. I wonder if they are they trying hard enough to tease and annoy me ?


Home Ownership picture Home Ownership

I always seem to complain as loudly and painfully as the sound of a cat's tail underfoot when I try to rent a new home in a new country, partly because I am deeply ignorant and don't know where to live or what I am doing but also partly because, in truth, I reckon the renting experience is much easier for all parties concerned in an average British city. Boston, USA had the worst rented sector (before here) because it was so bloody expensive (has the US Dollar collapsed yet?) and because the 20 universities tended gradually to force all apartment contracts to gradually synchronise so as to both start and end on the same date 31St July when one academic year ended and another began. It sounds convenient for landlords to have only one silly season but, on the other hand, have you ever considered how half a million students could possibly all rent vans and change places all in one day and if possible then do it without bringing every road to a complete gridlock ? In the Netherlands, the estate agents wanted a fat payment in advance so that they could investigate your credit status and other private matters before they then showed you just their own selected properties and then pay again if you did find something good or another agent if not. However, In Den Haag, I baulked and sneakily used a website and worked with an absent private landlord instead. My fine landlord, rented, lived, taught and became a father in Italy all without us ever meeting.

Filipina Only advert picture

Even relative to the Boston mayhem and money grabbing makelaars in The Netherlands, Singapore still takes the biscuit for most unpleasant accommodation experiences. How a country with so many controls on everything would end up with two sets of agents interposing themselves between landlord and tenant seems crazy with both asking for a fat share of the rent (one or two months from both parties sometimes) so forcing contracts to be two or three years before any profits for the landlord. It is not like Cambridge or other British cities where the landlord does the advertising, showing around and contracts end whenever and at will with one month's notice.

City Summary Chart picture
Singapore Accommodation Costs

I don't think the locals here share the same love of space and freedom that others do in the West. China towns the World over seem to be crowded and busy. Every phone or Internet contract here seems to be for a minimum of two years.

Things are looking up for my chance of private accommodation, but just to rent a little apartment, I will need to sign letters of intent, pay a special tax and registration fee with the government, promise not to do anything immoral, or let anything immoral happen and sign another seven page contract acknowledging that the government can throw us all out with three months notice and turn the whole place into 40 storey apartments whenever it likes.

I tried using the Sunday newspaper to find a flat (apartment) for rent but got nowhere because some only showed the apartment block name, not the area, which was too detailed for me to know where it was located. The selling adverts were even less useful and almost content free - certainly no prices shown! The big banner headline for each property was magnificently uninformative:

Some adverts did say a region in small print and the number of bedrooms, square feet and a telephone number but nothing on character or price. It is all a shocking conspiracy to make agents look useful and to keep buyers and sellers apart. The Internet should have stopped this fleecing this long ago. Some property web sites are starting to arrive: Property Guru, keylocation; but, normally, at least one agent will still be there asking for cash for unspecified services from both - yes both - parties. Just say no !

The stories in the local newspaper (at least on a Sunday) are all exactly what you would expect from a well-behaved responsible press:

Singapore property article picture in Straits Times

The property story has run on the front cover every day that I have seen the newspaper here: the government owns or owned 80% of the flats and has changed the laws regarding residence twice this week already. It is like a London housewife's dream. Is Singapore really a big government driven bubble: attract foreigners to drive up accommodation costs so then sell a bit more land to get the cash to use to pay for more foreigners to come here to drive up accommodation demand again? Locals get nice subsidies from the government to buy their council flats. The government then has to try to stop the new owner renting them out for a profit to foreigners so even renting a room to a mate requires the government to know who lives where (also so they can be taxed on the rental) - slightly authoritarian?


My introductory guide book reckon the three best things about Singapore are: International cuisine, efficiency and "affordable" (dirt-cheap) Filipina maids. Even the council houses come with a "+1" tiny room for your maid. Singapore boomed under the British (Stamford Raffles and after) but there has been a total Chinese takeover though they are still benevolent to their Malaysian neighbours with whom their country was once joined after independence. The Indians do less well and adverts for accommodation will often say "No Indians" and I have had the landlord's phone disconnect the instant that I say that I am from Britain. I guess it could be cooking preferences ( though Britain is not famous for aromatic dishes) because The Chinese community seem to like central markets for eating out every night and stick to just instant noodles at home for breakfast. I haven't seen the big attraction of the heavily advertised fish-head dinners but I like eating Chinese style though prefer Indian food in the evenings and the ubiquitous "Bread Talk" brightly lit bakeries (and their copies) for lunch snacks.

Wandering into Little India feels different with exciting different smells, more old fashioned low-rise buildings and so many more people actually relaxing on the street. The gender roles also get a little twisted here: If I said that I only saw one sex chatting incessantly on mobile phones, watching almost naked men oiled up in shiny underpants doing choreographed dances (WWF wrestling) on one T.V and old Bollywood romantic musicals on another big screen, then you might be expecting that women were out and liberated here but actually, they are hidden indoors (some with pink lights on) and the men have taken over all the conventionally feminine talking, hugging, and watching soppy T.V.

I can sometimes be careful with my money but Singapore is crushing that out of me very painfully. It is not just booze that is expensive, the supermarkets seem even worse. I kept wondering why people were telling me about "Cold Storage" locations which turned out to be the only examples of otherwise invisible supermarkets: usually buried underground or tucked away in a corner of a mall. A single apple is over $1.50 and a small box of Alpen muesli (which is mostly just oats) is about $10 - why would anyone pay that ? Then I noticed that some of the groceries were Waitrose own-brands and suddenly all was clear: the most expensive food supermarket in Britain seems to have been given a monopoly on an isolated little island where residents would mostly rather eat out. I have since found a huge Carrefour supermarket which is cheaper but more annoying because it has slow long flat escalator ramps (cue petrified Singaporeans) and sells really good value bicycles but only in tiny Chinese-sized 17 inch frame sizes - agh !


Raffles Landing picture

The weather on my travels has been wonderful since leaving the snows of England in January with only half a day of rain in two months. In Thailand, the fine weather meant that I could be awed by the fields of burning sugar cane at the end of the dry season but here: Singapore is usually consistently both humid and properly wet but has, instead, been battling unusual wildfires recently so I have been lucky again so far. The morning and evening temperatures here are just lovely (mid 20s Celsius) but Midday sunshine kills in long sleeves and trousers when the air is so very humid and one is being so foolish as to walk around flat-hunting - Only mad dogs and Englishmen ...


My work is really interesting with old friends being helpful, chatty, kind and giving me a chance to learn about The Genome of the Elephant Shark which is small but much more like the human genome than anyone ever suspected. It will be very useful for medical research as well as the big scientific questions on life, The Genome, The Universe and everything. My work is still going better than I had expected with no unpleasant twists at all so far. However, I was just in a magnificent new library and, outside, I heard an old church bell ringing 6pm and I half wished I was hearing it in maybe Florence, Venice, or a pub garden in Kent. Enough writing, I must go and do some shopping now.

Back to Personal Home Page