Singapore – Expect The Unexpected
Singapore. A city whose reputation proceeds it, but not very accurately. So what should you expect in Singapore?
It’s historically referred to as the Lion City, from the Sanskrit words ‘Singa’ for Lion and ‘Pura’ – City. According to legend, when it’s founder, Sri Tri Buana, first arrived on the white shores, he spotted a lion, which quickly ran away into the forest. He took this as a sign and decided to build a great city here, naming it Singapore. And when you hear that ancient Malay Annals document Sri Tri Buana as the youngest of three Princes who descended from the heavens, converting everything they touched into precious metals, you might wonder if Singapore’s prosperity isn’t entirely luck.
After visiting twice on the way to and from Australasia, I’ve got lots to say about Singapore, and stacks of photos from this colourful place. But I want to start by telling you what it isn’t.
As a first-time visitor to this ‘city-state’ (like the Vatican City or Monaco), most of the stereotypes you’ve heard will probably mislead you.
Here are some of the impressions you might have about Singapore before you visit;
- It’s expensive – this wealthy country will leave your wallet in tatters.
- It’s a strict nanny-state – you’ll be arrested for having chewing gum.
- It’s small and over-populated – there’s congestion, smog and it’s hard to get around.
- It’s deep in the heart of Asia – probably not easy for unaccustomed Westerners to visit.
Well, have I got news for you…! As an eye-witness, I can say that almost none of that holds true. Allow me to explain.
Is Singapore expensive?
Will you need to remortgage your house for accommodation here? Will food prices make your eyes and not your mouth water? No! Costs here are much less than you might expect! In particular, food can be very cheap. For instance, here are 3 meals I ate for less than £5;
In fact, nearly all my meals were less than 10 Singapore Dollars (~= $8 US /£5 UK) and my favourite thing about Singapore was the great food! More about that soon.
Taking the Metro (MRT) across town costs less than £1 a time, with a rechargeable EZ-link card easily purchased at Changi Airport’s MRT station when you arrive. Accommodation options vary from a shared hostel dorm at £8-15 per night (US$15-25), private rooms in well-rated hostels start at around £20/$30+ per person per night, and hotels go for anywhere from £30-80/$50-130 for two sharing, upwards. Obviously you can come here and splash out on £500/$800+ rooms (or a night at the iconic Marina Bay Sands anyone? From only £200/$350 per night for two sharing), but you don’t have to.
Will you get arrested in Singapore for chewing gum?
Ah, the chewing gum story. It’s not true that chewing gum will lead to you being caned. This particular misconception evolved in the US because one of their citizens was caned, in 1994 – for spray painting.
Selling chewing gum in Singapore was banned because they had a serious problem with chewing gum vandalism in the late 80’s. But it’s not illegal to chew.
What is illegal: You can’t buy regular chewing gum anywhere in Singapore, it’s illegal to import chewing gum in any fashion (even for personal use), and you risk a fine of up to SGD500 for spitting it out in the street. But the ban has been partially lifted to allow people to chew certain medicinal gums – like nicotine replacement gum and gums that have specific dental benefits.
The moral of the story here is that you don’t need to worry about strange punishments in Singapore if you’re going to act fairly ‘normally’. Refer here for examples of abnormal behaviour. Plenty of tourists (and locals) are happily doing all the usual things they like, such as eating, drinking, dancing, and going to Karaoke bars, obviously.
Is Singapore crowded and busy?
The short answer, again, is No. The city does have 5 million inhabitants, but public transport is modern, fast and makes it easy to navigate to different parts of the city.
Spread over a larger area than you may expect, people aren’t living elbow to elbow, like they are in Hong Kong say. On paper the population to land area of Singapore and Hong Kong seem similar; 5.4million people spread over 716 km2 in Singapore versus 7.2million people spread over 1,104 km2 in Hong Kong. But the terrain in Hong Kong is a lot more mountainous, with less than 25% of its land developed. The people of Singapore enjoy much more habitable space, and the effects of several decades of ‘urban greening efforts’ within the city too, which began in the early 1960’s.
Singapore also has a vehicle licensing system that limits the number of cars on the road. So they’re not over-run with traffic and the pollution that comes with it, the majority of people relying instead on the public transport network. Vehicle licenses are expensive (more than the cost of the car sometimes) and all new cars are given a mandatory scrapping date by the state. Smog? Forget about it. They even have a rainforest that you can visit.
Is Singapore hard to visit?
What about language barriers and other difficulties you might have in new countries?
Well, if you’re wondering what ‘Singaporeanese’ sounds like – it sounds like Chinese, Indian, and Malay languages, plus a few others, all being spoken at once, borrowing words from each other and from English. Regardless which background they come from, most Singaporeans can speak English (80% of them, up from 60% in the 1980’s). Even signs and public information around the city are written in English, a legacy of more than a century of British rule in Singapore, ending midway through World War II. The four official languages are English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin.
Singapore’s history was complicated a lot earlier than the British influence in the region though. The most interesting evidence of the mixed cultures here is that the religion a Singaporean adheres to and the language they speak isn’t defined by their skin colour or their ancestry. You might find a Singaporean Indian whose home language is Malay, or a Christian Singaporean whose home language is Chinese. The whole region is a cultural smelting pot that has simmered for hundreds of years.
What else, Singapore?
The legendary founder of this place, Sri Tri Buana, thought he saw a lion when he first arrived here. But no evidence exists that lions ever lived in this part of Asia. Actually, it’s more likely that what he saw was a tiger. So if the youngest of three Princes descended from above with God-like status can be wrong, maybe you shouldn’t come to Singapore with too many ideas of what you’ll find either.
Because it might just be the Asian Tiger you weren’t expecting.
That’s all from me today. Tomorrow I’m off on another journey, a grand road trip through England, which you can read all about on my co-pilot Kash’s blog. Let the adventure begin!
This post was ‘sort of’ sponsored by the Singapore Tourist Board, but not really. I won flights in a blogger competition they held last year, and the prize was return flights to Singapore from Europe. Perfect for my plans to visit Australia and New Zealand! And they didn’t expect anything from me other than the possibility I would write about my trip. Which I am doing. Cos it’s brill. If I hadn’t won the tickets I’d probably have travelled down under via Dubai to say hello to family there, but I’m glad I got to meet Singapore! Especially as a lover of the Indian and Oriental cultures (read: food) it is full of. Still, a big thanks to STB and Singapore Air for the tickets, and all opinions are mine, with No Bias, Guaranteed.