Background Info | Our Home | Ericsson Cyberlab | Observations | Top Ten
Moving to Singapore has been a big adventure. Some of it has been good... other
parts have been not-so-good. Fortunately, the good has outweighed the bad by a
huge margin. As with all changes, the outcome depends on your own expectations
and reactions. We have been adjusting well.
Here's a few items that are noteworthy.
NOTE - these comments were composed over a long period of time, so they may
seem out of order. Some were written while we were staying in a hotel, others
from an apartment, and more after we moved into a house. So the tenses change
abruptly and may sound kind of funny at times.
CITY/ISLAND/COUNTRYNot only are we moving to a different country with a new culture, but we are also moving to a huge metropolitain city. I think that the city has been a bigger change for us than the move to Asia. The pulse is much quicker, the traffic is much more dense, mass transit is everywhere, and our shopping and eating are usually done in large shopping areas (park and walk). Many days, we get home with very tired feet.
It's also worth noting that Singapore is a small island. This can present feelings of closeness or even claustrophobia. It felt funny when I had to send in my passport to get a work visa... I felt land-locked. The weather forecast actually predicts showers on one side of the island or the other! Still, some people might find the island quite cozy and comfortable. It still sounds funny to me to say "the other side of the island". It makes me feel like Gilligan.
LANGUAGEEven though most of the population is Chinese, everyone speaks English... at least, they speak "Singlish". In public, you'll hear people speaking lots of different languages. But in the office, in stores and doing business, it is always English. Road signs are in English (although some of the place names are Malay or Chinese). Even the taxi drivers speak English, so that puts Singapore in a better position than New York!
A lot of times, the local abbreviated form of English can be hard to understand. Singaporeans tend to leave out useless syllables, so you hear sentences like "on the light" and "water can not in". Proper Singlish should be spoken in a very choppy manner, with sharp staccato syllables. The last two syllables of a sentence should be drawled out, almost sung. It sounds ridiculous.
CULTUREThe culture here is extremely mixed. There are people from various backgrounds. Most are Chinese, but a large percentage are Indian or Malay. You'll find practitioners of many religions: Islamic, Christian, Bhuddist, Hindu, etc. Because of their history of living closely with such varied cultures, Singaporeans are very tolerant people.
Since Singapore is a very modern city, and since it is small enough for the class divide to be kept under control, the people have enjoyed a high standard of living. The minimum standard is very good... housing and food and basic entertainment are very cheap. Luxuries cost dearly (cars, sports clubs, private housing, etc). That being said, there are a lot of rich people in Singapore, and they like to flaunt their good fortune.
VICTIMS OF EVOLUTIONIn a way, Singaporeans are becoming "victims of their own evolution". Like the fragile Americans, who might get sick if they drink tap water instead of pure bottled water, Singaporeans have become reliant on their infrastructure. This is simply because their infrastructure works so well.
In a recent survey, they asked Singaporean school children where milk came from. The answer? The fridge. Where do eggs come from? Again, the fridge. How about before that? From the store. I'm sure that this survey has been exaggerated to illustrate the point. However, it's interesting to see how these kids are vicitms of their own evolution.
This same "urbanization" trend can be seen in more subtle places as well. In the 1960's the people of Singapore were a filthy bunch. In order to make the city a clean and decent place, the goverment imposed fines for littering, spitting, peeing in the elevators and for failing to flush the toilet after use. Gradually, people learned to mind their manners. But then someone decided that the wave of the future was automatic flush sensors. So now every public toilet is outfitted with a sensor. Now Singaporeans are back to their non-flushing roots, because that job is usually handled for them. Let's hope that we don't gradually forget why we stopped peeing in the elevators!
Another feature of this evolution can be seen in the number of household servants. At first, only the rich could afford domestic help. But with the import of labor from neighboring countries (primarily Indonesia and the Phillipines), it is becoming the norm to have a live-in maid. I wonder if the kids develop lazy tendencies, knowing that the maid will clean up after them? If so, can this be called "progress"?
I have often thought that in the event of a catastrophe, Americans would be the first race to die out. Watch a group of travelling Americans, and see how picky we are about our food, and see how we get sick from the local water. We're like Mr and Mrs Thurston Howell from Gilligan's island. I think it's safe to say that Singaporeans will take their place right next to the Americans. Life is good in Singapore, and the people have learned to rely on this.
HOTEL LIFEWhen we first got here, we spent three weeks in a hotel. Basically, living in a hotel stinks. But we were lucky. Our cleaning service did not try to over-clean or re-arrange everything that we have laid out. The staff was helpful, without being TOO helpful.
Our hotel was in the middle of the busiest area of Orchard Road. It had a free car park for guests (although I paid to enter for a week before the man told me that hotel guests park free -- duh). There was a pool and two nice restaurants (which we only visited twice... too many other places to eat on Orchard Road). Plus we had a mini-bar with a fridge and complimentary drinks.
I brought some binoculars from home, thinking that we'd have a spectacular view of the city. Instead, our room had a lovely view of the back of some other high-rise building. Just a car park. (We ended up with a much nicer view in our temporary apartment).
The worst part about hotel life is the lack of a permanent address. When I opened my bank account, I had to use my company's address. Same thing with my work permit, my credit card, our medical bills and everything else. By the time we moved into our house, all of our mail was already being sent to work. So I never get any mail at home.
There are never enough electrical outlets in hotel rooms. I found one where I could plug my laptop in, and a second one where I could charge my phone. Of course, there's that special 110/220V outlet in the bathroom "for shavers only" which did wonders for my AA/AAA battery charger and my electric toothbrush. One of the first things we bought after we got here was electrical power strips (which, for some reason, are always very low quality and highly priced).
Speaking of power, the wall switches in the hotel room are strange. There's this master switch near the door where you're supposed to put your key. When you leave the room, you take the key and the switch cuts off everything in the room. Not just lights, but wall outlets as well. Thing is, I would leave some batteries charging and they would never get charged while I was gone. It turns out that you can just stick a piece of cardboard in the key slot and it will leave the outlets turned on while you're gone. But at night, most of the power outlets would cut off when you turn off the room lights. You just can't win.
ELECTRICAL STUFFIn Singapore, everything runs on 220 volts and 50 Hertz. So I left almost everything electrical in the US when I left. I did bring my laptop and my AA/AAA battery charger. Both of these have "dual voltage" power supplies. Of course, my American plugs won't fit in the local wall outlets, but you can get adaptors for that.
Singapore uses British-style electrical plugs. These plugs have been designed to be extra safe against fires and electrical shocks. The wall outlets have protective covers built in, so you can't stick a plug into the hole unless the grounding pin is inserted first. The prongs are thick and solid to accommodate high currents without getting hot (plus, higher voltages mean lower currents). Plugs have fuses in them. And my favorite feature, all wall outlets have a switch to turn them off before plugging or unplugging a device.
However, in spite of all of the safety features built into the electrical plugs, the presence of a competing standard makes things extremely hazardous. About half of the stuff that you buy here comes with "European" plugs, two round prongs that almost fit into the British 3-hole sockets. In order to jam a European plug into a British socket, you have to stick a pencil in the ground hole to open the plastic guard. They don't fit very well, so sometimes the plug will only be half plugged in. Finally, if you get sick of the half-fit of a Euro-plug in a Brit-socket, you can cut the cable and wire up a local plug.
Aiyah! Now I am encouraged to jam stuff in the holes, leave the plugs halfway in, and rewire stuff myself! So much for safety!
To make matters worse, the colors of the wires are not intuitive! In the old days, they used red for "hot" and black for "neutral" and green for "earth". Given a few seconds, anyone can deduce what the logic is. Red hot, green grass (earth), etc. But somewhere along the line, they changed things. Now, "live" is brown, neutral is blue and earth/ground is green with yellow stripes. How am I supposed to remember that brown is live? Hmmm, maybe if I touch it, I can relate to brown.
SHIPPING OUR STUFFSince Singapore uses twice the electrical voltage that we use in the US, I had to leave all of my electrical goodies in storage. We also left all of our furniture as well. In fact, we did not bring much at all. I shipped five boxes that were about the size of large "dormitory" refrigerators. We had an allowance of five cubic meters, but we only shipped about two.
While we were in the hotel, we had to do without this stuff and just live out of suitcases. This was tolerable, but inconvenient. During our "transition month" in the temporary apartment, our shipment arrived and we got to enjoy our music CD's, my tool box, a wider selection of clothes, some cookware, and lots of other stuff.
Advice for the would-be expat: I sorted through everything in the house, separating it into TAKE versus STORE. I even sorted my books... the only ones I brought were computer books "that I thought I would need". If I had it to do over again, I would be a lot more liberal in the books that I brought along. I keep going to the bookshelf, thinking "I know I have a book on that topic". I do, but it's in a warehouse somewhere back home.
FOODSingaporeans love to eat, so there are always places to grab a good cheap meal. That is, if you like Asian food. A lot of places serve Chinese food, which is usually much simpler than Chinese food in American restaurants. There are probably an equal number of Malay/Indonesian food places. Their food has a lot of hot-but-sweet flavor, with lots of coconut, peanut and chili.
EATING OUTAs with any big city, there are tons of restaurants to choose from. There are a lot of Chinese and Indonesian/Malaysian restaurants, as well as a few western and European places. On Orchard Road, there are a lot of Asian places. There is one mall whose top two floors are nothing but restaurants. And in the center of downtown, near Raffles Place, there is a row of 100 restuarants on a river-side boardwalk (this place is called Boat Quay).
A more cost-conscious way to eat is at the many hawkers centers. These are the Asian equivalent to the Food Court at the mall. There are common facilities with several vendors in one area. One vendor may specialize in soups, while others might serve noodles, fruits, drinks, rice dishes, etc. You can find these hawker centers everywhere. Newton Circus is one popular place. Chinatown has several. And even on Orchard Road, you'll find them in small basements underneath the big shopping centers. The best part about the hawker food is the price. I can usually eat a whole meal for about S$4-6. This is comparable to McDonald's. But the food is much better than Mickey D's.
FAMILIAR FOODI knew that there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken in every shopping area in Asia, so that did not surprise me. But I was not expecting a Starbucks or "DeliFrance" on every corner. There's a McDonalds at every MRT (subway) stop. And speaking of subways, there are also several Subway sandwich shops in town.
I found a Kenny Rogers Roasters and a few Ponderosa steak houses. To my delight, there are six Taco Bell's in town (most are KFC / Taco Bell / Pizza Hut combo shops, which only serve a couple of items from each chain). So I can get my junk food fix, as well as a good American grown USDA steak from time to time.
After we moved into our house, we got a telephone book (three large volumes), and I flipped through it looking for familiar names. I got all excited when I found Bojangles (three locations!). But after we drove there, we found that it was an Irish pub. No Cajun chicken and biscuits there!
FOODS THAT ARE DIFFERENTBased on my travel experience in Europe, I was expecting the milk to be creamy. Instead, I found one "low fat" brand that tastes almost US milk. It has a very slight creamy taste, but it is very smooth and clean tasting. Many of the other brands of milk taste buttery, or actually more like vanilla. But most places carry the "good" brand.
I know that in Asia, milk is not as popular as it is in the west, and therefore they tend to use more UHT milk. UHT milk has been pasteurized using an Ultra-High Temperature treatment (which was, incidentally, developed at NC State University). This milk can be stored on a shelf for long periods (years) and can remain open without refrigeration for a short while. You don't see it much in the US, but it is very common here.
COKE LIGHTIn Singapore, they sell "Coke Light". In the US and in Malaysia, they sell "Diet Coke". For a long time, I wondered if the difference was just in the name, or if the formula was different.
I never noticed the difference when I transitioned from Diet Coke to Coke Light. The change in taste was so subtle that I figured that the two drinks were the same. However, after I had gotten used to Coke Light, we took a weekend trip to Malaysia and I tried Diet Coke again. Yuck -- it tasted like motor oil!
For reference, here is a side-by-side comparison of the ingredients, taken straight from the cans. The Coke Light is from Singapore, and the Diet Coke is from the US (the Malaysian can lists the ingredients in Malay, so I am not sure if the US and Malaysian Diet Coke formulas are the same or not).
SHOPPINGSingaporeans love to shop. The stores are open late, but don't expect them to be open in the morning -- most open at 11:00am. So shopping is convenient, as long as you like to sleep in. Most stores have crammed their inventory as tightly as possible, sometimes even spilling out onto the streets.
They play loud (and low-fidelity) music, hoping to entice shoppers in (to do what? dance?). Usually, it sounds like the store manager has tuned his radio near, but not on, a local radio station and then turned the volume way up.
SELECTIONWhen looking for your favorite brand of anything, you will have a lot harder time than in the states. Most stores in Singapore tend to sell one brand of each item. Some things, like soft drinks and cereals, have a good coverage. But items that are not as distinguishable, like deodorant and shaving cream, usually can only be found under one brand. I wonder if this is some sort of exclusive deal for a better price, or if there's some "deodorant mob" that insists on us using the one brand.
SERVICEThe name of the game in Asian restaurants is to get you in the door. They will gladly take your order, even if the kitchen is not ready to cook. We went to Kenny Rogers Roasters and ordered a meal. They fixed all of the side items and then told us that it would be about a half an hour before the chicken was ready (they had just opened for lunch). So they expected us to take our side items and either eat them first or wait until they were cold while the chicken cooked. I told them "no way" and then watched them scrape the mashed potatoes back into the serving tray for the next lucky customer.
One restaurant finally managed to bring our appetizer out after we had finished the rest of the meal.
Two nice things about service in Singapore: (1) No tips. I believe that the wait staff should be paid by their management, leaving me out of the loop. (2) No self-service garbage cans. Unskilled labor is relatively cheap, so all restuarants, including fast food places and hawker stands, have someone to clean the table after you are done.
One really weird service that takes some getting used to... when you go to a store and buy something like a blender, they take the box and open it up and show you that all of the parts are there. They'll plug it in for you and show that it works. Of course, that means that you can not get anything in a "factory sealed" box. Personally, I feel more comfortable buying something that is factory sealed. You're less likely to find some important piece missing.
Once or twice, I have taken an item back to be exchanged. Say I return a walk-man. The guy will take my defective walk-man. Then he'll open up a new box and give me the walk-man (without accessories) from there. I guess this way, he knows that I am not getting a free set of headphones or a charger out of the exchange. But if he gets the new item out of a brand new box, does he put my broken one back in that new box to sell to someone else? There have been a couple of times when I suspect that they guy simply walks into the back room and returns with the same broken unit. For this reason, I suggest marking the broken unit or recording the serial number.
LUCKY DRAWAmost every store or mall has a "lucky draw". Just bring your receipt by the customer service counter to be entered in this month's contest. You could win a voucher for $100 worth of free shopping!
BANKSWe opened a bank account here. Since my paycheck is direct-deposited, getting an account quickly was a necessity. Until we got that settled, we had to get by using our US credit card and ATM card. This works, but you rack up ATM fees every time you get cash.
It took about two weeks for the ATM card to work. In the US, sometimes they make you call a 1-800 number to acknowledge receipt of your card. Here, you receive the card and PIN, then you mail a form back to them, telling them that you received it (I guess in theory they are manually checking your signature against the signature card at the bank). Slow, slow, slow. One nice thing, though... you can change your PIN at the ATM machine. In Singapore, you never have to walk far to get to an ATM machines -- they are on every street corner.
Banking hours vary wildly, some being as tight as 11am until 3pm, others stay open until 7pm (I visited one such open-til-7 branches at 6pm one night, and it was closed). Most branches are also open on Saturday morning. Apparently, they need to be closed for several hours during the day to process all of the paperwork that they generate during the open hours (like that mailed-in ATM receipt, right?). It sounds like they took the banking customs from their British roots.
Several of the banks here are called something like "Oversea Chinese Bank" and "Union Overseas Bank". Apparently, the early Chinese settlers set up these banks so that Chinese immigrants could send money back to China. The names stuck.
In the first few weeks that we were here, I felt that it was very important to get a local credit card. This should make life a lot easier. It turns out that EVERYWHERE accepts "NETS" cards, or local ATM cards. They have terminals where you enter your 6-digit PIN number to authenticate a transaction. It's quite nice. So it turns out that the credit card is rarely used, other than in restaurants. Restuarants do not use NETS because the NETS reader is on-line, attached to the cash register with a cable. At a restaurant, you typically pay at the table, rather than at the cash register.
Most credit cards charge a big yearly fee, but several of them waive the fee for the first year. We managed to get a card within a few weeks of arriving here, even though we did not have a "permanent" address. They must think that my job at Ericsson is secure enough that I am not a risk.
MONEYSo far, most everything we have found has been reasonably priced, although there are few exceptions. For the most part, things that are considered necessary are fairly cheap, while anything that is a luxury costs quite a bit.
Gas costs S$1.50 per liter (for the good stuff). That's (US)$3.15 per gallon!
Milk costs S$4.50 for 2 liters. That's (US)$4.75 per gallon!
THE ROADSDriving has been suprisingly easy. I was expecting a big adjustment to driving on the left (even though I spent six months in England in 1992). It turns out that if there are other cars on the road, you don't even notice. You just follow suit and drive correctly. The only times I have found myself on the wrong side were all on deserted back roads or parking lots. With no other cars around, you forget which side is right, uh I mean correct. It's funny, though. I tend to bump into people when I am walking on a sidewalk or in the hallway because I naturally swerve to the right and they swerve to the left. BOOM!
The traffic patterns and road markings are extremely well thought-out. Even when the traffic is heavy, I can still make right turns (the ones where you have to cross opposing traffic) fairly easily. They have these big yellow boxes painted on the roads at intersections. If you are caught standing in a yellow box, then you get a S$500 fine (as with all fines in Singapore, I am not sure if this one is enforced). Instead, you are supposed to hang back a bit until you have room to cross over the box completely. That clears the way for other people to turn right into a side street.
The one place where they could improve is in labeling the roads at intersections. You can always tell what road you are driving on, because the bus stops have clear signs with the name of the road on them.
The roads in Singapore have funny names. All of the highways are named with three letters. There's the PIE, the CTE, the AYE, the SLE, the ECP, the BKE, the KJE and the TPE. Whew! My goal is to be able to draw a freehand map of all of these intertwined highways from memory.
In town, the road names change every time you go through a major intersection. For example, there is one major road that changes name from Queensway to Farrer to Adam to Lornie. To me, it's just Queensway/Farrer/Adam/Lornie. The actual name you use just helps you narrow down how far along the road you are. It's a lot like in Silicon Valley, where all of the towns just blend together.
The worst name-changing road is Bukit Timah and Dunearn. The road is a divided highway with a canal running between the two lanes. Or, some might say that it is two parallel one-way streets. One direction is called Bukit Timah and the other is called Dunearn. This makes reading a bus schedule a little bit more difficult.
Driving in Malaysia carries its own set of challenges. We often take a three hour trip up to Malaysia to stay with my in-laws. The highway has two lanes. There are a lot of slow-moving trucks that use the left lane at about 60 km/hr, and a lot of very fast cars that use the right lane at over 120 km/hr. My poor little car can just barely reach 110-130 km/hr. Thus, I spend most of my time in the right lane with my eye on the mirror.
DRIVERSSingaporean drivers are agressive but courteous. If you put on a turn signal, someone will usually let you in. Of course, just to keep you on your toes, the ones that don't let you in also like to cut you off.
The drivers to watch out for are on motorcycles (or more commonly, small motor scooters). They ride on the white line between lanes. The worst drivers on the road (in my opinion) are bus drivers. One lane is just not enough for them.
CARSAlthough you'll see a lot of luxury cars in Singapore, most cars on the road are small, with tiny engines. My car has a 1.5 liter engine, which is about average. Compared to my 3.0L engine in the US, I find it a bit lacking in power.
All cars in Singapore are equipped with these special card readers that are mounted on the dash. You insert a smart card into the device. When you're driving down a road and you pass into a busy area, you'll drive under this big sign that hangs over the road (these are called ERP gantries). The sign has a special radio link in it that talks to your card reader when you drive under it, and it automatically takes a dollar off of your smart card. If you do not have a reader installed or if you don't have an ERP card inserted, then there is a camera that takes a picture of your license plate, and they mail you a fine. The ERP card is a debit card, so you have to "top up" your card when it gets close to being empty. You can do this at 7-eleven stores or at an ATM machine.
There is another card called a "cash card". Like the ERP card, it is a debit card that uses a smart card chip to keep track of your balance. However, this card can be used to buy things all over town. You can pay the fines for overdue books at the library. You can pay the fees for some government services like taking the drivers license test. I discovered this card when I crossed the border into Malaysia. Apparently, the only way to pay the toll at the border toll booth is with a cash card. I didn't have one, so I had to park my car and walk to the office and pay with cash, and it cost S$12.50 instead of the normal S$2.50.
DRIVERS LICENSESince we will be staying more than six months, we have to get Singaporean drivers licenses. The procedure is simple, but it must be followed in a certain order. Basically, I just take a written test. But I have to have a few things first (my work permit, and a "cash card" to pay the fee), and I must make an appointment to take the test. The traffic police web page has a sample test online, and some of the questions look either absurd or esoteric.
[later] OK, I have taken the real test, and it was not quite as bad as I illustrated above. The absurd ones were there, but they took it easy on the esoteric ones. Only some rule about replacing tires when the tread is 1.6mm and something about blood alcohol content. But these can be expected. The results were mailed to me two weeks after the test (I passed, whew). I'm not sure why it takes so long. The test was offered at night -- the office is apparently concerned about convenience, but not efficiency.
PARKINGI thought that parking would be a pain. But I have a parking pass at work, so I can use the car park there any time. At our hotel (the first three weeks), I could park in their car park for free (as I mentioned, I paid the fee for the first week until the attendant told me guests park for free). At the temporary apartment (weeks 4 through 8), we had free parking (for "residents"). And at our house, we have a driveway with room for two cars.
In town, there are pay lots everywhere. It usually costs about S$2 to S$3 to park in a car park for a few hours. If you need to park in a medium density area (where there's no car parks, but land is still scarce), you can park on the street. Instead of parking meters, they have these booklets of punch cards that you can buy at 7-eleven and other places. You take out one card for each half-hour that you plan to park, and you punch out the date and the time, and leave the card on your dash. It's pretty simple.
You need to be careful, though. One time, I parked in an office building where we had an off-site meeting. Since I grew up in the land of free parking, it did not occur to me to check the prices. At the end of the day, I had a S$42.50 charge! S$2.50 per half-hour! For that price, I could have taken a limousine.
CAR CRAPAs much as Singaporeans pay for cars, they are fanatically proud of them. In the mornings, I walk my dog around the neighborhood. Along the way, I observe the morning ritual of my neighbors' maids, washing their employers cars. At one point in my route, I see a well-dressed man washing his Jaguar (his clothes suggest that he is the owner, and not a household servant). I hate to think what this daily washing does to a paint job.
With so much pampering, you would expect the car interiors to be kept equally as tidy. But the most popular thing to do is fill them with "car crap"... tacky decorations that you would expect from street gangs.
The most popular form of car crap is the bone-shaped pillows that attach to the headrests. They are colored white with black dalmation spots. The second most-popular car crap is the Tweety Bird or Tasmanian Devil headrest covers.
Also popular are the blinking LED lights in the windshield (since every car already has an ERP reader on the dash, this is the easiest place to tap an electrical connection). You'll also find plenty of little plastic toys that clip onto the A/C air vents, spinning in the breeze. One other popular thing to do is to take a T-shirt and slide it over the seats as a home-made seat cover (clean and cool).
You'll find the other standard junk: fuzzy steering wheel covers, tree-shaped air fresheners, the dogs that bob their heads while you drive, etc. Most grocery stores and hardware stores have one full aisle reserved for car crap. It must be a booming business!
However, there are a couple of forms of car crap that are not so common. Thankfully, hot pink windshield wipers are not widely found here, as the heavy rain demands no-nonsense wipers. Also, you don't see those license plate covers with rotating Christmas tree lights. Unlike American state-issued plates, Singaporean cars simply have a rectangle of plexiglass with plastic letters glued to it.
License plates are always either white on black, or black on yellow. There are also special white on red plates, which signify a "night and weekend only" vehicle. You can buy the plates anywhere, usually at a hardware store or car accessories shop. In Singapore and Malaysia, the number is important, and not the plate.
SPECIAL CAR RESTRICTIONSSome business vehicles (delivery vans, etc) have these little "50 km/h" stickers on the back. It is illegal for these vehicles to exceed their posted speed limit. Some vans have buzzers under the dash that make an annoying noise when you go too fast. Likewise, many taxis are outfitted with "ding dong" speed bells. The sound will drive you crazy, but the taxi drivers keep on speeding.
If that's not enough of a deterrent, some prefessional vehicles have a yellow "hazard" light on the roof. The light starts blinking when the vehicle is going too fast! That should make it pretty easy for the traffic police to pick speeders out of the crowd.
MASS TRANSITThe mass transit in Singapore is very prompt and efficient. There's basically three choices: taxi, MRT and bus.
The taxi is the best way to get from point A to point B. It's not too expensive. Just S$2.50 for a short ride and maybe up to S$20 for a ride across town. It's very easy to find a taxi in town. You simply go out to any major road and hold out your hand when they pass by. In town, you need to stand in a taxi queue (which move pretty quickly because taxis line up to get to them as well). The hard part is getting back to town from a lesser-populated area, where there are fewer taxis.
The MRT is the local name for the subway. There's MRT stations near most major shopping areas and a lot of higher-density living areas. Unfortunately, the MRT does not go REALLY close to a lot of things that you want to visit. For example, I could take the MRT to work, but it would still be a 15 minute walk from the station to my office. Most of the houses that we looked at were at least 15 minutes walk from an MRT station. Many were much farther.
The most widely-deployed service is the bus, but it is very hard to figure out which bus you need to take to get from point A to point B. We were in a book store, and we found a bus guide (for S$1.50). From there, you can look up the road that you want to start at and find all of the bus numbers that pass that spot. Then you look at the routes for those buses until you find one that passes your destination. Of course, after you're settled into a place, it's pretty easy to remember that number 132 goes to work and number 54 goes to shopping. There's also a web site where you can enter your FROM and TO info and get a list of bus routes. Along Orchard Road, they have these kiosks (they look like phone booths) that have access to this same web page, so you can find a bus when you're already in town.
HOUSINGWe looked at seventeen apartments. We saw two of them a second time. And we finally made an offer on one of them. The place we chose is a town-house, or what some locals call "terraced houses" (a long row of multi-story houses that share one wall with each neighbor). It is fairly spacious, has three bedrooms, and has access to a neighborhood swimming pool.
Housing varies wildly. Some areas have reasonably sparse housing, while others are just packed like sardines. We got to experience a little bit of each, because the house that we chose was not available immediately, and we stayed in a high-rise apartment for five weeks until the house was ready (see the separate page devoted to "our home").
High-density housing is convenient because there are a lot of shops nearby. In fact. In the few weeks that we stayed in the high-rise apartment, we only cooked at home a few times. It's so much easier (and cheaper) to buy food at the shops right across the street.
However, being so close to one another has a price. People are always moving in and out. And before an apartment can be moved into by a new tenant, they always do major renovations. I'm not exactly sure why, because a lot of times the apartments are in OK shape. But it is customary to sand the floors and install something new each time the unit changes hands. That means that there is always some sort of renovation going on. And in Singapore, all renovations are done with a jack-hammer. Since the structures are built out of concrete, a lot of things like wiring and plumbing really do require blasting holes in the walls. Personally, I think Singaporeans just like to see some sort of forceful construction going on so they'll feel like the place has really been upgraded. Bottom line, the apartments are often noisy during the middle of the day. At least they quit making noise at night (conversely, they only do renovations to office buildings on the weekends and at night, when most tenants at home).
High-density housing is spectacular to see. From my office building, we have a great view of the Toa Payoh neighborhood. I can see several hundred high-rise apartment buildings from that one spot. Each one has about twenty to thirty floors, and each floor probably has ten to thirty families. I wonder if I can see a million people from that one office window.
OUR HOUSEAfter all of the hassle of living in a hotel and then a temporary apartment, it was nice to move into a private "house" in a quiet neighborhood. We'll miss the convenience of having shops right across the street, but it is nice to walk in the neighborhood at night, and to play in the nearby park. Plus, we have a small yard for Maggie to do her business in. Here, the yard is called a "garden".
Our house was built in 1979, and building codes were different back then. So there are not a whole lot of electrical outlets (same problem as the hotel). There's also a separate set of telephone and cable TV connections for each tenant that has lived here. Apparently, every few years, the cable and phone companies change the way that they wire things, so they end up re-wiring as tenants move in and out. Since the place is old, I spent most of the first month doing little fix-it jobs like gluing stuff into place, fixing small wiring problems (like TV antennas and light fixtures) and spraying WD-40 on anything that moves.
FACILITIESSome of the facilities in the homes are different than what I am used to in the US. For example, there are two small hot water heaters in our house. One is for the master bathroom, and the other is for the "guest bathroom" and the kitchen. Each one has a power switch on the wall, with a little red light to tell you that it is on. In the morning, I am supposed to get out of bed and turn on the two hot water heaters for the two bathrooms. Then I go back to bed for fifteen minutes or so. When I wake up, each bathroom has just enough hot water for a good shower. I have to be quick, or else the water gets cold (I like long showers). You can see the heaters mounted outside, next to the heat exchangers for the A/C. These things are small... I'm sure they hold less than five gallons. I am still trying to determine whether the switch is primarily to save power or for safety. Perhaps the switch is to reduce unwanted heat in an already hot environment. I think it is safe to leave these units on... they appear to have thermostats controlling them.
In the apartment, we had one facility that was really cool... the garbage chute. In the laundry room, there was a small door in the wall where you could dump your garbage. Why stink up the kitchen with some garbage smell? After your meal, just dump the garbage down the chute! It's fun to drop a can down and hear how many times it bangs around before it finally hits the bottom (it takes about 15 seconds, with all of the bouncing). Sometimes, you would hear something that sounded like rain, but it was only the maintenance crew spraying water down the garbage chute.
I figured that I'd really miss that garbage chute after we moved into the house, but it turns out that the garbage truck comes to our neighborhood every day! Even on Sundays! That explains why everyone's garbage cans are so small (the cans that you take to the street are about the same size as a "kitchen can" in the US).
PETSWe brought our dog Maggie along with us, in spite of the hassle. We decided that the long-term benefit of having her around would outweigh the short-term inconvenience of transport and quarantine.
Maggie travelled OK on the plane. Northwest Airlines has a program called "Priority Pet", which is designed to make sure that the pet and the owner are both kept comfortable. I felt much better when we changed planes in Detroit and the van with the big paw print on the side pulled up to take care of her. I watched them give her water and then take her to the next plane.
After we landed in Singapore, I was disappointed that we could not look in on her after her long ordeal. Instead, she had to stay in the airport for a night and then go to quarantine for the next 30 days. So after that first night, we visited her at the quarantine kennel. She was very happy to see us, and she did not even seem to mind when we left. But the second time we visited the kennel, she was very upset. I think she was mad at us for leaving without her on the first visit. She thought we were coming to pick her up and take her home! After that second visit, we decided to visit less often, so she would not get her hopes up. How sad.
Since Maggie has always been an indoor dog, we paid (significantly) extra for an air-conditioned kennel for her. However, I have my suspicions that the air-conditioning is only turned on during visitation hours -- a very Chinese way for the manager to save a few dollars. We were also disappointed to learn that we could not take her for walks at the kennel. Instead, the enterprising manager said that we could pay extra for one of the staff to walk her each day. Hmph!
March 12th was the day of freedom. We had a happy reunion. She adjusted well to the high-rise apartment (although her walks in the yard weren't as frequent as they were in the US because of the long ride in the elevator). After we moved into the house, Maggie seemed to settle in very well. She had a cool marble floor to sleep on and a large sliding glass door to look out of. And she enjoyed going for frequent walks in the suburban neighborhood. With the exception of some allergies to the local grass (and a subsequent visit to a "quack" veterinarian), Maggie handled life in Singapore quite well.
TELEVISIONI haven't watched a lot of TV since we've been here. Since there are so many native languages spoken, the TV stations are divided among the target groups. One might think that we'd have more TV stations because of the diverse programming. Instead, we have the same number of channels as any other country, but most of them are uninteresting to any single viewer.
There's one or two stations from Malaysia. Skip these. They show mostly Malay language shows, and most of them are locally produced (meaning low budget). These people love to sing, so there's almost always some music video show. Many times, it's more of an amateur karaoke singing show or a talent/beauty pagent. [later] After a couple of visits to Malaysia, it occurred to me that the Malaysian government probably requires a certain percentage of television content to be in the Malay language, as part of their (somewhat artificial) program to promote the Malay culture. It's similar to laws in France that require French web pages to be primarily in French. So this would explain the Malaysian singing. If there is a quota, then the local stations have to produce a huge number of hours of programming on a limited budget. And karaoke is the cheapest thing you can produce.
There's at least one Indian channel. If you've never seen an Indian movie, you should. The genre changes faster than the twists in the plot. One minute, it's a love story -- the next, they're fighting kung-fu style. And Indian music videos have a style all of their own, with some deep roots in 1970's disco fashions. After you've seen your token Indian movie, you can program this channel out of your TV, because the rest is the same.
There's some Chinese shows, many imported from Hong Kong and China. They show a lot of dramas, like soap operas. The Hong Kong ones are fun to watch because the women whine and pout in Cantonese (which has a unique whiney tone to it anyway). There's this one Chinese show that takes place in some ancient dynasty, where the servants shave the front halves of their heads and the women dress like Chinese opera singers. The plot and the mood seem to follow "Xena, Warrior Princess" from the west, but I can't understand what they're saying. So I could be way off.
So what is in English? There's the nightly news at 9:30pm. There's always some sports on, but it's the wimpy european-style sports like "World Champion Snooker" or maybe "curling". There's also Channel NewsAsia and CNN-Asia. They tend to obsess with financial analysis, so that gets old in a hurry.
In the hotel, we had HBO. We don't get it in the apartment. There's also a movie channel (actually a pair of channels) called Vision Four. This looks like a very low budget automated movie channel. They show segments that are three hours long on a fixed schedule. One segment might contain a movie, a nature documentary and a sitcom episode. You can check the schedule to see what rotation they are showing each day. They show the same commercials (for a jewelry store called Roy Eastern Watch and a Malaysian insurance company called "MAA") over and over. The whole setup looks like it is being run by a computer at the studio. The commercials are bad, the graphic lead-in's are extremely bad, but the movies are OK.
After we settle into our house, we will certainly subscribe to every channel they offer just to be able to get a little bit of choice. The government does not allow satellite TV receivers, so it's cable or nothing. I'm not even sure if they tranmit terrestrial over-the-air television. [later] It turns out that the basic cable package is probably the best. About 40 channels, complete with BBC and CNN, Discovery and National Geographic, many local channels and a few imported ones.
MOVIES AND VIDEOSI sure wish I could find a video rental store. So far, all we have found are shops that sell VCD's and DVD's. Video CD's never took off in the US, but they are extremely popular in Asia. Many of the videos are blatant bootleg copies (probably why they never marketed them in the US). Most of the stores sell tons of Chinese VCD's and a lot of "trash", like documentaries and children's shows. The selection of English-language movies is not so great. I'm sure that it all depends on where you shop. But so far, I have only found the bad places. [later] We have found a few stores selling VCD's and DVD's, but the prices are so much better in Malaysia, it's worth waiting and stockpiling a few.
MUSICOne day while we were shopping in the mall, I stopped by this stand that was set up in the middle (one of those seasonal stores). They were selling music CD's really cheap (S$4 each). At first, I thought that they must be bootleg CD's, but I was surprised to see them set up so prominently in the mall. It would not surprise me to see unauthorized CD's being sold in Malaysia, but Singapore is much more strict about this sort of thing. I looked at the labels and that confirmed my suspicion. These were not professional. All of the CD's were "greatest hits" collections, and several had mis-spelled song titles. I bought eight CD's that day. When I got home, I realized why they were so cheap. They were no-name artists singing popular artists' songs. It's funny. Some of the songs are almost indistinguishable from the original, while others sound like a band in a Holiday Inn lounge. I ended up loading these CD's into the car disc changer, for those days when all of the radio stations are playing trash.
RADIOThe radio stations in Singapore are split between several languages. I have found four stations that I like: (1) one top-20 techy teeny-bopper pop station with a ditzy morning DJ, (2) one various-popular with funny morning DJ's and lots of cash contests, (3) one "old people's station" that tends to play 70's and 80's stuff, (4) BBC World.
The pop music station is actually located in our office building. Their studio is in the basement, and the transmitter tower is on the roof. Since our office is a 19-story high rise on top of a big hill in the middle of Singapore, this is an ideal location for a transmitter. One thing that really caught me off guard, however, was the blatant government sponsorship, made to sound like commentary. Our building is called the "SLF building", for the Singapore Labor Foundation. It's basically a branch of the government that acts like a national labor union. On some mornings, the normal techno-pop programming is replaced with a show called "better knowledge, better life". They mix a few songs with special commentary on how the labor union can help you out, and contests where you can win a $50 voucher good for healthcare services. Weird. There is another show in the evenings called "Time With Income", which mixes music with discussion about the events and policies of "NTUC Income", a savings plan run by the government. Equally weird.
It's very cool to have an FM radio station rebroadcast BBC World programming. It's the same program that you'd receive on shortwave, but it's crystal clear. I like the world news from a respected source (and without the ads for local government services intermixed).
THE LITTLE THINGSRestaurants hardly ever give you napkins, and bathrooms never have paper towels (but they do have toilet paper). Instead, you need to either carry a handkercheif or a small pack of tissue paper (sold everywhere). I think paper must be more valuable than gold here. At one food stall in our company's building, they give you a HALF of a napkin. That means that it's cheaper for them to pay someone to cut the napkins in half than it is to just buy more napkins!
This page is a living document, and will change as I gain more impressions of my new environment, and as I find time to publish them.
last updated 2003.09.07