One Year in Singapore: An Analysis

Singapore, a small, modern island republic, is located just off the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula. The name is derived from the Sanskritized-Malay name Sinhapura (city of lions). The country’s territory consists of the lozenge-shaped main island and more than 60 significantly smaller islets. Singapore is separated from peninsular Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to the north, and from Indonesia’s Riau Islands by the Singapore Strait to the south. The country is highly urbanised, and little of the original vegetation remains. The country’s territory has consistently expanded through land reclamation.

The islands were settled in the second century AD and subsequently belonged to a series of local empires. Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the East India Company with permission from the Johor Sultanate. The British obtained sovereignty over the island in 1824, and Singapore became one of the British Straits Settlements in 1826. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, Singapore declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1963 and united with other former British territories to form Malaysia, from which it was expelled two years later through a unanimous act of parliament.

Singapore is one of the world’s major commercial hubs, with the fourth-biggest financial centre and one of the five busiest ports. Its globalised and diversified economy depends heavily on trade, especially manufacturing, which represented 26 percent of Singapore’s GDP in 2005. In terms of purchasing power parity, Singapore has the third-highest per capita income in the world, but one of the world’s highest income inequalities. It places highly in international rankings with regard to education, healthcare, and economic competitiveness. Just over five million people live in Singapore, of which approximately two million are foreign-born. While Singapore is diverse, ethnic Asians predominate: 75 percent of the population is Chinese, with significant minorities of Malays, Indians, and Eurasians. There are four official languages, English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil, and the country promotes multiculturalism through a range of official policies.

In 1963, Singapore gained independence from Britain and joined Malaysia (then Federation of Malaya). Singaporean leaders chose to join Malaysia primarily due to concerns regarding their limited land size and scarcity of land, water, markets and natural resources. However, the two years that Singapore spent as part of Malaysia were filled with strife and bitter disagreements. The Malaysians insisted on a pro-Bumiputera (Malay for indigenous) society, where indigenous Malays and tribes were given special rights. The Malaysians were also suspicious of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese population, and worried that Singapore’s economic clout would shift the centre of power from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. There were also linguistic and religious issues. The Singaporeans, on the other hand, wanted an equal and meritocratic society, a Malaysian Malaysia where all citizens were given equal rights without regard to indigenous or tribal affiliation or ancestry. In 1965, Singapore split from Malaysia, with Lee Kuan Yew becoming the prime minister.

Lee Kuan Yew deserves special mention for being one of the most extraordinary political leaders of the 21st century. Under his leadership and vision, Singapore progressed from a small poor island state to one of the world’s richest nation states. He focused primarily on discipline (law enforcement), secular polity, and family planning. He also successfully managed to secure important treaties with Malaysia, including the all-important issue of water import and sustainability. Singapore’s water management story is a great lesson to other Asian countries and I encourage readers to read more about it on the internet. His eldest son Lee Hsieng Hong is now the country’s PM, which some say is tightly controlled by members of the Lee Kuan Yew family.

To manage a multi-ethnic post-colonial society (much like pockets of India in 1947…such as Bombay) was a big challenge, but Singapore has emerged from it victorious. To have a city of the standards that they’ve set in Asia is nothing short of a miracle when you compare it with neighbors and competitors. Singapore, today, is the benchmark for civic planning and development not just for Asian cities but also for world cities overall.

I decided to write this post to summarize the one year that I lived in Singapore (SG), with an objective of providing information to prospective migrant workers and general people at large. I moved to Singapore in July 2013 from Bombay, after I got a job with a prominent technology company based in SG. I’ve also lived in New York, and Auckland, which helps me compare Singapore to other global cities. I am going to classify my experiences about SG into two categories: The Good, and The Bad. Sergio Leone fans, there was nothing Ugly, so the title is truncated! I’ll also give a cost of living reference at the end to help people plan their move to SG. Note that all prices are in Singapore Dollars.

The Good

    Infrastructure: Singapore boasts some of the world’s best infrastructure in terms of roads, public transport, ports, and airports. I have never seen a city that almost effortlessly maintains itself at such a high level. Apart from roads, electricity, water etc., education, healthcare, policing and the legal system is almost flawless. Singapore was and continues to remain a benchmark for other cities, especially Asian, in terms of infrastructure.
    Public transport: My brother once remarked that luxury is not when you can afford a car; it is when you can afford to not have a car. Singapore summarizes this sort of luxury for its citizens with extra ordinary public infrastructure across trains (MRT), buses, and taxis. Singapore has a modern and extensive MRT network that services nearly the whole country very efficiently. Services are relatively inexpensive and are of an extremely high standard. Some train lines are crowded, but after living in a city like Bombay, ‘crowded’ in Singapore doesn’t mean much. Ticketing system is electronic where in commuters can buy EZLINK cards and recharge them with the desired value at any train station or online.

    These cards provide a seamless experience as they can be used across buses, trains, and even taxis. All you have to do is tap in (on the sensor) while entering a train station or a bus and tap out while exiting. The fare is automatically calculated and deducted from the cards balance. You can also download an App called My Transport SG to track buses and train timings in real time. The App is especially useful for buses. Taxis, in comparison to other global cities, are cheap and efficient. The flag down tariff is between $3.2 to $3.6 for the first km and $0.22 for every 400 m thereafter. Most common destinations are within a $15 taxi ride.

    There are buses and trains (apart from taxis) that connect the city to the airport terminals. If you don’t have too much luggage, I highly recommend using a bus or train to go to/from the airport. You can’t really buy a car as a foreign worker in SG, but hardly need one.

    Law and order: SG is known globally as a police state. It took me three days to spot the first cops on the street. There are police patrols, but far less than I expected. Thanks to Lee Kuan Yew’s vision, most Singaporeans are now law abiding people. The traffic is very organized, crime is almost nonexistent, and systems are extremely transparent and non-corrupt. This wasn’t always the case…after all SG was a mixture of Chinese, Malays, and Indians, each of whom are not particularly famous for their integrity in public affairs. Tough laws and swift implementation changed things in the 70s and 80s to bring us now at a situation where law takes precedence in everyday life.

    There is almost no violence, drug or alcohol related abuse, or road rage. As an Indian, such peace and tranquillity in a crowded cosmopolitan city was very welcome. I never had to think about my wife’s safety while travelling alone by public transport at any time of the day or night. Such environment is also great for kids and families. As a personal example, we seldom locked our main doors at night in SG.

    Public housing: HDBs are one of SG’s most innovative government initiatives. To address the housing problem in the 60s, the government started building public housing complexes and provided them at a subsidized rate to Singaporeans. The older complexes looked similar to the chawls of Bombay, whereas the new ones are slick and modern. The government also effectively used public housing as means to integrate different people by building safe neighbourhoods.

    Another important thing that I observed about public housing was the manner in which it cut across economic classes. For example, it is very common to have a taxi driver and a BMW owner reside as neighbors in the same HDB complex. This is something very significant. It also means that the child of the taxi driver and the BMW owner possibly play in the same park or go to the same school. You see all sorts of people living in public housing. Of course, this is limited to SG citizens, but if you are a citizen, you can get a good apartment in 3-4 years for half the market cost.

    As of today, a 3-bedroom apartment in a new HDB complex (towards the outskirts) costs around $500000 where as the market price would be at least $1 million. The monthly instalment (80-20 loan calculation) that the owners pay to the HDB authority is around $1250, which is roughly half of the rental value of the property in the open market. Of course, the property is meant for self-occupancy only, but as I said, if you are an SG citizen, you are pretty sorted on the housing front.

    Cleanliness and hygiene: I don’t think I need to say much about the public cleanliness and hygiene situation in SG. It is world class, and I doubt if any comparable world city would come even close. NYC is certainly not even close, Auckland is very clean, but not as clean as SG. Even public toilets are quite clean (big gulf between Auckland and SG, whereas NYC doesn’t have any!) and well maintained. Garbage collection and disposal is so efficient that you don’t even realize when it happens. Grass lawns are always mowed, everywhere. Chewing gums are banned in the country! The fine for spitting or throwing trash ranges from $500 to $2000 plus possibly a community work sentence. Though the fines aren’t imposed regularly, be sure that if you are caught, you are in trouble.

    I used to routinely sit on footpaths or grass by the roadside to read or eat. No one really cares what you do till you keep it clean and don’t bother anyone else. Many foreign construction labourers (from the Indian sub-continent) are the culprits when it comes to throwing garbage indiscriminately, but even they are far more disciplined in SG than what they would have been in their home countries.

    The level of air pollution is extremely low. In fact, both my wife and I had trouble adjusting to the higher levels of oxygen in SG’s air when we first moved there.

    Healthcare: Though not entirely relevant to foreign workers, SG’s healthcare if of a very high standard where citizens (even permanent residents) get subsidized health care from the state. For foreigners, the same high standards apply but are paid services. In comparison to the western world, the cost of general health care is lower, but of course dentists and other specialist treatment can cost a fortune. A visit to a general practitioner only costs about $20 for consultation. In contrast, it costs $65 in Auckland. Thankfully, SG’s location ($450 worth away from India) mitigates these risks as you can always to go India or Thailand for treatment that is more serious. The increasing strength of the SG dollar makes the trip and the cost of overseas treatment affordable.

    Most good companies provide basic health cover to their employees, so you don’t have to pay much for access to day to day health care.

    Parks and greenery: Lee Kuan Yew envisioned to make SG a garden city, and so it is. SG is not all about high rises and concrete jungles. It is VERY green, with many small and large parks dotting the small island. The beautiful and leafy tropical vegetation makes it even more wonderful for tree lovers like me. There are parks for all sorts of people, from kids to the elderly, from couples to the sports lovers. The amount of open spaces in a small, crowded country is remarkable. You’ll be surprised at the amount of vegetation and free land in SG, considering that it is crowded and that land is very high in demand.
    Weather: This is a controversial one, but I consider SG’s equatorial weather to be very good for leading healthy life. It is warm, but not hot. It is never cold, which means productivity is not hampered. If you look around at the trees, you realize that the climate is suitable for all living organisms. It rains for roughly half the year, but rarely rains continuously for more than a couple of hours.

    I must highlight that the infrastructure is rain proof. All though annual precipitation is similar to that of Bombay, roads, trains, flights etc. are rarely affected due to rain. Public walkways are meticulously planned in a way that one can walk to and from all major transit points without needing an umbrella.

    Master planners: If there is one thing that really showcases SG’s strength’s, it is their urban planning. The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Administration (at NUS) is one of the best in the world for good reason. The authorities never stop planning. They plan for 20 years into the future, always. As I write this, they are building two more MRT lines in with the next twenty years in mind. Recently, they built a a new highway on reclaimed land adjacent to the central business district that freed up prime real estate previously occupied by roads in the CBD area.

    You can’t find ONE pothole in the whole country. Footpaths and signs are meticulously maintained to ensure comfort for pedestrians and the handicapped. Civic services are responsive; I once called the Land Transport Authority to complain about a dysfunctional pedestrian signal and it was fixed within 8 hours. All new housing complexes have various systems for garbage segregation and collection. Fibre optic cables that can support 300 mbp/s internet speeds connect all new homes.

    All publicly built housing have bomb shelters to protect the people (who form the backbone of SG, as it is a knowledge economy) in case of a war or any other disaster. New housing complexes that are located on the fringes of the city are connected to the nearest MRT station by dedicated LRTs (like automated trams). This ensures that people do not need to take cars or bikes to their nearest station to board trains. I used to change three trains each side everyday (to and from work) and it took me only 40 mins door to door. I must stress on this point. Imagine having a new light rail network ready and functional before asking people to move to newer residential developments. Compare this to Pune (Hinjewadi) or Bangalore’s (Electronic city) IT parks, with hundreds of thousands of people working in them, they are often connected to the city by a two lane road!

    Most MRT stations and bus interchanges (terminals) are planned with major buildings, malls, or important areas. For example, three train lines connect various parts of the city to the CBD area. The underground station is directly connected to almost 10 major office buildings through tunnels. The same is the case with almost all major malls and commercial complexes.

    Low taxes: It might surprise you but income tax and GST levels in Singapore are very competitive and low, which is great for middle-class workers. This especially benefits foreign workers who can save a decent sum of money in a superior currency before repatriating it to India. SG collects most of its taxes from corporate taxation (even those rates are quite low) as there are a large number of MNCs that are head quartered in SG or listed on the SGX. Of course, one also needs to understand how they were able to attract so many companies to setup offices in SG even though some of them have hardly got any real business presence in SG!
    Food courts: One of SG’s highlights is the large number of food courts (consisting of food stalls) all over the country. The courts have a number of cuisines available with Chinese, Malay, Indian, Korean, and Japanese being the most common. They are very reasonably priced and provide good quality food. The food courts are also a great equalizer, because once again, people across different sections of society dine in them. Most of them serve chilled beer too!
    Hard working people: SG did not become what it is through magic. A lot of people, who are now referred to as the ‘Golden Generation’, were very hard working. Most of them are now old, but you can still get an idea of their temperament by observing them in trains and on buses, often carrying large shopping trolleys. Another observation was that most older people in trains and buses NEVER ask some one occupying a reserved seat meant for them to vacate it. In most cases, people volunteer, but the elderly almost never make any attempt to grab a seat.

    The newer generation while being honest is not as hard working as their predecessors. They are born in a stable and powerful country and a booming economy. Of course, they are much more educated and skilled in technical fields, which is where most of the market demand is today. Time will tell if this shift will have an impact on SG’s economy.

    Reputation of the Indian community: Another important factor that makes SG a nice place for Indians (and other people from the sub continent) to live is that Indians are generally well respected in SG. SG has had a long history with Indian immigrants, especially Tamils, which is one of the reasons that folks from SG generally view Indians favourably. Indians occupy several important posts in SG politics and government offices. They are also very successful in business and off late in finance and in IT. Racism is not generally an issue that one needs to worry about, which is again excellent for the children of immigrants.

The Bad

    Income disparity: Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the income disparity is very real. The country has no minimum wages as the government believes that setting minimum wages reduces competitiveness. A large amount of middle-aged and elderly workers (who don’t fit into the sort of economy that SG has turned into) perform unskilled jobs. They usually work in food courts and other menial occupations making around $900 a month, which is grossly insufficient to survive in an expensive city like SG.

    SG relies on the Indian subcontinent for supplying construction labourers. These labourers live in dormitories in designated areas only, and are paid low wages (around $700 + housing + food). Though they are not particularly exploited, the lower strata of SG’s society is underpaid.

    Wastage of resources: It saddened me to see how insensitive people were, and the whole nation at large was, towards conserving resources. People don’t turn off their car engines even while waiting 30 mins for someone. All buses, trains, and shopping malls are overly cooled, which results in a lot of energy wastage and CO2 emissions. Though the government tries to sensitize people about electricity and water usage, most private apartments are centrally cooled or have 2-3 air conditioners in them. Water is taken for granted and people don’t realize how much trouble SG has gone through to make water available 24X7.

    Usage of plastic bags is very indiscriminate with most people not attempting to reduce consumption of plastic carry bags or bottled water. One must also lay some responsibility on the government for having done very little in the renewable energy space, considering SG is blessed with bright sunlight all year long. I would love to see some stats around how much energy it costs each year to cool SG down (which of course means nothing because you are only heating the atmosphere in the end).

    Expensive: I am putting this in the ‘bad’ list because no one likes to pay! To be honest, I find SG much better value for money than other major cities. Having said that, SG is expensive, and unless you earn well (which is very possible in SG), its hard to live comfortably. Real estate is the most expensive, often consuming 1/2 of your monthly wage. Shopping is also quite expensive if you are used to living and shopping in India. Clothes, shoes, and personal toiletries are fair bit pricier than in India. I recommend you buy enough clothes, shoes, razors, some medicines, sun glasses etc. before moving to SG.
    Can’t buy a car: A boon for me, but if you want to own a car, it is almost impossible to do so in SG. The only exceptions are some local people, many of whom earned much less than I did, but owned vehicles. Of course, doing so required them to take huge loans. Cars are more a symbol of prestige than anything else. The government regulates car registration in an effort to dissuade private vehicles. A normal 1600 CC vehicle registration costs $75000 for 10 years. This is just the cost to buy the right to own a car. Then, you have to buy a heavily taxed car and maintain it. A decent sedan is a $120k expense in SG. Also, all cars MUST be scrapped after 10 years, so the depreciation is huge.
    Small country: The problem with living in a country such as SG is that you will run out of things to see/do in a few months. Then, you need to travel to neighbouring countries for vacations and tourism. SG is strategically located all right, but you can see the whole country in a couple of months. As a side note, SG has fewer holidays than India and far fewer than New Zealand, Australia or Europe. This means that you don’t really have much time to explore neighbouring areas. Also, as soon as there is a holiday or a long weekend, a ticket to ANYWHERE becomes very expensive. Lot of smaller economies around SG depend on tourists from SG to sustain themselves.
    No pathway to residence: One of the major reasons that I left SG is that it doesn’t give you an option to become an SG resident. There is no clear time frame or laws regarding pathway to residency. Due to the increasing population pressures, decisions for granting residency are completely arbitrary and increasingly rare. This means that foreign workers are to leave the country in case they leave their job or are fired. Also, unlike NZ, Australia, UK, or Canada, spouses of foreign workers cannot work in SG (technically they can, but for all practical purposes they can’t).
    Loneliness: The three distinct groups of people (Chinese, Indians, Malays) are extremely polarized and despite three communities living peacefully for many decades, intermingling among them is fairly low. Making new friends can be much tougher than it would be in other cities. For example, I had a Chinese and a Malay neighbor, though all of them were nice people, it was very difficult to strike a chord with them. Foreign bachelor’s who live and work in SG often spend 12 hours at work because they have nothing else to do. This might not be applicable to everyone, but is certainly something that Indian workers should keep in mind before moving there.

Costs of Living:

I am sure a lot of you ended up reading this article to get an idea of the costs of living in SG. I’ll try and be as elaborate on this topic.

Housing: The biggest killer. Private apartments (called condos), usually 3 bedroom, start at around $3500 and go up to infinity. Most condos are fully furnished and have luxurious facilities such as a swimming pool, barbeque pits, a fitness center, and sometimes a tennis court. A one bedroom studio will cost around $2000+ and a two bedroom studio (two bedroom apartments are less frequent, most are studios with small kitchens) will be around $2400+.

Staying in an HDB (HDB refers to government built apartments) is possible in HDB in older HDB complexes (where the owners are entitled to rent out their apartments). Check if the house is approved for tenancy before signing a contract. Most of the older HDB blocks are in convenient areas but are very simple homes. Some of them are furnished and renovated while others are unfurnished and not renovated. Most 2-bedrooms have only one bathroom as well. 2 bedroom HDB rentals start at $2100 and go up to $3000 depending on the location and the condition of the apartment.

Sharing costs significantly lesser and you can get a master bedroom (with an en suite) in a private condo for $1300 to $2000 and in an HDB for $1000 to $1500. A common room (with a shared bathroom) in a private condo will be between $800 to $1500 and in an HDB for $500 to $1000. You can share the apartment with other flat mates or with the owner (and his family in many cases).

Utilities: A 2 year mobile phone contract (with a top end smart phone for an approximate upfront payment of $250) costs around $59 per month + taxes. Broadband internet costs around $40 whereas fibre optic costs around $60. TV packages are often bundled with internet and fixed-line phones, and work out to be cost effective. You can find a fibre optic internet + home line + basic TV package for roughly $100. These are also two-year contracts. It is expensive to terminate a contract midterm, so if you are not sure of how long you will be in SG, I recommend finding some one who wants to transfer their contract. Such ads are common on Gumtree SG and Craigslist SG.

Electricity bill for a 2-bedroom HDB with one air con and all white goods will be around $120 a month. Water will cost around $30. Both vary upon usage and these are approximates.

Food: Contrary to what people think, I found food in SG to be reasonably priced considering the wages and the fact that most of it is imported. Eating out is cheap at food courts and even some corner restaurants. Fancy restaurants can get very pricey. Alcohol is on the expensive side due to higher taxes. Here is a partial list of food items to give you an idea:

1. Bread: $1 to $4
2. Eggs: $2 to $4 for 10 eggs
3. Milk: $2.5 for one litre of fresh milk and $2 for UHT
4. Carlsberg, 500 ml: $3.5 to $4 for a can
5. Fruits: Apples, pears, pineapples, watermelon etc. are affordable whereas peaches, plums, grapes, kiwi are expensive.

It’s hard to calculate an individual’s food budget, but if you eat at home 80% of the time, two people can comfortably manage in $600 or so. Mustafa Shopping Center is by far the best place to buy Indian groceries and it is worth traveling there (Farrer Park station) to do your weekly or fortnightly shopping. There are many smaller Indian stores available all over SG, but they are more expensive as most of them buy stuff from Mustafa and resell it. For general grocery shopping, you should shop at FairPrice. Giant is another large supermarket chain whereas Cold Storage is a premium grocery chain. Food quality is generally quite good owing to the strict standards and controls that are in place.

Transport: Public transport is subsidized and inexpensive. The basic tariff on a train or a bus is $0.77. General commute is within $1.5 one way. Taxis, as noted earlier, are also affordable and $10-$15 is enough to cover most city distances. Especially handy when you are carrying luggage or have more than two people traveling. Monthly office and general transport costs per person are under $100.

Entertainment: Cinemas are reasonably priced with tickets starting at $8 and going up to $15 depending on the cinema, location, and the movie. Internet booking attracts an additional charge! There are many other events, shows, museums, parks etc. that one can visit. The Sentosa Island resort, built on a man made island off Singapore, is the ultimate for kids’ entertainment. It can be very pricey, but getting there and having fun on the artificial beach is free. You can carry your own beer and drink wherever you’d want to unless specified otherwise.

Eating and drinking out is on the expensive side. A meal for two in an Indian restaurant will cost around $40. Groupon SG has excellent deals on restaurants from time to time. There is no Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB) option available. Orchard Street, Somerset, Dhoby Ghaut, Marine Parade are a few up market areas to enjoy eating and dining at.

Fitness: There are many community swimming pools, badminton courts and gyms, which are reasonably priced. I used a decent public gym paying around $45 a month. Swimming pools cost $1.5 per entry on weekdays. Private gyms cost $100 + per month, but are very good in terms of equipment and trainers. You can also hire tennis, badminton, or squash courts for about $10 an hour.

In conclusion, if you like city life, SG is hard to beat. It is a benchmark that all Asian cities look upto, but none is close to achieving. If you prefer a more laid back and silent life, SG might not be for you. It is excellent value for money and a great place for single people or couples. Its very high paying with the right jobs. I feel it is a good place for kids too (when compared to Indian cities), but any people might prefer kids to have more space to grow up in, and space is very limited in SG. Hope this review of living in SG helps people curious about SG and prospective migrants.

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