When we first set down our feet on Singaporean ground back in 1999 it felt like walking straight into a sauna. I used to joke about it. “I haven’t felt this kind of steamy heat since back in school after 20 kids had just taken a hot shower all at once after a gymnastics lesson”.
It was our second post as an expat family and we were quite excited about it since it was very far away from Sweden. All we knew was that it is a tropical small country in Asia, very well developed, with lots of palm trees and skyscrapers. I still remember my husbands words when he gave me the news about a new contract opportunity. It simply was the words: -You’re going to love it!
Singapore is a comparatively young country, only 52 years old as an independent state. They celebrate their Independence Day on 9th of August every year. Two years ago it was a big party. The island used to belong to Malaysia and then it was a British colony. The Japanese occupied Singapore under the Second World War and after that the British army took it back again. This is the shortest history version and summary of the background. There is an interesting war museum at Changi area. The Battle Box in Fort Canning Park is also interesting and a quite different visit of a museum.
Singapore means “The Lion City” and it has a so called “Merlion” as a symbol, which is a mix between a lion and a mermaid. As you can guess by the name. It can be spotted in Benjakiti Park here in Bangkok as well. It was a gift from Singapore to Bangkok many years ago. Singapore is the country with almost 6 million people and is known as being the country with the highest living standards in Asia.
Still today it has very low or hardly any crime. It is an extremely efficient and organised society and what we also always have appreciated so much is that everyone speaks English.
I can be a bit sad and upset when friends or acquaintance say: – Well, I didn’t like Singapore so much, it is so artificial and not Asia. This is a common impression we often hear that short time visitors get. I guess when you have lived and experienced Singapore for six years your feelings are quite different. The longer you stay, the more you love it.
It has so much to offer except from Orchard Road and the riverside area. You have to look beyond the luxury buildings to see that even Singapore has a genuine and quite loveable soul and charm.I love the people for one thing.
The many discussions with often quite bright and intelligent taxi drivers – e.g. They love to get into political discussion and always seem interested in your country, where you like to travel or how you find Singapore. Even our teenage daughters ended up in debate and discussion with the drivers during our years.
I love the food stall hawker, which is the local food served in a very simple way – often you sit on plastic or wooden stools at the side of the street.
I drove myself in Singapore over the years and it was fun and quite easy. The driver’s license test was mainly 50 questions, no practical driving if you had another license already. We didn’t pass the first time I remember and had to redo it. There were three answers to choose from to each question; two that you felt were easy and one tricky.
I love the tropical climate and you can feel that you are close to the equator (only 140km) since it is almost the same temperature all year around. You can see parrots, monkeys and even snakes (cobras and python) in Singapore in various areas. No white tigers any longer though. There is a fabulous movie about Singapore called Tanamera, which during an evening that SWEA (Swedish Women’s Educational Association) arranged, saw backwards; meaning the part 1 and part 2 VHS cassettes were mixed up.
We therefore saw the ending first and finished off with the beginning. Quite confusing for me and my friend Inger, who were the only two persons in the group that had read the book. I still laugh when I think about it. “Why do they start with the war and not the British aristocrats playing tennis and having a jolly good time in the black and white houses? But as my British boss used to say “Never mind”. We saw the 3.5 hour long movie and found out at the end about what had actually happened.
Our daughters went to the Singapore American School, my husband worked for the Swedish packaging company Tetra Pak and I was engaged in SWA, Scandinavian Women Association and also worked. For the girls to go to an international school of that size with almost 3000 students was of course very different.
The school had very engaged and professional teachers, 80% of the students were from the USA and there were lots of sports activities after school. Incredible school trips every year to Australia, New Zealand, India or Malaysia. We lived in two lovely houses, since we were lucky enough as expats to come to Asia after the economic crises which meant that housing and rentals had gone down drastically a couple of years before we came. Family life became different.
We brought our cat Fiffi from Sweden, a fluffy and furry Norwegian forest cat who was totally terrified of the thunderstorms in the beginning. We had to go looking for her for hours before we found her hiding place. One year later she totally ignored any kind of thunder or lightning. Fiffi was the animal equivalent to us humans when it comes to our adjustment to the heat and humidity. Explanation in five words: you get used to it.
Everyone we met was very friendly to us. I don’t recall that I ever met a rude or unfriendly person during those years anywhere, isn’t that amazing? It was like the perfect world faraway. To live in this small, yet huge super modern, well organised and at the same time charming paradise island in the tropics. Can it possibly be better?
The expat community stick together of course as anywhere in the world, we all sit in the same boat but you still felt that you easily could communicate with the locals in Singapore. As the nowadays – a bit lazy, soon to be even older person that I am, I feel a bit ashamed that I haven’t even bothered to learn Thai. When we lived in Istanbul, Turkey I learned and spoke Turkish rather well. I have forgotten most of it now unfortunately.
Someone here in Bangkok said to me:- Life is short. Use and spend your time here to do something else. They won’t be able to understand you anyway. These words didn’t exactly encourage me to sign up for those lessons and it felt like the “easy way” not to. But I do admire when I sometimes hear foreigners speak Thai All respect to them!
Back to my stories about Singapore and what I love about the city. I like the braveness in the architecture for example that we noticed early on. In Sweden it is the quite the opposite. Except for Turning Torso in Malmö and maybe a few more, there are not many exciting modern buildings to explore. Nowadays Bangkok follows but Singapore was early. Singapore is a comparably safe place to live in, which is extremely valuable these days.
When I volunteered for SWA I used to organise study visits and among the most interesting ones were to the Parliament House, the Highest Court, Bukit Timah Police Headquarters and to Changi Prison. Because of the “low crime country identity” I started to be very interested in the subject and wanted to know more and the reason behind it.
They have a large scale of undercover policemen. They are there, but you don’t know where. It keeps citizens quite careful, straight I guess. They have zero tolerance of drugs in the country and very high taxes on alcoholic beverages. They are efficient also when it comes to the judiciary, no long detentions before the sentence. Quick and efficient, that’s Singapore in a nutshell.
Arriving at Changi Airport is a good example. Less than 20 minutes after you have passed security and passport control and you already stand waiting for your taxicab. And you can still rest assured that you and your entire luggage have been thoroughly scanned in each and every corner. It always surprised us how they manage to do it.
We lived in Singapore during the SARS period. That was many weeks of drama and fear. There was body X-ray scanning equipment everywhere measuring your body temperature. If it was above 37.5 degrees you were not allowed in the country or into a shopping mall. You were sent to a hospital for checkup and in worst case the isolation unit. We also lived there during the chicken flu period and I got dengue fever but that is a different story altogether.
There are so many spots in Singapore and I will mention a few: Arab Street, Little India, Chinatown, Holland Village, Tiong Bahru, Singapore Night Safari, Bird Zoo, Henderson Walk, Mount Faber, Sixth Avenue and hawker stalls, Thomson Road and the Polo Club, Novena area, Singapore Cricket Club, eating at Chimes, satay places around Raffles Place, taking the cable car to Sentosa Island and dine on the beach in the evening, the more classic and luxurious Raffles and Fullerton Hotels, having a drink at 1st Altitude or dine at CéLaVi at the top of Marina Bay Sands hotel to mention a few.
My favourite walking trails are McRitchie Reservoir, Botanical Gardens, Bukit Timah and Fort Canning Park. Sentosa Island has changed so much since we lived there. Where Universal Studios is today, we used to take our 10 year old on riding classes. The main attraction was “Underwater World”, a nice golf course and to go up on a hill with some peacock birds and look out over the huge container harbour.
When we lived in Singapore and wanted to go on a beach holiday it was one small island we adored and that was Rawa Island. It is a 3 hour drive to Mersing and then a speedboat ride for half an hour. We have been to Rawa seven times and that says a lot.
The first time we visited it was simple red cabins with only a ceiling fan to chill the warm nights. You took your shower in a house behind the huts, sharing with others like in a camping area. Charming but very simple. Inexpensive. We used to wake up in the morning and take 3 steps out to have our morning swim. Having a nice Pina Colada on the terrace. After dinner I recall the beach was pitch black, remember trying to find the way back to our house and the only thing that lit up the beach was the moon and lots of firebugs.
Today all is different, a different resort with new green beachfront houses, electricity and air conditioning, better food, fresh water, showers in your hut but also much more expensive.
One year I also worked at a company called DBC, which is a computerised physiotherapy programme for people with back and neck problems. The clinic was situated in Thomson Medical Clinic – it was a good year and I made friends from former colleagues that I am still in contact with today. I started my own company “MON Secretary Consulting”. You went for a few hours to Ministry of Manpower and registered your company, paid an annual fee and that was it, more or less. It was very easy.
During our years in Singapore we travelled a lot during the school holidays like most expats in Asia do. We visited a variety of destinations that have left us with so many good memories to our family. We all feel fortunate and lucky to have experienced this, to travel and see different cultures is a well-spent education for your children and helps keep the family close. If you go far away or just take a weekend around the corner it can be just as good.
The company my husband worked for bought a junk, an old wooden boat that we used to borrow and go out on a Sunday into the Singapore straits to places like Turtle Island.
Every time I go back to Singapore it feels like I am “coming home” and that must be a good testimonial for the place – don’t you think?