Before I visited Singapore, I had always imagined it as Asian Switzerland but with good, spicy food and immigrant friendly. The city-state nation is, after all, an intersection of multiple languages (English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil), neutral positioning between the East and West with its global trading philosophy, and importantly, clean. Of course, I was also afraid of the rumors I’d heard about Singapore’s strict rules and corporeal punishment which I imagined to result in adult curfews and empty streets with nothing to do by 9pm. Also, what would it be like to visit a country that’s being run like a corporation, with its head of state a literal CEO? So, now that we’ve spent a week in Singapore, how were these impressions compared to reality? Here’s my first impressions list:
1. Holy moly the FOOD (yes, deserving all caps)! Usually, when I think of “fusion”, I think of a hair-brained combination of foods that lowers the general bar of all the foods the restaurant is trying to copy. This is not true in Singapore. Imagine the cherry-picked best dishes by ex-pats from India, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia all co-existing in one hawker mall. It is the only place in the world where a tiny hawker stall serving $3-4 entrees has a Michelin Star. I will obviously dedicate an entire blog piece later for Singaporean food, but Singapore has given Tokyo a run for its money on best food cities in the world (with Singapore winning slightly in my mind because of affordable prices).
2. Affordability. Yes, the hotels and Airbnb’s are expensive here – on par with Tokyo but less than other major cities like London, New York and San Francisco. But, for a country that’s considered to be one of the wealthiest nations, the overall costs of living are fairly low. With <$1 metro rides (single direction) and $3 delicious hawker stall meals, Singapore has surprised us with its affordability, though be prepared to pay premium for some of the world’s top-shelf liquors (more below).
3. Where are the mosquitos? Even in Seoul, when it was 40 F at night, we had been attacked viciously by some robust mosquitos. We had been so afraid of the nasty, winter evolved Korean mosquitos that I had actually used repellant…indoors, in late-October. Somehow in the humid, warm and wet weather of 85 F equatorial Singapore, I haven’t been bit once.
4. Diversity is everywhere. You hear it in the languages, see it in the Buddhist temples, mosques, and churches and taste it in the food. For some reason, I had this wrong impression based on my Singaporean friends from the US and UK that Singapore was mostly ethnic Chinese and Malay. Not true. In our diverse neighborhood of Geylang, I honestly feel like I’m at the World Fair with visitors, ex-pats, and immigrants from all over the world. Also, any place where a Buddhist Art Center and a regulated brothel/strip-club (yes, you read that right) can be within the same block, harmoniously coexisting, is truly special.
5. People are active, especially for a country that’s practically on the equator. The activity level reminded me a lot of Hawaii, which has a similar climate. On the track at Kallang Activity Center, we ran with some of the fastest runners I’ve seen so far on a Wednesday night track workout (we clocked women doing <6min mile/2-mi repeats like it was a walk in the park in 85 F weather). With the exception of the UK, I hadn’t come across too many extremely athletic women on this trip until Singapore. Of course, being close to the national stadium may have something to do with it, but I’m impressed.
6. It is HOT (duh), but the country is ready for it. Unlike Germany during this summer’s heat wave, Singapore is built for heat. All buildings and public transit are air conditioned and walkways have roofs on them to protect walkers from the heat and jungle rain storms. The evenings have gorgeous weather, and quite frankly, the heat and humidity hasn’t bothered us nearly as much as it did in Europe.
7. Amazon will not be taking over any malls here. Malls (like the public library) are a staple part of Singapore. Even for someone who is partially allergic to malls, I like them here. Not only are they a beautifully decorated, air-conditioned haven, but they’re mostly food with a tiny bit of shopping. Most malls have multiple floors dedicated to indoor hawker stalls, a grocery market (in the basement), a movie theater, several massage parlors, and at least one of the following: ice skating rink, bowling alley, or indoor gym.
8. It’s the only place in the world other than in my own home in the US where I hear English and Mandarin mixed together all in one conversation. After two months of confusing the hell out of people in Japan and Korea for looking Asian but not speaking those respective languages, finally being able to communicate fluently across two languages felt like such a relief. I did not realize how lonesome it would feel to not be able to communicate for months until I came to Singapore. I literally feel liberated. It’s also a great place to learn Chinese as an English speaking person because you always have the English safety net to fall back on.
9. For some reason, I thought drinking would be mostly unavailable except in the ex-pats areas, which is funny now because we have had some of the nicest beers and cocktails here in Singapore compared to the rest of our trip. In one glorious moment, while I was stuffing a dumpling in my mouth and drinking a beer, it occurred to me that Singapore has the best foods from all over Asia with fancy drinks on-par with London. It all made sense: as a former British trading post, of course the gins, whiskeys, and ales would be influenced by the best drinkers in the world. At Alchemist Beer Lab in downtown Singapore, there’s even a drink called “Yuzu Save the Queen” which I think perfectly represents where Singapore sits in the center between East and West (there’s also barrel aged Nikka there which we couldn’t even find in Tokyo and British style ales brewed on the island).
10. There’s a lot of green space in the city because Singapore is a jungle and harbor. That means that wildlife is just oozing out of the buildings and parks. Singapore also does an incredible job of installing beautiful indoor gardens in public spaces so that we can all enjoy some green space without melting outdoors.
Because we’ve enjoyed our time here so much and since there seems to be a frenzy of tech, finance and other business activities here, we’re going to extend our Singapore leg of the trip where I hope to dig into what the tech scene is like, how it is to live here long term, and much more. If the rest of it is anything like what I’ve seen so far, this place is truly incredible, perhaps one of the most special we’ve seen on our trip so far.