Life in Singapore

In October 2008, my husband successfully defended his PhD thesis in computer science. He was awarded a three-year fellowship at the National University of Singapore. His new job (along with a strong interest in foreign cultures) has brought us to the opposite side of the globe. We moved from New Jersey to Singapore, arriving October 22, 2008.

Singapore basics

If you’re scratching your head wondering, among other things, where Singapore is, read on. Or, go read the Wikipedia article on Singapore.

Geography. Singapore is a tiny (20 miles by 12 miles) English-speaking city-state in southeast Asia. It’s on a diamond-shaped island just south of the Malaysia/Thailand peninsula. You can reach Johor Bahru, Malaysia from Singapore by crossing the strait to the north (using the causeway); to the south, you can reach the islands of Indonesia, by crossing a much larger strait (on a boat).

Climate. Singapore is a city in a rainforest. Since it’s so close to the equator, the seasons don’t change, the leaves don’t fall, and there’s no relief from the humidity. All year, the temperature stays roughly between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity between 80 and 100 percent.

Demographics. The population is mainly ethnically Chinese, but there are also many Malays and South Indians. There is also a large Western expat population. Buddhism is the most common religion, but Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity are also practiced. Singaporeans celebrate, among other things, Diwali/Deepavali (the Hindu festival of lights), Halloween (a little), Christmas, and (this is the biggest one) Chinese New Year.

Language. The government established four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil (a South Indian language). Other Chinese languages, belonging to other Chinese ethnic groups that settled in Singapore, are also spoken. Signs are all printed in English (and sometimes one or more of the other languages). Schoolchildren are now taught both English and their ethnic language in school, with the result that Singaporeans are native speakers of (British) English. Their English, though, is influenced by the other three official languages of the island, and so has become a distinct dialect, called Singlish. The stereotypical feature is adding “lah” at the end of sentences (a practice that originated with speakers of Cantonese); a common feature I’ve noticed, though, is failure to pluralize nouns.

Government. Singapore, a strategically located port, is a former British colony. The current government, independent both from Britain and from Malaysia, is known for its strictness. It strongly discourages littering and prohibits chewing gum, charges high taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and executes drug traffickers. Many people recall the news story from the 90s involving an American boy who vandalized a car; despite the attempts at intervention by American officials, Singapore punished him with cane lashes.

Singapore puts some limits on freedom of speech, press, and association. Pornography is illegal (though prostitution is permitted). Singapore also censors and sometimes prohibits movies, often if they have what are determined to be offensive religious messages. (The multi-religious, multi-ethnic composition of Singapore is thought to require an attitude of mutual respect apparently found lacking in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

There are rules against toy firearms, to say nothing of *actual* firearms, which I believe civilians are not permitted to own or carry, to say nothing of shoot. (I was told that the unauthorized discharge of a firearm carries the death penalty. Even if you don’t kill, hit, or even aim for, another person.)

The result of all these rules is that Singapore is a very clean, safe, low-crime city. However, as the government likes to remind us, “low crime is not no crime,” and everyone should remain alert to avoid falling victim to theft or fraud.

Economy. Singapore is very modern. It has consciously imitated some of the successful laissez-faire economic practices of Hong Kong. Income taxes, for example, are quite low. In Singapore, the water is safe, and so is all the prepared food; even the street food stalls are rated for cleanliness by the government. The toll highways are full of shiny new cars; cranes are building new skyscrapers to add to the existing ones; and people all over the island rely on the buses and trains for transportation. Singapore Airlines is known for its high-quality service, and Singapore’s Changi airport is known for its usable design. Singapore is trying to attract more tourists by building up the Marina Bay area; Sentosa Island is currently the major area for leisure activities and attractions.

Culture. Singaporeans love food; there is good food available from a variety of cuisines and traditions, or any combination of cuisines and traditions, really. Prepared food can be bought not only at restaurants and food courts, but also at what are called “hawker centres” created to corral and regulate street food sellers. Hawker centres offer a wide variety of dishes at food-court-like stalls, for good prices. Some stalls offer fresh-squeezed juices made from tropical fruits. Yum!