Things To Know About Singapore Before You Move There

Categories Living And Traveling In Asia, Moving Again (And Again), Moving To Singapore0 Comments

Food

The same foods have a variety of names in Singapore due to the three main cultures in residence:  Chinese, Malay, and Indian. A vegetable you are looking for may have several names. Thank goodness for smartphones; you can show a photo to a store clerk to ask its location. Grocery stores in Singapore stock so many wonderful types of produce. There is incredible variety in the wet markets, especially the large markets, like Tekka Market in Little India, which are located in the public housing areas in Singapore (most Singaporeans live in public housing called HDB’s). I think they are called wet markets because there is a lot of water on the floor sometimes, especially near the fish stalls.

Some info:

  • Fresh cilantro is called coriander.
  • Tapioca is called sago.
  • People love to put chunks of things in drinks in Asia. Many places selling drinks give you choices of add-ins like Nata de Coco (my fave though I don’t know exactly what it is), aloe vera, grass jelly, red bean (adzuki), and little chewy balls called pearls (no clue what they are exactly).
    bubble tea

    Nata de coco
  • Ice cream must be eaten immediately in Singapore, or it melts everywhere. You pretty much have to bathe toddlers after giving them an ice cream cone, so time this wisely.
  • Same deal with a cold pop (soda…), beer, wine, etc. You must only get it out of the fridge when you are planning to immediately consume it. I used my cooler bags constantly in Singapore.
  • White pepper is more common in Singapore than black pepper. I’m not a fan. It has a grittier texture somehow.
  • At nearly every food centre, you can get my favorite breakfast: Kaya toast with butter and two runny eggs. It was an acquired love for me, but is my standby comfort food forever now. It comes with teh or kopi (tea or coffee), learn how to order kopi in this post. You typically can choose between white pepper and soy sauce in terms of condiments; some places have salt, but because the humidity makes it clump, few leave it out.

    kaya toast, runny eggs with soy sauce, kopi
  • All sweet products must be stored in the fridge or ants will invade more so than they usually do. Everyone says it is just life in the tropics.  Read more about my experiences with ants.
  • It is so humid out that if you spill some salt on the table, it will turn to water within a day! So weird. The hubs kept wondering why the table was wet by the salt shaker. Powdered spices cake up due to the humidity. It’s a really great thing for minimalism as you have to keep throwing away everything you own (see below). Get a dry box (these exist! Ha) or use fresh ingredients or a mortar and pestle to grind spices when you need them. Some lasted, like cumin, but powdered ginger and garlic did not. Oh, and your medcine/vitamin capsules may melt. Mine got quite sticky.
  • If your apartment has an oven, it may be extremely small. As in, you should budget to buy smaller bakeware.
  • Eggs are not refrigerated here. They are actually safer than the eggs in the US, according to what I read.
  • You will sometimes go to use a bag of pasta from storage and find it filled with bugs, weevils. Apparently, all pasta is allowed some tiny amount of bug eggs, and when they hatch, the bugs swarm your food. You can kill them before they hatch by putting dry food like pasta and flour in the freezer for a while. Between weevils and ants, and the general heat, you need a big fridge to keep everything in good shape.
  • You can get live seafood at the grocery store.

The Importance Of Air Circulation

Mold is so totally rampant. If you don’t dry things properly and quickly, or use air con, mold grows. I had to throw out 80% of what we had in an outdoor storage area that I though got some air flow. I later realized it did not. So many items had mold growth (especially the baby carseat belts and our décor items). So sad. I sprayed vinegar and such on the items I wanted to save, but it destroyed the finish on a lot of items. Even in our living room, I had to throw out a bunch of grass weave/straw weave type baskets as they were growing mold. We think the problem started when we went to China for a month and the house was only air conditioned once in the middle when we asked a friend to pop in and run it for us. We now put little moisture absorbing boxes into all of our storage bins, and we run the air con more regularly.

Law-Abiding Culture

They call Singapore a fine city—in that you can be fined for nearly every infraction. There is very little major crime, and less petty crime than in most cities, maybe due to the fines and harsh penalties. The government does a lot to promote good values and attitudes. My daughter loved the characters on the train:

  • Stand Up Stacy—She stands up to give her seat to others who need it more.
  • Bag Down Benny—He puts his bag down to make room for more standing passengers.
  • Give Way Glenda—She gives way to alighting passengers before boarding.
  • Hush Hush Hannah—Turns her music down so as not to annoy others.
  • Move In Martin—Moves further in to make room for more standing passengers.

There is a website in Singapore called STOMP that calls you out when you do something that someone finds annoying or offensive—basically a public shaming platform for just about anything. Here is a post about a woman who held up traffic at a mall and another about teens sleeping where they should not. There is also a law called Outrage of Modesty that is also interesting.

People in Singapore are generally very kind when they see you. Meaning that sometimes people just have their heads down or really don’t seem to notice that you need assistance. The moment you make your presence known though, people will react kindly most of the time. For example, a crazy storm with rain blowing in sideways arrived with little warning one morning when I was bringing Kiddo 1 to school. We had only a single umbrella for the both of us, and she was wearing a very light, summery outfit that was no protection against the weather. While we were waiting for the bus under a shelter, a young woman offered me her sweater to give to Kiddo 1 to keep her warm, right before having to board a bus of her own. How amazing is that? Acts of kindness like this abound in Singapore.

Napkins/Tissues

Starbucks and McDonalds pretty much supply the whole island with napkins as local food centers don’t provide any, nor do some smaller restaurants. This gives rise to the tissue aunties and uncles. They are usually assumed to be poor or disabled, though some are rumored to just be too lazy to get a job. Whatever the reason, I am glad they are there. For S$1, you are given three packets of tissue. You can then use these in the bathroom (ones near parks and such sometimes don’t have tissue), or after a messy bowl of laksa, or to save a table at the food center while you visit a stall for food. This is called “choping” a table, as in “Hey, go chope a table with this tissue packet while I get in line for food.” You will also notice that people leave their trash on tables when they are done eating. People are now being encouraged to bring their trays to the racks located near cleaning stations; if you see one, help out by bringing your tray there. Most large food centers have these now, but the small food centers generally don’t.

Tissue Auntie

Dress

Because of the mix of cultures and religions in Singapore, you see people in a variety of traditional outfits. The children at local preschools are asked to dress up in ethnic costumes for various holidays. You can find clothing for kids for all these special days at Mustafa, and here is a map to help you navigate this insane shopping emporium.

Nails and Clothes

Many women grow their toenails long—longer than I have ever managed to grow my fingernails. There are lots of men with long pinky nails in Singapore. Not sure why.

Not my toes, but this is similar to what I saw.

Just a cultural difference I suppose. You will also notice that Asian women generally prefer clothing and shoes with more bling than Western ladies. You may begin to feel a bit plain. If you are tall or curvy, you may have trouble finding clothes that fit you, but no worries, Western chains abound.

Homes

Nearly all condos in Singapore come with maid rooms. It is extremely common. Generally outside of the kitchen/laundry area, many maid rooms are only large enough to fit a toddler bed from Ikea. When we first moved into our condo, I thought there was no way I would ever be comfortable letting someone have such a small room, but we eventually did. The bathroom was a small stall, that had a toilet, a sink, and a shower, all on top of each other. The shower would soak the toilet, so toilet paper had to be kept out of the bathroom. The shower only had cold water, which seemed horrible to me, but my helper assured me it wasn’t bad. She came from a province in the Philippines that did not have electricity or running water, so I guess it was an improvement, but still….

Each room of a home (except the maid’s room) generally comes with an air con unit on the wall. This manages to cool a room pretty quickly, especially if it is a newer unit. These must get serviced four times per year, generally as part of your rental agreement. If the unit clogs up, it pours water all over everything below it, so don’t put valuables under the air con unit.

Outdoor areas and bathrooms have steps down into them, so you can flood them when you clean them. These steps caused me and my house guests a lot of stubbed toes while getting used to them. There are no electrical sockets inside the bathrooms, so you have to blow dry your hair elsewhere in the house. Bathrooms have a hot water switch so you can warm up the water before you need to use it. All other taps in the house are cold. This is annoying in the kitchen as you have to use your electric kettle to heat up water for cleaning. Hot water is essential to get grease off of plastic plates/cups. Electrical outlets have switches too. This is nice for safety and for turning off an entire power strip quickly, but it is annoying when you have a baby obsessed with switches.

If you choose to live in an HDB, expect people ringing your bell a lot.  I’ve had people asking me survey questions, students raising money for causes, local church folk, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (!).  My favorite were the Karung Guni.  They honk their horns and you can bring out recyclable paper and old electronics, and they pay you for them.

When Aunties Attack

Any lady in Singapore, though generally older, can be called auntie. It is a term of respect and endearment. Sometimes aunties are friendly, giving your child a sweet on the bus. Then there are these aunties:

  • One auntie pulled down Kidddo 2’s shirt while he was was attached to me in the baby carrier so his belly was completely covered. Totally got in my American space bubble, which doesn’t really exist in Asia. I was then told over and over again not to shake the baby.
  • One auntie on a bus pulled Kiddo 1 onto her lap when there were no seats available. Kiddo 1 looked at me with a “this is awkward” look on her face until our two-stop ride ended.
  • One auntie chewed me out in Chinese about something. I have no idea what, but I got the feeling she wasn’t happy with my mothering skills.

Other

  • You will not be able to find a taxi when it rains. Just start walking to the nearest bus/MRT station.  Carry an umbrella always; it blocks the sun when it is sunny, giving you portable shade, and it has obvious uses for when it rains.
  • Nearly every school and nursery requires uniforms for kids. So don’t load up on clothes, as they will hardly wear them unless you force them to change out of their uniforms when they get home (I rarely felt like fighting that battle).
  • It is hot, so you generally don’t want a heavy quilt on your bed. We used a duvet cover, with our fitted and flat sheet set. Be aware, it is hard to find stores that sell flat sheets. It seems most people just do a fitted sheet and a duvet.
  • Cribs are called cots. Strollers are called prams. I am a mum. Secondhand items are called pre-loved. British English is generally followed.
  • You will probably live near construction. Be aware that those guys don’t stop working until 10pm, and they also work on Saturdays. It can be quite loud, so keep that in mind when choosing a place to live. The construction can also make a lot of dirt and dust settle in your home if you have the windows open.
  • Places get packed. Everywhere. Especially elevators—these are often filled with people who can easily use the escalators that are everywhere. This gets very annoying when you have a stroller and can’t easily use the escalator. Be pushy; there are signs showing you have priority.
  • People stand in hour long lines for food at the best places. This is one way to tell which hawker stalls are good. It has been said that “queuing” Is a national pastime in Singapore.

    A long queue
  • The water in Singapore is safe to drink, but you might not like the taste.
  • It is nearly impossible to get around Chinatown and Little India with a stroller. Put your baby in a carrier.
  • Everything is expensive. This is because land is scarce, so rent is super expensive. Also, the market in Singapore is small in comparison to other countries, so you don’t get that “bulk discount” on goods. Bring baby stuff you will need for a few years from the states. Second hand stores exist but are not very organized or well-priced as in the US, so stock up on kids clothes there, etc. Pre-loved websites abound to buy from others, but flitting all over the island for items that are generally only 50%-75% of the store price is often not worth the hassle. Not sure why moms don’t mark stuff way down like in the US, garage sale style. Even Ikea is more expensive in Singapore. Be prepared.
  • Shoes in large sizes are often not available on sale. Be prepared to buy them while they are full priced and still have your size in stock. Fitflops are a good investment, but buy them in the States! So freaking expensive in Singapore. They provided excellent cushioning for pounding the pavement all day, and held up great in the intense rain. I am not a flip-flop gal, but they just made too much sense in Singapore. I ruined a couple of pairs of normal shoes just by getting caught in the rain. My advice?  If it starts raining super hard, take your shoes off and walk barefoot until you get to a drier area.
  • Return policies are much more restrictive and generally inflexible.
  • Doctor’s appointments are more like a general show-up time. You wait FOR-EV-ER. Apparently if you get a confirmed appointment, that is an actual appointment. Bring a book anyway, and snacks/Ipad for the kids.
  • Paper is longer here and they use a 2-hole punch system, so your old folders and filing systems will be awful if you have OCD tendencies like me.
  • People drive on the left, but walk on whatever side they want to.
  • Cashiers often hand you your change or accept your credit card with two hands; it is a sign of respect.
  • Space is tight. Auntie and uncle shops will be packed to the gills. It can take some patience to find what you are looking for, but it is usually there.
  • Microwaves serve up to four purposes—depending on how much you want to spend:
    • Microwave
    • Grill
    • Convection Oven
    • Steamer
  • Plugs look like this:

  • Grocery stores do not have a giant pizza section. Last I checked, my usual store had two brands, five varieties total. However, you can get every kind of rice or noodle you want. :)
  • Get used to the metric system. I was always pretty hit or miss asking for certain quantities of meat in grams.
  • You can get most of what you could back in the US, with some exceptions. Canned beans are harder to find and are more expensive (like everything). Fairprice is like shopping at Jewel or Target. Cold Storage is pricier. There are some other grocery stores in fancy neighborhoods that are more high end. Cold Storage stocked more Western food items. Depending on the neighborhood, Fairprice would sell different ethnic items. Also depending on the size of the store, so check a few branches before you go online to find things. When you do, try IHerb.com. Free shipping to Singapore with an order of a certain size and only S$4.00 besides. They stock lots of healthy food products and more. They also ship to the US this way, and a load of other countries.
  • Alcohol costs a fortune because the government taxes it. A bottle of Barefoot brand wine costs four times as much in Singapore as it does in the US. This definitely has the effect which I assume the government has intended; we drink less now.
Jennifer Jasensky is a Dubai resident, United States transplant, former mathematics teacher and dancer/choreographer. She is an outgoing homebody and perpetual idealist whose love of learning knows no bounds. She is most happy enjoying a good book with a plate of kaya toast, runny eggs, and kopi-c peng siew dai, but now that she has moved from
Singapore to Dubai, drinking an iced latte in the ocean is fast becoming her happy place.

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