For the patriotic, it’s “the Lion City”; for sterile visitors, it’s “the City in a Garden”; and for its critics, it’s “Disneyland with the death penalty”. One thing is certain, Asia’s “little red dot” may be small in size, but it is an impressive city-state that has gone from an innocuous entrepôt trade hub to one of the world’s hotlist destinations for travel and living. With a wealth of history (and amazing museums), a thriving economy, and modern infrastructure—this cultural medley of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Europeans is a metropolis full of confidence, intriguing contrasts, and hidden treasures all around. Welcome to the Switzerland of Asia, enjoy the ride!
Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, a visionary statesman and colonial official, who recognised early on the island’s strategic location as the ideal place for a new British trading post, reached a settlement with a claimant to the sultanate of Johor: Singapore in exchange of British support for his accession to the throne. Rapidly thereafter, the island’s deep natural harbour caused the settlement to boom in both trade and population, and surpass long-established British outposts such as Penang. Singapore steadily upgraded its status, taking advantage of turmoil and good relations between the various communities, in particular the Chinese, and Britain. The island became a crown colony in 1867 and attained self-rule in 1955. Lee Kwan Yew, a young Cambridge-educated lawyer, became Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959, leading the island through a brief marriage and quick divorce with Malaysia, and though its subsequent economic boom as an independent nation and city-state.
Religions vary their membership by ethnic group. Buddhism is the main creed of Chinese Singaporeans, and also of Singapore as a whole. Christianity and Islam both have many adherents, both Christians are mostly from the Chinese, as well as the Indian community, whereas almost all Malays are Muslims, and a significant portion of the Indian community. Hinduism does not have as many adherents, but it is a major religion of the Indian community. Taoism is also important within the Chinese community. Other religions such as Judaism, Sikhism, and Jainism are practised freely. Singapore has no state religion, although the authorities intervene in religious affairs when necessary in order to “maintain racial harmony”.
Singaporean culture is a blending of Asian values and traditions with Western influences in education, philosophy and politics. English, acting as the language of education since independence and as a lingua franca among the different communities, is now spoken by most Singaporeans at home as well, which continues to connect Singapore to Western modes of thought and also allow Singaporeans to better interact with globalisation forces. Most Singaporeans, however, continue to place great value in bilingualism and in keeping their heritages relevant in their modern lives. In addition to that, Western influences in cuisine never caught on much—with most Singaporeans preferring the spices of Indian, Malay, and Chinese cuisine to “bland” European cuisines.
- PDA frowned-upon (immodest dress can be a problem with women in upmarket locations and religious sites)
- Besides handshakes between members of the same gender, avoid touching people, especially with your left hand. A greeting by nodding your head and smiling is usually sufficient.
- Do not proselytise or discuss religious matters in public, or even in private with the pious. Avoid sensitive political topics.
- No public raging (even loud speech) or loss of face.
- Remove your shoes when entering someone else’s house, or places of workship.
- Pay particular attention around the elderly, the pious, and modestly-dressed women.
Singapore is located across the southern tip of Malaysia, separated from the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru by the straits of Johor. Singapore is about 354km southeast of Kuala Lumpur. The city experiences a tropical rainforest climate, with year-round hot temperatures and high levels of humidity and rainfall.
Singapore is a city-island state just 1 degree north of the equator. Lush rainforest covers the lowlands wherever the urban cityscape ceases. The downtown scenery is dominated by the Singapore River, Marina Bay and the several Quays, surrounded by the financial and colonial districts. Nearby, the highest point in Singapore, Bukit Timah, stands at 163m.
Despite the heavy urbanisation, Singapore still hosts a surprise diversity of wildlife. There are five nature reserves in the island, as well as a major zoo and botanical gardens. Some species such as the crab-eating macaque can be seen along the shores and even in urban areas.
Before you go
- Language: Singapore English, with its creole, Singlish, used informally. Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil are also official.
- Currency: Singapore dollar (sgd)
- Time Zone: Singapore Time, utc+8
- Voltage: 230
- Electric Socket: Type G
- You can conveniently buy a sim card at the airport, or any transport terminal, shopping mall or even convenience store.
- There are 3 major operators in Singapore who offer prepaid, local network sim cards compatible with the gsm network. Coverages and data speeds are excellent among all three operators.
- SingTel is the market leader, followed by StarHub and M1.
- Expect to pay around S$7 for a 7-day, 1-gigabyte data credit.
- Bank opening hours: usually from 9.30am to 3.00pm (closing on Saturday, Sundays, and Public Holidays). Some bank branches such as in ION Orchard are open seven days a week, until 9pm.
- It is almost always better to change your money into Singapore dollars once in Singapore. The currency exchange at Changi airport has acceptable rates, and so do most shopping malls, but for 24-hour moneychangers and best rates head to Mustafa Centre in Little India.
- Credit cards are widely accepted and atms are also conveniently located and work with all major international networks.
- Hainanese chicken rice: chicken that is either steamed (“white”) or roasted (“red”), flavoured with soy sauce and served together with ginger-garlic fragrant rice, accompanied by some chili, lemongrass and dark soy sauce, as well as chicken broth.
- Chili crab: mud crabs (most commonly) that are stir fried and then glazed with a thickish sauce, part chili and part tomato.
- Katong laksa: soup and noodle dish with a light curry broth and thin rice noodles, usually cut up so that they can be eaten with just a spoon. A side of otak-otak (spiced mackerel cake grilled in a banana leaf) makes an excellent accompaniment.
- Bak kut teh: soup with pork ribs simmered in a variety of complex herbs and spices
- Kaya: coconut jelly spread, eaten with buttered toast, and better yet accompanied by soft boiled eggs and a cup of kopi (or hawker-style coffee). Enjoy it best in a kopitiam.
- Roti prata: Indian flatbread (but made locally with eggs) cooked as a pancake over a hot griddle. Usually ordered kosong (plain), telur (with eggs), and murtabak (layered with chicken, mutton, or fish) is best accompanied by a choice of chicken or fish curry.
In general, tipping is not customary in Singapore (and in some places discouraged) but feel free to show appreciation through small gratuities for great service.
Taxis: Tips are not expected and unusual, although rounding the fare up will be accepted and appreciated.
Restaurants: it is customary to leave behind any loose change as tip. Usually a service charge of 10% applies. Hawkers and other eateries do not expect to be tipped, and it is discouraged in all airport facilities.
Hotels: Most hotels charge the mandatory 7% goods and services tax, as well as another 5-10% of service charge to your bill. Tipping is generally discouraged, but bellhops can be tipped S$1-2 per bag.
Suggested vaccines: hepatitis A and typhoid
- Singapore is one of the safest major cities on earth, with violent crime nearly unheard off, and gang crime absent since the 80s. Walking at night is not a problem in any area.
- As a woman, you may avoid harassment in red-light district areas such as Geylang by dressed conservatively or looking like a total tourist.
- Public health standards are also excellent, so do not be afraid of drinking tap water or eating at hawker stalls.
Be aware that law enforcement is very efficient and unbending in Singapore. There are relatively heavy fines (S$1,000-5,000) for littering, public smoking, spitting, jay-walking, drinking & eating on public transport, and others. “Foreignness” will not get you off the hook. Public order, sexual harassment, and immigration law is taken very seriously. Committing offenses such as vandalism and robbery, molestation and statutory rape (with a girl under the age of 16, even if consensual), and overstaying your visa for 90 days or more will probably land you a few strokes of the cane.
Ambulance and fire: 995
Mount Elizabeth Hospital (private): 3 Mount Elizabeth, Singapore 228510 (off Orchard Road), Tel: (+65) 6737 2666
Singapore General Hospital: Outram Road, Singapore 169608, Tel: (+65) 6222 3322
Tourism Board: operates a number of Singapore Visitor Centres, with its main one at 216 Orchard Road (next to orchardgateway@emerald)
Singaporeans speak and understand standard English, as a result of intense government campaigns and emphasis on the education system. However, English in Singapore exists in a continuum with Singlish, an English creole with Malay/Chinese(Hokkien) influences—many Singaporeans can code-switch, as follows:
- Where shall we eat?: Where you want makan?
- Do you serve coffee?: You got kopi?
- You can sit over there: There can sit
- It seems that this person is clueless.Dis guy so blur like sotong:
- Excuse me, could you please make way?
- Siam lah! What are you looking at?: Oi, see what see?
- Yes, of course. Most certainly: Can leh!
- He has always been like that: He always laidat one
- Cheers!: Yumseng!
- Woah, man! Careful, there!: Aiyyo!
- It is possible to do it, right?: Can izzit?
- I honestly thought otherwise: Really meh?
How to get into this area, and how to get around it!
Unless travelling from Peninsular Malaysia or from the islands of Batam and Bintan in Indonesia, you will arrive to Changi Airport in Singapore. Delight in what is usually rated the best airport in the world. There are three terminals, all of which are connected via a free Skytrain service. There are no separate areas for departing and arriving passengers in the unrestricted area, therefore feel free to shop and hang around. Getting to the city is quick and convenient, with a 24-hour ground transport desk offering flat-fee shuttles (S$9) to major downtown hotels, or 4-seater (S$55) & 7-seater (S$60) vans, as well as limousines (S$50) to any destination in Singapore. Taxis (always metered) cost between S$20-30 plus a S$3-5 airport surcharge and 50% surcharge between midnight and 6.00am (ask for a receipt if in doubt). The MRT (subway, S$3 to City Hall) and buses (less than S$2) are also available from 6.00 until midnight.
Singapore does not have a central bus terminal but from several areas in the city, direct buses depart to Malaysian destinations all over the peninsula. Some buses cross the perpetually-congested Causeway while some cross the Second Link. In general, the more you pay, the more comfort, punctuality and less travel time it takes to reach your destination. A budget option is to take a bus to Johor Bahru (JB) and from get a long-distance bus from the Larkin bus terminal there, which is cheaper and paid in Malaysian ringgits.
Using the Woodlands train checkpoint, there are seven train shuttles connecting Singapore with Johor Bahru’s transportation hub (JB Sentral) without the traffic of the road crossings and with dedicated immigration and customs checkpoints. From JB Sentral, the Malaysian state railways KTM offer trains to several destinations in Malaysia, including Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth (for Penang), and Alor Setar (for Langkawi) and onwards to Hat Yai in Thailand.
Singapore’s urban transportation system is extremely well-functioning, with the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and integrated Light Rail Transit (LRT) rail network connecting every major district in the city. A contactless smartcard with stored-value (EZ-link card) can be a good purchase for those staying for a while in the city—it offers payment convenience and 15% discounts on the bus network. An EZ-link costs S$12 which includes S$7 in credit. It can be topped up in stations and in 7-Eleven convenience stores. Alternatively a Singapore Tourist Pass is available at selected MRT stations and at Changi Airport, offering unlimited travel on the rail network and non-premium buses. The pass costs S$10 for 1 day, S$16 for 2 days, and S$20 for 3 days.
Buses are cheap but slower and harder to use system that the MRT. However, you will be able to sightsee while in them rather than being stuck in some dark underground. The fare system is complicated, you are strongly suggested to get an EZ-link card to avoid hassles and take advantage of distance-based fares and discounts. Otherwise, ask your driver the cost to your destination, which will be marginally more expensive. After midnights on Fridays, Saturdays and before Public Holidays, the NightRider services run seven lines with buses every 20 minutes, adding to the convenience. Check the routes online (gothere.sg) or download a mapping app to get clear directions.
Taxis are metered, reasonably priced and the drivers are honest. The pricing system can be complicated so always ask for a receipt if in doubt. Also, ask the driver if credit card payment (17% surcharge) is accepted as in practice many drivers refuse to allow it even though it is advertised. Additionally, taxis from the city centre can only be taken from taxi stands, otherwise they can be hailed from the road. A trip from Changi to Jurong will not cross the S$35 mark and trips within the city centre should not cost more than S$10 outside of peak hours. For groups of 3-4, it may cheaper to take a taxi than the MRT. There is a shortage of cabbies in Singapore, so sometimes queues will be very long and booking by telephone [(+65) 6342 5222 (6-DIAL-CAB)] might not be possible.
Things to see
The top locations to visit in this destination.