Visiting and then (maybe) living in Singapore
May 21, 2011 9:54 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I have been long pondering our next move as a family, whether to move overseas or not. Today Singapore came up and surprisingly enough the idea is quite appealing - I hadn't even considered moving to Asia. So we're going on a fact-finding mission in July with the kids. There are a few things I'd like to try to work out in advance though...

  • In July we will need family-friendly accommodation within walking distance of an MRT stop - ideally something on the east coast near a beach, or if not then with a decent pool, and which has a separate bedroom for the kids (we've tried sleeping everyone in one room, and never again). Can anyone offer a good recommendation? There are so many options when you google that I don't know where to even start, and getting my head around all the MRT lines is confusing. Budget maybe $180-ish per night, less if possible? I understand this is their summer break so it might be more expensive than otherwise. Does that mean places like Universal will be crowded?
  • The public transport looks awesome, but some condos advertising places still give driving times to the CBD. Are there places in Singapore where you would need to own a car - I'd like to avoid living in those areas as I understand it's expensive to get a Singapore license and own a car there.
  • Husband works remotely at present and would continue to do so. The Singapore Ministry of Manpower website doesn't give me useful information about what sort of permit he would need, given that his employer wouldn't be local.
  • I've looked at a few sites about cost of living but wondered if I could get more firsthand information. What is fresh produce like? Is the grocery shopping experience western-style, like supermarkets?
  • Husband wants to know about "quality of life". Anecdotes about life in Singapore would be helpful, especially if you have lived there with children (ours are currently 8 and (nearly) 6).
  • There's a great expat website with detailed information about lots of the condos in Singapore, but it's hard to get a picture from the internet. What sort of things can catch you out when househunting in Singapore?
  • While we are on our reconnaisance mission I'll try to visit some state schools (we can't afford the private international school fees as well as enjoy living there) and check out some condos/apartments. Anything else I should definitely arrange to see while visiting with an eye to living there?
  • Tell me one thing you love and one thing you don't/didn't love about living in Singapore!
posted by tracicle to Travel & Transportation around Singapore (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Belle Waring and John Holbo are Americans who have been living in Singapore with their two kids for a number of years now (more than 5 years). They've kept a blog that whole time, which comments on life there as well as topics in philosophy, art, etc; less posting recently, but the archives are deep. A leisurely stroll through their archives might be useful for getting a picture of expat life there. Here's a link to the chronologically earliest end of the category "Singapore" on the blog (you can use the "previous" link at bottom of page to work your way forward in time) but even the posts that aren't tagged "Singapore" have insights that might be useful. They have moved house several times there, they've interacted with the medical system, and they've done something that's apparently common which is to hire an immigrant nanny who became very close with their family.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:12 PM on May 21, 2011

I have relatives working in Singapore; the main thing that's stuck out for me in their stories are that the working culture is absolutely insane by New Zealand standards. It's pretty normal for Dad to not be at home when the kids are awake during normal working hours, and this doesn't appear to be considered especially unusual for professional workers - many companies are apparently very much in the "don't leave before the boss does" mode.

Since your husband is working remotely that probably won't matter so much, but it may be an issue if he wants (or has) to change jobs.
posted by rodgerd at 1:27 AM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: 1. Driving times to CBD are given as traffic indicators as well as for public transportation. You don't really need a car if you find a good location but that doesn't stop people from having cars and driving everywhere :)

2. On the MoM site, there is a category for specialist professions - also certain professions would be highlighted as 'most needed' and this keeps changing as they manage their manpower requirements literally. You can look at those categories or specialisations to see if that may suit your husband. The MoM site sucks - also try googling for "working in singapore" type keywords to see if it may directly take you to relevant sections. the EDB website also might have pointers and information for foreigners.

3. Shopping totally depends on you - you can do all your shopping in supermarket (Cold Storage is about 15% more expensive the NTUC and Shop n Save but tends to cater to the expatriate community so often has a better selection of imported cheeses and meats etc). Or you can get fresh vegetables at wet markets - memail me for links to many sets of Singapore life and shopping photographs from my personal flickr set. Cost of living is not cheap but not expensive, eating out in hawker stands or packing food from the corner shop is often cheaper than buying all the ingredients to cook, if you develop a taste for the local cuisine you're golden. Its one of the pastimes of Singapore.

4. Check out local food in the neighbourhoods where you look for apartments, the corner 'Restoran' with its numerous little stalls offering a variety in addition to schools and apartments. Quality of education and english is good but there are also more affordable international schools based on the Indian (british) system as well that are increasingly popular with expats since the local system may not always be preferable.

5. HDB executive apartments may be a nicer alternative to more conventional apartment blocks - I've started noticing more expats in my parent's neighbourhood. Living near Eunos, Bedok MRT stations is nice (or stations in between) that kind of fall into that East Coast, near the beach thing, though its not like Singapore is overly large. Its about the size and shape of Chicagoland
posted by infini at 1:37 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

HDB apartments are also significantly cheaper than anything meant for expats
posted by infini at 1:38 AM on May 22, 2011

Note: "The immigrant nanny" is often Philipino, english speaking, usually well educated and reasonably affordable.
posted by infini at 1:39 AM on May 22, 2011

I have some friends that live there and casually gave me the advice to not live on the ground floor of a condo, as you'll get more creatures (bugs, mostly).

They mostly love Singapore as a gateway to the rest of Asia.

Another friend complains of food prices, but it may be due to her needing gluten free products. She also tries to go organic.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:49 AM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: East Coast is a nice area, but disabuse yourself of the notion that it has a beach. There's a park next to water which is connected to an ocean, but you really don't want to swim in it. Sentosa is, if anything, nastier.

(Take this with a grain of salt as I'm Australian and only after travelling around Asia realised just how spoiled we are regarding quality of beaches.)

Public transport is the absolute best in the world if you live within walking distance of an MRT station and the buses aren't bad either (note that "walking distance" in 30ÂșC heat at 80% humidity is somewhat less than the 1km/10 minutes you'd initially think of as "walking distance".) The green and red lines are the most useful (but therefore most crowded during peak hours) and there's a train at least every six minutes between 6am and midnight. If you're near an MRT station you won't need a car.

If you've got 8 and 6 year old kids, find a condo or an apartment with a pool, despite how much cheaper an executive HDB is. They'll drive you mad if they don't expire from the heat first. The process of acquiring a place to rent was new to me; both the renter and the landlord have an agent and under a certain price range (~$3k/month?) you pay your agent's commission, which is one month's rent. But in exchange from that they ought to do a lot of the work for you, including driving you around to see places and sorting out the utilities and such.

My situation as a young(-ish) single guy with somewhat counter-cultural tastes is very different to that of a well-paid family plugged in to the expat bubble, but I can see how you can make a very comfortable life here if the place suits your circumstances. Just be aware that despite the tall buildings and the finance industry and the efficient public transport system it's a very, very small town.

To leave on a brighter note, good value cheap food is unavoidable, pretty much literally on every street corner.
posted by m1ndsurfer at 7:03 AM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: $180/night is unlikely for what you want unless you stay far far out. You might be able to do a houseswap if you're in SG for a few weeks, or a short-term flat lease if you're here for at least a month. has good hotel rates that will give you a decent idea, and I would go through tripadvisor for reviews, but you will have to start looking right now to get something cheap and decent.

Definitely visit places - Singapore homes are much smaller than NZ homes, and you have to be certain you can live in a flat. If you're willing to live off the public transit system, you can get nice houses for under $2K a month, but a car is going to end up costing about $1K a month just in petrol, taxes, parking etc.

The public transit system is great and safe. My youngest used it on his own since he was 10, and that was because of an overprotective father.

Email the MoM or EDB about what visas would apply. There are a couple of newer schemes that might work, but it depends on your husband's job and income. The MoM and EDB are pretty decent to deal with by email or phone.

The supermarkets are much like NZ supermarkets. The biggest difference is that meat and dairy in general are more expensive - cheese here is about 2-3x more. You can get the same brands, the same types of food, including organic, but you pay for the transport and scarcity. Anything Asian-food is easy and cheap. There are wetmarkets, like farmer's markets only much more practical, but that's if you're either living within walking distance of one, a total foodie or the tiny price difference matters.

Singapore schools are academically a notch higher in general than NZ schools, but the biggest difference is discipline - the teacher is always right, kids are expected to study above and beyond classwork, by Primary 3 there's an hour of homework a night, and holiday study camps etc. Exams are taken very seriously. The schools have lots of extra activities that aren't academic, and if the parents are calm about exams and encourage creativity outside of school, schools here produce smart and disciplined kids.

Depending on your kids' ages, you may have a second language requirement where your kid is required to take Chinese or Malay lessons. If you're only here for 1-3 years, just be prepared for your kid to mostly flunk them because the standard is for mother tongue fluency, starting from kindergarten classes.

A real estate agent will happily show you around HDB/condo flats. HDBs don't have amenities like a pool, but often are located near nice public pools.

There is very little nature upfront, unlike in NZ. There are parks and untouched areas, but you have to seek them out. If you need to see mountains, lakes etc, this will feel too crowded and urban for you.

Start emailing the Ministry of Education and individual schools that you are interested in now. I had to change my kid's school, and it took two months of phone calls, exams etc, and we live here. If it's primary school, I personally would go for a neighbourhood school so your kid has a short or walking commute to class (it starts at 7am, so kids wake up about 5.30-6am, then finishes 1.15pm, but with afterschool activities, about 3pm.) over a more academic school further away.

ANZA is the New Zealand association in Singapore - you can facebook search them. They're very nice and friendly, and a good starting place for NZ people coming in.

I am in the midst of applying for Singapore citizenship, giving up my New Zealand citizenship, so obviously I'm biased. But I think Singapore is one of the best places in the world to live, and especially to raise children in.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:41 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. How long will your July trip be? The school holidays here are for the month of June only, so you needn't worry too much about vacation crush (most families go on overseas trips during the school break anyway). Living by the beach won't get you anywhere near an MRT line, unfortunately, so you'll have to decide just how near to the beach you'd want to be. Depending on the length of your stay here, you just might want to look into short-term apartment rentals, as there aren't (m)any decent hotels in the east. HDB subleases are no use if you want a pool. Private apartments with swimming pools and located in the east within 5 minutes' walking distance of an MRT station? - offhand I'm thinking of places like Astoria Park and The Trumps (Kembangan MRT) and SimsVille (Aljunied MRT).

2. The public transport system doesn't get you everywhere, but it gets you around sufficiently to not need a car. Not everywhere is within walking distance to an MRT station, so you should be prepared to walk out in the heat for a bus to the MRT station. Google Maps Singapore does public transit directions pretty well, so use that when researching places to stay.

3. Does your husband's employer have a Singapore office? Employment passes for most people are linked to a specific employer, which must be a local company. ContactSingapore is the government online portal for foreigners looking to live and work in Singapore, with information on topics like cost of living, schools, jobs, and taxes. Try contacting them - the nearest office is in Australia though.

3. Yep we have supermarkets - some are open 24 hours even - as well as wet markets where it's a little more bloody and drippy and the produce doesn't come with identifying labels. You can look around the online shopping site for one of the mid-range supermarkets, Cold Storage, to check out what prices are like.

4. The local school system is designed to develop better test-takers, so you might want to think about how much of an Asian tiger mom you want to be :) If they attend local schools, they'll have to take a second language but you can request an exemption from the Ministry of Education. Class sizes are about 30-40, and many schools "stream" kids into classes based on academic ability. Plenty of kids have private tutors to supplement their classroom learning. You'll learn that not all schools are the same, even at the primary school level. The popular schools may run out of spots early in the admissions process. Here's the Ministry's website for international student admissions.

More on quality of life - Public sporting facilities (pools, football fields, gyms) are cheap and decently-maintained, and there are parks and pockets of green spaces to run around. This is a very flat country - nature here is more mangroves and tropical rainforest than mountains and lakes, but the biodiversity is amazing. You might get depressed by the sheer number of cookie-cutter malls we have here, but I assure you there's a lot more than that. The public library network is superb, and so are the museums and cultural establishments unless you have very strong views against censorship. No porn at newsstands or on tv. Press and broadcast media are state-controlled but it isn't as bad as it sounds; not with the internet, at least. We live for food, so try develop a taste for local food and we'll treat you like one of our own. Most people work 5-day weeks, and have dinner around 8pm. Most shops close around 9.30pm, but there's still much to do and eat after that. You'll get around very comfortably with English, but of late a lot of service jobs are being filled by foreigners who aren't very conversant in English, so ymmv.

I can't help much with the rest since I've lived here all my life and don't have the perspective of an expat. But feel free to drop me a memail if you have any questions!
posted by hellopanda at 11:10 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Awesome answers, thanks very much! Yeah, I've looked online and recalibrated my hotel price expectations. We will be there for a week at the end of July.

Please continue to share thoughts, opinions, etc. It's a massive decision so there's not really such a thing as too much information.
posted by tracicle at 11:24 PM on May 22, 2011

Best answer: I lived in Singapore for quite a long time, going through the secondary and tertiary education there. I worked for a couple of years upon graduation too. I'm now doing my postgrad in the UK but I might be able to offer a unique perspective from someone who's not a Singaporean but lived pretty much like the locals for an extended period of time.

1) Accommodation

The only place I can think of that's near the beach and is within walking distance to an MRT stop is the Pasir Ris area. However, it's on the east end of Singapore, so might not be very convenient for you to travel around to other parts of the country. If you're coming on July for a visiting trip, it's not necessary yet to plan for a long-term accommodation ? As such, staying at hotels or renting an apartment that's for lease should be sufficient. I moved around a lot during my stays there, living all over the east and north ends of the country. Each neighbourhood feels different and unique.

2) Public transport

Public transport is great, especially after you've become familiar with the bus routes. Many Singaporeans can instinctively recall which bus numbers goes to which routes :P I myself never felt the need to buy a car during my stay there because it was so easy to get around using MRT and buses. For a non-family guy like myself, the cost of public transport spending (using MRT, buses and taxis) are waay lower compared to buying and maintaining a car in the country.

3) Work

I'm not a lawyer so the following are my personal knowledge from dealing with studying and working there.

Your husband cannot work remotely and remain in the country permanently. He has to obtain a visa to allow him to remain in the country legally. Subsequently, you and your children need to obtain Dependant's passes once your husband has successfully obtained his own visa.

Roughly there are two types of permits for him: the ones where your husband need to have a job on hand, and another where he doesn't.

For the first type, he'd need to come to the country during a visit and go around applying for jobs. Once accepted, the employer has to apply for the Employment pass for him. After a period of time (1 year?), he can try to apply for the Permanent Residence in the country if he wishes to, although the process appears to be harder now as compared to last time. You might want to take a look at this short piece that I'd written for eHow on moving to Singapore from the United States. Despite the title, there's nothing in the article that's US-specific. While eHow is a content-farm, I tried to be informative when writing that article, so it might be useful to you.

The second type is the pass that he can apply from your own country, without having to be here. Take a look at the Personalised Employment Pass. It allows your husband to remain working in the country for 5 years. Regadless, I see no way for your husband to remain for a long term in the country while still continuing his remote work and not taking some sort of legal works in Singapore as well, sorry. Even after he's obtained the permanent residency, he still has to show some sort of income tax deduction towards a company in Singapore in order to be eligible to renew the PR in the future.

4) Shopping

Cold Storage for more western goods, NTUC for locals. Also wet markets if those are more to your taste :P

5) Quality of Life

Mmmm depending on the company, working hours tend to be rather long-ish in general. It's still pretty normal for Asia standard though. During my time there, the working hours tend to be from 9 to 6, with an extra one hour to tidy up loose ends .. so effectively it became 9 to 7. Many budget airlines flying to all parts of South East Asia so it's easy to take a short weekend break to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.

6) Schools

I went to one of the neighbourhood secondary schools long time ago. My single biggest criticism of the educational system in the country was the early streaming in the school system, from as early as primary school. The Primary School Leaving Examination determines which secondary school your kids can go into, with higher scores translating into admission into 'better' secondary schools, which subsequently translates into 'better' colleges and 'top' universities. This tends to result in a school experience that's pretty exam-oriented. However, you can refuse to play this game and recognizes that getting into a 'good' school is not really the most important thing in the world for your kids to achieve. You might want to find (ahem) a local movie titled I Not Stupid that gives you a tounge-in-cheek but semi-realistic portrayal of the primary education system in Singapore.

7) Things to love / hate

++ Decent salary, convenient to fly to my home country (Indonesia).
-- HOT AND HUMID. Actually not that hot, but the humidity makes it feel much hotter that it actually it. Small and depressingly boring after 10+ years of living there.

You can PM me if you have any specific questions. Also you might want to take a look at the Singapore Expat forum, it's very active for these kinds of questions.
posted by joewandy at 6:24 AM on May 23, 2011

Best answer: So you want to look at metro / taxi costs at this site.

I understand this is their summer break so it might be more expensive than otherwise. Does that mean places like Universal will be crowded?

By Universal, do you mean Universal Studios? Was down there yesterday and it was _fairly_ crowded. Wait times of about 120 min or so for every ride during the day, about 10 minutes after 6PM.

The public transport looks awesome, but some condos advertising places still give driving times to the CBD. Are there places in Singapore where you would need to own a car - I'd like to avoid living in those areas as I understand it's expensive to get a Singapore license and own a car there.

Most condo residents/ owners own cars. Both condos and cars are signs of upward mobility in Singapore, so it's quite natural that condos would aim their marketing at car-owners. That said, a lot of upmarket condos have their own shuttles to the nearest MRT station, so there's that.

My usual rule of thumb is to look for houses (whether condos or HDB units) that are about 2-3 bus-stops away from an MRT station. Condos _at_ an MRT station are usually super-expensive; I've found the ideal zone to be 2-3 bus-stops away. Adds about 15 minutes to the commute each way, but hey, worth the price difference.

In short, you'd want to avoid (what I call as) the condo-belt in the middle of the island, along Upper Bukit Timah Road / Dunearn Road / Bukit Timah Road. That stretch is perpetually crowded during rush-hour (and contrary to most local expectations, has been so for many years now)

Husband works remotely at present and would continue to do so. The Singapore Ministry of Manpower website doesn't give me useful information about what sort of permit he would need, given that his employer wouldn't be local.

This is your biggest roadblock, frankly, unless some of the other links suggest otherwise. We regularly get (and send!) people at the international consulting firm I work in; the general impression has been that it has become harder to get people over in the past year and a half or so.

There are some rumours that it'll ease post-elections, but I personally don't think so; Singapore Inc has these super-refined demographic models on how many people are required and all that, and they don't take lightly to apparent mistakes, such as the one that the PM alluded to pre-elections.

Tell me one thing you love ...

For all practical purposes, this is the center of Asia. Doesn't get more melting-pot-y (or melting wok, if you prefer) here than anywhere else; Singapore in the last 40 years has mastered how to be a melting-pot without being a simmering pressure-cooker. I've travelled all over Asia, but Singapore is where you feel that tribal instinct the least (which is not to say it doesn't exist at all; it does, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere) But yes, everyone feels welcomed here, and it's rather easy to go about general life.

I meant it in a socio-cultural setting, but the metaphor extends itself to cuisine as well, naturally; in the last 4-5 days, I've had the opportunity to have cheap Hokkien, American, {North | South} Indian, Sichuan, Brazilian and Russian food.

..and one thing you don't/didn't love about living in Singapore!

You've asked for one, I'll give you three:

1) Wanting to spend ,more time with family isn't often considered a good enough reason to even warrant a conversation at work.

2) There's this island-wide emphasis on being world-class that many folks have, somehow, internalised, but they usually see that in materialistic terms, getting condos etc for one, getting brand-name goods for another. The space for alternate voices / art etc, while growing, is still nevertheless small.

3) There's this concept of having a controlled market of sorts for housing, cars etc that's just crazy. Makes people think about costs all the time.
posted by the cydonian at 5:19 PM on May 23, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, the visa thing looks like our biggest concern. I guess I figured that if we're paying taxes in Singapore they would just, you know, let us in. But we will speak to the authorities and see what we can do. I've looked at the employment pass and the personalised employment pass and I'm crossing fingers that if we do love what we see in July that the PEP will work for us.

I wonder: I'm a teacher and if I worked there could I get the Employment Pass and my husband have a Dependent Pass? I could ask this on the expat forum but blah blah don't want to muck about creating accounts and such. I always think of myself as the secondary earner in our family but for visa purposes I suppose that doesn't matter...?
posted by tracicle at 12:15 AM on May 24, 2011


for visa purposes, you may actually have far better luck being the primary, and/or it may help with hte PEP
posted by infini at 4:53 AM on May 24, 2011

This is off topic somewhat, but it looks like teaching in Malaysia is pretty cushy. It also might be easier to get a work permit there?
posted by Alnedra at 7:20 AM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is your biggest roadblock, frankly, unless some of the other links suggest otherwise. We regularly get (and send!) people at the international consulting firm I work in; the general impression has been that it has become harder to get people over in the past year and a half or so.

I agree with cydonian, it seems to be much easier to get into the country in the past. When I first obtained my diploma after studying at the local polytechnic there back in 2002, I received an invitation to apply for Permanent Residency directly. I believe they don't even do that anymore nowadays. It also seems somewhat harder in recent times for other people to gain employment passes and residencies in the country. Nevertheless, among the developed countries in Asia, Singapore is still one of the rather easier ones to move into.

As a tentative first step, you might also want to take a look at the Employment Pass Eligibility Certificate, although I'm not sure how well it will suit your needs.
posted by joewandy at 7:20 AM on May 24, 2011

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