What a first time visitor to Singapore should expect - things that they (almost) never tell you in guidebooks
While I've received some emails asking about relocation or visiting London, I've yet to receive a query about visiting Singapore. That's until Top Bird from Weebirdy asked whether there's any tips for a stopover (I assume) at Singapore in an earlier Chinese New Year post.
Sentosa, purported to be the southernmost point of continental Asia.. oh well.
I thought that I'll split it into two posts - one on what a first time visitor to Singapore should expect and another on where to go on the tiny tropical isle. While I may not be the best person to advise you on the latter, I'll definitely point you to some of the more informative local sites for reference. One thing's for sure, this is coming from a Singaporean's perspective, something that you'll rarely find in the guidebooks. Without further ado, here are 5 things about Singapore they (almost) never tell you in guidebooks.
1. Singapore is a green City, literally
Before you go off thinking this is one of those propaganda statement, I can assure you that Singapore is literally filled with trees. It didn't struck me as such until I returned home for a visit early last year. The island state can be imagined as a forest with buildings popping out through the canopy.
If you have to know, it's all 'part of the plan'. Every tree is marked down at the street blueprint archived at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (a name to be reckoned with). In fact, there are even plans projecting the size of the tree canopies in a specific time horizon. It would be probably be easier to apply to be a Permanent Resident on the island than to go throught the proper channals for cutting down a tree on public land.
To get a full impact of this planned greenery, upon touching down at Changi International Airport, hail a cab and head towards the city centre where your hotel is likely to be. Avoid taking the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) not that there's anything wrong with it but there's simply no fun in in squeezing with the crowds, is there?
2. Taxi drivers are friendly, a bit too friendly at times
That brings us right to my second point - the taxi drivers. Notice that I'm being all positive here but some tourists just couldn't stand our taxi drivers so I thought I would take this opportunity to clear up the air a bit.
Taxi rentals have risen quite a bit over the years and that couples with an increase in the number of taxi licenses issued means that taxi drivers find it more difficult to make ends meet. In order to maintain their earnings, some have taken to driving insanely long hours. Face it, it can be pretty boring sitting behind the wheel for the better part of the day and conversations with their passengers thus become the drivers' only salvation.
The drivers are talkative. Once you get them started, they'll never stop. Needless to say, after hours on the flight, the last thing you want is to engage in a lengthy conversation. Then again, I always make it a point to do so as the last thing I want is to have the driver dozing at the wheel.... just kidding. No, really.
One thing is for sure, some drivers can be quite insensitive but try not to take it too literally. A typical conversation can go,
"So where are you from?"
"Is it? But I thought all people from England are whites and you are not." (you catch the drift...)
"So where do you plan to go in Singapore?"
"Erm, not quite sure. I'm really tired, would probably head towards the hotel first before stepping out. Any recommendation?" (fatal mistake, don't even think that you can get out of this one)
"Of course, you must visit the Night Safari, Singapore's Night Safari is the best in the world! What about Singapore Flyer? That's also good. Are you thinking of shopping? You must try VivoCity. Oh, oh... you must go to Sentosa as well...." (see what I mean?)
Take it from me, the Singapore taxi drivers mean well, at least most of them do. Just try not to encourage them too much.
3. Singaporeans are conversationally efficient, or so they say
Fine, I'm going overboard with being politically correct. What I meant to say is that most Singaporeans being brought up speaking two languages (English and their mother tongue), aren't really comfortable with English. As a result, they can sound pretty curt or should I say, more economical with their words.
"Would you mind helping me with this?"
"May I know how I can get to the airport?"
"Orrr... take a right, then a left, you'll see the MRT station. Just go there and ask."
For some reason, Singaporeans find it a chore to smile as well. I would attribute that to the comparatively fast pace of life in Singapore. I recall some incidents of locals complaining that they were not getting the same level of service that some tourists got. I wouldn't be surprised if it was because most tourists were better customers as well. One tip here, a simple smile will get you places in Singapore. I know that we should take the initiative, believe me, we're trying.
4. How to strike a chord with Singaporeans
There is no doubt that there is a common passion for all Singaporeans. If you are ever in a situation whereby you have to strike a conversation with a local, try asking him about where he would recommend a tourist go eat. Once the floodgates are open, there's no stopping it.
Everyone has got a favourite place for every single dish - the interesting thing is that these places would be all round the island. Even though Singapore is merely an isle of just over 700 sq km (just under one third the size of London), it's still quite a chore covering these places. But Singaporeans will go to extreme lengths for their favourite food. That doesn't change even if they are overseas and London Chow is a case in point.
5. No chewing gum allowed in Singapore (among other things)
The national ban of chewing gum when I was a kid put Singapore at the butt of many jokes. Although it's not strictly enforced, the label of being a nanny state was slapped on Singapore. When the ban was first in place, the smuggling of chewing gums across the causeway to Malaysia became a national sport causing a huge price increase of the gum over the border.
Other than the chewing gum ban, there are fines in place for a host of other 'undesirable' activities - littering and jaywalking being two of them. Unlike London, the fines for littering are actually enforced. As for jaywalking, a fellow countryman recounted an incident when he was caught jaywalking across Orchard Road (Singapore's equivalent of Oxford Street) by an official who was hiding behind a bush. I kid you not.
Taken in good humour, most are things that you wouldn't do anyway. One thing to note though, most Singaporeans aren't really amused about the Singapore being a 'fine' city joke. If you have to, a t-shirt with the same message would be an apt souvenir but please do not, I repeat, do not wear it in Singapore. That's like sporting a 'Czech this out!' shirt in Prague.
That's all I have for now. Did I miss anything? If so, the usual request applies, give me a comment below, will you? Cheers!
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