Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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?"
"Erm, England..."
"Is it? But I thought all people from England are whites and you are not." (you catch the drift...)

(awkward silence)

"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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Nomadic Matt said...

I agree. I was impressed with the friendliness of the people there when i went!

Chris said...

I believe that actually chewing the gum is not illegal, only selling it in Singapore. Of course, if you drop the used gum on the ground, that's littering, and that is illegal. And now after the US/Singapore free trade agreement, gum that delivers medicine (Nicorette, for example) may be sold under prescription.

Make sure you mention how crowded the MRT has gotten lately and how reluctant people are to give up their seats for disabled, pregnant, or elderly people.

I find the taxi drivers to be somewhat reticent, but I'm Caucasian, so perhaps they are less likely to speak with me. They feel lucky that I know where I want to go.

Joanne said...

Yep chewing gum isn't illegal, only the sale of it.

It is totally alright to bring in chewing gum from overseas and consume it here.

Anyway, I'm okay with the Fine City tshirt actually. Haven't met a Singaporean who takes offense to it.

As for enforcement of those rules on littering, jaywalking, and now, drinking / eating on the MRT, I find that it depends on your luck. Many Singaporeans jaywalk and I haven't met anyone who has gotten caught yet.

I concur with your recommendation to take the cab after touching down because the MRT isn't traveller-friendly. If you do take the MRT, be prepared to have your bags checked at the train station. There isn't much space for you to park your luggage in the train anyway.

Karin said...

@Chris, I actually find that people are much more willing to give up their seats on the MRT these days than they used to be 10 years ago... we're getting somewhere with these courtesy campaigns after all ;)

Chris said...

My comment on the MRT was based on my own observations (1-1/2 years ago) and on complaints from friends who take the MRT regularly. I was sitting next to the priority seat. In the priority seat was a teenager with his iPod welded to his ears. An elderly auntie, bent over with years, got on the car and stood right in front of him. He didn't look at her, but just kept on listening. I (of course) gave up my seat for her and spent the rest of the ride glaring at the teenager, who spent the rest of the ride ignoring me.

Anonymous said...

really? singaporeans cant speak english hence they are curt? that was really retarded.

40% of singaporeans speak english at home now. many like myself can't even write/read in another language other than english. i am speaking for young singaporeans under 40 who grew up in a totally english environment, not the older ones who grew up in a non english environment speaking whatever language they have.

40% of singapore's population are foreigners now and they make up more than 50% of the service sector. most dont speak english. i think that is reason why most foreigners go to singapore, shop, and think singaporeans cant speak english. they dont realise they are speaking to a foreigner since many of them look like singaporeans.

yes you read correctly, go find the latest official census, 4 out of 10 person in singapore is a foreigner.

we speak better english than some weird accents in the uk - think scottish broad scots glasglow brummie etc..

C K said...

Glad that you find people in S'pore friendly. I just wish we learn to smile more. :)

Thanks for pointing that out about the import/sale of chewing gum. One thing about MRT is that regardless of how crowded it is, it can hardly compare with the rush hour in the TUbe. I very nearly kissed this guy in front of me in the DLR this morning.

Heard that MRT has employed staff to pack passengers in during peak hour. Not sure whether that's true.

Thanks for your points! Just curious, have you ever seen a tourist's bag being inspected at the individual MRT stations? Well, I do see the security 'tables' at the stations but for most of the time, they're unmanned.

Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

Nowhere did I mentioned in my post that Singaporeans cannot speak English. I do apologise if you got that impression. While I am sure you speak brilliant English, grew up in a 'totally English' environment and have absolutely no contact with the Malay language, Tamil language and Mandarin (not to mention all the differnt dialects), I seriously don't think that's the case for the majority of Singaporeans regardless of whether they are above or below 40 (just curious, where did you get that figure from?).

For those of us who are/were in the army would immediately recognize that it hardly constitutes as a 'totally English' environment.

Besides, have you ever considered that a Scot might think that your English is rubbish as well? Furthermore, we're not even discussing about accents here.