With Singapore's efficient infrastructure and cultural blend of East and West, it's not surprising that the city-state is sometimes referred to as 'Asia-lite'. As a result, most expats don't have to contend with a huge amount of culture shock in Singapore.
Singapore's population is mostly comprised of three ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian. Consequently, this cultural diversity produces a colourful collection of traditions, holidays and customs that expats are sure to become enamoured with.
Although the culture shock is minimal, there may be some situations that new arrivals in Singapore will be unfamiliar with. In such cases, they shouldn't hesitate to ask someone for advice, as most Singaporeans will be eager, and even proud, to help.
A surefire way for expats to get over any potential culture shock is to immerse themselves in the city's culture and start discovering all that Singapore has to offer – there certainly is plenty to experience in the Little Red Dot.
Food in Singapore
A hub of Asian cuisine, there is something for everyone in Singapore, especially keen foodies. Satay, chilli crab and fish-head curry are traditional Singaporean dishes worth trying. For expats wanting something more familiar, there are plenty of Western restaurants on the island too, including Italian, Mexican and American-style eateries, as well as Western fast-food chains.
Alternatively, it's well worth trying out hawker centres – food courts where vendors sell various local speciality dishes. Food at hawker centres is affordable, quick and often utterly delicious. Malls also usually have food and beverage establishments. Take note: if ever coming across a packet of tissues on a table at a hawker centre, that means the table has been choped, or reserved. Look for an empty table somewhere else.
Kiasuism in Singapore
The word kiasu is Hokkien for 'fear of losing' and is used to describe the behaviour of some Singaporeans. Kiasuism manifests itself in many ways, such as queuing in long lines to receive a door prize or giveaway, joining the longest queue at a hawker centre because everyone else is eating there, or grabbing excess amounts of something (such as in a buffet or a sale item at a store) for fear of not getting it later. Westerners might know the phenomenon as FOMO – the fear of missing out.
Kiasuism is also used to describe ambitious and successful people. To Westerners, this attitude can come off as aggressive and opportunistic, but to Singaporeans it's sometimes seen as a way to succeed within a competitive society.
Strict laws in Singapore
Singapore is a conservative country with strict laws. No matter where their passport says they are from, if a foreigner commits a crime in Singapore, they'll be subject to the country's laws and punishments.
Perhaps the island-state's most infamous law is its ban on chewing gum. This law exists to discourage people from sticking used chewing gum on surfaces around the city. Similarly, littering and spitting in public are both illegal and can result in prosecution. Smokers accustomed to taking a quick smoke break while out and about will need to adjust to Singapore's strict anti-smoking laws which limit public smoking areas.
On a more serious note, crimes such as vandalism may be punishable by caning and certain narcotics offences carry a mandatory death sentence. Freedom of expression is also somewhat restricted: certain publications and movies are banned, and others are censored before being released to the public.
The policies might sound harsh, but they ultimately result in Singapore being one of the safest and cleanest places to live, and expats should take solace in this fact.
Singlish in Singapore
Although English is spoken by just about everyone in Singapore, expats may notice some unfamiliar words here and there. This is called 'Singlish' – a colloquial, uniquely Singaporean dialect of English. It is commonly spoken throughout the city-state and is considered by many to be a reflection of its unique blend of cultures. While Singlish is looked down on by some, others will firmly attest that a local who doesn't speak Singlish isn't a true Singaporean.
It's worthwhile brushing up on a few common Singlish phrases before departing to Singapore, even if it's just to understand the locals.
►For an overview of the country, see Moving to Singapore
"It was super easy to adjust. There is a thriving expat community and I was able to integrate very quickly through sports clubs and work. It’s a very social environment and everyone likes to meet for beers, dinner, lunch, etc." Read more about Scott, a South African expat and his experience living in Singapore.
"The heat, obviously. Swedish summer only lasts for about two months and rarely exceeds 25°C, so moving to a country with around 30°C all year round was kind of a shock to say the least. With the never-changing seasons, it's also incredibly hard to keep track of the passage of time. I am used to four distinct seasons a year, but here every day feels the same." Find out what else Ellinor, a Swedish expat, has to say about life in Singapore in her interview.
Are you an expat living in Singapore?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Singapore. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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