Humid. Comfortable, tropical, modern, connected Asian hub with great food and landscaped parks – and did I say humid? (It’s pretty much +32 always, and the seasons are distinguished by raining/not raining)
Called (ironically by some locals) Asia Lite, Singapore (Wikipedia) is indeed that rare combination – the delight of the exciting parts of Asia – the warm climate, the food, a bit of ethnic diversity – without the parts that tend to annoy, such as traffic, pollution, poverty and chaos. Want to feel like you’ve been to Asia, but don’t want to stretch your comfort limits? Singapore is the ideal destination.
It mixes a refined cultural heritage with modernity; former ethnic parts of the city are enclosed in the cityscape, like a tiny traditional food court in the middle of downtown, or an arab area of several streets tucked in a shopping district.
I liked the week that I spent there, for work and holiday, and I can see why many of my foreign friends were able to live there for years and enjoy it. Public transport is great, taxis are cheap, shopping is apparently better than many other places, and the best part – the rest of South-East Asia is just a short hop flight away. And it’s quite efficient (bordering with overly policed I’d say, they regulate pretty much everything) – this is probably how Germany would look like if it was in tropics. Taxes are low, and with the expat salary life can be indeed pretty sweet.
Especially if you consider that so many great South-East Asian destination are just a short hop away – cross the bridge and you are in Malaysia, Indonesia is just around the corner, Thailand and Vietnam and the Philippines and China.
If you live in Singapore for any decent period of time, it’s guaranteed you’ll see a big chunk of Asia – because you can just fly somewhere for a weekend. Sort of like the freedom of travel people enjoy in Europe and we, Aussie-living people, are so jealous of! As one of my Singaporean-living foreign friends put it – the best part about Singapore is not in Singapore. Which is a bit harsh, but it does seem that the ease of travel is one of the more attractive features of living there.
And did I mention the food? Oh, the food!
The mix of Asian cultures means you get a great variety of all sorts of foods – and strict regulation ensures that street food is safe, while the famous hawker centres – massive food halls with stands of traditional asian food – provide an entertainment of trying new dishes every week and still finding something new. It’s also very cheap (unless you decide to go into a fancy or a tourist destination restaurant, which you don’t really have to do).
I did immerse myself wholeheartedly in the food culture! Chilli crab is a famous local dish I enjoyed, but fried carrot cake (which has nothing to do with actual carrots by the way) was my favourite. Yes, I had it for breakfast too.
Singapore is also very small – it’s a city-state, of only 710sq km and 5 million people. Mostly Chinese ethnicity, but also many Malay and Indian backgrounds, and of course many migrants from neighbouring countries. And the expact community is huge, and very diverse – in my first evening I met an Indian micro-brewer, Amercan military pilots, an Indonesian filmmaker and a British financial consultant (thanks to my lovely host :). Singapore is one of the most important corporate (and transport) hubs in Asia, and many global companies post and hire international staff to work here.
Which to me added to a feeling of being transient – it seems if you stay in Singapore, it’s hard to truly call it home. Noone from my friends who was/is living there, could imagine settling in Singapore forever. You kind of belong, but you don’t. May be it’s the small size, but after you’ve explored all the manicured parks and shopping centres and harbour bars, you are left wondering whether it’s not a bit too confined in its tiny-ness and comfort. (of course I’m talking from an expact perspective purely, people who grew up in Singapore and have always called it home would have a completely different feeling about it).
And I have to say, for all the things I enjoyed in Singapore – the roof-top parties above the harbour, the curious park of solar-powered water-gathering metal trees, the hawker centre food experimentation, the ease of getting from one place to another – I probably wouldn’t go back to Singapore in a rush. I liked it, but it didn’t charm me as Sri Lanka did, it didn’t challenge my outlook as India did, it didn’t excite like Vietnam…
Singapore was nice, and comfortable, and a pleasant stopover and worth visiting of course – but it didn’t tug on my heartstrings. Asia Lite indeed.