16 March 2013

RACHAEL’S GUIDE TO LIVING IN SINGAPORE

When the possibility of living in Singapore suddenly became a reality, Paul and I realized there wasn’t much that we actually knew about expat life in Asia. Now, we did know that Singapore was referred to as “Asia 101” so we knew that it would have more Western influence than any other Asian nation, and we were right.

Now that we have been here two years, my husband’s impression is that Singapore is “much cleaner, safer and more technologically advanced than any major U.S. city. Imagine that someone took a pressure washer to New York City and cleaned off the gunk, removed the crime and then made it 20 percent more expensive.”

Two years ago, we knew three things:
1.       Singapore was a tiny, tiny city-state in Asia
2.       A severe volcanic explosion resembling Krakatoa’s big one was really the only natural disaster that could take out Singapore
3.       The place was freaking expensive

At the time the offer was presented, we had three major concerns:
1.       Was the salary going to be enough?
2.       What was the housing going to be like and how would we find it?
3.       How are we going to get around?

This post answers those questions and more so, if you are planning to move to Singapore, here is almost everything you need to know (WARNING: THIS IS A LOT):

SALARY

We often joke that we are poor expats, so I will say that we are not making tons of money out here and, therefore, we are not spending tons of excess money. We live within our means and do well so this is from our perspective.

Let me simply state that if you are making a six-figure salary annually, you can make ends meet. Now, obviously, the caveat is that your expenditures must be within your means, but yes, it’s possible. If you’re single and don’t have a lot of expenses, you can absolutely do it for less.

A married couple will be fine on 10,000 a month or more, assuming housing or any living bonuses are not included. If you will receive bonuses, you will be fine. Children will definitely add to the cost, so be sure your salary can accommodate the additional increase. Now, on to what your salary will cover.

RENT

Unless you like a studio, which has just become popular in Singapore, plan a minimum of $3,000 a month for rent. If you have a better budget, know that there are plenty of five-figure monthly rental rates out there. We have friends who pay more in monthly rent that we bring in, so it is possible to find incredible places that are worth the spend.

The only way to find a place is to contact a listing agent, so call as many as you like and then move forward with the ones you trust. It is not unheard of to have more than one agent but sometimes the one who eventually gets fired will take the bad news personally. We should know.

Most agents will take a commission that matches your monthly rent and there is a charge at lease signing called the stamp fee that will be in addition to the security deposit and first month’s rent, so have your bank account stocked.

We have, for the next three weeks, a three-bedroom condo on the East Coast that is listed at 1,225 sf and we pay $3,400 a month. Pictures are available in this post. In Singapore, don’t underestimate the power of negotiation. I heard one person got half off their rent because they seriously negotiated. We offered our agent a $100 signing bonus for each $100 that he could negotiate off our rent in order to give him some incentive to get us a better deal.

You can honestly live almost anywhere in Singapore, so try to stay in a temporary place as long as possible so that you can really get to know the neighborhoods. There are so many expats on this island that there are at least a handful anywhere you look.

We chose the East Coast because it’s quiet and there isn’t a lot of traffic. We are just across the highway from the park, which has great trails for running and biking. There are a ton of small businesses and neighborhood centers and we have fantastic bus access with a train station just a few minutes away. We like it.

Orchard and Tanglin are popular for those in higher income brackets because they are close to major amenities such as hospitals, restaurants and shopping. Some of my favorite apartments are in the Orchard area, so take a look if you can afford the rent. Rents in the Central Business District are high so know that you will pay a lot for not a lot of space. The streets will be crowded but there are tons of food and entertainment opportunities, so go where your heart desires.

Robertson Quay is a very popular expat area. There are parks, restaurants along the water and plenty of dogs for those of you coming with pets. Train stations are not yet prevalent but they are under construction. Holland Village is an area that has perked up in the last two years. There are a ton of restaurants and it’s home to Plain Vanilla Bakery, home of the best cupcakes on the island – just thought you should know.

Just around the corner from Holland Village is an area called Buona Vista, where the green line meets the yellow line. The neighborhood, still known to some as Rochester Park, is in the middle of a revival. A new award-winning, open-air shopping center opened last fall; the mall includes a 5,000-seat auditorium with concerts featuring artists from Noral Jones to Adam Lambert and that’s just this month.

Fusionopolis, Biopolis and Mediapolis are three mega-industry structures in the works that will bring together some of the smartest industry professionals. Google them. And, if all that isn’t enough to entice you, there’s also my church, located in that awesome 5,000-seat auditorium. I won’t try to push anything on you but, if you want your life to change, check out New Creation Church. It’s amazing. And it’s all at Buona Vista. Can you tell that I want to move there?

Keppel is at the southern tip of the island, just across from Sentosa. There are some great developments with water views, Sentosa views and it’s close to the boating clubs so, if that’s your thing, this is your area. There is a massive, massive shopping mall called VivoCity and most developments have a free shuttle for residents. Some developments, like the Caribbean at Keppel Bay, look like a Vegas resort.

One more area that I will highlight is the Bukit Timah (boo-ki-tee-muh) neighborhood. Located at the top of the Botanic Garden (Tanglin is located at the bottom), the area along Bukit Timah road resembles life in the jungle. There are lots of older buildings and shopping centers, which means that there are a lot of small businesses to explore.

TRANSPORTATION

Cars are beyond expensive. According to my husband, Singaporeans see owning a car like we see owning a house – they will pay for a car and live with their parents until they are 30 without hesitation. We don’t have a car and, while I sometimes think that having a car would be nice, we get around so easily without one. Who wants to deal with driving and parking when we can sit in the back and be productive while someone else takes us from point A to point B?

The buses are great and run 20 hours a day. The trains are no more than 5 minutes apart at any given operation hour. Both are extremely cheap options and they go practically everywhere – even to Malaysia (a bus from Little India currently transports people to Malaysia; the train is in development). It is important to understand that Singapore’s train system, called the MRT, is fairly new so they have a massive expansion plan through 2020 when the subway system will resemble that of New York’s. For now, however, it works pretty well.

If you think a train or a bus will take too long, cabs are usually easy to find. If it’s raining, it’s a lot harder to find one. Cab drivers must be citizens so you would think that they know the roads like the back of their hands but they don’t always, especially the new ones. Most cabbies are great – they know their way, they are friendly, they ask you which way you want to take – but don’t be afraid to ask someone to pull over and get out if the driver doesn’t seem to know his way.

One more note about cabs: they give you back your change. No tipping is required. Most drivers pay taxi companies a daily fee so their take-home pay is only above that fee. If you do tip, they will welcome the extra cash. Speaking of cash, not all cabs take plastic so it’s a good idea to ALWAYS have $20 in your wallet, just in case.

And now the other important stuff…

FOOD

Groceries
I cook – A LOT – so I do a lot of grocery shopping. I buy fresh produce and meats more often than I buy frozen anything. I don’t buy a lot of processed foods, though I do love me some Velveeta Shells and Cheese every now and then. I like to buy fresh bread from the bakery but I don’t always.

All of that considered, I spend between $600 and $700 a month on groceries. The three major grocery chains are Cold Storage (deemed “the expat grocery” because it sells more home favorites than any other), Fair Price and Giant. Giant is the larger, cheaper option, Cold Storage is typically the smaller, more expensive option and Fair Price typically falls in the middle. In addition, Cold Storage owns many neighborhood specialty shops called the Tanglin Market or Katong Market, as two examples. They’re great.

But here’s my new-found secret: REDMART! RedMart, people. RedMart provides an amazing online alternative with delivery and the best Singaporean customer service I have ever experienced. Create an account at https://redmart.com and then start shopping…on your couch…in your pajamas…whenever you remember that you are running low on something. While they do not sell perishable items, you can get everything else you need from their gigantic warehouse. They have health and beauty items, standard drug store items, cleaning products and, of course, food and beverages, including beer and wine because who wants to carry that heavy stuff?

If you spend $75, the shipping is free. If you don’t, shipping is only $10. Once you have an account you will occasionally receive e-mails – none of which are annoying. The e-mails mostly tell you about specials: Save $25 with this promo code if you order by the end of the month; Save 30 percent on your total order for this upcoming holiday (St. Patrick’s Day – seriously!).

Now, the other grocery stores typically offer delivery services but most require that you go to the store, do your shopping, stand in line to pay, purchase your items in person, then stand in line again at the customer service desk so that they can check your items, be sure that you have reached the $150 minimum, register your items and then give you a four-hour window the next day when your items will be delivered. What’s the point? RedMart gives you a six-day window whereby you select the day and time and, bonus, they deliver on time.

No matter which store you choose, know that you won’t often come out with everything you need. If you find something you like, buy enough to last you a while because no one keeps proper inventory. Most grocery stores are close to other grocery stores because people know that you will likely go to three stores to get everything you need.

The Chicken Man
Yes, Singapore has a Chicken Man. His name is Mr. Wee and he speaks English so well that he speaks colloquialisms and sarcasm; both are very hard to find here. He brings freshly-butchered chickens to your door and can prepare them any way you like them. Just send a text to 9139.2189 and let him know what you would like.

His prices are comparable to the butchers below, the chickens are super fresh (which is why he gives you an hour delivery window) and there are absolutely no preservatives. He has whole chickens or chicken pieces: boneless, skinless, breasts, legs, thighs, quarters, halves, wings – whatever you need. If you want to order in bulk, wrap the chicken pieces the same day and place them in the freezer right away. If you leave them in the fridge for more than a day, they will spoil – they’re that fresh.

The Butchers
When you need meat, and you will, find your favorite butcher. There are plenty of options so take your pick. I use The Butcher because there is one in my neighborhood; other options include the Swiss Butcher and the Barbie Girls. Check out all of their websites – they all have great quality products and delivery options.

Wet Markets
Wet markets are extremely popular. Local aunties and uncles open shop in the wee hours before the sun is up and display the freshest produce, seafood, flowers, nuts and spices in practically every neighborhood. If you go, go early – definitely before noon – and dress properly. Wet markets are not squeaky clean; they are the product of a busy work environment.

If you have Wellies, wear them. I do and the locals love me for it because, surprisingly, not a lot of people outside of the construction worker community actually have a pair. Wear clothes that can get wet and grubby. The covered, open-air markets typically have hard floors that get grubby from the mud and blood that comes with grabbing root vegetables and chopping meats and seafood. Then, the floors are sprayed down to move away some of that grime.

If you’re a germaphobe, stay away. People don’t wear gloves, they don’t properly clean their work areas and they don’t clean their hands before they give you your change. On the other hand, they are providing great quality products for a negotiable rate and, if you hate butchering your own food, they will do that as well. One note: since most stalls are open on Saturdays, not many are open on Mondays. Just sayin’.

If You Can’t Find Something and You’ve Tried Everywhere Else
Go to Mustafa’s. Mustafa’s has got to be the biggest building in all of Singapore but I could have just made that up. Located in Little India, the massive shopping center spans two city blocks on at least six levels and is a combination Super Wal-Mart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, weird, flashy jewelry store meets everything you could possibly ever need.

If you go, go during the week and during daytime hours. Another alternative is to go in the late-night hours because the store is open 24/7. If you go on a weekend, you will want to kill yourself. If you go on a Sunday afternoon, you will realize that you are in hell. Don’t go on a weekend!

Mustafa’s has food, shoes, sportswear and equipment, cosmetic items, phones, cameras, TVs, hair straighteners and, like I said, anything else you can’t seem to find anywhere else. Take a friend, be sure you stay together and pay close attention to where you go – you will get lost.

CELL PHONES

Funny thing about cell phones: when we moved here, all of the locals had iPhones – ALL of them! People waited in line for hours before the stores opened to get a piece of the new one. Today, however, the Samsung Tsunami has wiped out most of the iPhones, leaving only the iPad Minis in full bloom. Everyone has a Samsung. Everyone, that is, except the expats.

Now, I was smart enough to get on the Samsung train in time for the SII, which is my favorite phone to date, but nearly all of my friends are still messing with their problematic iPhones.

Whichever brand snob you are, here’s what you need to know. Singapore doesn’t have phones that are locked to a specific carrier. In the U.S., a person only used to be able to buy an iPhone when they signed up for AT&T service. After a couple years, Verizon got in on the deal. In Singapore, you can buy your phone on the street – all you need from a carrier is a sim card, which can be a pre-paid or post-paid option.

If you are coming to Singapore with a phone of your own, you need to research how to get your phone unlocked. Unless your phone is unlocked, you will be tied to your original carrier for all eternity. If you do want to purchase a phone once you are here, I recommend a 3G quad-band phone, which will allow your calling and data network features to work on any global network; Singapore 3G operates on 2100 MHz. My last phone was not a quad-band and I was not able to use my data network when I was back in the States, even with a local sim card and data plan. It just didn’t work.

And, before you even try to purchase a phone or a phone plan from an actual service retailer, read the next section.

KNOW WHO WEARS THE PANTS IN YOUR FAMILY

While Singapore is a very male-dominated society, the truth is that they only seem to care about the primary breadwinner. If you are a married couple or family moving because of one person’s job, that person who has just caused your family to move will be the only one who will be able to do anything business wise. Ever.

Whoever holds that employment pass holds the key to all things paperwork. The dependents cannot get phones, open bank accounts or even make changes to an existing account without someone speaking to the EP holder first. I had to wake up my husband one night so that the representative on the other end of the phone could provide me with the code to unlock my own cell phone. Not cool.

GETTING THAT ID

Applying for IDs is a process and one that you will likely repeat. Pay close attention to the requirements and don’t think you can get away with any deviation. If you are required to have an appointment, get there early and get your queue ticket from the machine and wait for your number to bleep up on the screen – your appointment time really doesn’t mean a darn thing.

When you get your photo taken, be sure to confirm the photo size requirements because they differ. Most ID photos need to be taken on a white background. Eyebrows and ears must be shown in all photos and the head needs to be perfectly straight, so watch out for that stuff. Women, wear extra makeup. If you’re like me and prefer a more subtle look, none of it will show up in your photo. Wear some eyeliner and blush up those cheeks.

HAIR CARE

No woman can survive without a truly trusted hair stylist. Finding one in Singapore is all about trial and error, though we hope not too badly. I simply mean that if you want the best, you will find the best, pay the fees and then learn later that you can get a great look for a lower cost. Maybe you find someone who cuts well but doesn’t have the same skills in the color department. Maybe you find one person to do your color and another to cut your hair. Maybe you can afford the most amazing stylist on the island and you’re all set.

When you make friends, take their recommendations and then make an appointment for a consultation just to get a feel. If you feel confident, try something easy and non life-threatening. In the last two years, I have floated from hair dresser to hair dresser. Here are my top two recommendations.

If you want the best, call Alison Kerlin. She is a Vidal Sassoon-trained Aussie with more than 20 years in the field. Don’t let the Riverfront building’s exterior fool you – her new salon is truly impressive. With Alison, you have to know two things: first, her time management sucks so don’t plan anything after your appointment because you will probably be late and, second, the magic she will do for your hair is worth the money that you could be putting toward a pair of Jimmy Choos.

Her color treatments will run you more than $250 and the cuts will be an additional $180. Just need a cut? It’s still going to cost you $180. But, if you have a special case or you can afford the price, give her a call. You just might get the best style you’ve ever had.

I went to Alison for four to six months and then I felt really guilty about the bill and my lack of personal income. I shopped around and one day stumbled upon a Loreal salon in a shopping mall. I figured a Loreal place would know my hair type so I stepped in and met Kenny. I have been with Kenny ever since.

Kenny Koh is in his mid-20s but he’s smart, he is friendly and he can turn my desires from pictures to reality. Cuts at Kenny’s Professional Hair Studio on China Street (Club Street area) are $40. I can get a cut and single color or highlight for under $200. If he uses two colors, it will be around $220 with conditioning treatment included. He is great at scheduling quickly and I can be in and out in an hour and a half or less (which may seem like a long time for some but I was in the other chair for three hours, so this is much better for my day).

HEALTH CARE

I have a recent post dedicated to my health care so I won’t go into too much detail. I will tell you that a popular expat hospital is Camden Medical Centre in the Tanglin neighborhood. They have an international clinic on the 14th floor that seems to be doing really well. I stopped in for the first time today to inquire about a travel kit that several friends have recommended. I will post that once we receive ours.

My doctors are all a part of Pacific Healthcare; their offices are located in the Paragon building on Orchard Road, just across the street from their affiliated Mount Elizabeth Hospital. PHC is a great organization that works extremely well to get great health care taken care of immediately. If you need an appointment, they get you in same day. If you need tests, those tests are done on site while you are still present for your existing appointment. If you need results, they can call or e-mail you so you don’t have to go in if it’s not necessary.

There are general practitioners and specialists in the same building. If you want to see a specialist, call them up and make an appointment. I have not had a single person ask me for a referral.

If you have serious issues that occur after the six-day-a-week doctor’s hours, check out your clinic options carefully. Mount Elizabeth has a 24-hour clinic and I would imagine that Camden or Gleneagles does as well but, because the hospitals are on Orchard Road and I live on the East Coast, when my kidney freaked out at 3 a.m., I thought I would try my local neighborhood clinic. That was a mistake.

I called ahead to verify that the clinic could handle kidney issues. When I arrived no more than 10 minutes later, I rang the bell twice before an angry-looking girl rubbing her eyes under her glasses and yawning came from the back, dragging her feet, and unhappily opened the door. I had to wait about five minutes to see a doctor who barely acknowledged me, let alone said hello or offered friendly advice. He did not examine me but he did type a lot of things in his computer and then immediately diagnosed me without requesting any tests to be sure. I had to ask for and insist upon my tests that he said were not necessary. And, yeah, they were.

When I arrived at the clinic to pick up my test results, a receptionist handed me the labs and sent me on my way. No one offered to go over the results with me so I just had to figure it out for myself. When I later saw my good doctor and presented her with the results, she advised me that the antibiotic mister doctor gave me was not adequate as it was not prescribed in the correct dosage. I was still sick and needed two more prescriptions. It then took 2.5 weeks for the clinic to provide me my insurance forms. I will go to Orchard next time.

Well folks, I think that’s all – at least for this point in time. Now, I realize that there is absolutely no way I can answer every one of your questions in a single post, so please also take a look at a document myhusband compiled for all of his pilot friends (included is information on taxes and school fees, so definitely check it out). It’s much more technical and I take no responsibility for typos but it has a lot of more detailed, man-oriented information. We know we will miss things, so feel free to post some comments about those other things we left out. We will be happy to provide some answers either via e-mail, on the comment wall or in another dedicated post.

I hope this helps!

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for all of that. As someone who will be arriving in Singapore in a month I don't doubt for a second that I will be referring back to this over and over again. The parts on Salary and Rent are of particular interest right now however I think everything else will definitely come in helpful too.

Thanks again,

Lee

Olga said...

The funny fact, i was actually looking for reviews on hairdressers and this post came out!
Thanx a lot, Rachel, for taking your time to put together all info. The post is really of great help.

Devendra Singh said...

This blog is very good for readers and very informative…. Moving To Singapore

Cheyenne said...

Awesome blog! My partner and I are moving over in a few months from New Zealand and reading this has really helped, especially for those things you often forget about such as getting a hair cut! Thanks!

Rusha Singh said...

Great post. Can I hf Kenny ko h's contact

McKee said...

Hi Rusha. If you look up the company name - Professional Hair Studio - you can ask for Kenny. In my experience, he bounces around a bit. You can also call a place called Next @ ION on Orchard Road. Next is another high-end salon with prices and experienced professionals who meet expectations. Best wishes.