A few of you have asked me to share more about Singapore life. I would be happy to! Experiences are better shared, right?
Let me state some caveats: this post is going to include a lot of generalizations about Singaporeans and extrapolations about the people of Singapore based on what I learned from my coworkers while working there. The people I have spent time with represent just one part of the population; however, we have spent a lot of the lunches talking about what life is like in Singapore and I have explored, eaten, ran, toured, and tried to soak up as much Singapore as I could while I was there. I was eager to learn and I asked a lot of questions. My colleagues usually shared details about their own lives, but also made statements about how their lives compare to “most Singaporeans.” I also had dinner with a few different friends-of-friends who lived in Singapore and learned about their experiences as well.
It goes both ways- my colleagues were also very interested in what life is like in Minneapolis. Of course I understand that if one of the people in our Singapore office came to Minneapolis to work for 6 weeks, they couldn’t really know what life is like for all Americans– of course not. When the team asks me about Minneapolis though, I do try my best to share information about what life is like for most people in Minneapolis, and they tell me a lot about what life is like for most Singaporeans.
To start, almost all of the Singapore people in my office are Chinese. They speak Mandarin Chinese and their families are what they said were “traditional” Chinese. Of course, there are huge populations of other ethnicities in Singapore (check out my post on Little India), not to mention an enormous expat community, but most of the people I worked with are Chinese.
Do the people in your office speak English?
Yes. Everyone in my office speaks English as a second language; it’s the language of the financial markets. Most everyone speaks Mandarin as a first.
Are Singaporeans into health food? Are there vegetarians? Are there people on the Paleo diet? Gluten-free?
Good questions. Honestly, a lot of these diets and ideas are very Westernized and there are plenty of Western restaurants in Singapore that offer these options. But the people I work were not familiar with these diets when I asked them.
Even so, food is a big part of Singapore life! I feel like a lot of our conversations at lunch were about food. The team always wanted to introduce me to new things “Have you tried this?” and they wanted to learn about what I eat at home: “What do you eat for lunch in Minneapolis?” “What do you cook? What’s a typical American breakfast?” “How do people lunch in the office?” They were very interested in what we eat, where we eat, how we eat, etc.
I have shared a lot of pictures of the different foods I ate while I was here, and I’m sure you already knew that they are not all that healthy. I eat a lot lighter at home (most of the time- definitely not all the time!) A lot of traditional Singapore food is not all that healthy. In general it is cooked with a lot of oil and is carb-heavy with all those noodles! Though there are plenty of healthier options too.
I haven’t stepped on a scale. Even though I was running every day, I am sure I gained some weight, but I am not that concerned about it. It would not have been the same experience if I was stressing every day about what I was eating; I already had to stress every day about getting in my runs! I have to choose my battles and a huge part of my experience in Singapore was the food. After all, Singapore is the city that never stops eating!
One funny thing about Singaporeans- and I think this is unique to them- when they arrive at a hawker centre or food court (and by the way, the food courts here are a WHOLE different thing than mall food courts back in Minneapolis) they first go save a seat with packets of Kleenex. Most hawker centres don’t provide napkins, so these are your napkins, but they are also your place-holders. And everyone respects it! There were plenty of lunches where we would try to find a seat and if all the seats were saved with tissue, we would move on to a different location for lunch. So funny!
How do Singaporeans work out?
My coworker Adeline (who took me to Malaysia, etc) goes to the gym 2-3 times a week where she does spin, yoga, and more. (She took me to her gym- read all about it HERE). There are the two men who lift a lot and I was told that there were a few others in the office who run, though I didn’t get to know them during my time (unfortunately!)
Obviously, there are plenty of runners there, which I saw at the Singapore marathon and I saw every day on my runs. Every type of fitness class that we have in the U.S. is found here- even some of the same gyms (there was an Anytime Fitness next door to my apartment) I think its hard to compare Singapore to Minneapolis because my group of friends in Minneapolis are SO into fitness so it seems like we work out way more than my team in Singapore. But I have to remember that even though it seems that way to me, training for a marathon and working out most days is not the norm for Americans.
Does everyone work long hours?
I would say that yes, everyone in banking works long hours and a lot of Singaporeans work in banks. There are so many big banks there and it seems like a lot of college-educated people work in finance. Often times the jobs are servicing clients or working with counterparties in Europe, which means that the busiest time of day is after the European market opens which is towards the end of their business day.
I have been told that Citibank is the “bank that never sleeps.” Friends of my colleagues work there and said they basically live at the office with 9 pm being an early night. However, at my office, we start work at 9 am, work hard until around 12:15, then take lunch until 2 pm, then work hard until about 7 or 8 pm. Getting back to my apartment usually takes about 30 minutes on the bus (depending on when I leave and when the bus comes). A lot of my coworkers have a one-hour train ride to get home too, so I am sure their nights are even longer.
What is the fashion like?
That’s kind of a hard one. My office has a business casual dress code. But the business casual in Minneapolis, where we only have 3 months with the potential for temperatures over 80 degrees, vs. business casual where every single day is in the 90’s are two very different things. The dresses are much shorter here and there a lot more sleeveless tops- even tank tops- and flip flops are somewhat acceptable. I would say business casual here is definitely more casual.
On top of that, Singapore is a much bigger city than Minneapolis so I would say most people dress a bit more stylish, though you see a little bit of everything. The men dress basically the same as in Minneapolis, though generally a little more “hip” (again, I think that’s just a difference of being in a big city like Singapore than Minneapolis).
There’s also SO. MUCH. SHOPPING. So I think men and women have a lot more options. To be honest, I do a lot of my shopping online at home, even though Minneapolis has plenty of malls. But here, it would be hard not to be tempted to swing by the huge malls on basically every corner.
I did buy a lot of warm weather dresses here that I won’t be able to wear for months in Minneapolis. But I had to try to fit in! I think I am just used to working in place where most of the time we are covered up in jeans, boots, and scarves for most of the year, you know? The styles really aren’t that different; it’s just warm all the time. I brought dress pants in my suitcase and I never wore them- just skirts and dresses.
Is Singapore really strict?
Yes. The joke is that Singapore is “a fined” city,” i.e. you can get fined for chewing gum, bringing durian on the bus, littering, so much more. Bringing drugs into the country is punishable by death.
Generally, everyone follows the rules. I loved these signs that were always in public transportation, reminding people of proper bus etiquette!
Singapore is quite conservative compared to Minneapolis- i.e. homosexuality is still technically illegal. Same-sex marriage is out of the question.
Other interesting facts…
“Helpers” The majority of Singaporeans have a “helper”. This “helper” lives in their house, cleans, cooks, does laundry and is basically a part of their family. Helpers are cheap so you don’t have to be rich to have one. Most “helpers” are from elsewhere in the ASEAN and have families back home. They usually go back to their families 1-2 times a year, but that’s it. Your “helper” will probably be with you for life.
Mandatory National Service All Singapore men have a mandatory 2 year army service, read all about it here. Most of my coworkers did their service right in Singapore so they still lived with their families during this time. Some men are placed in other countries during those two years. Women are not required to serve two years. My coworkers told me that a lot of men would make up elaborate excuses (fake medical issues) to try to get out of the service. After the two years is complete, they still have to do a yearly fitness test to ensure they are still “operationally ready.” If they don’t pass, they have to do a weekend remedial training- maybe that’s why most of the men are so slim!
Certificate of Entitlement There is an enormous fee called a COE or certificate of entitlement when you buy a car. Read more here. This is a strong deterrent for people not to buy cars. The COE controls how many cars are on the road. There are only so many COE’s around so you have to bid on one if you want to get a car. If there’s high demand, the COE’s can be quite expensive. Let’s say you want to buy a $25k car. Your COE could be about $75k and you could only have the COE for 10 years. Additionally, parking is exceptionally expensive. Public transportation is really good and really cheap, so it just doesn’t make sense to drive. Most of my coworkers don’t have driver’s licenses. Some of them are thinking about getting one for later in life, if they have a family and kids. I saw plenty of parents with babies in strollers on the train and on the bus, or in cabs.
Housing Speaking of family, most, if not all, of my coworkers live with their parents. Housing is just too expensive to have your own place. You live with your parents until you get married. Most Singaporeans live in HDB’s, or government housing; however, government housing can be quite nice. I think 80% of people live in HDB’s. Read more about it here
The People. Generally speaking, most of the people in my office are a little less assertive compared to the people I work with in the US.
Even so, the Singaporeans in my office are super nice and so, so helpful. I am incredibly grateful for how awesome they have been to me. They made me realize that my office needs to do a much better job when we have visitors from our other offices, to ensure we embrace and welcome them to the US the way that my team welcomed me.
What will I miss in Singapore?
Even though it was tough running in it, I know I will miss the warm weather. I will definitely miss the food options. All the shopping. The people in my office. Singapore is sometimes called “Asia for beginners” because everyone speaks English, its safe, it’s modernized, and it’s easy to get around. It made for a great experience for me for being there on a short-term assignment on my own.
The stats from my trip:
- 4 countries visited (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines)
- 7 Airports: MSP, O’hare, Hong Kong, Narita (Tokyo), Changi (Singapore), Phuket (Thailand), Manila (Philippines)
- 305 miles run with 116 on the treadmill
- 5 complete rest days from working out
- Non-running workouts: 2 hot yoga classes, 1 barre class, and 1 spin class
- Number of warm weather dresses that I purchased but won’t be wearing for months…6
Let me know if you have any other questions about Singapore or my experience there!
If you want to read my previous posts about my time in Singapore, here they are:
Welcome to Singapore
My First Long Run in Singapore
Recap of Week 1 in Singapore
Cheering for the Singapore Marathon
Long Run #2 in Singapore
Recap of Week 2 in Singapore
Exploring Little India
lululemon and shopping in Singapore
Ziva Yoga in Singapore
Week 3 in Singapore
Exploring Sentosa Island and Johor Bahru
Quite Possibly my Slowest 19 Miles Yet
Weekly Recap: The Tokyo Marathon is in 7 Weeks
Trying out Virgin Active Gym