Love in the time of skyscrapers and steel: Why I loved living in Singapore
Yes, I loved my time as an expat in Singapore. Didn’t expect to like it but I did. There, I said it.
Such a statement of affection coming from a Malaysian who’d spent most of her twenties exploring obscure nooks around the world might elicit some shocked gasps and widened eyes from some of you. You loved it? How? Wasn’t it boring and a little too orderly? Turns out Singapore can be exciting, if only we dig a little deeper.
Just the other day in Kuala Lumpur, amidst the noise and delicious smells of tandoori chicken, I suggested to a friend who was looking for potential places to move to, “What about Singapore?” She made a face and said, “No freaking way.”
I don’t blame her. Once upon a time, I made the same face too. Of course, life in Singapore took a while to get used to, but in hindsight, I realized that it wasn’t exactly Singapore’s fault. I was pulling long hours in the advertising agency that I was working in, I was frequently going back to KL to see my friends (which over the many mamak sessions that we’d have, I’d complain how horrible Singapore was) because flights from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore weren’t expensive and the 5-hour bus rides were equally affordable. Being out of the country so often didn’t give the city a chance to prove itself. It was only after the burnout, caused by the constant back and forth between the two cities, that I thought, it’s high time to make some friends in Singapore and discover how else can I put my free time to good use.
With the help of good old Couchsurfing, I met locals and other foreign residents of Singapore who showed me how to have a good time without cracking open the piggy bank. I remember meeting new people over BBQs during sunsets at East Coast Park, kayaking on the Kallang Basin, partying till dawn at clubs and didn’t have to worry about how to get home safely after that, attending wine festivals and checking out free art galleries, going for a swim at the neighbourhood’s public olympic-sized pool before or after work for $1($1!?!) and having picnics in parks and fields, or anywhere we could spread a blanket on. It may sound unbelievable but I think I’d spent more times outdoors than indoors despite the crazy humidity and heat in Singapore.
In Singapore, I barely touched my Kindle and didn’t buy any books either. The gigantic National Library in Bugis offers a generous amount of books to be borrowed for a limited time. With 13-floors crammed with books, journals and other paper and electronic resources, it was one of my favourite hangout places when I was in need of writing muse and peace.
Its efficient and convenient public transportation system meant that everywhere is easily accessible, including crossing the border to shop or to enjoy a weekend getaway on Tioman or Rawa Island. I didn’t need to drive, didn’t have to stress over parking and most of all, it was all very affordable. And for someone who gets restless easily, the airport’s and harbour’s easy reach was beyond convenient.
I must admit that initially, I’d complained about how expensive eating out and drinking can get. But that was because I didn’t know better. It took some time before I overcame the problem with a wee bit of creativity. When Chris and I was dating, we realized how broke we could get if we drank in bars or have candle-lit dinners in fancy restaurants. But what if we were to buy alcohol and mixers from supermarkets, pre-make them and put them into tumblers and find a romantic location to enjoy them? Soon, we were no longer confined to crowded bars but could splendid views alongside with one another’s company on Marina Barrage or the public accessible open decks above the Marina Bay Sands Shoppes. And because of that, we always discovered new and cozy outdoor places in Singapore to hang out for free. I was surprised that, for all those who’d complained about the same old or costly nightlife that one might find on Clarke Quay or Chinatown, no one had come up with this idea!
Okay, I’m not here to defend Singapore but Singapore deserves a better reputation than being viewed as just one gigantic air-conditioned island. Yes, it’s covered with shopping malls. Chances of you walking from one mall to the next, without ever seeing daylight are high. But when you stay away from usual shopping haunts like Orchard Road or Marina Bay, you’ll find plenty of more unique and interesting outdoor options in Bugis, Tiong Bahru or Joo Chiat. Almost every weekend, you’ll find a market somewhere or a festival to busy yourself in. My yearly favourite? The wine fiesta!
What about the fact that Singapore lacks character? Or that it feels cold and stifling in comparison to more thrilling cities like Bangkok or Yangon? Well, how can Singapore not be thrilling when you could be caned and fined if you chew gum on the streets? I’m kidding.
True, Singapore may not have a knack of delivering the sort of edgy danger or tempting forbidden cravings that tend to spice things up. But to me, there’s some sort of comfort to reliability and order. At least at the place that I’m living in. I like to know that I can bank on things: trains running (FYI in Germany, trains sometimes don’t run), flights taking off, trustworthy cab drivers, my personal safety while walking around. For the record, I lived next to red-light district Geylang.
One of our favourite rituals was to stroll around the seedier side of the city in the wee hours of the morning just to satisfy our food cravings. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find there at 4 a.m. Dimsum and durians, I kid you not. The best part was, I didn’t have to clutch my purse tightly and chant mantras under my breath as I walk by a deserted parking lot or be paranoid over every footstep or every whisper I hear.
However, there’s one downside to the whole Singaporean experience that I must mention: the food. Most foreigners would think that Singapore houses some of the best hawker food in the world but as a Malaysian, I have higher expectations. Not all hawker centres are created equal.
During my time in Singapore, I’ve had my fair share of dry wanton noodles, sickly sweet Char Kuey Teow, tasteless fish balls, diluted Bak Kut Teh or caramelised Mee Goreng. How is it even possible that anyone can think that sweet fried noodles are tasty?
Also, the fact that most of the hawker food are served in roofed, orderly hawker centres instead of small kopitiams or by the road like in Penang or Bangkok, took away some fun from the whole street food experience. I’m the sort who believes that the best kind of street food is mixed with a good portion of sweat, dirt and grime. The grittier the place is, the better the food will taste. But then again, I rarely get sick from eating grub off street vendors in Mumbai or Phnom Penh. The more susceptible ones to Bombay or Bali Belly may prefer the more hygienic locations that Singapore offers.
Still, despite all that, Singapore does serve up consistently good Hainanese Chicken Rice, Nyonya Laksa and Bak Chor Mee.
Okay, you got me. Maybe my love affair with Singapore is more of the literal sort–the kind where romantic feelings for a place stem from the romantic encounter that I’ve had there. It was the city that brought me and Chris together after all. In an outdoor bar, high up on the peak of One Raffles Place, two then strangers bonded over exorbitantly-priced beers and cocktails and a fabulous view. It then later led to a pool party and many more surprising dates in hawker stalls and random free undiscovered nooks in Singapore where we could BYO our version of cheaper drinks.
These days, even if I’m now living in Germany, whenever I go home, I would usually drop by Singapore just to catch up with friends or to reminisce about our time living there with my husband. Not too long ago, I took my in-laws around Singapore and they’d shaken their heads with awe and wonder. First time out of Europe and they didn’t expect to find a Southeast Asian city so clean, so lush and teeming with possibilities.
Till today, my husband still loves how breathtaking Singapore’s skyline is at night. Or how efficient its public transportation is (after Tokyo that is). But nothing beats his favourite moment: standing in front of a hawker stall, trying to order his regular Kopi set and be greeted by a brash: “Ah ya, you, what you want ah?”
Discover more cheap flights to Singapore at Traveloka Malaysia.
What about you? Have you lived in Singapore before? Did you enjoy your time there? Would you do it again?
DISCLAIMER: This is a sponsored post but as always, I only recommend and write about brands that I personally use or believe in; therefore all views that are expressed here represent only those made by myself and NOT of any other entity in their favour.