Singapore Trip Report
I made a trip to Singapore last month (Sept. 2002). This was my first visit to the country. I made the trip for a few reasons: I needed to do a visa run since I am having an extended stay in Thailand using tourist visas; I have a friend living in Singapore whom I had not seen in a few years; I needed a bit of a break for the dirt and chaos of Bangkok.
Just for the record, I bought a round trip ticket (BKK – Singapore) for 6,200 Baht at J.P. Travel (just south of the Nana Hotel). Ticket price does not include the 500 Baht departure tax at Don Muang airport, but it does include the Singapore Changi airport departure tax. In fact, if the travel agent forgets to include the Changi tax in the ticket price, you don't have to pay it! I flew Cathay Pacific airlines and have no complaints about the service. In fact, they served premium ice cream on the flight, first time I have seen this on an airline and a nice touch.
As I was writing this article on Singapore, another one was posted on Stickman's reader submissions. The author, Jeroen, is a long time resident of Singapore and has a much better understanding of the country than I do; if anything I have written is at odds with his report, he is probably correct. What I write is merely the impressions of a first-time visitor newbie.
– All prices are quoted in Singapore dollars. At the time I made this trip, $1.00 USD = $1.70 Sing dollar; $1 Sing dollar = 24 Baht.
– I am a frugal man by nature, and always have an eye towards getting the most value for the money I spend. I see this as a virtue; the bargirls in Bangkok do not. Well, I have the financial independence to quit my job and take a long holiday in South-East Asia, whereas they have to drag their sorry asses into the bar day after day and put up with our bad jokes and groping hands. Singapore is much more expensive than the rest of South-East Asia, but I will mention a few of the ways you can economize and still have a decent trip.
1) Changi Airport:
What can I say about Changi? One of the best, if not the best airport in the world. They got signs everywhere; no way you are going to get lost. No queue at immigration or customs. Polite, friendly and professional service everywhere you go.
When a newbie arrives in Bangkok, clears customs and walks into the waiting area, there is a very real possibility that they will get ripped off by hotel touts and dishonest taxi drivers. Changi could not be more different. I went to the hotel reservations desk in the airport, was shown a list of several dozen hotels of all price ranges, with the prices clearly listed. I chose one in my price range; the clerk phoned the hotel, made a reservation for me, and I even got a 10% discount on the price! The clerk also laid out all the transportation options for me. I could have taken public transit, a special airport shuttle mini-van, or a regular taxi. I choose the mini-van because it was a good balance between convenience and price – $7 for the half-hour ride to the hotel.
You may think I am getting overly excited about a mere airport, but when you arrive in a country for the first time, you can be quite vulnerable due to your ignorance. There are scumbags out there who will be delighted to fully exploit this if given the chance. They give a bad impression of the country to the first-time visitor, but most governments don't see overly concerned by this. My point is that Singapore, to her credit, cares very much, enough to keep these assholes off our backs until we are settled in and have a better lay of the land.
Lonely Planet lists several budget accommodation options, but in their usual prissy manner they neglected to mention Geylang as a ghetto for budget hotels. The reason for this is that Geylang is the red-light district of Singapore – I will talk more about this below. However, it is a perfectly safe place to live. I saw several backpackers who were staying in the area, some of them female.
I stayed in the Fragrance Ruby Hotel on Geylang Lorong 20 (a Lorong is a Malay word for a small side-street or Soi). The price was $38 per night with the discount; the room was quite small but had all the essentials on my list – A/C, en suite bathroom, TV, good security and very clean. It was also about 5-10 minutes walk from the closest MRT train station. Actually, there are several other hotels of this class all around the Geylang area, so it really doesn't matter much which one you choose to say at.
3) Food and Booze:
OK, I will talk about booze first. Brace yourself for shock when you see what it will cost you to wet your whistle with any kind of alcoholic drink. Beer is about 2 or 3 times more expensive than in Bangkok. Wine and spirit prices were so high that I never considered buying any. I think you can bring in 1 bottle duty-free, so if you are coming to Singapore for a short visit, it is a good idea to bring a bottle for yourself or as a well-appreciated gift for a friend living there. There did not appear to be any cheap, locally-made spirits like you can find in Thailand or many other poor countries.
My friend in Singapore reckoned that the overly paternalistic government was trying to get people to drink less for their own good. I am a bit sceptical of this; I remember learning in Economics 101 about goods that have an 'inelastic demand' – whatever it costs, they will pay it. Singapore is basically on the Equator, it's always hot there, so I think the demand for beer is pretty inelastic. The government must collect a fortune in taxes on the amber fluid. It's a pretty sweet deal for them – they get to look good by fighting this 'social evil' while at the same time balancing their budget with the tax revenues (which also make them look good).
7-11 stores are everywhere, same as in Bangkok. There was one just around the corner from my hotel, which was convenient because I could save some money by buying beer there rather than going to a bar. Tiger Beer is the main local brand, and you can get a chilled half-litre can of it at 7-11 for $4.60.
Most Singaporeans are Chinese, so you can get lots of good Chinese food there. I usually ate at the food courts, which are everywhere. You can get a decent sized meal for $4 or $5. The style of food is Hokkien or Teochew, not same-same as the Cantonese food you likely will eat at a Chinese restaurant in the West. There are also Malay and Indian dishes; actually, Singapore is a pretty good place to eat. I pretty much stuck to food courts and fast food joints, but I saw restaurants of all descriptions everywhere.
This is where Singapore really shines, at least in terms of public transportation. There is an MRT (Mass Rapid Transit?), which is a combination of a subway (downtown) and an elevated train (in the suburbs). It covers most of the country (which is no big deal because Singapore is only 30 kilometres from end to end). The buses also run frequently; I never had to wait more than 10 minutes for one. The MRT and busses are all air con, and some busses even have screens with some kind of televised or taped show to entertain the passengers.
For someone who has just spent several months in Bangkok, traffic jams were conspicuous by their absence. I understand that the government makes it very expensive to own and operate a car. They want to keep traffic flowing and encourage people to take the bus or MRT. Just imagine the economic benefits realized because people are in their offices doing productive work rather than stewing in their cars in the middle of a traffic jam.
I was particularly taken in by the use of advanced technology in the public transportation system. If you are going to stay in Singapore for a week or more, I recommend you buy this EZ-Link stored value card (foreigners can get one for $15 – $10 value plus $5 deposit). You just hold it up against a reader when you enter the system (train station or bus), and do it again when you exit the system – it automatically deducts the fare for the journey. You can add value to the card at any MRT station, and when you leave Singapore, you can get back your deposit and any residual stored value at Changi airport.
Another example of advanced technology are the signs at the MRT stations which tell you how many minutes to wait before the next train is due. These signs are both on the train platform and at the station entrances – if your train is about to arrive as you are paying your fare, you can make a run to try and catch it. This may not seem like a big deal, but it show to me the commitment of Singapore to use modern technology to improve daily life. This stuff is not rocket science, after all – you just need a transportation company with the will to use it.
5) Doing the 'Tourist' Thing:
You can buy a travel guide for Singapore, but it is not really necessary because there are lots of tourist brochures at Changi airport and all the usual tourist venues. I found the "Where: Singapore" magazine to be the best source of information for finding the places I wanted to visit.
I suppose you have to see the Raffles Hotel because it is so famous. If you want to go all the way, you can have a Singapore Sling at the bar, but it is pretty expensive. The Raffles Hotel really tries to milk their name for all it is worth – it is as much a high-end shopping mall as it is a hotel. There is, however, a really nice museum on the 3rd floor, worth checking out all the memorabilia of Western luxury tourism in the colonial era.
I visited all the major museums in Singapore, OK but not great. There was hardly anything to see in the Art Museum – and I thought Singapore was trying to become a cultural centre. If you are interested in military affairs, go see the 'Battle Box' at Fort Canning Park. This was the headquarters of the British and allied forces in Singapore during World War 2. It is a bunker about 10 metres below the surface. There are several exhibits and displays that illustrate the events leading up to the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942.
I took a trip out to the suburbs of Singapore to visit a place called the "Singapore Discovery Centre". I expected to see technical and commercial exhibits, but instead it turned out to be propaganda for the Singapore armed forces. Well, not exactly, but most displays were of a military nature, and they tried to get the point across that it was a necessary, good and patriotic (and even a bit of fun) to be in the army. There were several groups of school children visiting the centre when I was there. I know that all men in Singapore are conscripted into the military for a few years, so I guess the centre was just getting the little boys prepped for the experience.
Singapore does have a 'Chinatown', which is a bit funny since 77% of the country is Chinese. I would give it a pass if I were you because it is like how a Chinatown might look at Disney World. It is nothing like Chinatown in Bangkok or what you would find in large North American cities. Ditto for the Muslim and Indian areas of town. If you are looking for a more authentic Chinatown experience, check out Bugis Village (just west of the Bugis MRT station). I was actually surprised to find fake Rolex watches openly for sale there; I had assumed that all forms of counterfeiting were vigorously suppressed in Singapore.
Singapore is said to be a shopper's paradise. I did not buy very much myself, but it is fun to visit Orchard Road and check out the all the shopping malls there. There is a mixture of swanky and downmarket stores there. The latter can be found at Lucky Plaza and Far East Plaza. If you look like a tourist, walk through the basement and you will get all kinds of solicitations from disreputable-looking vendors. It reminded me of the TST tourist area in Hong Kong with all the rip-off electronics joints
6) Sanuk in Singapore:
I did not actually partake in any pleasures of the flesh. Frankly, there is no point if you are staying in Thailand, where you can get it better and cheaper. Singapore men go to Thailand (and Malaysia and Indonesia) to get laid, not the other way around. However, if you are interested in having a peak under prim, proper and puritan Singapore society to see its seedy underworld of love for sale, surf over to Mr. Sam Leong's website at:
Sammy has all the information a sexually frustrated Singapore man would ever need to know, including how not to get found out by the Missus. Moreover, he makes some commentary on Singapore society in general. I wonder if this site serves as a bit of a safety valve for the country? For all their wealth, I don't think a lot of Singapore people are contented with their lives.
If you just want a quick run down of the commercial sex scene, see:
And for an account of the despicable hatchet job that a local tabloid did on poor Sammy, see:
As mentioned above, I stayed in the Geylang area, which is a legal red-light district (check out Sammy's site for more details). Even if you don't want to misbehave, it is still worth a visit at night. Most of the working girls are indoors, but you will find some soliciting outside. If you are a Caucasian male travelling alone, you will certainly get offers, but they are low-key and not at all aggressive. Note that it is illegal for the hookers to work the streets, but police enforcement does not appear to be all that strict. What is most interesting is to see all the men hanging around outside. Some are Malays who live in the area, but others are punters, walking around and checking out the merchandise. There are several outdoor restaurants in the area, so you can sit down and have a meal or a drink while you watch all the action around you.
This may not be every man's idea of sanuk, but I wanted to compare the girl-watching situation of Bangkok vs. Singapore. The girls of Singapore are somewhat more provocatively clothed then their Bangkok sisters – you see plenty of bared midriffs around. However, they are also more well-nourished; a consequence of being a richer country. The newspapers of full of ads for weight-reduction products. I would say on the whole that Thai ladies are better looking, unless you have a bias towards fair skin. One thing I noticed about Singapore women is that a lot of them use a heavily padded bra. It was really obvious when they wear it under a tight-fitting shirt or blouse. I guess they are insecure about their breast size?
I had a quick look at Orchard Towers, the infamous "four floors of whores". It is a bit tame by Bangkok standards, but still worth a look. If you miss Thai ladies, you will find lots of them working there. The fleet must have been in during my visit, because I saw a lot of U.S. Navy sailors on shore leave hanging around the area, doing the same thing they do in Pattaya, only their greenbacks don't go as far here.
– The drivers here are much less aggressive than in Bangkok and other Asian countries I have visited. It was a pleasant surprise to cross the road and have all vehicles making a turn either stop an wait for me, or at least slow down and give me a wide berth as they completed the turn.
– I am a geek, so Internet access is a moderately important issue to me. There are not so many Internet cafes around, probably because most Singaporeans can surf the web at home, in school or in the office. You can expect to pay about $3.00 for 30 minutes at these places. As an alternative, you can visit the National Library Multimedia Centre and use their facilities – they charge $2.00 per hour, and offer quite a fast connection.
– The population of the country consists of Chinese, Malays, Indians and some farang expats. The vast majority are Chinese. In fact, I consider it a "Chinese country" (I regard Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as the other "Chinese countries" even thought all 3 are technically the same nation). Most Singapore-Chinese speak the Mandarin dialect when talking to each other. All Singaporeans speak good to fluent English.
– If any of you LOS expats are thinking of making a visa run to Singapore, take note that the embassy there only issues single-entry visas. It's strictly a routine procedure – bring in your passport and a photo, fill in the form, pay the fee, come in the next day to pick the visa. There is hardly any queue, and very polite and efficient service.
8) Comment on Singapore Society:
This section is highly opinionated, rather than factual as the other sections above. I think that Singapore is quite a unique country in the world, unlike any other place I have ever visited.
As many of you may know, Singapore only pretends to be a democracy; it is a de facto single-party dictatorship in much the same manner as found in communist countries. However, they are right-wing in how they run their economy, and one cannot argue with the astounding economic success that they have achieved in a generation. I would also have to say that the bureaucracy is unusually competent. Things work in Singapore, people are generally polite, law-abiding, and care about doing things the right way. Corruption seems to be rare or non-existent.
I will confess at this point that I have a streak of fascism in my soul, and I appreciate what an orderly society that Singapore has created. I think of all the times I have seen behaviour that offends me; people being inconsiderate, asshole drivers, disrespectful youths, etc. I say to myself "there ought to be a law …". Well, in Singapore, there probably is a law.
But this is a gut reaction. My intellect and experience tells me that there can be very nasty side-effect in an undemocratic, fascist society. Perhaps Singapore is fortunate that they presently have leadership who have their heads screwed on right, but can they trust in their luck forever? My knowledge of world history tells me they cannot. I think about the other countries in South-East Asia that have been moving slowly to truly democratic forms of government. These places are not as affluent as Singapore yet, but they are building a structure, a framework for government that is ultimately more stable. The citizens in these countries are participating in the political process and developing the expectation that government is accountable to them. This is absent in Singapore today, and as long as it remains absent, I have some doubts about the long term viability of the country.
You can tell a lot about a country by reading the local newspapers. The 'Straits Times' is the main daily in Singapore. It is OK but not quite up to the standards of a top-line paper in the Western World. Where it is really lacking is in editorial content. Needless to say, there is no criticism of the government because the editors want to keep their butts out of jail. I find this to be a major failing because all governments screw up, and the most important job a newspaper is to tell us about it – how else are we going to keep the politicians and bureaucrats in line?
The other local daily, 'The New Paper' is a tabloid that always seems to have enticing headlines which appeal to the baser instincts of humanity. This is the paper that did an 'expose' of Sammy's website (referred to earlier); another time they did a story on how Geylang was being overrun with hookers from Mainland China. Even by the standards of Western Tabloids, it is a joke. I think Singapore is short on scandal-worthy news, so they need to make up stuff or blow it way out of proportion.
There are rules and laws that would be arbitrary in a more free society. For example, take the Internet / computer game centres which are typical hangouts for children. In Bangkok, you will see these places filled with kids (mostly boys) in school uniform taking a break from their studies by cheerfully blowing away everything that moves on the screen in front of them. But you won't see this in Singapore, because kids in school uniforms are not allowed in these places. Moreover, no school-aged children are allowed in on a school day between 7:00 AM and 6:00 PM, whatever they are wearing.
Another example, one that I got off of Sammy's site: as a sexual act in their own right, blowjobs are illegal. However, there was a ruling by the Supreme court that blowjobs were legal provided they were a part of foreplay. So, imagine you are in a hotel in Singapore and your significant other is on her knees, giving you some oral satisfaction. Suddenly, the police burst in to your room, ready to arrest and book you. But you don't want to spend time in a foreign jail, so you quickly drag the lady onto the bed, lay her on her back, and starting making love to here in a very conventional missionary position. The cops, seeing that you are indeed a law-abiding chap and not some criminal sex pervert, wish you a pleasant time and take their leave.
There are lots of signs around everywhere, encouraging people to behave properly. Some of them seem a bit unnecessary. In the toilets, there are signs telling people to flush the toilet after use, dry their hands after washing them (so that you don't drip water on the floor and make it slippery), keep to the left if you are standing still on the escalator and make room so people can pass you on the right.
As mentioned earlier, most Singaporeans are Chinese, they run things, and I get a very strong feeling that they want to keep it that way. To her credit, Singapore does go far to trying to create and maintain racial harmony, but the ruling elite want to be sure that the Chinese continue to be the majority. No doubt they feel threatened because they see themselves as about 3 million ethnic Chinese surrounded by a few hundred million Malay and Indonesian Muslims. The government even goes so far as to encourage educated Chinese to have more babies.
You may love it or hate it, but Singapore is probably unique in the world, and is well worth at short visit if you are living in the area.
Agree with most of what you say except for the bit about Singaporean girls. In my eyes, they kick the Thai girls asses well and truly.