Singapore is an island-state in Southeast Asia. Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, it joined Malaysia in 1963, but withdrew two years later and became independent. It subsequently became one of the world's most prosperous countries, with strong international trading links (its port is one of the world's busiest) and with per capita GDP equal to that of the leading nations of Western Europe. While it arguably lacks a high-profile, high-impact attraction (think the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Burj al-Arab in Dubai), this is more of a bustling yet relatively relaxing place where you can have it pretty easy for your holiday, and at the same time experience some of the unique Asian flavours that this city-state has to offer.
Singapore is a small country on a small island, but with over 4 million people it's a fairly large city.
In the center Singapore's addressing system is fairly normal ("17 Orchard Rd" etc), but the new housing developments on the outskirts may appear more intimidating: a typical address might be "Blk 505 Jurong West St 51 #01-186". Here "Blk 505" is the housing block number (always prominently painted on the building), "Jurong West St 51" is the street name (yes, there are at least 50 other numbered Jurong West Streets), and "#01-186" means floor 1, unit, stall or shop 186. Street and block numbers do proceed in numerical order though, so tracking down the exact location after finding the general area isn't too hard usually. There are also 6-digit postal codes, which - considering the small size of the island - generally correspond a exactly one building. For example, "Blk 9 Bedok South Ave 2" is "Singapore 460009".
A very useful tool for hunting down addresses is the free online Singapore Street Directory. Taxis are obligated by law to carry a complete street directory with them. Searching for postal codes is made easy by Singapore Post.
Singapore is a microcosm of Asia, populated by Chinese, Malays, Indians and a large group of workers and expatriates from all across the globe. A famously authoritarian state with fines for unlikely things like not flushing toilets, Singapore has a partly deserved reputation for boredom, but "the Switzerland of Asia" is for many a welcome respite from the poverty, chaos and crime of much of the continent.
On the plus side, Singaporean food is legendary, with bustling hawker centres and 24-hour coffee shops offering cheap food from all parts of Asia, and shoppers can bust their baggage allowances in shopping meccas like Orchard Road and Suntec City. In recent years some societal restrictions have also loosened up, and now you can bungee jump and dance on bartops until 6 AM, although alcohol is very pricey and buying chewing gum still requires a doctor's prescription. Casinos will be opening up in about 2009 as part of Singapore's new Fun and Entertainment drive, the aim being to double to number of tourists visiting and increasing the length of time they stay. Watch out for more loosening up in the future.
Founded in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as a British trading post, this well-placed town at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca soon grew into one of Asia's busiest ports, drawing people from far and wide. Conquered by the Japanese in 1942, Singapore briefly joined Malaysia in 1963 when the British left, but was expelled because of social unrest and political differences. It became independent on 9 August 1965.
At only 135km (85 miles) north of the Equator, the weather is usually sunny with no distinct seasons. However, most rainfall occurs during the north-east monsoon (November to January). Showers are usually sudden and heavy but also brief and refreshing, although humidity is uncomfortably high at this time of year.
In recent years the weather patterns have changed, so the wet season can be shorter (mid-December to Mid-January). May to July can have heavier rain falls than other months. Spectacular thunder storms can occur throughout the year, normally in the afternoons. The advise would be to carry a umbrella at all times, either as a shade from the sun or cover from the rain.
The temperature averages around:
The year kicks off with a bang on January 1st and New Year, celebrated in Singapore just as in the West with a fireworks show and parties at every nightspot in town. Particularly famous are the wet and wild foam parties on the beaches of resort island Sentosa — at least those years when the authorities deign to permit such debauchery.
Still, thanks to the influence of the Chinese majority, the largest event by far is Chinese New Year (or, more politically correctly, Lunar New Year), usually held in February. The whole festival stretches out for no less than 42 days, but the frenzied buildup to the peak occurs just before the night of the new moon, with exhortations of gong xi fa cai (恭喜发财 "congratulations and prosper"), red tinsel, mandarin oranges and the year's zodiac animal emblazoned everywhere and crowds of shoppers queuing in Chinatown. The two following days are spent with family and most of the island comes to a standstill, and then life returns to normal... except for the final burst of Chingay, a colorful parade down Orchard Road held ten days later.
While not a public holiday, the Mid-Autumn Festival on the night of a full moon in September is also a major event, with elaborate lantern decorations — particularly in Jurong's Chinese Garden — and moon cakes filled with red bean paste, nuts and more consumed merrily.
If this isn't enough, you can take your pick from three more New Years. The Hindu New Year, Deepavali, is celebrated around November and Little India is brightly decorated for the occasion. The Islamic month of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr or Hari Raya Puasa as it is called here, is a major occasion in Malay parts of town (particularly Geylang Serai on the East Coast). The Buddhist Vesak Day, celebrating the birthday of the Buddha Sakyamuni, plus the Christian holidays of Christmas Day and Good Friday round out the list holidays.
A more secular manifestation of community spirit occurs on August 9th, National Day, when fluttering flags fill Singapore and an elaborate parade is held at the National Stadium.
Most nationalities do not require a visa in advance . Entry permits for 14-30 days are granted on arrival for free at all points of entry.
Note that Singapore has very strict drug laws. Drug trafficking carries a mandatory death penalty.
(In Singapore, death penalty cases are based on the presumption of GUILT! That means, if a traveller is found with drugs in his baggage, it'll be up to him to prove his innocence. Although most reported death sentences for drug trafficking appear to concern real traffickers, the possibility of innocent scapegoats being sentenced to death cannot be ruled out. So all travellers should take extra care to secure their baggage.)
Another note on customs in Singapore: duty free cigarettes are not allowed into the country. One opened packet is acceptable, but anything above that will be subjected to taxes. Foreigners can choose to pay the taxes or let the customs officers keep the cigarettes until the next departure. Locals have to choose between paying or letting the officers destroy the cigarettes. The procedure is carried out with the typical Singaporean efficiency and honesty. The cigarettes are cut and thrown into a bin in the presence of the traveller.
The easiest way to get into Singapore is by air. In addition to flagship carrier Singapore Airlines, legendary for its service, the island is now home to low-cost operators Jetstar Asia, Tiger Airways and Valuair.
Changi Airport (SIN) is the country's main airport and a significant Asian hub. The airport is big, nice and well-organised, and immigration and baggage distribution is remarkably fast. There are 2 terminals, with Singapore Airlines using Terminal 2 and most other airlines using Terminal 1; the two terminals are connected with a free train shuttle service (Skytrain). In transit at Changi, there are plenty of ways to kill time, including a movie theater (T2) and a swimming pool and gym (T1)! The airport also has some 200 free Internet PCs and free wireless internet.
You can rent a shower (without a room) to freshen up for S$ 8.40.
From the airport there are a number of ways to get into the city. Taxi (also known as cabs) is easiest and just outside the customs you will find signage leading to the taxi queue. Meters are always used in Singapore and prices are reasonable. A trip to the city will be about S$15.00 (including S$3-5 airport surcharge).
To save money you can also hop on the MRT (Singapore's subway) from Changi Airport Terminal 2, although you will have to cross the platform to a city-bound train at Tanah Merah. The 30 minute ride to City Hall station costs S$1.40 (plus a refundable $1 deposit for a single-trip ticket).
Berjaya Air's turboprop flights to the Malaysian islands of Redang and Tioman use Seletar Airport (XSP), not Changi. The only practical means of access to Seletar is taxi; trips from the airport incur a S$3 surcharge.
Another way in is by road from Johor Bahru in Malaysia. There are buses from Kuala Lumpur and other destinations in Malaysia through the Woodlands Checkpoint and the Second Link at Tuas. For buses across the Causeway, see the Johor Bahru article.
KTMB (Malayan Railways) runs a few trains daily from Kuala Lumpur, including one sleeper, and one sleeper daily along the "Jungle Line" from Kota Bharu in northeastern Malaysia. The trains are clean and efficient, but slower than buses (6-7 hours one-way).
Trains arrive at the railway station in Tanjong Pagar at the southern edge of the CBD, a bit of a hike from Tanjong Pagar MRT station. It is also possible to get off in Woodlands right after immigration.
Due to a quirk of pricing, trains to Singapore are only half price compared to trains from Singapore. You can get around this by boarding in Johor Bahru instead.
The other option is by boat, specifically from Bintan or Batam in Indonesia or Tioman Island in Malaysia. Most ferries arrive the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, connected to Bedok MRT station by bus 35, although some ferries to Batam and long-distance cruise ships use the Singapore Cruise Centre, next to HarbourFront MRT.
Getting around Singapore is effortless: the public transportation system is among the best in the world and taxis are cheap. Very few visitors rent cars.
If you are staying in Singapore for some time, a farecard called EZ-Link might be a worthwhile purchase. You can store value on it and use it to enter and exit the MRT and buses at a 15% discount. As of December 2004, the card costs S$15, including S$7 of stored value and a S$3 refundable deposit, and the card can be "topped up" in increments of at least S$10. Alternatively, the Visitors Card also includes EZ-Link functionality and a variety of discounts for attractions; prices start at S$40 for 3 days.
The MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) and LRT (Light Rail Transit) form Singapore's subway system and link various important places in Singapore. They are a cheap and very reliable mode of transportation. Buy single trip tickets at the station either at quite user-friendly automatic machines or from the cashier; single trip tickets cost from S$0.80 to S$2.00, plus a S$1.00 refundable deposit.
Buses connect various corners of Singapore. You can now use your MRT card for payment on most buses. You can pay cash in buses, but the fare stage system is quite complex (it's easiest to ask the driver for the price to your destination), you are charged marginally more and there is no provision for getting change.
Payment with the EZLink card is the easiest method. But users should be aware of not getting overcharged. The systems works like this : the user taps his card against the reader at the entrance, and a maximum fare is deducted from the card; when the user alights, he should tap his card again at the exit, and the difference would be refunded.
There is practically no way to cheat as the driver make sures everyone taps on the reader upon entry.
Taxicabs here use meters and are reasonably priced and honest. You will not spend more than $5.00 to $8.00 Singapore dollars for a trip within the Central Business District.
Taxis charge S$2.40 flagfall, and this lasts you 1 km before increments of 10 cents per 200 m. Watch out for surprises though: there is a bewildering array of peak hour, holiday, road pricing, etc., surcharges, although most add only a dollar or two to your fare, and these are all clearly shown on the meter. After midnight a 50% surcharge applies. During rush hour in the CBD it's wise to call for a taxi: all of the taxicab operators provide a taxi-for-hire telephone number for customers. Telephone numbers to the taxi companies are: Comfort at 6552-1111, Tibs at 6555-8888, City Cab at 6552-2222, Smart at 6485-7700 and Trans cab at 6553-3333, Comfort, Tibs and City Cab are the largest companies with most cabs.
Trishaws, three-wheeled bicycle taxis, haunt the area around the Singapore River and Chinatown. Geared purely for tourists, they aren't really recommended for serious travel. Bargain before you get in, and expect to pay over S$10 even for the shortest ride.
Tourist-oriented bumboats cruise the Singapore River, offering nice views of the CBD skyscraper skyline. You can also take a ferry to Singapore's largely uninhabited and rarely visited southern islands, although the reason why they are not visited often is that there isn't actually much to see.
Grubbier versions of the same also shuttle passengers from Changi Village to Pulau Ubin, a small island off Singapore's northeast coast which is about as close as Singapore gets to unhurried rural living.
Car rental is not a popular option in Singapore. You will usually be looking at upwards for S$100 per day for the smallest vehicle, not including gas at around S$1.50/litre or electronic road pricing (ERP) fees, and you'll usually need to pay extra to drive to Malaysia. If planning on touring Malaysia by car, it makes more sense to head across the border to Johor Bahru, where both rentals and petrol are half price, and you have the option of dropping your car off elsewhere in the country.
Malay may be enshrined in the Constitution as the 'national' language, but in practice the most common language is English, spoken by almost every Singaporean under the age of 40. However, the distinctive local dialect Singlish may be hard to understand at times, as it incorporates slang words and phrases from other languages, including various Chinese dialects, Malay, and other assorted languages, such as Japanese and Tamil. It also incorporates slang from British and American English, and has a queer way of structuring sentences, due to the original speakers being mostly Chinese. Complex consonant clusters are simplified, plurals disappear, verb tenses are replaced by adverbs, questions are altered to fit the Chinese syntax and semirandom particles (especially the infamous "lah") appear: You wan' beer or not? No lah, drink five botol oreddi. Thanks to nationwide indoctrination campaigns most younger Singaporeans are, however, capable of speaking so-called "Good English" when necessary.
Sights in Singapore are covered in more detail under the various districts. Broadly speaking:
The Singaporean currency is the Singapore dollar, abbreviated SGD, S$ or just $. One dollar is divided into 100 cents. There are coins of $0.05 (gold), $0.10 (silver), $0.20 (silver), $0.50 (silver) and $1 (gold), plus bills of $2 (purple), $5 (green), $10 (red), $50 (blue), $100 (orange), $1000 (purple) and $10000 (gold). The Brunei dollar is at par with the Singapore dollar and the two currencies can be used interchangeably in both countries, so don't be too surprised if you get a Brunei note as change. As of July 2005 one USD is worth about 1.7 SGD.
Restaurants often display prices like $19.99++, which means that sales tax (5%) and service (10%) are not included and will be added to your bill. Hotels and fancy restaurants may note net rates as +++, where the third plus denotes 1% CESS (essentially a tourism tax), for a total surcharge of 16.55%.
Tipping is generally uncommon in Singapore and even taxis will usually return your change to the last cent, or even round in your favor if they can't be bothered to dig for change.
Singapore is expensive by Asian standards but cheap for visitors from most industrialized countries: S$50 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget. Food in particular is a steal, with excellent hawker food available for less than S$5 per generous serving. Accommodation is a little pricier, but a bed in a hostel can cost less than S$20 and the most luxurious hotels on the island (except maybe the Raffles) can be yours for S$200 with the right discounts.
Even Singaporeans admit that there are only two things to do in Singapore: eat and shop. Go to Orchard Road, the biggest shopping street, and enjoy lots of shopping centers with brand names and high prices; alternatively, head down to Bugis to find out where Singapore's teens spend their money. For a better deal and a different experience try to go to Little India or Chinatown where you can find more local materials and better prices. Or, sometimes, more foreign materials with worse prices. Tourist areas typically have shops that are prepared for tourists.
Thanks to low taxes and tariffs, electronics are very competitively priced in Singapore. It is generally wise to avoid the tourist-oriented shops on Orchard Road (particularly the notorious Lucky Plaza) and head instead to Funan or Mustafa, where you can get competitive prices with little hassle or chance of getting ripped off. Computing fans will also want to check out Sim Lim Square. For any purchases, remember that Singapore uses 220V voltage with a British-style three-pin plug.
Unlike most South-East Asian countries, pirated goods are not openly on sale and importing them to the city-state carries heavy fines. Fake goods are nevertheless not difficult to find in Little India or even in the underpasses of Orchard Road.
Singapore is a melting pot of cuisines from around the world, and many Singaporeans are obsessive gourmands who love to makan (eat in Malay). You will find quality Chinese, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Italian, French, American and other food in this city-state. See Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine for an overview and menu reader.
The following dishes have become national icons and should be on every traveller's agenda:
To order, first chope (reserve) a table by parking a friend, your bag or just a packet of tissues on it, note the table's number, then place your order at your stall of choice. They'll deliver to your table, and you pay when you get the food. Note that some stalls (particularly very popular ones) have signs stating "self-service", meaning that you're expected to get your food yourself — but if it's quiet or you're sitting nearby they'll usually deliver anyway.
Every district in Singapore has its own hawker centres and prices decrease noticeably as you move out into the boonies. For tourists, centrally located Newton Circus (near Orchard) and Lau Pa Sat, both in the CBD are the most popular options — but this does not make them the cheapest or the tastiest. Still, a visit to a hawker centre is a must when in Singapore. For up-to-the-minute information on the best hawker food in town, check out the Makansutra website.
Despite the name, coffee shops or kopitiam sell much more than coffee — they are effectively mini-hawker centres with perhaps only half a dozen stalls (one of which will, however, sell coffee and other drinks). The Singaporean equivalent of pubs, this is where folks come for the canonical Singaporean breakfast of kopi (strong, sugary coffee), some kaya (egg-coconut jam) toast and runny eggs, and this is also where they come to down a beer or two and chat away in the evenings.
The usual Starbucks and other local cafe chains such as Coffee City can be found in the CBD but an iced coffee or tea can put you back S$4, whereas a teh tarik or kopi coffee (try it flavored with ginger) runs closer to $1 at any hawker center.
Found in the basement or top floor of nearly every shopping mall, food courts are the gentrified, air-conditioned version of hawker centres. The food is much the same but prices are on average S$1-2 higher.
Singapore offers a wide variety of full-service restaurants as well, catering to every taste and budget. Being a maritime city one common specialty is seafood restaurants, offering Chinese-influenced Singaporean classics like chilli crabs. These are much more fun to go to in a group, but be careful what you order: gourmet items like Sri Lankan giant crab or shark's fin can easily push your bill up to hundreds of dollars. The best-known seafood spots are clustered on the East Coast.
Singapore is an easy place to eat for almost everybody. Many Indians and not a few Chinese Buddhists are strictly vegetarian, so every Indian stall will have a number of veggie options and most hawker centres will have a Chinese vegetarian stall or two, often serving up amazing meat imitations made from gluten. Muslims should look out for the crescent-and-star logo ☪ that certifies the food as halal; this is found on practically every Malay stall and many Indian Muslim operations too, but more rarely on outlets run by the pork-loving Chinese.
Singapore's nightlife isn't quite a match for Patpong, but it's no slouch either! Some clubs have 24-hour licenses and few places close before 4 AM. Any artists touring Asia are pretty much guaranteed to stop in Singapore. Singapore's nightlife is largely concentrated in the CBD, mainly along Mohammed Sultan Road and the Singapore River.
Alcohol is widely available but quite expensive due to Singapore's heavy sin taxes, although prices have come down slightly recently and you can now sit in a hawker centre and enjoy a large bottle of beer of your choice for less than $6 (and the local colour comes thrown in for free). Tax-free at Changi Airport, on the other hand, has some of the best prices in the world; you can bring in up to one liter each of liquor, wine and beer. Meanwhile, careful shopping at major supermarkets will throw up common basic New World (read: Oz) wine labels on special prices in the mid to late teens. Drinks in any hotel bar or restaurant however remain extortionate, starting at $10 a pop. One tip, most Chinese restaurants outside of hotels charge either no or nominal corkage, same for hawker centres, so feel free to BYO though you will need to bring your own Pocket Screwpull and glass or plasticware.
As in Malaysia, the tipple of choice in Singapore is Tiger Beer, a rather bland lager. Tourists flock to the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel to sample the original Singapore Sling, a sickly sweet pink mix of pineapple juice, gin and more, but locals (almost) never touch the stuff.
Tobacco is heavily taxed, and you are not allowed to bring more than 2 packs (not cartons, single packs!) of cigarettes into the country. This is particularly strictly enforced on the land borders with Malaysia. A lot of public places have restrictions on smoking, and it is prohibited in public transport as well.
Prostitution is tolerated in 6 designated districts, including Geylang, which — not coincidentally — also offers some of the cheapest lodging in the city. The industry maintains a low profile (no go-go bars here) and is not a tourist attraction by any stretch of the word. Please practice safe sex.
Accommodation in Singapore is expensive by South-East Asian standards, although a recent government push for more hostels and low-priced hotels may alleviate the situation a little.
Mid-range hotels are clustered in the Geylang district, where they service mostly the type of customer who pays by the hour. Hotels under S$100 are rarely more than functional, but some hotels in the S$100-$150 range can be pretty good value.
Singapore has a wide selection of luxury accommodation, including the famed Raffles Hotel. You will generally be looking at upwards of S$200 for a room in a five-star hotel, see listings in the CBD article.
You must have a work permit or employment pass to work in Singapore. The company you are working for usually applies on your behalf. If you have the right skills then getting a job in Singapore is straight forward enough. However, when the employment is terminated you will get a visitors visa (employment rights are revoked) which allows you to stay for no longer than 14 days. You can look for another job during this time, but don't overstay your visa, and do not think about working without the right papers, this will result in a short stay in the local prison with added fines and eventual deportation.
For more information view the MoM website.
As major international cities go, Singapore is one of the safest in terms of crime and personal safety.
Note that there is strict enforcement of rules against activities that are tolerated in other countries. For example, jay-walking, spitting, littering and drinking and eating in public transport are prohibited, and locals joke about Singapore being a fine city since heavy fines are levied if caught. Look around for sign boards detailing the Don'ts, Dos and the fine associated with these offences, and heed them. Chewing gum, famously long banned, is now available at pharmacies if you ask for it directly, show your ID and sign the register, and you can also bring "personal use" quantities into the country.
Whilst the T-shirts sport the slogan Singapore is a Fine City, police are not hiding around every corner ready to jump out and plaster you with tickets. Fines are there as a preventive measure and for the most part they work and mean that Singapore is a very safe and clean place to be.
Tap water is safe for drinking and sanitation standards are very high. As a tropical country, Singapore is hot and humid so drink a lot of water. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Singapore was way back in 1934, when it hit a low of 19.4 degree Centigrade.
Malaria is not an issue, but dengue fever is endemic to the region. Singapore maintains strict mosquito control (leaving standing water around will get you fined), but the government's reach does not extend into the island's nature reserves, so if you're planning on hiking bring along some mosquito repellent.
Singaporeans don't go much for formal politesse and what would be decent behavior at home (wherever home might be) is unlikely to offend anyone in Singapore either. In Singapore, unlike much of South-East Asia, women wearing revealing clothing or men wearing shorts is perfectly acceptable, although both are naturally frowned upon in more formal settings (including bars or restaurants with dress codes).
When it comes to getting on/off the MRT be prepared for a lot of pushing (even just to get off), and everyone racing for the empty seat. This is normal, despite the signs asking people to be a little more courteous. Just go with the flow.
The local dialect with its heavy Chinese influences may appear brusque or even rude to the native English speaker, but "You want beer or not?" is in fact more polite in Chinese -- after all, the person asking you the question is offering you a choice, not making a demand!
Public phones can be found all across the island. They are either coin-operated pay phones (10 cents for a 3-minute call), card phones operated by phone cards in denominations of $3, $5, $10, $20 and $50, or credit card phones. Phone cards are available at all post offices and from phonecard agents. Most coin-operated pay phones are for local calls only, there are some which accept coins of larger denominations and can be used for overseas calls. Credit card phones are usually found at the airport or in some major hotels.
International dialing To make an IDD call from Singapore, dial the access code 001 (for SingTel), 002 (for M1), and 008 (for StarHub), followed by the country code, area code and party's number. Recently the providers have started offering cheaper rates for calls using Internet telephony routes. The access codes for this cheaper service are 019 and 013 (budget calls) for Singtel and 018 for Starhub.
Calling cards are also available for specific international destinations and are usually cheaper. Hello Card from Singtel offers a very cheap rate to 8 countries (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand).
Mobile phones are carried by almost everyone in Singapore (including some young children!). Prepaid SIM cards are available from the three main telecommunication providers, just bring your own GSM 900 or GSM 1800 phone (or buy a cheap used phone in Singapore). The pre-paid SIM card cost around $10-20. A local phone call costs between 5-25 cents per minute, while each local text message (SMS) costs about 5 cents (international SMS cost about 15-25cents). Details can be found at the 3 telecommunications providers' website listed above.
Embassies, high commissions and consulates