Singapore is a prosperous city-state located just off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. With the exception of its occupation by Japan during World War Two, Singapore was under British sovereignty from 1824 until independence was declared in 1963. After a brief union with Malaysia ended in 1965, the country became an independent Commonwealth nation. Consisting of one main island and around 60 outlying islands, the whole country is just a few hundred square kilometres in area. However, its strategic location for shipping made it a commercial hub during the colonial era and Singapore remains a leading financial centre even today.
A popular destination for British expats as early as the 1920s, Singapore has a historically transient society. Following independence from Britain, the country welcomed large numbers of migrant workers from China, India and Malaysia, adding to the already diverse community. Despite this apparent lack of a single cultural identity, racial and religious harmony is valued highly in Singapore, and major festivals of several religions are celebrated nationally. Generally conservative in nature, modern Singapore has a reputation for being something of a nanny-state, with laws including a ban on chewing gum!
If you ask a Singaporean what the national pastimes are, you will most likely get the answer ‘eating and shopping’. Although this cliché is something of a joke, Singapore certainly boasts a thriving restaurant scene and bustling shopping precincts. However, Singapore has excellent facilities for sport and recreation, and the warm climate means outdoor activities and watersports are popular all year round. The main island is home to several sailing clubs, while golf, badminton, table tennis and shooting are also common. For more information about activities in Singapore, visit the YourSingapore website.
Food and drink
Most Singaporeans, as well as several outsiders, regard Singapore as Asia’s food capital. Dining out is a popular pastime and many celebrity chefs have restaurants in the country. All of the major cultural influences are well-represented on the culinary scene, so expect to find Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and European foods on offer, with vegetarian and halal options also readily available. Sweet teas and coffees are among the most popular drinks. Be aware that alcohol can be very expensive in Singapore.
Singapore has four official languages – English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin Chinese. Of these, Mandarin is the most used as a first language as it is spoken by around half the households in the country, but English is the main language in schools and is widely used in business dealings. It is estimated that at least eight out of ten people in Singapore have at least some understanding of English.
Located almost exactly on the equator, Singapore has remarkably stable weather with no major seasonal changes. The average temperature is 23°C (73°F), with highs of around 32°C (90°F). However, as a tropical rainforest climate, the country does see significant rainfall and humidity is frequently between 90% and 100% in the mornings. Singapore has two monsoon seasons, from December to March and June to September.
Safety and security
Singapore has a strict judicial system which serves as an effective deterrent against violent crime. For minor offences, spot fines are enforced so it pays to be aware of local laws and customs. Foreign nationals should be aware of the risk of petty crime, but generally Singapore is a safe place to be. As a leading international centre of commerce, the country does attract fraudsters so be alert to the possibility of financial fraud and scams.
The education system in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education, which controls state schools and supervises the development of private schools. Private and international schools are regulated by the Council for Private Education. All children must attend six years of compulsory education at primary school between the ages of 7 and 12. Classes are taught in English, although most children are also required to learn a ‘mother tongue’ such as Malay, Tamil or Mandarin. After primary school children may enter different types of secondary school for four or five years depending on the type of studies, then go on to post-secondary and higher education.
Term dates for most schools in Singapore are set centrally by the Ministry of Education. State schools follow a two-semester structure, with the academic year running from January to November. Many private institutions also stick to this system, but some international schools may take their term dates from their parent country’s education system instead. Extracurricular activities are heavily encouraged and in secondary school all children must take at least one, so the school day is usually structured to accommodate this.
Although there are only a small number of autonomous public universities in Singapore, the number is growing as the government continues to invest in education. There are also large numbers of private universities and international campuses of foreign universities based in Singapore. Admission to university usually requires a minimum of 12 years of full-time education and a Singaporean High School Diploma or equivalent qualification. Other options for post-secondary education in Singapore include polytechnics, junior colleges and the Institute of Technical Education.
Almost all students in Singapore have to pay tuition fees at some level, but the costs for foreign students are significantly higher than those charged to Singaporean citizens and permanent residents. Some publicly-funded universities offer reduced fees to selected applicants, but not all institutions will make such offers to international students. Private universities are usually more expensive but also have more flexibility to support foreigners wishing to study there. There are several scholarships for to university students too, but again many are not available to foreign nationals.
Universities in Singapore offer a complete range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Undergraduate degrees typically last three or four years while postgraduate degrees range from a single year of studies through to five or six years. Although courses cover a large spectrum of subject areas, there is a strong emphasis on economic value in education planning in Singapore, so there tend to be more options on offer for science and business-orientated courses.
While the older universities in Singapore are better established for research, there are more opportunities developing as the government continues to grow the higher education sector. For information about current research and potential grants, contact the National Research Foundation.
Primary and secondary education
Schools in Singapore are characterised by streaming and frequent assessments, but standards of education are considered very high. Although the state school system is not free, fees are heavily subsidised by the government for Singaporean children and permanent residents. Unlike some countries in the surrounding region, Singapore’s state schools do allow the children of foreign nationals to attend, but the cost of tuition is much higher and the application process can be complicated.
Preschool and childcare options
Although not compulsory, preschool education is considered increasingly important in Singapore, and the Ministry of Education has created a Nurturing Early Learners (NEL) curriculum to supplement the central education system. As well as the new Early Childhood Development Agency, several kindergartens have been created as part of the scheme, but they are currently only accessible to citizens and permanent residents. There are plenty of private preschool and childcare options in Singapore though, most of which are willing to accept the children of foreign nationals.
By reputation, the cost of living in Singapore is much higher than in many Asian countries, and the city-state regularly features in the list of most expensive cities to live in. With land at a premium, accommodation is particularly expensive compared to neighbouring Malaysia. The priciest places to live are in the Central Area, however there are some cheaper regions where larger or more affordable properties can be found. The costs of education and running a vehicle can also be high for expats, but the day-to-day shopping may be less expensive than you first anticipate.
The cost of accommodation in Singapore depends largely on the type of property and its location. Many expats choose to live in private condos because of the attached amenities, although these are usually more expensive to rent or buy than regular apartments. The cheapest housing available in Singapore is usually Housing and Development Board (HDB) property, but access to this scheme is restricted for foreign nationals so most properties of this type are occupied by Singaporeans.
Similarly, there are restrictions on foreigners purchasing property in Singapore, although these were relaxed in 2005. Non-Singaporeans can now purchase apartments or condos with few obstacles, but must still seek permission from the Singapore Land Authority to buy land or most types of detached housing.
In Singapore there are several upfront costs associated with renting a property. The security deposit can be up to three months’ rent, while a ‘good faith’ fee is also payable, although this may become the first monthly rental payment after completion of the let. Tenants are also liable for stamp fees on a property.
Local and town councils usually charge Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC) to cover the cost of amenities in the area. Rates vary across the country and also depend on property type and the residency status of the occupiers. Contact your local council for further details.
Water supply in Singapore is regulated by the Public Utility Board (PUB), but billing is managed through Singapore Power (SP), which is the main provider for all other utilities in Singapore. This means that most of your utilities can be set up and managed through a single online application. Be aware that connection charges may apply and you will also need to pay a deposit, which varies according to the size of the property. For internet and telephone services, there is slightly more choice, so shop around for the best prices through providers like SingTel, StarHub and M1.
The television licence was abolished in Singapore in 2011 and the public broadcaster MediaCorp provides a range of free-to-air channels, although paid cable and satellite TV services are also popular.
Healthcare and medical costs
Singapore has an excellent standard of medical care, although very few services are offered free of charge. Instead the system is funded by insurance, with Singaporean citizens and permanent residents paying their share through their Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions. Non-resident foreign nationals are often insured privately by their employer, but if not then it is advisable to take out a private health insurance scheme as although the costs of care are comparatively low, medical bills can mount up very quickly.
As a self-confessed nation of shoppers, you will find no shortage of places to purchase essentials, while less essential items can also be bought at the impressive array of malls and shopping destinations around Singapore. For grocery bargains, try your local ‘wet market’ for fresh meat, fish and vegetables at very reasonable prices – you’ll need to get up early in the morning for the best choice though!
Goods and Services Tax (GST) is a value-added tax charged on the majority of goods and services in Singapore. For more information on GST, including rates and exemptions, visit the Inland Revenue Authority website.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – SG$3,278.18 (≈£1,562.96) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – SG$2,124.59 (≈£1,012.95) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – SG$19,945.77 (≈£9,509.67) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – SG$11,392.78 (≈£5,431.81) per square metre
Singapore has a modern road network which is linked to Malaysia via the Johor-Singapore Causeway. To cut congestion, Singapore has a toll system called the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) scheme, which charges motorists for access to busier areas. The system uses a unit inside the vehicle to register charges, and it is illegal for vehicles not to be equipped with one. Short-term visitors to Singapore may drive on a foreign driving licence provided that they have an English language copy, but anyone entering the country on a pass or intending staying for more than 12 months must convert to a Singaporean licence, usually by passing a theory test.
In a nod to its British colonial past, vehicles in Singapore are driven on the left and most road signs are in English. Drivers must be aged 18 or over, and all vehicles must be taxed and insured to be road legal. It is important to note that seatbelts are compulsory for everyone in a vehicle and headlights must be switched on between the hours of 7pm and 7am. For more information on driving in Singapore, visit the Land Transport Authority website.
Taxis are readily available across Singapore, with over 26,000 vehicles run by a variety of operators. Most are metered and the fares are relatively inexpensive, although buses and other forms of public transport are usually cheaper. Although you can usually either book or hail a taxi, there are some restrictions preventing pickups on major bus routes.
A modern, air-conditioned bus fleet provides a cheap and efficient way of travelling in Singapore. Routes are operated by SBS Transit and SMRT Corporation, and you can plan your journey and calculate the correct fare using the TransitLink Bus eGuide.
Singapore has two major national railway systems: Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT). Services are operated by SBS Transit and SMRT Corporation, and a map of both systems is available through the PublicTransport@SG website along with a fare calculator. Rail services to Malaysia are also available via the Johor-Singapore Causeway, and a monorail service called the Sentosa Express provides a link to the southern resort island of Sentosa.
Despite the country’s small size, Singapore is home to one of the busiest airports in the world. The impressively modern-looking Changi International Airport actually opened in 1981, but has been continually developed since to remain a key facility for flights across Asia. Over 50 million passengers pass through the airport each year en route to destinations in over 60 countries. The national carrier, Singapore Airlines, is one of many airlines to operate out of Changi as its central hub. Domestic flights are largely unnecessary, but some private services do operate out of Changi and the smaller Seletar Airport.
Because of its convenient location and the country’s relative lack of natural resources, the Port of Singapore is among the world’s busiest in terms of shipping tonnage handled each year. Not so much a single port in the traditional sense as a collection of coastal shipping facilities, the Port of Singapore operates ferries to neighbouring islands as well as destinations in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Planning a journey
There are several season tickets and concessions available for both tourists and permanent residents in Singapore. For more information on getting around the main island, visit the TransitLink website.
The normal working hours in Singapore are Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, although some companies also work a half day on Saturdays. The majority of workers in Singapore are covered by the Employment Act, which sets a maximum number of contractual working hours of nine hours per day or 44 hours per week. Overtime is permitted but must be paid, and every employee is entitled to at least one day of complete rest each week.
In Singapore, statutory holiday entitlement is linked to length of service. Under the Employment Act, employees with over three months of service are entitled to annual leave. During your first year, the entitlement will be pro-rated according to a government-defined formula. At one year’s service, your minimum entitlement is seven days of leave, which rises by a day each year up to a maximum of 14 days for eight years of service. Sick leave and maternity leave are also paid, but some other forms of leave such as paternity or adoption leave may only be available to Singaporean citizens, unless covered by your employer.
Public holidays in Singapore reflect the country’s ethnic makeup, with major festivals from several cultures represented in the calendar. All employees who are covered by the Employment Act are entitled to 11 public holidays as paid leave. If an employer asks staff to work on a public holiday, they must either give a day off in lieu or pay an additional day’s wages to the employee or employees concerned.
Singapore has very low income tax rates, with the highest earners paying tax at around 20%. For foreign nationals, the rates paid depend on both earnings and tax status. Your residency status for tax purposes depends on the duration of your stay:
60 days or less – you are non-resident for tax purposes and employment income is exempt from tax
Between 61 and 182 days a year – you are non-resident for tax purposes and will be taxed at the higher of the progressive resident rates or 15%
183 days a year or more – you are resident for tax purposes and all your income will be taxed at progressive resident rates, although you may be entitled to claim tax relief
Retirement pensions and other social security schemes including healthcare and family benefits are paid for through the Central Provident Fund (CPF). The CPF is funded by a combination of employer and employee contributions. Contributions are mandatory for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents. Foreign workers who are employed in the country on an Employment Pass are not required to contribute but are not ordinarily able to access benefits as a result.
Although Singapore has guidelines for respecting the rights of disabled workers under the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, they are not legally binding. However, most companies are more than happy to make reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, so speak to your employer about your individual needs before accepting a position.
Singapore’s multiculturalism means that business dealings are influenced by Malay, Chinese and Indian values, as well as the many other cultures represented in the community. Singaporean businesses are generally hierarchical, although some international companies based in the country may have a flatter organisational structure. Although managers try to be egalitarian, senior figures command a lot of respect and so decisions are usually made at the top. However at boardroom level a consensus is usually required before progress can be made, so decisions take time.
As in many Asian countries, the concept of ‘face’ – effectively your personal honour and dignity – is very important in Singapore. Within the hierarchical culture, this means that employees rarely ask questions of their managers as this would imply that their superior had failed to explain effectively. Managers may spend time writing detailed instructions to ensure everyone knows what is required. Lower down the ranks, employees at the same sort of level will work together to reach a successful conclusion. Many smaller businesses in Singapore are run much like a family, with the eldest and wisest typically managing the group. In general, the best managers are regarded as those who can create a harmonious, collaborative environment.
Politeness is valued very highly in Singapore, so take a formal approach when you meet new people. Use titles and surnames unless invited to do otherwise. Many Singaporean people who have a lot of international business dealings will adopt a western name and invite you to use that. First impressions count for a lot in Singaporean culture, so always try to make a good one.
Business relationships with Singaporean contacts take time to develop. Always try to be patient, as rushing people into making business decisions may imply that you are out for short-term gains only and spoil your chances of building long-term relationships. Networking is important, and there are always several business events going on in Singapore.
Business clothing is an important part of making a good first impression, although the exact dress code will depend on the event. It is generally better to err on the side of formal, so long-sleeved shirts with ties and dark trousers are appropriate for men. Women usually wear smart trousers or skirts with a blouse or smart top.
A light handshake is the normal business greeting in Singapore, but be aware that this may vary for people from different cultural backgrounds. If you are not sure what the appropriate greeting will be, follow the lead of the eldest or most senior person in the room. Sometimes women in Singapore will be reluctant to shake hands with men, so if a woman crosses her hands in front of her body during greetings, do not offer your hand – the protocol is a slight shake of the head in acknowledgement.
Unlike some countries, such as neighbouring Malaysia, it is very important to be punctual in Singapore. Deadlines are taken quite seriously and nobody appreciates having their time wasted so always try to deliver on time.
Meetings in Singapore are typically quite well organised and structured, but the communication within them can be quite nuanced. People will typically save face rather than speak their minds, so you may need to read between the lines a little. Many Singaporeans will avoid confrontation and often won’t give a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer for fear of offending the person who asked the question. As a result negotiations can be quite slow, but it is important to remain calm and patient throughout. Be sure to take time to consider a question before answering it as rushing into an answer can be viewed as dismissive. Similarly, if you are offered a business card, take time to look at it before putting it away, as again moving too quickly can appear disrespectful.
Maintaining face is hugely important in Singapore, both for you and your contacts. Expressions and body language are therefore vital – you should make an effort to appear interested at all times and not dismiss anyone’s opinions or ideas out of hand.
Although Singapore has four official languages, English is the most commonly used in a business environment. Most people in Singapore speak English fluently and many are also proficient in Malay, Mandarin or Tamil too, so the language barrier is rarely an issue for business dealings.