Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has grown leaps and bounds at 9% per year. It is now the second largest Asian economy by per capita GDP. The island lies at the southern tip of Malaysia and is super crowded with over 5 million people (1.4 million are non-resident foreigners). This makes Singapore the second most densely populated independent country in the world. The population is multicultural with 74% Chinese, 13% Malay and 9% Indian. English is the national language, although we heard Chinese more often. This diversity infused with a work hard, live healthy lifestyle creates a tremendous energy and buzz. Whether its shopping, exercising, talking technology or constantly eating… Singapore offers an ultra modern version of our New York City.
History & Economy
In their ongoing quest to control trade…. the Portuguese, Dutch and British maneuvered for position throughout the Malay archipelago. Malacca and Singapore were coveted for their strategic ports between Indian and Chinese trade. Opium and spices were the sought after trade commodities. In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles brokered a treaty allowing the British a port in Singapore. There were only 1,000 inhabitants at this time, mostly Malay. Chinese and Indian immigrants then moved in to work the rubber plantations and tin mines. This is how the current demographic landscape emerged.
As Singapore has seen tremendous growth, so has the cost of living. Singapore is now the 9th most expensive city in the world. It costs 46% more than New York to live there. We frequently wondered how locals live with such high costs. For example, soda costs $3-4 in the restaurant. Apparently, the rewards of economic growth are not distributed equally among Singaporeans due to the open-door immigration policies of their government. This allows the rapid influx of cheaper foreign workers, which artificially boosts the nation’s GDP growth. At the same time, wages for locals are depressed.
As mentioned, restaurant dining is super expensive. For example, we walked atop the Esplanade across from Marina Bay Sands Casino. Orgo Bar & Restaurant charged $20 per mojito and $8 per sparkling water. We could have spent similar at the famous Raffles Hotel or Arab Street drinking Singapore slings!
Singaporeans are constantly eating and enjoying life outdoors. A great alternative to restaurants are several hawker style eating centers. The Maxwell Road Food Centre has over 100 stalls, providing one of the biggest varieties of local food in Singapore. It is located in Chinatown near the touristy Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum. We found vegetarian surprisingly difficult to locate outside of Little India and Chinatown. A delicious local treat called “Kaya Toast” satisfied our sweet cravings for protein many evenings. The toast is prepared several ways typically with egg spread, sugar and coconut. We enjoyed the peanut butter rendition as well.
The government is super strict creating a law abiding society with confused visitors. We found a site that perfectly summarizes Singapore’s weird laws. These include laws for littering, nudity, toilet flushing and gum chewing. Brett took a funny picture of toilet flushing instructions in the men’s bathroom one day. A friend explained to us that prostitution is technically legal, but solicitation is not tolerated in public. The red light district is called “Geylang” where one can get away with sexual activity, but within precise boundaries. We were told to watch out for Bangladeshi workers who are horny come Sunday and frequent Geylang. Very strange to allow prostitution, but disallow chewing gum?
Hands down, AirBNB is the way to go in Singapore. We paid like $40/night instead of $100+ for a hotel outside the city center. Our apartment share was located close to the airport at Pasir Ris. The area is conveniently close to the Pasir Ris rail stop and about 45 minutes from downtown. 80% of the real estate in Singapore is government built and managed. We stayed in a huge apartment complex not much different than housing projects you’d see in the states. The elevators had only three buttons for the 1st, 6th and 10th floors. We stayed on the 4th floor and had to walk down two flights each trip home. Our hosts were a nice entrepreneurial young couple Roxanne and Leo… renting out two separate rooms within their home. Government influence was apparent throughout the city with signage for everything. Our hosts had instructions posted for things like how to work the fan and things to do around town. Their place was immaculate beyond your wildest imaginations. This is Singapore.
Health & Nature
Singaporean government has done a good job carving out national parks and recreation centers. They realized the work hard environment must include healthy living options. We walked a few hours through a Mangrove forest in a section of Pasir Ris Park with all varieties of crab burrowing in the roots. We also rented bikes and road 20km throughout the East Coast. This was a highlight of our time in Singapore because we found the natural beauty one can imagine from long ago before industrialization. The Pasir Ris recreation center offered a nice gym that you can visit for just a few bucks per day. The ticket office downstairs sells passes for the gym and also the olympic size swimming pool and water park in the back. A funny thing happened while working out. You must have and use a towel while working out. So, we held fake towel (aka our shorts and sarang) to get us by. The gym supervisor kept staring us down and eventually approached us. He warned us about using a real towel and said, “he’d allow us this one time”. This was just one of many anal-retentive rules in Singapore.
Our original purpose for visiting Singapore was for business networking. Singapore is the technology hub for all of Southeast Asia. Regarding advertising, budget flows through the ad agencies housed along Clarke Quay. Brett spent time with several former partners and clients during the day. We had dinner at a friend’s home on the East Coast with his entire family. Our home cooked Thai meal was the best we’d had in weeks. It was a much needed break from the downtown hustle. The moral of the story is that we were pleasantly surprised with Singapore’s array of activities outside of work life. It is an interesting place to explore Southeast Asia if you can figure out how to ring in the dough!
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