What is Singapore like: A Local's Perspective
We speak to two locals for some unfiltered opinions about Singapore
· 8 min read
As you may know from Crazy Rich Asians, Singapore is known for many things - from its significantly higher costs and strict laws, to its iconic attractions and wide variety of food. But how much of those stereotypes and tropes about Singapore are really true, and how much of those are just there for the dramatic effect? As someone who might be interested in visiting Singapore, or maybe even have a planned upcoming trip to Singapore, you might want to find out what Singapore is really like. We speak to 2 Singaporeans in our team to get some insights - which might help you in your upcoming trip!
What to know about Singapore - let's hear from two locals
Lauren was born and bred in Singapore. Shern was born and grew up in Malaysia, but has been living and working in Singapore for the last 13 years.
Fair Warning: this represents just two highly unfiltered opinions of Singapore. Locals or other travelers may not agree with what’s said here, but you didn’t come here for a canned answer, did you?
As a quick introduction, how Singaporean are you?
Lauren: I pretty much stayed here all my life, and definitely identify as a Singaporean, so…I guess, I’m as Singaporean as Singaporean can get?
Shern: There’s no way for me to answer this question without setting someone in my circle of friends and family off but, at this point I am probably neither Malaysian nor Singaporean but rather some unholy combination of both. On the bright side I get to see the plus points of both!
What’s the best way to identify fellow Singaporeans among a sea of people?
Lauren: Someone in T-shirt (most probably from Uniqlo), shorts, and slippers. And definitely the way they speak – if you hear someone speak more than 2 languages in a single sentence, they’re very likely to be Singaporeans.
Shern: In the past I have identified Singaporeans outside their native habitat by hearing “Singlish”, yes. It’s our unique way of speaking that is pretty much impossible to miss. Also, I can’t deny that my wardrobe mainly consists of Uniqlo t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops.
What is the best way to get around Singapore?
Lauren: It’s very easy to get around on public transport. It’s probably more convenient to get around in a taxi or by driving, but definitely not a must.
Shern: Bus for the views, train for efficiency. Biking is also fun, Singapore has a really well-developed Park Connector Network (PCN). Also lots of bike rental options to just grab a bike from multiple points around the island. With 2 young kids however, I most often just…drive.
Where is the best area for tourists to stay in Singapore?
Lauren: Probably Bugis, City Hall, or Orchard, since these are the most central locations. It’s a bit expensive though. If you’re looking for somewhere that’s central-enough but not so expensive, consider Lavender or Kallang.
Shern: Hotels straddling Middle Road (a part of Bugis that also spills close to Dhoby Ghaut) would be central, close to MRTs, close to major tourist attractions along the Orchard Rd shopping belt, but also has a bit of its own character. For an equally central location with a very specific cultural bent, you could consider Chinatown. For a location that isn’t so accessible by public transport (by Singapore standards), a bit more expensive, but with a lot of bars - Robertson Quay. It goes without saying that all of these come with good food options within easy access.
Any safety tips for travelers to Singapore?
Lauren: Singapore’s generally very safe, and I don’t particularly have any safety tips to give. Probably just the normal safety precautions like being aware of your surroundings. Oh! But if you are going to a park where there are monkeys, keep your food in your bags! Keep your plastic bags too. The monkeys can get aggressive if they see you have food. I guess this counts as a safety tip?
Shern: Just adding that most parks don’t have the aggressive monkeys (my last such encounter was in MacRitchie Reservoir) but yes that’s a good tip. Singapore is famously safe enough that at restaurants / hawker centers, people commonly leave personal belongings unattended on tables as a way to “save” their seat while queuing up for food. Albeit these are typically low-value items like a packet of tissues, but I’ve seen door access cards, bags, umbrellas…
If you were a tourist in Singapore, you’d be spending money on…
Lauren: Universal Studios Singapore, River Wonders, a lot of food. But, a number of attractions in USS have been closed since COVID, so maybe not that anymore.
Shern: Food! I’m not a crab fan myself but chili crab should be tried at least once, probably? There’s “bak kut teh” which is basically pork rib soup, there’s the inevitable chicken rice. I’ll give a shout out to a food court in Orchard Gateway called EatAlley that only has 5 or 6 stalls but they are all very good (it’s technically Malaysian-style food but hey if you can have it in Singapore why not…). Other than food - I think trying the Sentosa Luge can be pretty fun if you’ve never done it before. I’d also recommend going on certain guided tours - there’s a really good one that covers Geylang (Singapore’s de facto red light district).
If you were a tourist in Singapore, you’ll probably never be at…
Lauren: Most museums - I’m just not really a museum person, though I might consider ArtScience Museum because their exhibits are usually interesting. And definitely not Birds Paradise. It’s nothing to do with the place, I just hate birds.
Shern: The Marina Bay Sands casino, Universal Studios or pretty much Sentosa itself, the cable car, Changi Jewel, the Orchard Rd shopping belt - all the usual stuff that gets recommended. But with kids, my opinion on everything above has totally flipped.
One sentence that are going to have Singaporeans up in arms:
Lauren: White carrot cake is better than black carrot cake. Also, West side best side!
Shern: This is going to have Malaysians up in arms instead - I like the Singapore-style BKT (pork rib soup) more than the Malaysian-style.
What is one thing you wished tourists to Singapore would stop doing?
Lauren: Hmm, tourists in Singapore don’t usually bother me, so nothing really. If there was really one thing, maybe stop going to Ya Kun, so the queues aren’t always so long when I need to get my coffee fix? Nah, I’m joking - you can’t really say you have been to Singapore without trying Ya Kun.
Shern: I forgot to mention kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs in my previous answer so yes, seconded! I really cannot think of anything tourists to Singapore should stop doing. Keep it up, tourists to Singapore!
What are the most common tropes about Singapore?
Lauren: Singapore isn’t a very welcoming place. We are just taught to mind our own business, and most of us have a RBF. But we’re mostly nice people, even if we might not look it.
Shern: That Singapore is sterile - too clean, too organized, no soul. I think there’s definitely an element of sour grapes in that, or at least it’s a real “first-world problem” to complain about being too safe and too efficient. I appreciate that about Singapore. But, I can’t deny that I wish we had more wild trails and less manicured gardens.
What is the best thing about Singapore?
Lauren: Changi Airport. No kidding, I love our airport. Also in general, I think it’s the fact that Singapore is really safe!
Shern: The Park Connector Network. Really kudos to NParks for getting that right. Of course, also the fact that things really are incredibly efficient here - things just work, the public transport system is amazing, etc.
What is the worst thing about Singapore?
Lauren: The pigeons that lurk around at the hawker centers / coffeeshops. Yes, I really don’t like these flying creatures.
Shern: The queues. You literally have to queue up for almost anything worth your time because if it’s worth your time, it’s popular, word gets out, we’re a highly dense little island, everything turns into a queue.
What would you tell someone who hasn’t been to Singapore?
Lauren: Singapore is the type of place where you’d either love or you’d find it really boring. I can’t decide that for you, so, come experience it for yourself. Night-life here is very limited though, if that is important to you.
Shern: I’d say Singapore is really good at importing popular trends really quickly and I don’t mean the obvious ones like bubble tea or escape rooms. I’m thinking of axe-throwing or rage rooms - which are particularly apt for our overworked labor force. So if there’s something novel you want to try, chances are, Singapore has it.
Connect with a local and find out what Singapore is really like
In recent years, there's an increased emphasis on authentic travel and sustainable travel. More and more, we see travelers seeking unique and different experiences when they travel - it's no longer simply about 'ticking off' a checklist of attractions. Of course, it's not that we completely miss out on the 'must-see's, but the emphasis is now perhaps more on actually being there and doing things, rather than simply just visiting and seeing. With the limited amount of time and money that we have, we also want to make sure that we make the most out of our travels.
Get genuine, honest opinions by speaking to locals - even if it’s not something you wanted to hear
Although there's a lot of material out there in the internet that can help you plan your travels, a vast majority of the information are rather generic. More often than not, the materials include a laundry list of places you should visit - and it's hard to find actual authentic opinions about a place.
Speaking to a local helps in identifying tourist traps that you might possibly want to avoid, and also learn about alternatives that are available. You also get to learn about hidden gems that you might otherwise not know about.
Learn how to not be that annoying tourist
With increasing efforts by many cities to reduce overtourism, perhaps one of the best ways that you can prepare for your travels would be to connect with a local at your destination. Instead of simply flocking to where everyone else is, by speaking to a local before your trip, you get to learn more about off-the-beaten-path gems and small, local businesses that you might otherwise not know about.
In addition, you'll get to learn more about what to take note of, how to behave, and what to definitely not do. For example, if you were visiting Korea, Japan, or Taiwan — these are places which are really big on recycling; and the last thing you'd want to do is to chuck all your trash in a recycling bin. Remember, you'll be visiting their cities, so you should go by their rules. Don't be that annoying tourist.
Enhance your travel experience
It can be stressful planning for a trip, or even being on a trip itself. By connecting to a local that you can speak to and knowing there's someone who is ready to help, it could help to alleviate your stress.
And in case you have common interests and can get along really well, you've potentially got yourself a new friend!
How you can speak with locals before your trip to Singapore?
From speaking to hosts of your accommodation to participating in discussions in forums, there are a number of ways that you can actually speak to locals before your trip.
Reaching out to hosts on sites like Airbnb used to be a good way for you to get in touch with a local, but these days, the interactions are mostly transactional. (And Airbnb isn't legal in many places, like Singapore).
Alternatively, platforms like Couchsurfing also make for a good way for you to reach out to locals before your trip. In fact, such platforms provide a good avenue for you to really immerse in the local experience, since you'll actually be living with a local during your trip. But, couchsurfing could bring about a certain degree of anxiety, and it's understandably not for everyone.
Forums are also a great way for you to reach out to locals — from reddit subs to more local forums, there are a number of ways for you to get opinions from locals. Unfortunately, these connections are often a lot less personal; and your question(s) might not always be seen as the threads in forums are usually sorted by popularity.
A Local Answers: Get a local perspective before your trip
With the aim of helping you travel better, we set out to build a way for locals and travelers to connect over a virtual cup of coffee. This is a service that we are running as an experiment, where we put ourselves out to be that local who can help you plan your trip. Not to worry, this is a free service - and there are no hidden agendas.
The service will be available from now till November, and we will have locals from Singapore, Toronto, and Xi'an. Simply hit us up on our WhatsApp business account and let us know where you want to go, or who you want to speak to.
Not sure what you need to know? Here are some useful questions:
- How is the weather like in Singapore?
- Do I need a lot of cash in Singapore? How much cash would I need?
- Are there places in Singapore I should avoid?
- Are there apps I should download before visiting Singapore?