Singapore is a kidney bean shaped island approx. 30 miles from east to west and approx. 26 miles north to south dangling a little precariously by a causeway and a bridge below the main Malaysian peninsula.
The climate is sticky; temperatures vary little all year between 24 and 33 degrees Celsius and the humidity is very high. Winter, if you can call it that, is a little more comfortable and occurs between December and March when monsoon rain laden clouds provide shade for much of the day. However, unpredictable sudden torrential downpours or the sun breaking through the clouds make it advisable to carry a substantial umbrella in one hand and sunglasses in the other if out and about.
I lived and worked in Singapore between 1993 and 1999.
The Singapore work ethic traditionally demands a five and a half day working week. A work day is typically eight hours and although in comparison with other Asian cities traffic congestion is low, a commute to work by car of about 30 minutes is typical. Commuting by public transport, despite the system being the envy of South East Asia, is a crowded affair and can easily take twice as long. The continuing extension of the impressive Mass Rapid Transit rail system and the introduction of Light Rail Systems is helping to improve the situation and there is a general movement towards a 5 day working week but that movement is slow.
Being close to the equator, the sun rises and sets at more or less the same time all year round, 7:00 am and 7:00pm. This means leaving the office at 6:00pm and taking the MRT and bus home, an office worker arrives home just as it gets dark.
Food is one of Singapore's great attractions; various Chinese, Malay, Indonesian and Indian cuisines abound. Outdoor coffee-shops and congregations of small food stalls called Hawker centres provide cheap, fast food Asian style. Indoor food courts provide similar (though usually not as tasty) fare in an air-conditioned area (normally the basement of a shopping centre or mall). A plethora of cafes, bars and restaurants throughout the island provide more expensive meals. Seafood restaurants with their chili and pepper crabs, barbecued stingray, garlic prawns, steamed fish and scallops are a huge favourite. In the tourist centres or close to popular expatriate areas, western style pubs and Italian restaurants compete with gourmet coffee and ice cream outlets. Having said all this, MacDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Deli France franchises can be found everywhere and are never empty. In Singapore, no matter what time of day or night multitudes can be seen out eating something somewhere.
After eating the next favourite past-time is shopping. Large air-conditioned shopping centres provide welcome relief from the heat, a large area to roam and a large variety of items to browse through from designer fashions to local crafts, from cheap hi tech electronics shops to well stocked bookstores. In Singapore there is always someone advertising a sale with bargains to be hunted down.
Despite its small size, there is a surprising amount to see in Singapore. The zoo and Night Safari are excellent, as is the underwater world on the tourist trap island of Sentosa, a five minute ferry or cable car ride from mainland Singapore. The bird park in the west of the island is also very popular spots. On the way there, the formal Chinese and Japanese Gardens used to provide a respite from the crowds and skyscrapers of the city but they have now disappeared under new developments.
Kranji War Memorial and Cemetery is an interesting and thought provoking place with its graves of soldiers from all over the old British Empire from Scotland to India. At the opposite end of the island the museum and replica chapel from the POW camp at Changi Prison retells the disturbing plight of POW's during the Japanese occupation. Within sight of the museum are Gurkha guards on duty on the walls of Changi Prison, still Singapore's highest security detention centre.
On a lighter note, there is the outstanding beauty of the orchids in the botanical gardens and the exquisite carpets and basket work in the Arab Street district. The science centre, art gallery and national museum provide more intellectual destinations. Day trips into Malaysia provide a contrast to the Chinese dominated Singaporean culture as does a visit to Geylang, a small area of Singapore with heavy Malay influence. Serangoon Road is influenced mainly by the Indian community and all things Indian can be found there.
Close to the Central Business District is the Victoria Theatre, the venue for western style cultural events including classical music, ballet and dance. The stadium complex at Kallang provides a 60,000 outdoor stadium for important sporting and musical events. The 12,000 seat indoor stadium is used for pop concerts and indoor sports tournaments. The Kallang Theatre hosts the big musicals that come to town. And of course the Kallang Leisure dome next door provides shopping, food and ten pin bowling.
However, the best pop concerts are those held in the less formal setting of the Harbour Pavilion exhibition hall at the World Trade Centre. The WTC doubles as the departure point for ferries, buses and cable car to Sentosa and ferries to the nearby Indonesian islands of Batam and Bintan. The cable car also travels inland to the top of a small hill pretentiously called Mount Faber that has just enough elevation to provide a view over the city of Singapore.
Two other outstanding views can be seen from the restaurants at the top of the UOB Plaza One tower and top of the Westin Hotel. For those who cannot afford the extortionate prices of the food, the view is still impressive from the elevator staging area on the 37th floor of the UOB Plaza One tower where UOB also puts on small art exhibitions from time to time.
The most famous hotel in Singapore is the Raffles Hotel where one can take afternoon tea or partake of a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar. Afternoon tea can also be had on a junk as it sails its way up the Singapore river or around some of the small islands off Singapore. The Raffles Hotel is named after the Sir Stamford Raffles who founded England's trading post in Singapore. His statue can be found just outside the refurbished parliament buildings at the point on the Singapore River where he is said to have come ashore.
All Singaporean males are expected to serve two and a half years of national service between high school and university. This means that a typical male student does not graduate until they are 24 years old.
Income tax is low and on average works out to be about one month's salary. Sales and goods tax is only 3% but is levied on everything. Tipping is usually unnecessary since 10% service charge is levied at nearly all restaurants.
Accommodation and cars are the two main expenses costing several times their UK and US equivalents. However, all Singaporeans contribute a significant proportion of their salary to a Central Provident Fund account. This account can be used to invest in approved schemes, purchase residential property, medical insurance and provides forced savings for retirement. Heavily subsidized housing for Singaporeans means that most Singaporeans own their own flat and do not feel the monthly payments since they are taken from their CPF. A ten year car loan is therefore the largest financial impact on most professionals. After ten years a car must be scrapped (scrap values are set and are reasonable) or a new Certificate of Entitlement sought and a higher annual road tax paid. Quotas of COE's are released each month and must be bid for.
Although not non-existent, crime is very low and Singapore is a very safe place to live. Stiff penalties including corporal and capital punishment exist. The death penalty is applied for drug trafficking and crimes involving firearms. The legal system has its roots in British law but has more recently taken on a number of Australian and American influences.
Being such a small island, it is easy for extended families to meet up frequently, and it was not uncommon for 30 or more of my wife's extended family to get together for a meal to celebrate a birthday or on a public holiday.