25 Things to Know Before Visiting Singapore
This guide to visiting Singapore was written by a Singaporean and is for all friends of the world. I hope it will help you on your travels to this beautiful city!
1. It’s Not Just Warm. It’s Humid.
Practically everyone knows that Singapore is warm. However, many do not realize that what makes it uncomfortable is not the temperature but the high humidity levels. To paraphrase what an Australian couple once told me, stepping into Singapore is like entering a sauna.
For travelers visiting Singapore, this means several things. You are going to get sweaty, so you need to hydrate constantly. You should also carry a small towel or something similar for the purpose of cleaning up every half hour. A change of clothing probably isn’t a bad idea either. Lastly, if you’re new to tropical weather, please take things slowly. The climate wears down your body in more ways than one. You certainly do not want to have to visit the doctor during your stay.
Why Is Singapore so Humid?
Humidity is so high in Singapore partly because it rains so often. In other words, you ought to always have an umbrella with you too.
2. Be Mindful of Duty-Free Regulations.
Singapore’s duty-free regulations (on arrival) are pretty stringent, especially for cigarettes. There is no concession at all for tobacco regardless of origin of travel. If you’ve purchased a carton at your departure point or during your flight, be prepared to be taxed.
Needless to say, narcotics of any form are prohibited, including soft drugs. Don’t even think about it.
3. The Subway System Is Reliable. Mostly.
Since the 80s, the Singaporean subway system, known as the MRT, has prided itself on being one of the best public transport systems in the world. Regrettably, it has since fallen from that position with several high-profile breakdowns in recent years. Nonetheless, the system is still an efficient and affordable way to get around the island, the foremost choice of public transportation for anyone visiting Singapore. As of 2018, practically every corner of Singapore is within reasonable distance of a MRT station.
In the event that you do get caught in a breakdown, please note the following:
- “Bridging” services would be provided. These are in the form of buses traveling in between stations of the affected portions.
- Without surprise, bridging services extend travel time considerably. If you could, change your itinerary.
- You could claim back the price of your ticket if you are caught in a breakdown.You could also check for breakdowns and delays on Twitter at @SMRT_Singapore and @SBSTransit_Ltd. Please be advised that there have been complaints about both operators not reporting delays promptly or accurately.
- Since late 2017, many stations are affected by early closures and late openings for the purpose of system renewal. These typically happen on weekends. Please check the SMRT website for details.
4. Taxis in Singapore Are Increasingly Expensive.
Singaporean taxies are required by law to charge by the meter. This means you should immediately walk away if a taxi driver attempts to negotiate a special package price with you.
Final fares could also pile up substantially, no thanks to a plethora of possible surcharges. These surcharges range from highway tolls to airport charges, to peak hour fees, to the notorious 12 am to 6 am 50 percent midnight surcharge. In short, if you are tight on budget when visiting Singapore, you should stick to the subway and buses. Do be aware too that private-hire car services like Uber have been charging substantially in recent times, especially during peak hours. You are unlikely to enjoy significant savings from using them.
Late Night Transportation Tips
1: The subway always operates till early morning on the eves of major public holidays. On New Year’s Eve, for example, it runs till at least 2 am.
2: If you are a night owl, consider using the night buses. These charge a low flat fee. Appropriately, one of them is named the Nite Owl.
5. You Still Need Cash When Going About.
As of 2018, there is an active campaign to go cashless in Singapore. Prior to this, there also already exist several methods for cashless payment in Singapore.
Still, it’s always helpful, if not safe, to carry some cash with you. Example of places where you would almost definitely require cash would be older hawker centers, residential neighborhood shops, and kopitiams (coffee shops). Unless you intend to splurge on expensive goods, I’d say having anything between fifty and a hundred dollars would be more than enough for one day. If you do run out, ATMs are everywhere. Money changers are also widely available.
6. Airbnb Rentals Are Illegal for Most Singaporean Properties.
More than 80 percent of Singaporeans live in leased public housing known as HDB estates. Under local laws, lessees are not permitted to rent out their properties to tourists. It is only permitted for visitors holding student passes or long-term social visit passes.
Since 2017, even private property owners are prohibited from renting out their properties for less than three months. They can only do so with permission from the government.
For tourists visiting Singapore, the implication of these laws are many. You are unlikely to be arrested for staying in a non-AirBnb permitted residence, but you certainly run the risk of your bags and yourself thrown out into the streets overnight. If you are budget-conscious, my advice is to consider hostels in areas like Chinatown and Little India, many of which are hippy and decently operated. Alternatively, there are several budget hotel chains operating in Singapore. Hotel 81 and Fragrance Hotels are the most famous names in this niche.
Note: Laws regarding the sharing economy are rapidly changing. It is good to check before booking your accommodations.
7. Singapore Is Safe, Not Crimeless.
Singapore prides itself on being one of the safest cities in the world. That said, it naturally doesn’t mean the country is crimeless. For travelers, the most common threats are scams and drunken brawls.
In the case of the latter, many recent cases curiously involve the drunk assaulting taxi drivers. If you happen to encounter such incidents when visiting Singapore, please do call the police at 999. If you are unfortunate enough to be within an establishment when someone gets rowdy, do not panic, just leave as quickly as possible. Be assured that the staff would have called for help before you are even through the door. Finally, snapping pictures and videos of such fracases is akin to inviting the violence to attend to you. Your priority should be to get away quickly.
8. Free WiFi Is Plentiful. But It Could Be a Hassle.
Many places offer free WiFi. For example, shopping malls and museums. You could also sign up for a free account at Wireless@SG on arrival. Once registered, you can enjoy Internet connection at any of the numerous Wireless@SG hotspots around the country.
On the other hand, such free connections expectedly fluctuate when it comes to signal strength, especially at crowded areas like Singapore Changi Airport and fast food restaurants. If you’re fussy about this, head to the nearest 7-11 convenience store and pick up a tourist SIM card. These are remarkably affordable and come in many options. To give an example, a 1.5GB card costs but eight Singaporean dollars as of 2018. It’s a low price for island-wide convenience.
Note: Singaporean pre-paid SIM cards have terminated all support for 2G phones since 2016.
9. Most Singaporeans Speak Some Degree of English.
Most Singaporeans speak some degree of English, though you might need some time to get used to local intonations and colloquiums. As a general guide, Singaporean English, or “Singlish,” has the following characteristics:
- Most Singaporeans tend to speak English faster than western counterparts.
- The less fluent also tend to clip pronunciations.
- Singlish often includes onomatopoeic words for emphasis. The most infamous ones are “lah” and “loh.”
10. There Is No Need to Tip.
Nearly all restaurants and cafes charge a 10 percent service fee on top of the usual consumption tax. Because of this, tipping is generally considered unnecessary at such establishments.
Less formal eateries such as hawker centers and food courts do not charge service or consumption tax. Neither do fast food outlets. Nonetheless, most Singaporeans would find it odd to tip at these places. In other words, you wouldn’t be stared or frowned at, if you follow suit.
The lack of any need to tip doesn’t mean you couldn’t. Or shouldn’t. Leaving your spare change or an extra note will always be appreciated.
11. Tap Water in Singapore Is Safe. Even Delicious.
It is widely known that Singapore tap water is perfectly safe to drink. To this, I’d add that it’s even palatable, with no weird odor or taste.
When visiting Singapore, this means there is absolutely no need to buy bottled water. That is, unless you need the bottle.
Take note, though. Tap water being safe for consumption doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be contaminated by the pipes carrying it. While there is no way for anyone to be completely sure, it’s usually a bad idea to fill up from rusty and tarnished taps. (Coloration of the water is a sure sign too. Singaporean tap water is clear) Know that most Singaporeans would balk at the idea of drinking straight from the tap at places like old coffee shops or hawker centers.
12. It Is Phenomenally Expensive to Smoke and Drink in Singapore.
I have previously written about ways to save money when holidaying in Singapore. In that write-up, I highlighted how expensive it is to smoke and drink here.
I cannot repeat this enough. In fact, prices have shot up again since that write-up.
If you have to drink when in Singapore, try to have some of your sessions at hawker centers and kopitiams. (They don’t serve hard liquor or wine, though). You could also buy back from the supermarkets. As for cigarettes, there’s sadly no way around it. You either pay the high prices or give your lungs a break.
13. Be Aware of the New Alcohol Consumption Regulations.
In 2015, Singapore implemented a series of new liquor control laws to minimize public disturbances. Under these laws:
- Consumption of alcohol is banned in all public places from 10.30 pm to 7 am. Retail shops are also not permitted to sell takeaway alcohol from 10.30 pm to 7 am. Note that the term "public places" does not include licensed pubs, restaurants, etc.
- The precincts of Geylang and Little India have stricter laws. At these places, public drinking is banned from 7 am on Saturday to 7 am on Mondays. Public drinking is also banned from 7 pm on the eve of a public holiday to 7 am after the holiday. Shops in these two areas are not permitted to sell takeaway alcohol from 7pm onwards on weekends.
Stringent as they sound, these laws simply mean you can only drink at licensed establishments during affected hours.
14. Expensive As the City State Is, There Are Still Many Free Attractions.
Here’s a quick list of free attractions in Singapore. Given the quality of all, I dare say these freebies are among the best attractions in Singapore too:
- Open-air performances at places such as The Esplanade, The Singapore Botanical Gardens, Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza, and so on.
All parks in Singapore are free for all to enter. This includes Gardens by the Bay. (At Gardens, only the Flower and Cloud Domes charge entry fees)
- Chinese and Indian temples, and churches are generally free for all to enter.
- The Singapore Botanical Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, charges no entry fee.
- The truly weird Haw Par Villa also charges no entry fee.
- The light-and-water shows at Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands are free.
- Singapore Changi Airport offers two free city tours for visitors transiting through Singapore.
- Last but not least, light-ups. (See below)
15. Singapore Adores Light-Ups.
Nowadays, there is a light-up somewhere in Singapore every month. Other than those for ethnic festivals, there are artistic ones such as the Singapore Night Festival and the i Light Marina Bay Sustainable Light Art Festival.
What’s great about these light-ups is that it never just about elaborate street decorations. Festive areas always have bazaars and free street performances, with some bazaars covering entire streets. Visiting one of these light-ups could easily be your most memorable experience when visiting Singapore.
16. Other Than Light-Ups, There Are Many Other Tourism Events.
The Singapore Tourism Board hosts many events throughout the year. For example, The Singapore International Festival of Arts, The Singapore Jazz Festival, Dragon Boating Regattas, and, for those into retail therapy, the two months long Great Singapore Sale. As much as possible, you should try to time your visit to coincide with these events.
17. Check Out the Public Parks.
The unimpressed often criticize Singapore as a concrete jungle. There is some truth in this, but I’d add that we are a concrete jungle dotted with plentiful green spaces. These parks are not only well-maintained and safe after dark, the larger ones also host facilities like restaurants, pubs, fishing ponds, and sports venues. If you don’t mind traveling a bit further from downtown, the ones to check out would be Punggol Waterway, Bishan Park, Woodlands Waterfront, and ORTO. A trip to any of these could easily fill up the good part of a day.
18. Hawker Centers, Food Courts, and “Kopitiams” Are Great Places to Sample Local Cuisine Affordably.
Hawkers Centers feature prominently on all guides to visiting Singapore, so I wouldn’t talk about them.
I would assume too that our air-conditioned food courts, located all over town, are equally well-known too.
Instead, I’d highlight kopitiams, translated as coffee shops, which are open-air, informal eateries found throughout the residential neighborhoods. Miniature hawker centers, kopitiams serve the same cuisines, at the same price, and in pretty much the same ambiance as their larger counterparts. Many also have restaurant-like stalls known as zi-cha that allow you to order Chinese dishes from an extensive menu. If you are ordering from zi-cha, do remember to check prices before deciding.
19. Don’t Forget to Check Out the Residential Neighborhoods.
Singaporean residential districts such as Toa Payoh, Bishan, Bedok, etc, do not have noteworthy landmarks or tourist attractions. Instead, what they have to offer are great food, cheaper products, and a glimpse at daily Singaporean life. Easily accessible by subway, each major neighborhood boasts of a “town center,” where there would always be malls, hawker centers, and supermarkets. Should you tire of museums and theme parks, pop over to one of these neighborhoods for a few hours. You may actually end up enjoying them more than the usual tourist attractions.
20. Be Mindful of the Bad Singaporean Season.
Singapore doesn’t have geographical seasons, but it certainly has bad travel seasons. The most notorious of these is the haze i.e. when the city-state is smothered in smog caused by nearby Sumatran forest fires.
It doesn’t happen every year, but when it does come, it’s always terrible. Arguably worse than typical air pollution too as a burning stench permeates everywhere. If your Singapore trip is scheduled for the second half of the year, be sure to check whether there are any forecasted haze days. Other than health concerns, the haze significantly obscures vision. Visits to famous Singaporean panoramic spots would be rendered entirely pointless.
21. Singapore Is Far From an Orwellian City.
Over the years, Singapore has developed somewhat of an Orwellian reputation within certain circles. This was not helped by how the ruling party, on and off, played up such perceptions in order to establish order and control.
Here’s the truth. There are millions of us in Singapore who live each day peacefully without being spied on or threatened. In fact, the Internet is currently full of Singaporean grouches about how the government is not doing enough or not paying enough attention. As a visitor, none of these should concern you, especially given it’s well-known the Singapore government loves visitors. To put it in another way, do not buy nonsensical and archaic rumors about how the Singaporean government constantly supervises and intimidates its citizen. As long as you aren’t here to compromise their rule, you have nothing to worry about at all. (Which is the same for any other country.)
22. Singaporean Rules About Public Cleanliness and Order Are Way Exaggerated.
In the 80s, some cheeky company came up with the “Singapore is a Fine City” tee as a pun on how there is a plethora of fines for all sorts of minor offenses. Humorous as it seemed at that moment, this paints an awful image of the country over the long-run.
There are indeed many types of fines in Singapore. If you examine them, though, you will realize that all are meant to discourage unpleasant public behavior. Behave as you would do in your friend’s home and there is no reason why you should even be thinking about these fines. To highlight, some of these laws actually keeps you safe. Who in the right mind would want to dash across a busy downtown road?
23. Busking Is Illegal Without a License
At the risk of contradicting myself, here’s one fine you ought to be conscious of. You need to have a license in order to busk in Singapore. Lack of which you run the risk of a stay at a police station and a hefty fine. If you are thinking about earning some pocket change when visiting Singapore, too bad. That wouldn’t work here. It will get you into trouble too.
24. Be Aware of Scam Hotspots.
Embarrassing as it is for me to say, there are several tourist scam hotspots in Singapore. All deal with electronic and telecommunication products. If you intend to buy such products during your stay, please research trending prices before going. Do not be intimidated in any way and be particularly careful about “compulsory warranties” too. The latter could run into the thousands. Lastly, if you’re threatened in any way, leave the shop immediately and call the police at 999. Take heart that the whole country hates these black sheep. The police would be more than eager to assist you.
25. Don’t Forget to Take Day Trips!
Singapore has much to offer visitors, despite its small size. In my opinion, you need around ten days to go through all attractions. Two weeks would allow for a more leisurely itinerary.
And if you have more time than that, consider taking some day drips out of the country. Nearby Johor in Malaysia is home to modern attractions like Legoland and Hello Kitty Town. A short ferry ride down south would bring you to the Indonesian resort island of Bintan too. Finally, with a little more time, you could even take an overnight trip to Malacca or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. The former, like Singapore, was once part of the British Straits Settlement. Its world heritage sites and idyllic atmosphere would provide for a delightful change from Singapore.
Appendix: Top Places to Visit in Singapore
The following is my personal list of the best tourist attractions in Singapore.
- Marina Bay Area (Inclusive of Marina Bay Sands)
- National Gallery Singapore
- The “Zoos” (Inclusive of The Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, and River Safari. The three are located adjacent to each other)
- Gardens by the Bay
- Universal Studios Singapore
- Chinatown (Including the Buddha Tooth Temple and Sri Mariamman Temple)
- Haw Par Villa
- Haji Lane
- The Botanical Gardens
- Asian Civilisation Museum
Outside of these well-known hotspots, you could also consider visiting these other attractions
- Jurong Bird Park
- Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery or Shuang Lin Temple Complex (For those into Chinese temples)
- St. Andrew’s Cathedral
- National Museum of Singapore
- Thian Hock Keng Temple
- Clarke Quay
- The various attractions of Sentosa Island, such as Fort Siloso
- Little India
- Sultan Mosque
- East Coast Park
- Punggol Waterway
- Coney Island
- Peranakan Museum
- Gillman Barracks
© 2018 Kuan Leong Yong