Singapore is an easy country to overlook when planning a visit to this region. It may seem too small, too expensive, or even boring compared to its larger neighbours, but surprises await if you know where to look. There are some things that you can only find in Singapore because of its unique environment, culture, and history. Here’s a list of our favourite Singapore experiences.
Here’s a breakfast you just can’t find anywhere else in the world. Two pieces of bread toasted on a grill then covered with a thin layer of coconut spread called kaya and a small piece of butter. Two runny half-boiled eggs that you crack into a little saucer, then top it off with as much or as little dark soya sauce and pepper as you prefer and eat with a little teaspoon. Wash that all down with your choice of kopi (coffee), teh (tea), or milo. There are entire F&B chains such as Ya Kun and Toast Box devoted just to serving this breakfast set all day long.
Singapore is the first place where a street food stall has been awarded the coveted Michelin Star, and there are several other hawker stalls who have since also received Bib Gourmand awards. It’s always easy to tell which stalls have these awards by the never-ending long queues that snake through the hawker centres they are located in. Be prepared to queue if you want quality food for cheap.
There is an entire local lingo to learn when it comes to ordering drinks in Singapore. Pop into your local coffee shop or kopitiam and listen closely to what the drinks servers shout out when they take your order. In Singapore, coffee is ‘kopi’, tea is ‘teh’, and you can order it ‘gao’ (thick), ‘siew dai’ (less sugar), or ‘O’ (no milk). A ‘tak giu’ (literally ‘kick ball’) refers to Milo, a chocolate malt drink that usually has a soccer player on its packaging. Milo Dinosaur, on the other hand, has an extra decadent layer of Milo powder on top. A ‘Michael Jackson’ is a black and white drink that’s a mix of dark grass jelly chin chow and white soy bean milk, while old men love ‘diao yu’ – fishing, which is what you look like when you jiggle the tea bag in a glass mug.
Skip the fancy gourmet brands – Singaporeans love the simple ice cream carts that you can find at busy street corners or near traffic light junctions. Often run by an older uncle or auntie, a slab of your preferred flavour of ice cream is cut from a block for you and sandwiched between traditional rainbow coloured bread or crispy wafer. There’s chocolate and vanilla, but more local tastes like durian and sweet corn are available as well. Down it quickly before it melts. It only costs S$1 – S$1.50, a fraction of what your fancy ice cream costs these days.
Whenver you order food in Singapore, you’re likely to get one simple question: chilli? Chilli in Singapore comes in many different forms depending on what type of food you are eating. Common are the bright orange garlicky paste that goes with chicken rice, freshly sliced little red or green chillies in soy sauce, or a thick belachan shrimp paste. It’s quite common to add a little (or a lot) chilli sauce to whatever food you order, and hawker stalls usually have a condiment section at the front where you can help yourself to as much as you need. Note that you rarely need to pay for extra sauce in Singapore.
If you are in a crowded hawker centre and see a table with no one but tissue packets neatly placed on the chairs or table, that means the seats are taken. This practice is called ‘Chope-ing’ and is commonly used in very busy hawker centres and food courts to allow everyone at the table to get their own food in the quickest amount of time. This saves them the trouble of leaving one person to wait for someone to come back before they could get their own food. The practice is a bit controversial as some people think it’s rude, so they just sit down anyway. Others think it’s practical, especially when you have a limited lunch hour.
You can get just about any Asian cuisine from a hawker centre, but one curiosity to visitors is often the Western food stall. ‘Western food’ isn’t an actual category of food anywhere else in the world, but in Singapore that means they are likely to serve things like chicken chop, beef steak, and pork cutlet. And instead of rice it comes with sides of french fries, coleslaw, and baked beans. Other common items you might find at a Western food stall are spaghetti, fish and chips, and mushroom soup.
In Singapore, someone older than you is usually referred to as uncle or auntie in informal conversations, whether or not you are related to that person. Children are often told to use it to refer to their parents’ friends, or for adults, when someone is obviously older than you are. It is usually used in a respectful manner, so don’t get offended if someone calls you that. It can have a connotation of being frumpy or out of touch with the modern generation depending on how the word is used. So if in doubt, just always assume someone is younger than they are to be polite.
Singapore’s Changi Airport is more than just a gateway to the world by plane. Constantly ranked as one of the top airports in the world, Changi Airport’s facilities attract Singaporeans willing to travel to the far-eastern end of the country without their passports. The airport is popular as a place to study, and you often find large groups of young people sitting around the viewing galleries and hanging out. Families often visit on the weekends thanks to the public gardens and playgrounds plus a large selection of F&B outlets.
Listening in on a Singlish conversation can be a bizarre experience for non-Singaporeans. It sounds somewhat like English half the time and gibberish the rest because it involves a lot of local lingo pulled from the various cultures and languages found in Singapore. Singlish is not a language that’s easily learned in a short time. You can pick up a few key words but being able to use the right intonations, slang and lingo is a nuance learned only over time.
Whether Singaporeans are lazy or simply efficient when it comes to talking about things, one thing for sure is that there are a lot of acronyms and codes used to refer to everyday things that a foreigner might find mind-boggling. For example, PIE, CTE, MCE are all references to the major expressways; SBS, MRT, EZ-Link are public transport related, and hopefully no one ever tells you KNN because that’s just downright rude.
Only hotel guests are allowed to use that famous infinity swimming pool 57 storeys up on the roof of Marina Bay Sands, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to sneak up. The next best thing is to buy a ticket to the Sands Skypark Observation Deck or have a drink at the Restaurants and Bars up there, where you can still enjoy that spectacular view, just without the pool.
If jet lag hits you hard and you’re up at an odd time at night, head down to Mustafa Shopping Centre in Little India to do a little midnight shopping with other night owls. This is a 24-hour shopping centre that sells just about anything you need. It’s one way to avoid the crowds and is quite a local Singaporean experience.
Haw Par Villa was built by the rich brothers who created the Tiger Balm brand, and at one point was quite a successful theme park in Singapore before being slowly forgotten and ending up a rather derelict shell of its former self. It is known for its many statues and life-size dioramas that depict Buddhist ethics and values. Some of these are just downright strange in today’s context (look out for the Statue of Liberty) but it’s an interesting place to see an alternative side of Singapore.
Singapore started the world’s first nocturnal zoo called the Night Safari in 1994, and it remains one of the few zoos you can visit after dark to see nocturnal animals in their element. Like the Singapore Zoo, the Night Safari is open-concept, meaning that it uses natural barriers instead of cage bars to restrict animal movement. The darkness may make the animals harder to spot, but it does add an element of excitement you can’t replicate during daylight.
Singapore is a small country, and while there are neighbourhoods segregated by historic placemaking for the different ethnic groups, it is also quite common to see various religious institutions and architecture clustered together along the same street. You also see a lot of the old mixed in with the new, such as preserved shophouses that are towered over by gleaming modern skyscrapers. One remaining kampung village is a few minutes from blocks of public housing, which sums up Singapore’s growth and heritage in a nutshell.
With the weather as hot and humid as it is in Singapore, outfits tend to be a bit more informal. Typical beachwear like singlets, shorts, and flipflops are commonly worn by locals even while walking around shopping malls or hanging out with friends. Some people think Singaporeans are sloppy, others feel it’s just a practical response to the unforgiving weather. But unless you’re headed somewhere with a dress code or dressing to impress, most people aren’t too fussed about what you choose to wear.
Singapore is probably one of the few places where it’s a lot colder indoors than outdoors. To compensate for outdoor tropical temperatures, some shopping malls, offices and movie theatres turn down the air-conditioning to a point where it actually gets quite chilly. It always pays to bring along a scarf or a light jacket, just in case.
The only people you see in Singapore wandering out in the sun in the middle of the day are tourists. The locals are busy ducking into air-conditioned shopping malls or hiding out in the shade because they know just how hot the sun can get. Singaporeans love a nice sunny day as much as the next person, but with year-round tropical weather, they do not share the same worship of the sun as folks who routinely experience dreary winters or cold weather.
The many public housing blocks in Singapore all share one common feature – the ground level is usually an open, airy public area called a void deck. Some are simple open spaces with stools and tables for people to gather, others are home to the neighbourhood grocer or the community centre, while some are super futuristic. Other particularly Singaporean uses of the common void deck include Malay wedding receptions and Chinese funerals.
Singapore was the first country in the world to implement Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) in 1998. Every vehicle has a special unit installed that allows for the automatic deduction of toll when passing under an ERP gantry during peak hour, all without having to slow down to go through a toll booth. The technology is also used by many carpark operators, and now you can even use parking coupons through a smartphone app.