Guide to Singapore
A guest post by @UrbaneKenyan
Entry Visa: Most nationalities can enter Singapore without a visa. But, if you are traveling from Kenya, you are required to obtain a visa in advance. Entry permit duration depends on nationality and entry point: most people get 14 or 30 days, although EU, Norwegian, Swiss and US passport holders can get up to 90 days while citizens of some countries like Russia can transit for 4 days without a visa.
Getting There: Singapore is one of Southeast Asia’s largest aviation hubs, so unless you’re coming from Peninsular Malaysia or Batam/Bintan in Indonesia, the easiest way to enter Singapore is by air. In addition to flag-carrier Singapore Airlines and its regional subsidiary SilkAir, Singapore is also home to low-cost carriers Tiger Airways, Jetstar Asia and Scoot. In addition to the locals, every carrier of any size in Asia offers flights to Singapore. There are also direct services to Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and South Africa.
From Nairobi, the path is NBO – Dubai [or others can be via Mumbai or Addis Ababa with tickets starting at about $1,200] and then Singapore arriving at either Changi Airport or Seletar Airport.
Note: Currently, Seletar Airport is only used for general aviation, so if you’re flying your own aircraft to Singapore, you’ll most probably land here. Unlike most other airports, there are no separate zones for departing and arriving passengers in the main terminals prior to passport control hence arriving passengers are free to shop and eat at the air-side establishments. In addition, if they have no luggage checked-in from their point of origin, they can clear passport control at any other terminal.
Restrictions: Singapore has very strict drug laws, and drug trafficking carries a mandatory death penalty — which is applied to everyone, including foreigners (even if you technically haven’t entered Singapore and are merely transiting). It is also an offence even to have any drug metabolites in your system, even if they were consumed outside Singapore, and Customs occasionally does spot urine tests at the airport. Bringing in explosives or firearms without a permit is also a capital offence in Singapore.
- · Do carry prescriptions for any medicines you may have with you, and obtain prior permission from the Health Sciences Authority before bringing in any sedatives (e.g. Valium) or strong painkillers (e.g. codeine). Hippie types may expect a little extra attention from Customs, but getting a shave and a haircut is no longer a condition for entry.
- · Duty free allowances for alcohol are 1L each of wine, beer and spirits, though the 1L of spirits may be substituted with 1L of wine or beer, unless you are entering from Malaysia. Travelers entering from Malaysia are not entitled to any duty free allowance. There is no duty free allowance for cigarettes: all cigarettes legally sold in Singapore are stamped “SDPC”, and smokers caught with unmarked cigarettes may be fined $500 per pack. (In practice, though, bringing in one opened pack is usually tolerated.)
- · If you declare your cigarettes or excess booze at customs, you can opt to pay the tax or let the customs officers keep the cigarettes until your departure. The import of chewing gum is technically illegal, but in practice customs officers would usually not bother with a few sticks for personal consumption. Publications by Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church may not be imported to Singapore and pirated CDs or DVDs can land you fines of up to $1,000 per disc.
Getting Around: If you have over 5 hours to spare there are free city tours five times a day departing from the airport. To register for any of the tours, simply approach the staff at the Free Singapore Tours (FST) Registration Booth located in terminal one and two
From the airport there are a number of ways to get into the city:
- Taxi: is easiest to use, and you simply follow the signs after clearing customs. Meters are always used in Singapore and prices are reasonable. A trip to the city during the day will be between $20-$30 including $3-5 airport surcharge. An additional 50% surcharge applies between midnight and 06:00.
- Limousines: These charge a flat $50 to anywhere in the city and are a pretty good deal after midnight, as you can skip the queue and avoid the surcharge. The same pricing applies to chartering van-sized Maxi-cabs, which are good for large families or if you have lots of baggage.
- Shuttles: Shared six-seater Maxi-cab shuttle service to designated areas/hotels costs $7 and can be booked in advance or in the arrivals hall. 6AM-2AM, every 15-30 min.
- Subway: MRT trains run from a station between T2 and T3, but you’ll need to change trains at Tanah Merah to a city-bound train: just exit through the left hand side door and cross the platform. The 30 min ride to City Hall station costs $1.90 plus a refundable $1 deposit, and trains run 05:31-23:18.
- Bus: Bus terminals can be found in the basements of T1, T2 and T3. 06:00-23:59 only. Fares are less than $2.00, exact fare required (no change given) if you pay cash.
Getting Along: Singaporeans are punctual, so show up on time. The standard greeting is a firm handshake. However, conservative Muslims avoid touching the opposite sex, so a man meeting a Malay woman should let her offer her hand first and a woman meeting a Malay man should wait for him to offer his hand. If they opt to place their hand on the heart and bow slightly instead, just follow suit. Singaporeans generally do not hug, especially if it is someone they have just met, and doing so would probably make your host feel awkward, though the other person will probably be too polite to say anything as saving face is a major Asian value.
- For men, standard business attire is a long-sleeved shirt and a tie, although the tie is often omitted, the shirt’s collar button opened instead. Jackets are rarely worn because it is too hot most of the time. Women usually wear Western business attire, but a few prefer Malay-stylekebaya and sarong.
- Business cards are always exchanged when people meet for business for the first time: hold yours with both hands by the top corners, so the text faces the recipient, while simultaneously receiving theirs. (This sounds more complicated than it is.) Study the cards you receive and feel free to ask questions; when you are finished, place them on the table in front of you, not in a shirt pocket or wallet, and do not write on them or otherwise show disrespect.
- Business gifts are generally frowned upon as they smell of bribery. Small talk and bringing up the subject indirectly are neither necessary nor expected. Most meetings get straight down to business.
Currency: The Singaporean currency is the Singapore dollar, abbreviated SGD, S$ or just $ (as used throughout this guide), divided into 100 cents. There are coins of $0.01 (bronze), $0.05 (gold), $0.10 (silver), $0.20 (silver), $0.50 (silver) and $1 (gold), plus notes of $2 (purple), $5 (green), $10 (red), $50 (blue), $100 (orange), $1000 (purple) and $10000 (gold).
- The Brunei dollar is pegged at par with the Singapore dollar and the two currencies can be used interchangeably in both countries, so don’t be too surprised if you get a Brunei note as change. You can safely assume that the ‘$’ sign used in the island-nation refers to SGD unless it includes other initials (e.g. US$ to stand for US Dollar).
- Restaurants often display prices like $19.99++, which means that service charge (10%) and sales tax (7%) are not included and will be added to your bill. When you see NETT, it means it includes all taxes and service charges. Tipping is generally not practiced in Singapore, and is officially frowned upon by the government, although bellhops still expect $2 or so per bag. Taxis will usually return your change to the last cent, or round in your favor if they can’t be bothered to dig for change.
- ATM’s are ubiquitous in Singapore and credit cards are widely accepted (although some shops may levy a 3% surcharge, and taxis a whopping 15%). Travelers cheques are generally not accepted by retailers, but can be cashed at most exchange booths. eZ-Link and Nets Flash Pay cards are accepted in some convenience stores and fast food chains.
- Currency exchange booths can be found in every shopping mall and usually offer better rates, better opening hours and much faster service than banks. The huge 24-hour operation at Mustafa in Little India accepts almost any currency at very good rates, as do the fiercely competitive small shops at the aptly named Change Alley next to Raffles Place MRT. For large amounts, ask for a quote, as it will often get you a better rate than displayed on the board. Rates at the airport are not as good as in the city, and while many department stores accept major foreign currencies, their rates are often terrible.
Where to Stay: Accommodation in Singapore is expensive by South-East Asian standards. Particularly in the higher price brackets, demand has been outstripping supply recently and during big events like the F1 race or some of the larger conventions it’s not uncommon for pretty much everything to sell out. Lower-end hotels and hostels, though, remain affordable and available throughout the year.
- Budget: Backpackers’ hostels can be found primarily in Little India, Chinatown, Bugis, Clarke Quay and the East Coast at about $25-40 for a dorm bed. Cheap hotels are clustered in the Geylang, Balestier and Little India districts, where they service mostly the type of customer who rents rooms by the hour. Rooms are generally small and not fancy, but are still clean and provide basic facilities like a bathroom and television. Prices start as low as $15 for a “transit” of a few hours and $40 for a full night’s stay.
- Mid-range: Much of Singapore’s mid-range accommodation is in rather featureless but functional older hotels, with a notable cluster near the western end of the Singapore River. There has, however, been a recent surge of “boutique” hotels in renovated shop houses here and in Chinatown and these can be pretty good value, with rates starting from $100/night.
- Splurge: Singapore has a wide selection of luxury accommodation, including the famed Raffles Hotel. You will generally be looking at upwards of $300 per night for a room in a five-star hotel, which is still a pretty good deal by most standards. Hotel rates fluctuate quite a bit: a large conference can double prices, while on weekends in the off-peak season heavy discounts are often available. The largest hotel clusters can be found at Marina Bay (good for sightseeing) and around Orchard Road (good for shopping).
- Long-term: Housing in Singapore is expensive, as the high population density and sheer scarcity of land drives real estate prices through the roof. As a result, you would generally be looking at rentals on par with the likes of New York and London. Apartment hotels in Singapore have prices competitive with hotels but are quite expensive compared to apartments.
Food & Drink: Singapore is a melting pot of cuisines from around the world, and many Singaporeans are obsessive gourmands who love to makan (“eat” in Malay). You will find quality Chinese, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, French, American and other food in this city-state. One of the best kept secrets is that tourists can get a great bargain (up to 50% discount) at many of Singapore’s best restaurants by registering at the foodie website MakanDeals for free and downloading its dining vouchers.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with chopsticks, while Malay and Indian food can be eaten by hand, but nobody will blink an eye if you ask for a fork and spoon instead. If eating by hand, always use your right hand to pick your food, as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand to handle dirty things. Take note of the usual traditional Chinese etiquette when using chopsticks, and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you’ll get your own bowl of rice and soup. It’s common to use your own chopsticks to pick up food from communal plates, but serving spoons can be provided on request. Keep an eye out for the Singapore Food Festival held every year in July.
Shopping & Sight-Seeing: Singapore is expensive by Asian standards but affordable compared with some industrialized countries: $50 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget if you are willing to cut some corners, though you would probably wish to double that for comfort. Food in particular is a steal, with excellent hawker food available for under $5 for a generous serving. Accommodation is a little pricier, but a bed in a hostel can cost less than $20, an average 3-4 star hotel in the city center would typically cost anywhere from $100-$300 per night for a basic room, and the most luxurious hotels on the island (except maybe the Raffles) can be yours for $300 with the right discounts during the off-peak season.
Budget travellers should note that Singapore is much more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia and should budget accordingly if planning to spend time in Singapore. In general, prices in Singapore are about twice as high as in Malaysia and Thailand and 3-5 times as high as in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Nightlife: Singapore’s nightlife isn’t quite a match for Patpong, but it’s no slouch either. Some clubs have 24 hour licenses and few places close before 3 a.m. Any artist touring Asia are pretty much guaranteed to stop in Singapore, with superclub Zouk in particular regularly clocking high on lists of the world’s best nightclubs. Singapore’s nightlife is largely concentrated along the three Quays — Boat, Clarke and Robertson — of the Riverside, with the clubs of Sentosa and nearby St James Power Station giving party animals even more reason to dance the night away. Gay bars are mostly found around Chinatown. Drinking age is 18, and while this is surprisingly loosely enforced, some clubs have higher age limits.
Friday is generally the biggest night of the week for going out, with Saturday a close second. Sunday is gay night in many bars and clubs, while Wednesday or Thursday is ladies’ night, often meaning not just free entrance but free drinks for women. Most clubs are closed on Monday and Tuesday, while bars generally stay open but tend to be very quiet.
For a night out Singapore style, gather a group of friends and head for the nearest karaoke box — major chains include K-Box and Party World. Room rental ranges from $30/hour and up. Beware that the non-chain, glitzy (or dodgy) looking, neon-covered KTV lounges may charge much higher rates and the short-skirted hostesses may offer more services than just pouring your drinks. Prostitution is tolerated in six designated districts, most notably Geylang.