Preconceptions and Reality in Singapore

“We sail tonight for Singapore
We’re all as mad as hatters here”

– Tom Waits, Singapore

Last year when I considered taking a trip to Singapore I thought of a million reasons to not go, most of which stemmed from the little I knew about the country.

Maybe it all goes back to 1994 — I was finishing middle school and a 19-year-old American named Michael Fay caused an international incident by being sentenced to a caning in Singapore. Americans were in an uproar over the punishment Fay received for vandalism. I thought he was an idiot. But that ordeal left me, and many others, with the impression that Singapore is a brutal police state.

It’s not.

singapore skyline

Yes, there are tons of laws to follow, and the punishments for breaking the law can be harsh (mostly steep fines now). The laws governing day-to-day activities, however, don’t really register with tourists. No spitting! Ok. No littering! Fine, where’s the trash can? It really isn’t any inconvenience.


And when it comes to all the restrictions, no one seems to care about jaywalking. People cross the streets when they want, but they make sure no traffic is coming first (this isn’t Hanoi). Drivers are polite enough to stop for pedestrians, but I don’t imagine they’d be as happy if those pedestrians walked in front of their cars.

I always thought Singapore would be immaculate with all the rules they supposedly enforce. It is quite clean, but there are plenty of messes — there was a public restroom at an MRT station that was foul (still better than any public restroom in the US). There were a few others that weren’t much better. And at the outdoor food courts, there are plenty of messes — I saw no trash cans because everyone just leaves dishes and trays on the tables for staff to clean up. I’m sure if I stayed out later, those same food courts would get a bit messy.

For a country that some might regard as a police state, there isn’t a police presence. I was there for Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral, and there were long lines of people paying their respects, so there were some police around to mostly help with directions. The police were quite friendly and helpful.

Clarke Quay
Clarke Quay at night

That level of friendliness and helpfulness expanded to the general population. I’ve said before how polite and friendly people in Taipei are. I found people in Seoul and Tokyo to also be polite, though not nearly as friendly. People in Singapore are more than that — they’re helpful and accommodating.

Example: I wanted to purchase a three-day metro ticket (which is not for a full 72 hours because the ticket offices aren’t open early enough), but the ticket office was closed when I arrived at Changi Airport. An MRT employee apologized because the office closed early in honor of Lee Kuan Yew. She then helped me buy my ticket and made sure I knew where to go. When I finally got to buy the three-day ticket, the ticket office was going on lunch break. There were three people ahead of me and they all desperately wanted to get things done now (I didn’t want to wait another hour either). The employee stayed to help us, but turned anyone else away. In Japan and Taiwan employees wouldn’t be so flexible.

I certainly worried about the weather in Singapore — I know it’s hot and humid year-round. But the heat wasn’t unbearable. Afternoon downpours were inconvenient, but they felt great. I had expected the city to be fully air conditioned, like in Hong Kong. We used to joke that Hong Kong was 5 degrees cooler than mainland China — I swear it got colder as soon as I set foot across the border at Luohu crossing. If I visited Hong Kong in the summer I went from frigid temperatures indoors to oppressive heat and humidity on the streets (my glasses would fog up if I went indoors for more than 5 minutes before going back outside).

gardens by the bay
Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay

Singapore manages temperatures better. There was a progression to temperature changes that prevents people from getting sick and acclimates the population. It was hot and humid outside, and it got cooler as I got further into the metro stations — the buses and subway cars were quite cold, but I was prepared for it with the progression. The ticket area of the MRT was a few degrees cooler than outside; the waiting area for the train was a little cooler; and the trains were even cooler than that. The progression of air conditioning means that the city is more energy efficient than Hong Kong.

Another preconception I had was that Singapore is just a huge city. While that is true, there is also plenty of green space. The city is so well planned and covered in green. And all the plants along the streets and in the parks are well maintained. It’s not like in China where they rip out a plant just because a leaf is turning brown.

MacRitchie Reservoir
MacRitchie Reservoir

I went for a hike at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve only to find the 400-acre reserve was closed for trail renovations. There were some other trails nearby though; they just weren’t as interesting. There’s also the MacRitchie Reservoir, where I took a more than 10 km hike (I thought the hike was only 5 km). And there’s still the Gardens by the Bay and the Botanic Gardens. There is a lot of room to breathe in Singapore.

Singapore impressed me.

Have you ever visited a place with a preconception that was quickly broken?

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