Top 10 Culture Shocks When Living As Expat In Singapore

By: Laura Scheffner

When I was 6 year old, I like to keep a list which would name all countries that I’ve visited. I used to be so excited about adding countries that even a little stop over to change plan would count as “Country I have been to”. That passion for travelling didn’t stop there, it even got stronger and stronger over the years. After many years of backpacking around various parts of the world, I ended up in Singapore! I’ve had a fair share of wonderful and interesting experiences here, it is not at all too bad, but there are things that really shocked me when I arrived, even up to this day. I have been to many places, and trust me, there are cities that may give you a much worse culture shock. I’d say India would top my list on super shocking culture shock I have ever encountered.

Even though Singapore is already very westernized, it definitely gave me some culture shocks during  my first few months. I’ll list here my top 10 culture shock in Singapore. There are a few ones I found good, bad, bazaar, and of course, funny that I would like to share.

1.    English + Singapore = Singlish, lah!
Oh, I still remember my first night in Singapore, I was staying in an old, cheap hostel somewhere at Bugis and was talking to these 2 Singaporean ladies! When they were talking to each other I couldn’t quite figure out what language they were talking, so I asked and they both answered “ ENGLISH, LAH!” - oops! Hahaha

And suddenly I could hear it, yeah, it was English but it sounded somehow really strange…Well since then, understanding the Singaporean accent when talking in English (Singlish) has gotten much easier and I must say I find myself using a “lah” here and there too.

2.    Food courts - especially in Singapore's Chinatown
Singaporeans love their food courts! And I do have to admit I started loving them too! Food is really cheap there, compared to the rest of Singapore.

Oh gosh but it is really funny though, when going there you really feel like you are somewhere in the midst of China. You'll find Chinese men playing table games along the streets. You will see heads of pigs hanging in the displays, and if you want, you can – if you dare – eat some chicken feet. Best thing about it (aside from cheap food) is that you can get your shoes repaired by guys who simply place blankets on the floor and repair your shoe right on the street. So if your favorite heels broke off, you can have them repaired while having some yummy Dimsum at the same time!

3.    Cars – 5 times more expensive than buying it in the US or Europe
It is so freaking expensive to buy a car in Singapore! Ok, so let’s start on getting a license that ALLOWS you to DRIVE your car for 10 years - around 70,000 USD already! - Which in US would let you buy a freaking Porsche! But that is just the beginning, with that you can only get a 10 year permission TO DRIVE the streets of Singapore, the real numbers are yet to come! Once you have imported your car, you will have to pay the 150% tax and dozen other permissions and yearly fees on top of that.

Rolls Royce in Singapore is 1.4 Million USD vs. Rolls Royce in USA 250.000 USD

4. Luxury Shopping in Singapore
There are around 7 Louis Vuitton shops that are within walking distance of each other and people are still queuing up to go inside! I have never seen this anywhere else: locals queuing up to buy a $5000 bag from a luxury bag chain that already have a half a dozen stores in a block of street! Just last Sunday I went to Orchard Road (Singapore’s shopping paradise) with my little son and I was just looking around, and again, I couldn’t believe my eyes! In front of the Chanel Shop (one of many in that street) was a huge queue of around 25 people waiting to go in! Just amazing…Even after 3 years of coming to Singapore I’m still amazed!

5. Chewing Gum is illegal
Don’t let customs at the airport see you smuggling in some chewing gum, or you might end up in some deep trouble, so you better eat it all on your flight or throw it away! Consumption and trading chewing gum is prohibited by law and Singaporeans take their laws seriously! But I must say, you will find really clean streets with no gum sticking on the floor! This might sound funny to you but for a serious gum addict like me that was quite a lifestyle change

6. Singapore Taxi/Cabs
First of all, I have not seen any city in the world where people use so much taxi. Everywhere you go, you will find a Taxi stand, and always, many people queuing and waiting to ride one. Many of the drivers are from main land china and I guess, in my first few months here, we did have some communication problems. I would not always get to the destination I wanted, most of the time these drivers insist that I did. Well one day I had my big Taxi-driving-aha-moment-breakthrough! It turns out that in Singapore they run out of names for their streets so they decide to use the same names and just add a number! Geylang Street is different to Geylang street 2 and 3 and 4 and of course then there is Geylang Road too and Lane and again 1,2,3,4 and sooo on! Totally confusing! But I get it now!

7. Kiasu – Fear of losing
Singaporeans have this strange fear of losing or missing out, so what they do then is to queue up in long lines just to win a prize, or simply queue up for restaurant where they see a lot of people queuing in. They can be so extreme that they would actually wait 2 -3 hours outside a restaurant, just because they saw other queuing!  The word “Kiasu” is Hokkien for “fear of losing” and is widely used to describe the ambitious Singaporeans that are always hungry for opportunity for success.
I was wanting to book the function room at my condo for my little boy’s first birthday and thought booking it 1 week in advance will be good enough, but it turned out that my Singaporean neighbors had booked months in advance!

8. Weather in Germany vs. Weather in Singapore
Singapore is soooooo humid. I used to have a fringe and I had to let it grow out because my hair used to look horrible with all the humidity, now, hair straighteners or styling products would really help! At the same time Singaporeans love their Air-conditioners, so I constantly found myself wandering from a fridge to a sauna! After 3 years now I got quite used to it though and must say my body somehow mutated to not feel the heat anymore and sweat!

9. My maid left my Shampoo in the fridge
One of the many perks in living in Singapore is you get the chance to hire someone to help you with your child and the house, when you live 12-hour flight away from your family, especially after starting your daily work again. Any help you can get is absolutely needed. I stay alone with my Son and decided to hire a live-in maid when he was around 6 months old. She is a wonderful lady from a rural area from India and even she had to still get used to on some cultural differences. I’ve got so many funny stories that I have experienced with her, but this story I remember very well: it was right at the beginning when I hired her and she was organizing the apartment….the next morning I found a few things out of the ordinary and when I opened the fridge I couldn’t believe my eyes, she had put my shampoo next to the ketchup bottle! I still have to laugh thinking back.

10. Little India in Singapore
It’s a marvelous place! I used to backpack in India, and to be honest when I’m at Singapore’s Little India, oh gosh! I feel like I am back in India! Avoid going there on Sundays though because you won’t be able to walk! It’s packed with locals and tourists wanting to experience a piece of India and waft the aroma of Indian cuisine.

Well there you go! I hope you had fun reading my fun yet very memorable culture shock tips. Living alone in a foreign land could be your biggest adventure  but it sure is very rewarding.

All the love and hugs to fellow expats around the globe!

About the author

Expat Blog ListingLaura Scheffner is a German expat living in Singapore. Blog description: The adventures of an expat Mom and her son in Singapore. Great parenting tips and health and beauty tips from a happy Singapore expat Mom
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Contest Comments » There are 76 comments

Carmen Tan wrote 9 years ago:

Thanks for sharing, I could feel the same as I also expat living in Singapore.

Rasimah Jar wrote 9 years ago:

Great read even for me as a Singaporean :). Thumbs up Laura!

Elizabeth Ho wrote 9 years ago:

Love Laura's insightful, honest and interesting anecdotes on this island we call home and funny behaviors of fellow Singaporeans and all who who transient here. The queue in branded store is not unique to Singapore, it is also an ubiquitous phenomenon in Hong Kong too.

Amy Chuah wrote 9 years ago:

A truly funny and yet true and warm account of Laura's experience of my country. A writer to be re-read for her fresh perspectives and writing style.

Niraj wrote 9 years ago:

Great thoughts have been living in singapore for a while and is real facts by laura

Lille Low wrote 9 years ago:

It's refreshing to read a western person's point of view on Singlish because some of us are not even aware that we are actually speaking in Singlish instead of English!

Renz wrote 9 years ago:

It was really funny! I am going to Singapore this month for a holiday cruise and I'm really happy I read your post.

Leira Pagaspas wrote 9 years ago:

i love your story and I could totally relate with having a nanny.. i have a lot of stories about them myself

Peaches wrote 9 years ago:

As a traveler, I find this post very factual! I've been to Singapore several times and I know these things happen! Well maybe except on the helper part since I haven't had one from Singapore yet. But it's good to know!

Amaia wrote 9 years ago:

I really can portrait myself in most of these situations. That is why I love so much being a foreigner, to learn the differences between cultures. Good writing and thanks for sharing your experience!

Amuro Wesley wrote 9 years ago:

Great post you have here. Good to read about your experiences in Singapore. It is certainly a shopping and food paradise. Having been a Singaporean and stayed for over 30 years, I very much like to visit your country and like to see what it looks like. Are you a fan of German soccer?

Jacqueline G wrote 9 years ago:

My maid left my shampoo in the fridge... Hahaha I can surely relate. A refreshing and real perspective from this writer on living in Singapore.

Raj wrote 9 years ago:

I was enjoying with reading of above mentioned 10culture and Like and interesting

Laura Ale wrote 9 years ago:

haha this is too funny! I'd love to go to Singapore sometime too!

Lara wrote 9 years ago:

I live in Singapore and have to agree!! thanks Laura for sharing this! it was not only funny but also very true!

Tommy Lee wrote 9 years ago:

Great job! What about writing something about the daily challenges that a foreigner living in Singapore may come to face?

Sharon wrote 9 years ago:

Laura, you know more about my country than I do. Yes, we are unique with our Singlish and we love our foodcourts. I love your insights about my country and glad that you feel welcome and comfortable here.

Jerry Ling wrote 9 years ago:

As a Singaporean living overseas, you made me miss my home and 'culture' all over again. Good read and thanks!

Robin Lee wrote 9 years ago:

These are since rather interesting and funny highlights from an expat. Thumbs up, Laura.

Yuling wrote 9 years ago:

The shampoo part is hilarious! But it does remind us to be patient to our helpers as they are also trying to adapt to a different place and a different culture.

Arthur Lim wrote 9 years ago:

The part about the car is so true. But on the good side, like what my Indonesian friend said, our roads would always be peppered with new and good looking cars since they can only stay on the roads for 10 years!

Geok Ling wrote 9 years ago:

Great to hear that an expat is also able to appreciate Singlish now too! Singlish probably would help in appreciating Singapore more.

Jade wrote 9 years ago:

I did not realise that we actually have that many luxury shops so near to each other until you mention!U have observed my country more than I have. Will take a close look at those stores the next time i visit orchard

Nina Tan wrote 9 years ago:

Laura's childlike innocence and sense of humor makes her every endearing to all Singaporeans including me! Her stories shows she's so in Tune with the local culture. Luv It! Nina

Brenda Tan wrote 9 years ago:

Geylang 1, 2, 3 is hilarious Laura!!! hahah I still cannot stop laughing at your post. I really don't think its about Singapore running out of street names. Govt should read this bit. Enjoyed reading your article!

Anabelle wrote 9 years ago:

I agree with all the said points! this was quite an interesting read :)

Dorisq Tan wrote 9 years ago:

Being a Sporean all my life, it is so interesting to read Laura's expat's views about Spore. We do have very interesting "Singaporeanised" habits & language that others will not understand....thank you Laura for your interesting sharings and please keep writing...I love reading more of your interesting sharings! Dorisq Tan 9855-8779

Asher Choo wrote 9 years ago:

Dear Laura, This is an amazing insightful article that describes your experience from your heart. Highly commendable.

Ni wrote 9 years ago:

That was amazing information, I'm new to the country and still in my learning zone, your blog just expedite my process. Thank you Laura.

Ravi wrote 9 years ago:

Thank you Laura for a really bright insights into the universe of expats in Singapore.

Maureen Haines wrote 9 years ago:

Reading laura's story brought back a number of funny stories, experiences and old facesfrom the past for me. Its such a captivating read especially when you have experienced what Laura has captured in words so colourfully. Singapore continues to teach me the local quirks even after six years. Keep sharing Laura this is a great read that sets us new arrivals up well for what tto expect . Maureen

Jetson wrote 9 years ago:

Love to see through the eyes of a very well travelled expat, Laura's authetic, truthful and interesting article definitely give us many food for thoughts!

Aloysius wrote 9 years ago:

I can fully comprehend the many so called culture shocks you experienced. We , being true Singaporean also cannot comprehend some of the happenings around us. For that .. We can laugh a little. I think you said it so well of our country that has such uniqueness that perhaps you will never find in another country.... Eg.. Chewing of gums and high cost of Licence to own a car! I particularly like what you said about us Singaporean with our very own language adapted from our Malay heritage which is now well known to the world as Singlish. Thank you lah! You take care ok ok! Miss you leh!

Lewis Loh wrote 9 years ago:

Laura, great observations!! Only one thing you might not know. Only Singpaoreans are allowed to drive taxis in Singapore. You've probably had encountered those that have been naturalized citizens from other countries. Or maybe the folks that don't speak too much English, typically from the older generation. There are more and more younger cabbies now, many of them due to the nature of the economy have been retrenched or re-structured out of a job and are now driving cabs. Some of them are actually making quite an ok living driving cabs.

Passerby wrote 9 years ago:

Hello,just thought you should know that the cab drivers are Singaporean Chinese and not from mainland china. In fact, as of now, only citizens are allowed to drive a cab in Singapore.

Helen wrote 9 years ago:

The singlish part is why Singaporean are unique and recognized as Singaporean each time we speak ! Glad u like singapore too!

Nishant K wrote 9 years ago:

Ms Scheffner, really enjoyed reading the article. This brought back many fond memories of my past. I have been living here (in Singapore) for 7 years now. Like you, I did find some of the things to be very different at the beginning. Having lived here for so many years, I now really enjoy every aspect of Singapore. I am sure you will have a great time here in Singapore. I look forward to reading about your new experiences/stories on this 'red dot'.

Manoj Agrawal wrote 9 years ago:

Laura, what a great refresher you wrote! An excellent reflection of cultural fabric. Having arrived in Singapore as expat about 11 years ago, I can relate to your feelings expressed. Though I don't think it is cultural shock, but more of sweet surprises of Singapore (SSS) :) Keep writing good stuff. It is a pleasure to read your writings. Best wishes.

Sam Choo wrote 9 years ago:

It is interesting to have a refreshing perspective of Singapore from an expat point of view. Do you like durians?

Christopher Sum wrote 9 years ago:

Being a local guy myself, I am amazed that the author having stayed in the country for just a few years, have adapted so well and even knows Singlish ! Plenty of facts about our country, Singapore.

Vinay Kumar Rai wrote 9 years ago:

A foreigner's account of some of the quirks of life in Singapore, peppered with personal anecdotes - and pretty spot-on!

Chris wrote 9 years ago:

Soooooo authentic and funny Laura. For some we taken it for granted! Thank you for sharing your moments with us.

Fidah wrote 9 years ago:

Interesting blog by expat Laura Scheffner!Being born and bred here, looking at my country from the eyes of an expat is really an eye-opener! China town,Little India,Geylang are unique enclaves!Yes! Chicken feet is really a should-try!Try also satay 'babat'.'Babat' is from the stomach lining of cows. Singapore is a food paradise alright. What's more important is the safety that we so carefully guard.And the efficiency and convenience of moving around and getting things done. Laura,you and your son will be in good hands living in Singapore! Safe,clean,efficient! Love n hugs. Fidah

Louie And Jini wrote 9 years ago:

Laura!! Great Stuff.. we experienced the same exact things!! You are amazing!

Clare wrote 9 years ago:

This is insightful, will send to my Swedish colleague for them know better our culture!

Clare wrote 9 years ago:

This is insightful, will send to my Swedish colleague for them know better our culture!

Adah wrote 9 years ago:

Interesting post here. I as a Singaporean totally agree with you :) Some which we do take it for granted and some that show that we are really pampered at times.

Patty wrote 9 years ago:

Great post, loved reading. I am from Germany and can't wait to go to Singapore next year! Thanks Laura

Christopher Tan wrote 9 years ago:

After a gleam of Singapore through Laura's eyes, the long and short of it is, you must come and experience it ... come la.

Char wrote 9 years ago:

good read and so so true! Totally agree with your points!

Gerard Wong wrote 9 years ago:

You've captured several elements of what makes Singapore charming and unique. These insightful comments from an expat's view will not only remind Singaporeans of what they love and live, but may well attract other expats to come here and experience Singapore for themselves.

Jeremy Ho wrote 9 years ago:

Pretty spot on observations about our sunny island. It reminded me about what makes Singapore truly unique. If you have never been to Asia and are thinking of living in this part of the world, you must come to Singapore. As the saying goes, “Singapore is Asia for beginners.”

Ashvene Devi wrote 9 years ago:

extremely true! Have been to Singapore several times....Like the part about the Kiasu Attitude...Strongly agree with Laura's points

Jan wrote 9 years ago:

nice stories Laura, I visited Singapore last year and can really relate to most of your post! well done!

Katharina Ndiribe wrote 9 years ago:

soooo true! It was so good sharing that time with you beautiful in Singapore. I love your lifestyle...

Katharina Ndiribe wrote 9 years ago:

soooo true! It was so good sharing that time with you beautiful in Singapore. I love your lifestyle...

Irene wrote 9 years ago:

Wonderful post and absolutely true! I love Singapore for its funny Asian charm but still having the comfort of a westernized and modern country!

Angelina Chng wrote 9 years ago:

Very useful musings for all expats n even Singaporeans! Heard you are writing a book... can't wait to read it!

Bryce wrote 9 years ago:

The article is pretty good! Really hit the nail on the head about our kiasu-ness

Fina Leong wrote 9 years ago:

Haha very insightful and quirky details that you've picked up, of which most are 'invisible' to us Singaporeans because that's what we are used to. Pretty accurate and great read!

Amanda wrote 9 years ago:

Insightful. I am sure this will help those who just arrived in the city and trying to settle in. I hope you are coping well despite the tropical weather ! –Amanda

Clara wrote 9 years ago:

Laura you have give people an glimpse of our colourful weave of culture fabric of Singapore. We are the only people in the world that speaks Singlish and every time when I am abroad, I will instantly recognise one of my own and I can say its a darn good feeling to hear another Singaporean speak when you are in foreign ground. good read, keep it coming.

Granville D'Souza wrote 9 years ago:

A very insightful account from a foreigner who notices aspects that escapes the eye of the typical Singaporean, myself at least. A very well thought through piece peppered with humour and a "Uniquely foreign Singaporean" account of some of our quirks. Kudos to you for a lovely piece.

Therese wrote 9 years ago:

Love your blog! Welcome to the land of little quirks! :)

Tanya wrote 9 years ago:

Ya right, sound soooo familiar leh. Pardon our use of language lah!

Tanya wrote 9 years ago:

Ya right, sound soooo familiar leh. Pardon our use of language lah!

Lea Sng wrote 9 years ago:

Food Court is Singapore proud culture. Simply pure home grown!

Jeannie Ong wrote 9 years ago:

Insightful and thoroughly lifestyle oriented. Great job navigating through our uniquely Singapore quirks. Good lah!

Ernest Loy wrote 9 years ago:

The COE for car is the unique system to own a vehicle in Singapore. Plenty of facts about our country, please love our lifestyle!

May Wong wrote 9 years ago:

Wow! What a great insight of Singapore. Glad that you are able to adapt to all these culture shocks. You are Marvellous!

Eddie Chen wrote 9 years ago:

Interesting experience and insights that only a true foreigner living in and loving Singapore is able to describe.

Jeannie Ong wrote 9 years ago:

Insightful and thoroughly lifestyle oriented. Great job navigating through our uniquely Singaporean quirks. Good lah!

Lynn K. Lees wrote 9 years ago:

This was a great read. Love the humor in the post, off to check my fridge lol!

Willie Ng wrote 9 years ago:

Hi Laura, I can't stop giggling when reading thru your blog.. Why would your maid put the shampoo in the fridge? lol.. Interesting to know Singapore thru your eyes. Enjoy Singapore!

SGman wrote 9 years ago:

One correction. Chewing gum is not illegal. Selling one is.

Pranab wrote 8 years ago:

Interesting and very well described..!! :) Even i am trying to observe this city and it's culture. Very new, Just 6th day in singapore and i am loving it. Singaporeans seems to be very helpful. Looking ahead to make new local frienss to explore more.

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