Sharon and Gregg Graham moved their family from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Singapore in 1998.
The family spent three years living in a two-floor penthouse apartment two blocks from Singapore’s Central Business District with their three boys who were 8, 10, and 12 years old at the time.
They moved because Gregg was a project engineer for the new pharmaceutical processing plant that Merck Sharp & Dohme Pharmaceuticals was building in Singapore at the time.
Both Sharon and Gregg agree that the three years they spent with their family in Singapore were overwhelmingly positive, but there were some things that surprised them.
Here are seven things that surprised them about living in Singapore.
Everyone speaks English.
Even though Singapore seems like a world apart from Pennsylvania, both Sharon and Gregg agreed that adjusting to life in Singapore was far easier than they expected. They said that part of this comes from the fact that most people in the country speak English, and all the street signs are also in English, which made it easy to get around.
“They call Singapore ‘Asia light’ or ‘Asia 101’ because almost everyone speaks English and if they don’t, they can find somebody super quick who will be able to speak English,” Sharon explained.
“There was a lot of culture — but I would say very little of it was what they call culture shock. It was more of a cultural experience, and it was 98% good.”
They felt extremely safe at all times — but almost never saw the police.
Gregg and Sharon were both surprised by how safe Singapore is. They said they were comfortable letting their children stay out late at night or take a taxi to school if they missed the bus. According to Sharon, this safeness comes from the fact that the country has severe penalties for any crimes committed.
Despite the intense safety, Gregg said the police are only present when they’re most needed.
“You don’t see the police typically until there’s trouble,” he said. “I witnessed that a couple times in the early mornings when I was biking to work or going for a run. It seemed like the police just came out of the woodwork. And they weren’t always in police garb, very often they were unmarked and wearing civilian clothing.”
Singapore is very diverse.
According to Singapore’s Department of Statistics, 74% of the population is Chinese, 13% are Malay, 9% are Indian, and 3% are labelled as other. Sharon referred to the country as an intensified melting pot due to its small size, something she said was great since it allowed the family to meet people from all over.
Sharon and Gregg said it felt like there was a festival almost every day in the country, and the festivals often celebrated foreign cultures. One in particular that they remember is Thaipusam, a Hindu festival that involves participants piercing their bodies.
They noticed that Singapore’s government makes a concentrated effort to make sure that all nationalities in the country are accepted and given a voice.
“For the most part everyone just gets along, and they do it because they feel like they’re cared for and supported,” Gregg said.
The heat and humidity was oppressive.
Although Gregg enjoyed Singapore’s heat, Sharon referred to it as oppressive. The country experiences almost no change of seasons, and there’s a lot of rain and humidity. Sharon said most days the temperature hits the 90s Fahrenheit; temperatures in the low 80s are considered “chilly days.”
The country is extremely expensive.
Mercer’s annual cost of living survey ranked Singapore the fourth-most expensive country for expats to live in in the world. It’s also one of the richest countries in the world in terms of GDP, which contributes to the exorbitant cost of living there.
When Gregg and Sharon lived there, they paid around S$9,600 per month for their two floor penthouse apartment near the Central Business District. Gregg said at the time, that was about US$6,000 per month. Besides higher housing costs, Gregg and Sharon said that gas, food, education, and alcohol were all much more expensive there than they were in the US.
However, Gregg’s company provided him with a COLA — a cost of living adjustment — that was essentially a salary increase, which helped the family to be able to afford life in Singapore. They company looked at what the family was paying to live in Pennsylvania and basically paid the difference between that amount and the amount it cost to live in Singapore.
It’s easy to travel to other destinations in Asia from Singapore.
Singapore is extremely small. The country measures 31 miles from east to west and 16 miles from north to south. Because of this, Gregg said it only takes about three to six months to fully get to know the country. However, since Singapore is strategically located near so many other Asian countries, travelling is easy and convenient.
“It is a fantastic jumping off point to get to Indonesia, to get to Malaysia, to Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, all those places,” Gregg said.
The food is incredible.
Sharon said that when their three sons are asked what they miss most about Singapore, food ranks high on the list.
She said that street food — commonly noodle dishes prepared with flavorful sauces and vegetables — was both delicious and cheap, and that there was an incredible variety in dining options.
“Every night can be an adventure,” Sharon said. “Every night you can have something new and different and affordable, and it’s tremendous.”
Some of their favourite spots included the restaurants and shops along Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, both of which are riverwalks that sit along the Singapore River.
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