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!


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


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

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