Maxwell Young


I spent 11 months in Singapore (Oct 2011 - Aug 2012) as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Computer Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). This page is meant to do two things. First, it aims to provide a very basic startup guide that may be helpful to others who are coming to work in Singapore; some of this information is specific to my experience as a postdoc, but a lot of it is general. Second, this page highlights several things about the country that I enjoyed and you might too during your stay. Finally, while I've attempted to be accurate, I make no guarantees that this information is correct and I recommend accessing multiple sources (some listed here) before making your journey. This information is not being kept current.

Click on the topics below to expand them:

Before You Arrive

Before you depart for Singapore, there are some things that you should consider.

Temporary Housing: As I understand it, NUS does not provide housing exclusively for postdocs; however, I was informed of several options that I have aggregated here. My desire was to have a place to stay for 1-2 weeks while I looked for more permanent housing. Here are the options I found for very temporary housing:

1. NUS Guest Housing: This is the option I chose: NUS Guest Housing. I stayed in a suite at Eusoff Hall which is very close to the School of Computing, is right beside the Kent Ridge Bus Terminal on campus which is convenient. It is a five-minute walk from several restaurants and a 7-11 convenience store (open 24 hours). The cost was roughly $80 SGD per night which is actually quite cheap and it was a nice room - spacious, air conditioned, and cleaned daily.

2. Joo Chiat, East Lodge Hostel: I did not visit this place but I mention it since it appeared to be viable: Joo Chiat Hostel. Note that the sister location at Clementi will not accomodate postdocs since they only house students. The price for a room with a private bathroom seems reasonable and you can rent it by the month. One of the reasons I was reluctant to live there is the considerable distance to NUS.

3. Home Stay: Again, I didn't pursue this option. I was provided with this site which lists a number of homestay facilities and hostels.

If you are arriving late at night, remember to figure out how you will find your room, get the keys, etc. For example, at Eusoff Hall you need to contact them ahead of time so that they can place your key in a locked dropbox. The staff will provide you with a combination that allows you access to the key along with directions to your room (there's also a security guard who can help you).

Finally, bring directions on how to get to your temporary housing. The taxi drivers I've had are typically quite adept at finding places. However, they tend to know only major landmarks/roads, so lesser known locations entail more searching. For example, my taxi driver knew how to get to NUS, but we had to spend ~10 minutes locating Eusoff Hall; note, you can always find things on the campus maps located at bus stops

More Permanent Housing: I dealt with the issue of permanent housing after I arrived; however, you may be able to do it from overseas. While staying at Eusoff Hall, I wanted to find a single-bedroom apartment with a 1-year lease. This housing website was recommended to me and I think it's worth sharing. Also, the various procedures/fees associated with renting are listed here. In general, housing is expensive. A few important points:

1. It is quite pricey to live alone, but if you don't mind sharing a multi-bedroom apartment with other people, then the prices become somewhat more reasonable. I wanted to live alone, so I ended up paying roughly $2000 SGD per month in rent, plus $50 SGD per month for an Internet connection, and roughly $150 SGD per month for utilities. Also important: you will want air conditioning.

2. I recommend using an agent because this will allow you to quickly view multiple places, ensure that the paperwork is done properly, and provide a point of contact between you and the owner (or the owner's agent); however, the use of an agent entails an additional fee equal to 1 to 1.5 months of rent. I went with an agent from Propnex. My experience was mixed - my apartment was well-placed, but older and when things broke, the management was slow to respond. If I were to do things again, I would probably find a newer place to share with others.

3. A large chunk of housing in Singapore is subsidized by the government and run by the Housing Development Board (HDB) and many Singaporeans live in HDB housing. If you end up renting a HDB place, you need to make sure that everything is legitimate since I've heard about landlords illegally renting to expats. Note that an agent can help prevent this from happening.

4. It may be tempting to commit to a place before arriving in Singapore. Perhaps this can work if you are operating in a certain (high) price range. However, if you are not, then I was warned not to commit to an apartment without a viewing and, given what I've seen, this is very good advice.

5. I needed to have proper documents guaranteeing that I could work in Singapore. I believe that obtaining an apartment would be difficult without these documents. See ``Getting Your Documents'' below.

In terms of where to live, I only have the following two recommendations:

1. Live near an Massive Rail Transit (MRT) station. This is the main mode of transportation around Singapore and it excellent: extremely clean, efficient, and reliable. To qualify that statement, comparing to other locations with good public transportation, say Vancouver, Berlin, and Boston, I have to say Singapore comes out ahead. My place was a ~3 minute walk to the Commonwealth MRT and this made travel convenient.

2. Live near a food court. I've been told that many Singaporeans do not cook because of the cheap, well-prepared, and great food readily available at food courts. Living alone, I found it very nice to have great food close by my place. Note that you can easily eat healthily at these places and it essentially renders grocery shopping unnecessary. I should also make it explicit that, while housing is expensive, food is cheap. Finally, many of the MRT stations have food courts on location.

To clarify, Asian food items like noodles, dumplings, soups, curries, rice, etc. are cheap to purchase. On the other hand, Western foods are typically not. For example, a small wedge of brie can easily run you $15 SGD; burgers, pizza, pasta, sandwiches, etc. are also not cheap and often are not as good as what you get in N. America. I really enjoyed the Singaporean cuisine, but sometimes I did miss a good pizza (see below for a good pizza location).

Bring Cash With You: Singapore dollars are best. As I recall, I was unable to open a bank account before obtaining my Employment Pass (see below) and this took about one week. You can certainly withdraw cash from ATMs but:

1. There may be banking fees attached.

2. Most debit cards have a daily limit. This second restriction can cause problems if you are looking to find a permanent place to live since you must pay your first month's rent, security deposit (typically 1 month's rent), the agent fee, stamp fees, and whatever other costs you might need to cover as you get set up.

I carried approximately $3500 SGD on my person when I first arrived (and I should have brought more). At first, this made me a little bit nervous. However, from what I've seen, Singapore has a very low crime rate and I've never felt unsafe regardless of location or time of day.

Arriving in Singapore

The following information may be helpful for when you arrive in Singapore.

The Airport: When you arrive at Changi Airport (this is the major airport), you will collect your baggage and follow the crowd to the front gates. On the way, you may be arbitrarily selected to have your baggage run through a scanner. I think its reputation precedes it, but Singapore has some strict laws and you really don't want to be caught with anything illegal.

Update (Aug. 23, 2012): On the topic of Singapore's laws, some pointers to information on this topic may be useful. Generally speaking, the balance between individual freedoms and social welfare is different here (in contrast to, say, Canada) and there are a number of laws aimed at promoting the latter which, arguably, curtail the former. For starters, capital punishment is legal in Singapore; this is often applied in scenarios involving drug trafficking and homicide. Furthermore, respectful interaction between the numerous cultural and religious demographics is paramount, and any perceived threats to this are taken seriously. An acute example is the recent enforcement of Singapore's Sedition Act. The following Wikipedia site on human rights in Singapore provides useful information regarding the laws and some of the reasoning behind them. Finally, the above information shouldn't deter you from visiting Singapore; however, as a visitor, you should be aware of the laws.

Back to Changi Airport -- once you proceed to the unsecured area, if you wish to exchange currency, you can do it here; although, I have no idea how the buy rates compare with local banks. Finally, you may line up at two locations in order to catch a taxi. The line up can be lengthy, but it is orderly and moves quickly. Taxis are not too expensive and I believe that I was able to get to Eusoff Hall for under $35 SGD. The trains stop running around midnight, so if you are arriving after that point, a taxi is the best way to get to your temporary housing; again, remember to bring directions with you since the taxi driver may not be familiar with that exact location. I typically used the taxi service CityCab (6552 1111) and I never had any problems.

Using the Trains and Buses: Singapore is an extremely modern country and the Singapore Massive Rail Transit (SMRT) is one example of this. If you're staying for any length of time, I recommend purchasing an ``EZ-Link'' card which you can obtain from any desk at the MRT stations (I believe the price is roughly $12 SGD) as it is very convenient to use and more cost efficient than buying tickets every time you take the train. Just swipe on your way in and your way out, and the system will flash the cost and remaining balance on your card. This card also works for the buses in Singapore. You can stop at any of the MRT station desks to ``top up'' this card anytime your balance runs low. I should also mention that the card has other uses, such as paying late fines at the Singapore Library, but I'm not familiar with all of them so I'll leave that for you to discover.

Finally, getting around most of Singapore using the train is quite easy as maps of the rail system are easily located; also, the SMRT website can be useful if you're planning a trip. Typically, you can walk to your destination from an MRT station. However, I would recommend bringing fairly detailed directions with you so that, once you exit the MRT station, you know where to go. The city layout of Singapore can be quite dense in places and there were several instances where I spent a frustrating half-hour to find something that was less than 200 meters away from me. Unfailingly, I found that people are friendly and will try to help you if you get lost, but they do not always know their way around any better than you!

Getting Your Documents: Next to finding a place to live, this is likely the most time consuming part of transitioning to Singapore. Note: what I'm describing here may not apply generally and you should obviously check exactly what you need to do in order to reside legally in Singapore.

In my case, prior to departing for Singapore, NUS provided me with the necessary documents to enter the country. A key piece of information is your Foreign Identification Number (FIN). I found that I needed this to obtain an apartment, so it is needed early on.

Once in Singapore, I needed to trade in those documents for an Employment Pass (EP). To this end, I had to visit the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). An appointment needed to be made roughly 1 week ahead of time. Unfortunately, I went to the wrong MOM (there is apparently more than one location near the Clark Quay MRT Station, so be warned!) and ended up barely making my appointment! Again, bring directions with you. Processing your EP application takes several days, but after that, you are able to: use the Internet in cafes like Starbucks (yes, Internet access in most Starbucks is regulated! However, I found that the Coffee Bean Tea Leaf cafes let you on without a login), order internet for your apartment, get a library card, and get a video rental card.

Another set of documents that needed to be completed were regarding my general health. The medical exam is fairly detailed and includes lung x-rays (which I assume is for tuberculosis), a blood test, a urine test, and blood pressure, height and weight measurements. I used SATA Jurong Medical Centre and found it very efficient, both in administering the tests and in clearing the results with NUS. I was able to set up an appointment fairly easily, but it may be helpful to set up an appointment before you leave for Singapore.

Opening a Bank Account: I found the banking system in Singapore to be very convenient. The bank I used is DBS/POSB. I believe I needed my EP to open the account, but you should inquire about this. After that, I was paid via direct deposit every month. Furthermore, I could pay my utility and Internet bills online; plus, I was able to easily wire money back to my accounts in Canada. DBS/POSB -- I believe these are two banks that recently merged -- has ATMs all over the country and I never had trouble locating one.

Getting Internet Access and a Phone: So far as I can tell, there are three main service providers in Singapore: M1, StarHub, and SingNet. You can easily find ad-hoc reviews online and see that there are some fairly damning comments regarding each. On a whim, I went with M1 and my experience was generally quite good. I remember needing an EP before signing a contract; I believe a FIN would have sufficed, but this also required a hefty deposit. M1 has stores in many locations; I went to the store located in Clementi Mall (use the MRT Green Line).

An important detail: with M1, you need to sign in when you use a wired connection to the Internet. Normally, this isn't an issue, but it may pose problems if you enjoy playing online games. I found that changing the MAC address of my XBox 360 to match my laptop, logging in with my laptop, and then switching the ethernet cable to my XBox did the trick. And the problem went away almost entirely after I bought a wireless router since I was prompted to log in far less frequently. Finally, for you online gamers out there, be prepared for some latency issues (300 - 400 ms) if you're trying to play with your friends back home in North America.

As for getting a phone, I went with a cheap pay-as-you-go phone since I used Skype to do most of my calling. The provider I used is StarHub and it was fine. Anytime my balance ran low, I was able to pick up a recharge card at any number of convenience stores. Again, I was able to find this at a mall; in particular, I went to the West Coast Mall and I needed a FIN. If you're looking for something fancier, my guess is that you should have no problems. It seems that everyone (even some toddlers like to play with them) have some form of smart phone.

Places of Interest in Singapore

There's a lot to do in Singapore and I don't pretend to be the person to give out comprehensive advice on this topic. However, I've listed a few places that I enjoyed and you might like them too:

Jurong Bird Park: An amazing collection of exotic birds here and I highly recommend visiting. If you have the time, attend the live shows where they bring out the owls, hawks, and eagles. A small but useful detail: wear mosquito repellent as I was bitten a 2-3 times while walking about.

Singapore Botanic Gardens: There is a lot of walking involved and, if possible, I recommend visiting the gardens at a time when it isn't too hot out. We visited in the morning and it was somewhat cloudy, but didn't rain, so it was quite nice. Make sure to visit the Orchid Garden. As I write this, an additional new location is set to open up near Marina Bay and this is likely also worth visiting.

Clarke Quay & Marina Bay: As a postdoc, your schedule is typically flexible. I enjoyed migrating from cafe to cafe (typically, Starbucks or the Tea Leaf) to do work. But regardless of whether or not you're working, a nice little circuit is as follows. Take the train to Clarke Quay (on the North East/Purple line). There's a good foodcourt on the lower level of the mall here with a place called the Curry Cafe that sells a great mutton curry for $4.50 SGD. Further upstairs, at ground level, you have a mall with an attached Starbucks which is a good place to do work; otherwise, exit out the back of the mall, and walk east along the canal.

The canal will take you along to the Boat Quay which is a nice view. There are also many restaurants along here; I don't recommend them, but perhaps you'll find something that I missed, and it's a nice part of the walk. You'll be close to the Raffles Place MRT Station near the UOB building. Check out the statue crafted by Salvador Dali.

If you want pizza, head down into the Raffles Place MRT and find ``Tomatoes'' in the food area. Yes, the pizza is expensive ($9 SGD for the first slice, $4.50 SGD for the second slice), but it's quite good. Otherwise, keep heading towards the Fullerton Hotel; this is a beautiful hotel. Walk through the downstairs area and you'll pop up next to another Starbucks right by the water across from the Marina Sands Hotel, the giant Ferris Wheel, and the Asian Civilisation Museum ; the Merlion is also nearby. It's a beautiful view and, at night, they have light shows; grab a drink, do some work, and enjoy the view.

Dim Sum: If you like dim sum, then I recommend going to Royal China in Raffles Hotel (not Raffles Place, get off at the City Hall MRT location). It's reasonably priced and the quality is quite good (although, not as good as some places in Vancouver); you need to make reservations. Conversely, I would advise not going to the Long Bar which is also nearby. This bar is recommended by many tourist sites/books; however, the consensus from people I've spoken with matches my own opinion: it's far overpriced and the food/atmosphere isn't anything special. If you're looking for a nice bar, try 1-Altitude - yes, it's pricey too, but the view makes it worth at least one visit.

Chilli Crab: Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of places to get seafood in Singapore and I only visited a couple while on the hunt for a good chilli crab. I would recommend Jumbo at Dempsey Hill which had great chilli crab at a reasonable price. I would have liked to go back and try more (like the black pepper crab), but I never could find the time. I don't recommend the No Signboard Seafood Restaurant; the food was just so-so and the service wasn't very good when we went.

Frank Tailor: Shopping for suits in Singapore was trickier than I expected. Several people I spoke with back home seemed to believe that one could purchase great suits at dirt-cheap prices. Perhaps this was once true. Unfortunately, while it may be a little less expensive, the general rule applies today: ``You get what you pay for''.

There are many, many ``tailors'', but I discovered that some do not actually produce their own suits, instead sending them to Malaysia to be sewn; this means that quality control may be lacking. Also, this should be obvious, but be warned if someone offers you a really cheap suit and/or a ready-in-24-hours suit. I read online reviews where people complained of discovering their brand-new suit was actually glued together in several places! Finally, many tailors will enthusiastically show you Italian fabric; however, I learned that some will then switch to a cheaper fabric to make the suit, with you being none the wiser.

Anyway, I'm only repeating what I learned from visiting a few shops and then investigating this online. I can't tell you which tailors engage in these practices. And I can't even tell you that I wasn't similarly deceived. All I can say is that I read a lot of reviews and then decided to go with Frank Tailor, and I wasn't disappointed.

Vanda Boxing Club: While I should probably be preserving what functioning brain cells I have, I tried boxing while in Singapore. The Vanda Boxing Club is a little bit out of the way -- the nearest MRT is Clarke Quay Station -- but it was clean, comfortable, and the staff were professional. I was surprised to find that boxing is mostly about fitness and far less about trying to knock each other about. In fact, sparring can easily be avoided completely and, while learning to take a punch is perhaps a valuable experience, I often found that the regular non-sparring sessions were enough for me. And the workouts are brutal, so if you're looking for fitness, go visit them. They also offer kick boxing if that interests you.

1-Altitude : I mentioned this rooftop bar earlier: 1-Altitude. As you would expect, the drinks are pricey, but it's worth checking out with some friends. When I visited, they had some very nice live music (not too loud, you could easily talk with others) and the place had a lounge-like feel to it. And, since you're roughly 60 floors up, the view is great.

Final Comments

My time in Singapore has been very enjoyable and I'm a little sad to be leaving. It's a beautiful country and one of the few places I would consider living permanently if circumstances were different. However, my wife and family are in N. America and so I'm also happy to be returning closer to home.

If you're planning a visit to Singapore, then I envy you. The information above covers only a tiny fraction of what Singapore has to offer, and I surely did not see everything. The bustling durian stalls, terrific thunder storms, frightening MRT station videos, outdoor aerobics classes by the Boat Quay, the shopping frenzy on Orchard Street, exciting nightlife, city architecture, great food centers ... there is so much to see and do, and I wish you a pleasant stay in Singapore!

-- August 1, 2012