Top things to know before visiting Singapore – rules, insights, and tips to keep you out of trouble, and some thoughts on risk and rebellion.
Thoughts on Risk and Rebellion
“You were a rebellious kid, and that scared us”, my mother recently told me in a soothing voice, the kind that comes from the comforting realization that the storm is now long gone.
It feels strange to hear that about yourself some 20 years later. It’s even funny when your inner voice argues that today you’re too compliant to the status quo for your own good.
Risk-taking used to come naturally to me, but something changed over the past few years, although it’s hard to point out exactly what made me more mellow. Even so, traveling fills my heart with enthusiasm and so I find myself embracing challenges with ease all over again.
Guess the thrill is what motivates most of us to overcome that initial fear, anticipating the reward at the end of that leg-shaking experience; but I never considered myself brave, quite the opposite.
Soon after becoming a frequent traveler, I realized that the fear of flying and the occasional panic attacks induced by my fear of heights can be diminished considerably just by increasing the frequency of exposure.
Since then, I started appreciating uncomfortable destinations and difficult journeys more by realizing they were the best teachers.
These are the places that lay countless rules, traps, and strange social norms in front of you, forcing you to adapt in the blink of an eye and to accept even the most “outrageous” things.
Once you realize that “outrageous” is just a product of your own social biases and the outcome of the norms you were born into, adapting to and accepting new meanings for social constructs like “outrageous” comes naturally.
Singapore Rules & Insights
Singapore managed to awake the rebel within by unpleasantly highlighting the importance of obeying rules as part of the status quo and as the must-pay price for freedom. Therefore, visiting Singapore often felt like walking on eggshells.
Navigating so many unknown rules with uncertainty can be daunting, and even those rules you know you won’t break make you feel uneasy because punishments and penalties signs greet you at every turn.
Even now, after checking out of Singapore for the second time using my thumb’s fingerprint, I can’t shake off the goosebumps I got every morning and every night at the sight of that death penalty notice sitting casually on my hotel room’s table.
I won’t hide it…once you become aware of the many laws in place and how they can affect your life, visiting Singapore becomes less thrilling, making even the most rebellious of us act with caution.
Despite this feeling of unease, Singapore can make you love rules by showing their wonderful fruits: a seemingly perfect society, where everybody understands that obeying the many laws in place has a direct impact on the quality of their life.
“Your freedom ends when your actions limit the freedom of those around you” is something we’ve all heard before, but Singapore seems to have the best and the harshest implementation of this concept, at least from all the destinations I’ve visited so far.
While there are many laws in Singapore that I still don’t know about, I’d like to go over a few rules that helped me navigate this city-state without getting into trouble or paying the huge fines.
It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, and I highly recommend you do more research before visiting the city-state, but I hope it will be a good starting point for a first-time traveler in Singapore.
15 Things to know before visiting Singapore
1. Beware of Undercover Cops
This was the first piece of advice we got from our hotel receptionist, right after her “Welcome to Singapore” greeting and just before she finished our check-in process.
“You’re not in Kansas anymore / Can’t be too careful, that’s for sure” starts playing in your head on repeat, and it stays with you until your finger is up for scanning while checking-out from Singapore.
2. “Drugs = Death Sentence” is a note sitting on your hotel room’s table
The most bizarre thing about Singapore was seeing this notice sitting on our hotel room’s table, day in and day out, every morning and every night.
Don’t know about you, but the only note you might get from a hotel in my country is “Welcome to Hotel X”.
While we understood right away that all hotels have to display this not so kind reminder, the Marketer in me felt the need for an additional sugar-coated message to balance out this notice… but there wasn’t any.
At some point, I even considered throwing the notice in the garbage can, but it soon became clear that a new one was going to show up in the room the very next day, so I didn’t do it.
During our stay in Singapore, we saw warnings about the Death Penalty for Drug Dealing in the most unexpected places, and even if our minds needed some extra time to process the info each time and understand that we were in no danger, at some point we got used to it.
3. Don’t Eat or Drink in Public Transport or around Bus / Metro Stations
Drinking and eating in public transport is forbidden in Singapore.
As with the death penalty notice for drug dealing, this is also one message you just can’t ignore because it greets you inside each bus or train.
This is one of the rules in Singapore that was a bit harder to obey during the first day, and even more so in the first couple of hours following our long-haul flight (12,5 hours).
I felt like drinking water all the time, and it was necessary considering my swallowed ankles. My entire body was screaming for water, but self-discipline had to be exerted.
Obeying this rule was rough, and my body remained swallowed for the next ten days because of it. Well, at least I didn’t get a fine. Not much of a bargain, I know.
4. Durians are forbidden indoors
If you’ve never been to South East Asia before, then you must be careful when buying and eating durian fruits. You have to plan this one. 🙂 They’re usually sold on the streets and they smell awful indoors, therefore most hotels ban it.
This was the third SE Asian country we’ve been to, so we knew about durians being forbidden fruit. We never had one though, mainly because it never seems like the right time to eat durian and so we kept postponing until we forgot all about it.
5. Don’t bring or consume Chewing Gum in Singapore
This is the best-known rule among travelers, but I haven’t seen any signs that chewing gum is forbidden in Singapore, not even inside the Changi Airport. Still, it would be wise to refrain from bringing or consuming chewing gum in Singapore.
Curious by nature, I searched for the behind-the-scenes story of this “outrageous” rule in Singapore, and found so many different versions that it was impossible to trust any of them.
While I haven’t found a satisfying answer to why it’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore or even a clear confirmation that it’s still outlawed (some argue that it’s not anymore), we decided not to test our luck on this one.
Instead of looking at this Singaporean rule as a limitation to our personal freedom, we chose to direct our attention to its benefits: clean streets and no sticky incidents.
Stepping into chewing gum is something that happens to all of us at some point, and you must admit that it’s one the grossest things ever. Also, cleaning it requires effort, even more, if it’s on clothes and not shoes; therefore I must say that this rule is not too bad.
6. Smoking is not forbidden in Singapore, but you can still get a huge fine for it
Smoking in Singapore is strongly discouraged by a 300 SGD fine you can get if caught smoking in a forbidden place.
Designated smoking areas are just a yellow rectangle or square drawing on the pavement, with an ashtray sitting in the middle, and they’re very hard to come by.
I only found 5 during my time in Singapore, even if we wandered a few neighborhoods. Three smoking areas are placed around Marina Bay, an area you’ll keep coming back to during your stay in Singapore.
Remember those undercover cops in Singapore? Well, if you’re a smoker, it’s going to be pretty hard to resist the urge, but self-discipline must prevail if you don’t want to pay that huge fine.
Smoking is forbidden everywhere: in hotel rooms and on their open balconies, on the open terraces of most restaurants and cafés, but also in parks, on the streets, and around bus stations. As far as I could tell, you can’t smoke anywhere outside a yellow square or rectangle with a clear smoking area sign and an ashtray.
I haven’t seen any markets or stores selling cigarettes, but maybe there are a few hidden ones around Singapore.
While I got to keep the ten packs of cigarettes brought from home for personal use with no issue, I’ve read that sometimes you might be left without them; we placed most packs inside the checked-in luggage and had no issues.
7. Refrain from Public Display of Affection in Singapore
Although you might see other people hold hands, kiss or hug in public places, it’s better not to tempt faith and refrain from public display of affection.
8. Always Walk On the Left Side & Look Right Before Crossing Streets
As it’s the case with most ex-British colonies, looking right before crossing the streets is the norm since they drive “on the wrong side of the road”. 🙂
Unlike London, where big signs on pavements signal to you this mandatory behavioral change, Singapore does not, and so the adjustment is pretty hard. When you’re taught to look left first from a very young age, this is one of those movements you’re not really aware of; some signs would have helped me a lot.
On the other hand, walking on the left side on the streets and on the escalators was easier to adjust to.
9. Jaywalking is severely fined in Singapore
This is probably the only rule I broke during my stay in Singapore, and that’s only because I wanted to take a few photos that required me standing in the middle of the road a couple of times. I didn’t get caught, but that doesn’t mean it was ok to do it.
10. Don’t Litter Anywhere in Singapore
Singapore is the cleanest destination I’ve ever been to, and those huge fines for littering the streets are probably the main reason behind it. Maybe more countries should implement similar laws and fines because that would surely make the world a better place.
11. Don’t Spit on the Street
Another wonderful rule that keeps the streets of Singapore squeaky clean refers to this nasty habit. As far as I’ve read, Chinese people spitting on the streets brought this rule to Singapore. Since I live in the so-called Chinatown of Bucharest, I have many reasons to applaud this rule and the huge fines that come with it.
12. No graffiti and vandalism, of course
Wandering the Arab Quarter and Little India, I found many beautiful street artworks and big murals. As it’s the case in most countries, a permit is needed before starting these art projects.
Graffiti is forbidden in Singapore, and so is vandalism.
There’s a subtle but important difference between murals, street art, and graffiti – the first two are usually considered art forms while graffiti is largely viewed as being outside the law.
13. Don’t feed the Pigeons in Singapore
While many countries discourage people from feeding the pigeons by displaying various signs, Singapore is the only state that I know of that actually fines you for doing this. I haven’t seen any pigeons around the neighborhoods we visited in Singapore, but I haven’t seen the entire city-state either. The fine for feeding pigeons is around 1000 SGD, so I wouldn’t have risked it.
14. Wild Encounters – How to act when meeting otters inside Gardens by the Bay
Singapore is one of the very few places in the world where otters live in great numbers right in the middle of the urban jungle.
When we went to Satay by the Bay for dinner, we saw a couple of signs about the otters living inside the Gardens by the Bay. And while I was ready for this type of wild encounter by day, courage left me at night, and I was pretty scared of meeting otters and not knowing how to react.
Should I run? Should I freeze and let them pass? All sorts of questions kept coming at me at the sight of those signs, so when I got back to our hotel room, I did a bit of research and found out a few things you might want to know before visiting the most remote corners of the Gardens by the Bay.
“Otters are generally shy and will move away when approached. However, like most wild animals, otters will protect themselves and their young if they get cornered and cannot escape. As such, if you encounter an otter, please do not touch, chase or corner it. Instead, observe from afar.” (*Source)
Thankfully, we didn’t meet any otters that night, but I would love to see them by day on our next trip to Singapore.
15. Respect the Taxi Drivers or Else…
We took a taxi to the airport the first time we left Singapore and found the two stickers below on the cab’s windows. It’s how we found out that disrespecting or abusing taxi drivers will get you huge fines and even some jail time.
One last tip
Even if these are the top rules and things to know before visiting Singapore, please take some time to do extra research since it might save you some money and keep you out of trouble.
Also, please remember that despite the many laws, rules, and restrictions in place, Singapore is amazing and should be experienced at least once in a lifetime. It was also one of the most interesting and fun destinations we visited last year.
Singapore| December 2018 | All Photos ©Ana Matei > Instagram: @MateiAna