What do expats find difficult about living in Singapore? How easy is it to make friends/ build new connections with people in Singapore? Here’s the general low-down on feelings expressed by both myself & other expats living in SG:
People can seem unkind…
The self-centered “every man for himself” mindset of Singaporians can wear you down. People living in Singapore are mostly individuaistic due to the daily grind of a rigorously-routined life. The materialistic goals of the general population is evident in the flashy cars and other status symbols. Singaporeans have many layers, both around their complicated personality and how the society is structured. They are not the most open-minded bunch and don’t come across as friendly. They cling to familiarity and are difficult to chat to.
I miss being able to make small talk. Especially if you come from a country like the US, Canada, Australia or South Africa where people are generally super friendly, outgoing and tend to engage in small-talk with people everywhere. In Singapore, this gets met with confusion and uneasiness. People don’t greet or smile at one another in the elevator, bus or MRT, let alone bother with small talk. Public transport can be super depressing with the view of people looking like literal zombies on their phone or falling asleep from exhaustion – no chatter; no life. The customer service experience can be challenging here too (perhaps has to do with it not being a tipping culture so I suppose people don’t care to be friendly). Expats eventually adopt this closed-off behaviour as well. Some cab drivers can be super chatty though!
On the other hand, to be fair to locals, making friends with locals ANYWHERE is not an easy task. Locals already have their social circle built up over time and in their comfort zone. They are not as keen as expats to mix with new people. If I think of myself when living in my home country, I didn’t exactly feel the need to go out of my way to make new friends. I had my childhood/ family/ school friends, uni crowd etc. Local people don’t have much incentive trying to make friends with foreigners. The local friends you make are likely to have travelled or lived abroad and returned. You will need to have the patience and effort to break into a local group.
Most people are here on short term contracts or as a stepping stone, so sad when they leave…
Befriending Singaporians is not easy. So despite many people exclaiming they want to get to know the locals and not only hang out with expats, that is what often tends to inevitably happen. So if you are limiting your friendships to foreigners (whether deliberate or not) you come up against the problem that the population is transient. You can spend a lot of effort creating a great social life, and then have to deal with those friends leaving. To overcome this, you need to make a fairly constant effort to meet new people. The upside of that is, because everyone is pretty much in the same boat, it’s pretty easy to do. There are many Facebook groups, and expat events being organised on social networking platforms. The downside is that sense of deja-vu, having the same conversations again and again: “where are you from? Why are you here?” etc… the longer you stay, the more exhausting conjuring up the effort to begin the process again and again becomes. Also, you are not necessarily likely to to ‘click’ with everyone, but you will definitely have the opportunity to find friends you DO ‘click’ with.
Never enough time…
Working hours aren’t conducive to easily making or nurturing new friendships outside of the workplace. If you want to work here, you’re expected to adhere to the 9-6 (or more) rule. People generally don’t have much of a life, aside from going out for food or drinks at bars. You have to really put in an effort to find yourself a social circle and cultivate hobbies – not to mention find the balance between work and play (what’s that? Can it even exist in SG?!)
The lives of expats in Singapore can be easy in other ways. It is easy to get maids to clean the house, take care of kids and cook for the family. Public transport is amazing. It’s a clean and safe country. It’s great being able to travel to Bali or any other beautiful, cheap South East Asian country easily – even just for a weekend if you want. Expat life can be way easier here if you’re comparing to a country like Japan. It’s pretty much an expat bubble with the opportunity to mix with many nationalities from around the world. English is the main language which makes it easy to communicate (once you become accustomed to the accent). There is a wide variety of food (expensive, however, if it’s not from a Hawker centre).
Overall, the biggest obstacle is finding orientation in this complex and diverse society, and choosing your tribe wisely. Not sure whether it’s the terrible weather, the fast-paced life, or the ever-changing state of Singapore, but I personally haven’t found it the easiest place to adapt to. Not having seasons makes time fly by so fast. Life here is all too sterile, many conforming by cultural default, and you slowly feel yourself becoming like that too as being “too individualistic” is viewed as negative. I desperately find myself craving a sense of community, openness and rootedness. I am 2 years in, yet have never felt Singapore really tug at my heartstrings.