Palma strolls through Singapore’s botanic gardens
Palma strolls through Singapore’s botanic gardens © Kevin WY Lee

I have always wanted to live by the sea. So when it became clear that I was moving to Singapore, I fought the anxiety of leaving behind everyone dearest to me by making a pros-and-cons list about my future home. “Island city” was first to be added to my pros, followed by “summer all year round”. Good riddance, London greyness.

Efficiency was another advantage. Public transport here is great — and cheap. Grab, the south-east Asian ride-hailing app, offers car journeys at lower prices than similar services in London. The city is clean, safe, and everything seems to be a 15-minute drive away at most. Even talking to government officials is easy, thanks to an online database that lists contact details for every public official — a journalist’s dream, though interviews are not guaranteed.

Settling in was smooth. A signed contract and a few WhatsApp messages later, I secured a flat in Outram Park, a central yet quiet neighbourhood full of colonial-era houses.

Like most expats, I live in one of Singapore’s condominiums. While rent is high and my flat is quite small, Singapore is probably one of the few places where a journalist can afford to live in a complex with a swimming pool, gym and multiple Jacuzzis.

Colonial shophouse at Blair Road in Singapore’s Spottiswoode Park neighbourhood
Colonial shophouse at Blair Road in Singapore’s Spottiswoode Park neighbourhood © Kevin WY Lee

Over five months, I have made it a point to explore the city beyond its glitzy skyline, as seen in the film Crazy Rich Asians. The business district includes one of the most ostentatious pieces of architecture in existence: the Marina Bay Sands. This three-towered development includes a casino, a luxury hotel, restaurants, bars, an adjacent mall and an infinity pool on the 57th floor. In sharp contrast are Singapore’s botanic gardens, an oasis in the north where visitors can stroll through the park, its palm-tree forests and orchid garden.

Katong is a residential area to the east that feels more like a seaside town than a district in a major Asian financial centre. There are no high rises in sight, the sea is a stone’s throw away and the area retains a sense of community. Gentrification is obvious, with cafés popping up serving avocado toast and expat families renting out refurbished colonial houses, but shops that have existed for generations can still be found. I visited Katong with a Singaporean who took me to a shophouse selling handmade bamboo furniture.

“These are where we used to sit our kids,” my guide for the day said, pointing to an ingenious table that when flipped over turns into a small chair. “It was so hot we could only sit on bamboo. We didn’t have air conditioning back then,” she said, leaving me dumbstruck at the thought.

Wall mural in the Outram Park neighbourhood
Wall mural in the Outram Park neighbourhood © Kevin WY Lee

Singapore’s humidity — which averages at about 80 per cent throughout the year — has made me reconsider the meaning of the word heat. I thought people were exaggerating when they told me there was no way I would be able to walk 20 minutes to work in the morning, or that standing in the sun while waiting to cross the street is not an option. I have now become a professional shade-spotter.

Traditional coffee houses, serving kopi — Singapore’s strong black coffee with condensed milk — and delicious kaya buns that cost next to nothing, are another feature of Katong. But my favourite café is Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which serves kaya toast and runny, semi-cooked eggs sprinkled with soya sauce and white pepper. Now a franchise, it started off as a coffee stall in the 1940s set up by an immigrant from Hainan island.

Kopi, kaya toast and eggs at Ya Kun Kaya Toast
Kopi, kaya toast and eggs at Ya Kun Kaya Toast © Kevin WY Lee

Food is an enormous part of Singapore’s ethos, which I can relate to as someone who was born and raised in Rome, and for whom meals are less about feeding and more about sharing the experience and enjoying the pleasure of what is eaten — and drunk.

Singaporeans are so obsessed with food that some jump in taxis during their weekday lunch breaks to pick up meals from their favourite spots. At the city’s food courts, you can find almost any Asian cuisine at low prices, including local classics like satay skewers, nasi lemak or chicken rice, which I have grown to love.

Palma having nasi lemak at The Coconut Club
Palma having nasi lemak at The Coconut Club © Kevin WY Lee

But food courts are also a window into local customs such as “choping”, the practice of reserving seats by placing anything from tissue packets, umbrellas, staff passes or plastic bags on tables. Picking up this habit is easy enough. But I occasionally find myself at odds with the inflexibility of this city.

“Singapore is very good at planning,” I was told during my first interview here. It is true. This city-state has flourished with virtually no natural resources, no water security, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious population of fewer than 6m people, and as a small nation balancing relations between the US and China — all thanks to rigorous, forward-thinking planning policies and a dose of paranoia.

Yet impeccable planning and a reverence for rules leave little room for spontaneity or mental elasticity, which as a Mediterranean I find jarring.

My first experience of this was in the most banal of places — an ice-cream shop. In a moment of homesickness, I made a beeline for a gelato stand in one of Singapore’s many malls and asked for a three-scoop cone.

“I’m sorry Madame. We don’t do three scoops,” the staffer said, pointing to a sign that showed one or two-scoop prices.

“Can’t you just add another scoop?” I asked. “I’m sorry Madame, we don’t do three scoops.”

“But I’m happy to pay extra for it,” I said with a nervous laugh, knowing full well that victory was slipping away from me. “I’m sorry,” he concluded.

Spontaneity is perhaps bound to remain curtailed in a city-state that has been ruled by the same party for almost six decades, and where many people do not feel comfortable discussing politics openly. Chatty taxi drivers clam up as soon as they realise I am a journalist, asking not to be quoted for fear of repercussions.

National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens
National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens © Kevin WY Lee

I do not think Singapore will be breaking rules any time soon, especially with an election looming that is already unsettling locals. Singaporean politics has so far been predictable. The city-state has only had three prime ministers since independence from the UK in 1959. But the recently concluded search for a successor to prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has been fraught. “It’s never been this uncertain,” one Singaporean told me. I wonder how they would deal with a circus like Brexit.

Nonetheless, this island has already made one of my dreams come true. My 20th-floor flat has a small balcony looking out to sea, where I spend my mornings drinking cappuccinos and my evenings watching the sun set with a sea breeze blowing. It is a front-row seat overlooking the most spectacular equatorial thunderstorms. Another point for my pro column.

Inside knowledge

BooksActually is an independent bookstore in hip Tiong Bahru that offers a liberal book selection by Singaporean standards (and censorship laws), covering everything from the city’s income inequality to LGBT literature. It is a focal point for the island’s literary scene.

Rumah Bebe is one of the best — and most colourful — spots for Peranakan food. In this four-table restaurant in Katong you can also buy traditional Peranakan clothing or beaded shoes.

National Gallery of Singapore is a lovely refuge from the city centre’s bustle and heat. It also has a rooftop bar with fantastic views of Singapore on a terrace you can cheekily access even without ordering a cocktail.

Buying guide

  • There are restrictions on foreigners buying landed property or Housing & Development Board flats, Singapore’s public housing which hosts more than 80 per cent of the population
  • The eastern side of the island allows residents to live close to the beach, away from the city centre and just a few stops from the airport
  • Foreigners are subject to stamp duties as high as 24 per cent of the property value

What you can buy for . . .

$500,000 A one-bedroom flat in a condominium in Tampines

$1m A two-bedroom flat in a condominium in Novena

$5m A beachside five-bedroom penthouse in Sentosa, the island resort

Stefania Palma is the FT’s Singapore correspondent

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