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Leaving Singapore: Former-expats share their thoughts on leaving the island to return home

Leaving Singapore: Former-expats share their thoughts on leaving the island to return home 

In Singapore, expats come and go all the time. Some go kicking and screaming; others are ready to leave. But after they’ve settled in elsewhere, what is it that they do or do not miss about Singapore?

Anyone in their right mind would miss the low crime rate and clean streets, but few seem to shed tears over the “energy-sapping humidity”, as departed Aussie Karen Gould calls it. Everyone agrees Changi Airport can’t be matched and that the regional travel opportunities via Singapore are amazing. “I miss the cheap spicy food,” says Switzerland-based Liz Le Feuvre, echoing another popular sentiment. Most people praise Singapore’s cultural diversity and its great schools, though aggressive driving and the COE rarely make it to the happy list. Beyond these unanimous feelings, opinions diverge.

“Welcome to Comfort and City Cab…”

Once they’ve moved somewhere else, lots of people miss the ease of getting around Singapore, including Pallu Gupta who now lives near Washington DC. While we all complain how hard it is to get a taxi during a rainstorm at rush hour, at least we can eventually get one. Being able to call for one is an affordable option not available in many other places in the world.

“The MRT is an amazing system, and the buses and taxis are plentiful. We didn’t have a car the whole time we lived in Singapore and only rarely regretted it,” says American Natalie Theis de Pareja who lived here for six years.

Yet you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

One expat male who lived here for a decade thinks Singapore’s efficiency is overrated (and the local newspapers, too, he adds), pointing to frequent flooding of the roadways and MRT breakdowns as evidence.

Still, compared to most other places, Singapore doesn’t suffer too many infrastructure problems. In fact, some of us sniggered at the dramatic newspaper headlines and indignant commuters during the rare MRT breakdown last year. Stalled trains and disrupted service are business as usual in other big cities around the world.

White sand trumps volcanic rock

While Singapore is without a doubt a great jumping-off point for many great travel spots, from Angkor Wat to Bangkok, Bali and Borobudur, if you’re a beach person, you may have noticed many beaches in Southeast Asia are rocky, narrow, litter-filled and algae-ridden, or hostage to reckless jet-skiers zipping too close to swimmers.

According to Shazia Khawaja, who lived in Singapore for eight years before moving back to New York City, the beaches in the region aren’t nearly as good as they’re often portrayed. Easy for her to say now – she’s a short flight away from the Caribbean, home to some of the world’s best strips of sand.

Speaking of easy, you either embrace the maid thing in Singapore or you don’t. While Pallu unabashedly misses the two live-in helpers she had during her 11 years in Singapore, and Jasmine Harris longs for the freedom she had to hang out with friends any time of day, for others, a maid is a novelty that isn’t hard to give up.

“Having a maid in Singapore was great at the time, but the whole concept is overrated; it’s very easy to go back to not having one,” Ramsey Mayhew says from California’s Silicon Valley, in between mopping floors and ironing a stack of her husband’s work shirts.

Some short-term expats skip hiring a live-in maid altogether, choosing not to spoil the kids or sacrifice their privacy, and that makes the transition to another country much easier. On the other hand, plenty of expats and locals alike feel they can’t survive without a live-in helper to cook, clean and mind the kids; for some, it’s one of the main reasons they live in Singapore.

Leaving Singapore: Former-expats share their thoughts on leaving the island to return home

Chilli crab and umbrella palms

I agree with Leta Dempsey, who moved back to Australia in late 2012, that Singapore’s chilli crab isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: so much trouble and mess for so little reward. Now if you’re talking about a bowl of delicious laksa, that’s a different story; or the addictive dumplings at Din Tai Fung or the dosas at Komala’s. New York City-based Sudeep Auroa still dreams about the kaya toast he used to eat when he and his family lived here a few years ago.

Sudeep misses a lot of things about Singapore: taking his kids to Airport Road to see the planes and being able to take a ferry to the Indonesian island of Bintan in the same time it would take to drive to New Jersey. He still thinks about Singapore’s astoundingly beautiful nature spots (especially when he’s stuck in a stalled NYC subway car several dozen feet below ground) and he misses walks in the Botanic Gardens at dusk.

Not everyone agrees. “How can you enjoy being outside when you are so hot?” Jasmine asks.

Hong Kong resident Ildiko Fecser feels the same way. “I hated to go out in the daytime and hated opening the windows,” she says of her few years in Singapore.

It wasn’t the heat that bothered Leta, it was Singapore’s cheeky monkey population that made her think twice about heading outdoors. Otherwise, Leta has nothing but praise for Singapore, especially its medical care and low crime.

“We felt safe in Singapore,” she adds. “People often think Singapore is too regulated and too clean, but it’s not true; Singapore is simply a perfectly managed city.”

Leaving Singapore: Former-expats share their thoughts on leaving the island to return home 

Beyond the shopping malls

And within the perfectly managed city are hundreds of perfectly manicured shopping malls; one thing Sudeep and many other former expats don’t miss. Not being able to find tall-man clothes in any of them didn’t help.

“I found the endless shopping malls overwhelming,” says Brit Sue Sargeant of her two years here. In the same vein, her compatriot Liz doesn’t miss the materialistic side of Singapore.

Departed expat Karen agrees, and that’s why she focused on learning more about Singapore’s culture, political undercurrents and people when she lived here. While some expats aren’t interested in digging deeper, plenty do try to peel the onion. Novels like Tanamera by Noel Barber, docent classes at Singapore’s museums and icons like local tour guide Geraldene Lowe have helped countless expats get under Singapore’s skin a bit to appreciate its history and nuances.

“The most underrated thing in Singapore is the civility of it all,” says Ramsey, who lived here for five years. Sudeep agrees, recalling Singaporeans as hardworking and generous.  

“People are generally polite, respectful and kind in Singapore. Life in the US seems much more hectic, hostile and hard,” Ramsey says. “I’ve found that people are not as open-minded or curious about others and often times are downright hostile to new people and situations. To me, Americans seem more isolationist and more threatened by the global economy.”

Phlegm balls and rainstorms

There’s one thing I wish I could isolate myself from: the old man who always seems to be loudly expectorating outside our apartment windows. How this frail-looking man manages to create such graphic sound is a mystery, but mostly it’s just disgusting. Fellow American Natalie agrees. “I definitely don’t miss people spitting on the sidewalks,” she says.

What I will miss, though we’re not leaving anytime soon, is the rain. Tropical rain is different from the dreary kind found in other parts of the world; it makes things greener, not greyer. I love the sound of the drops hitting the giant leaves of the breadfruit trees. I love the branch-bending drama and the thunder, lightning and howling winds of the sudden squalls that blow in like all hell letting loose. It feels wonderfully primeval.

At the end of the day, every place has its pros and cons, and Singapore’s long list of pluses continues to attract hordes of expats, many of whom wish they could have stayed longer.

“Another year in Singapore would have been nice,” Sue says with a sigh.