While keeping a lookout for stories about long-term expats in Singapore, we scored a hat-trick: three generations of the same family! Laura and Douglas Lawson live in Serangoon; their son Hugh is married to Rebecca – they live in the Hillview area with their own son Hayden. We chatted with LAURA and REBECCA about their Singapore lives over the years.
The family story
Laura is from California and Douglas is South African. Doug was working in Johannesburg for Chase Manhattan when the company pulled out of South Africa because of apartheid. He then moved to the US, where he met Laura.
Shortly after they were married, they moved to Sydney, followed by a few years in Singapore with Chase Manhattan Bank. They then spent another year in Hong Kong, with Standard Chartered Bank. Laura says it was difficult to manage a growing family in a tiny apartment in Hong Kong, but the kids loved going to the Hong Kong International School.
They moved back to Singapore, enrolling the children at the Singapore American School (SAS). The youngest, George, was born in Gleneagles Hospital – he’s now in the United States Coast Guard in Louisiana. The eldest, Victoria, is a lawyer living in Texas, and Chris is a paramedic firefighter living in Washington.
Second child Hugh was working in the UK at the Guildford office for Allianz when the company offered him a transfer to Singapore. It made perfect sense because he already knew the culture, having grown up here. It also meant that Hayden, who was turning four, would get to live in the same country as his grandparents and spend more time with them.
Rebecca says, “We often say we don’t feel like your ‘regular’ expat family, because we have that extended family unit.”
Indeed, there wouldn’t be too many fathers and sons who can go mountain biking together as two adults the way Doug and Hugh do, exploring trails in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the Railway Corridor and beyond.
It also means that Hayden gets to see his grandparents every weekend. “It’s been a blessing to have them here during the pandemic!” says Rebecca.
Hugh is now APAC Regional Head for Allianz Technology; like many expats, they were initially going to stay for two years – it’s now eight. It seems like they might be following in the footsteps of Laura and Doug, who only planned to stay for six months!
Hugh and Rebecca are on an Employment Pass and Dependant’s Pass respectively, while Doug and Laura are both PR.
Doug and Laura bought a townhouse in Upper Thomson in 1995 and sold it in 2008 when they briefly moved to the US. However, they missed Singapore so much that they returned!
Favourite things about living in Singapore and recommendations for newcomers
Rebecca: One of my favourite things is the weather – I love the heat and being able to wear summer clothes all year. There’s also a lot of choice when it comes to education for children, and Singapore is a safe country for them to grow up in. Having a helper when the kids are young is great too.
For adults, there are job opportunities and the potential for career growth – and low tax! It’s also easy to make both international business and personal contacts.
It’s amazing to be able to explore all of Asia, while still only being a 12-hour flight from the UK and South Africa to visit family (before COVID, that is).
As far as recommendations go, I suggest trying not to stay too much in the “expat bubble”; most of our friends and our son’s friends are Singaporean. This helped make Singapore feel like home – having good local friends to “show us the ropes” and help us appreciate local culture.
I love the culture here – the food, the markets and the many beautiful temples. I enjoy exploring Little India, and also my Buddhist study classes at Kadampa Centre.
When I first moved to Singapore, I felt like there were so many rules – things like no eating on public transport. But I have come to really appreciate living in a strict country; it’s clean, efficient and safe! I remember taking Hayden home to the UK when he was much younger and he was asking why everyone was being “naughty” and eating on the train!
Laura: Singapore is safe, we regularly use public transportation, it’s easy to find help and there is no need to ever be alone. Living in one of the most densely populated cities in the world lends itself to forever creating new friendships and conversations with a wide variety of individuals.
Newcomers would be wise to join some local activities and make friends in the Singapore community. As time passes, many expat friends have returned to their countries; we’re blessed to have the continued friendship of people we met on our arrival many years ago.
One of the greatest things we’re enjoying while riding out the pandemic is increasing our food knowledge of Southeast Asian spices and ingredients and mastering new dishes. It’s fun to familiarise yourself with all the spices at Mustafa’s, for example, or learn to use new ingredients like moringa, and black glutinous rice. Before having a smartphone and Google at hand, exploring Asian recipes was challenging.
Living in Singapore in 1989
The Singapore of 2021 must look quite different to Laura from the one she encountered for the first time 32 years ago. Here, she shares a few insights into what it was like arriving and setting up a life here in 1989.
Our realtor only showed us around the Holland Road area, as all the expats were congregated around there or King’s Road (near the intersection of Farrer and Bukit Timah Roads); that’s where the American School was back then. Anything away from this area was seen to be miles away! We kept getting shown places with massive rooms but no amenities; eventually, we found a place in Chancery Lane (closer to Newton). The small complex was a blessing as our first neighbours have become our lifelong friends.
Buying furniture was incredibly difficult. I ended up finding a picture of a wicker sofa and I got a guy to make it. It was hard to find things and the stores were limited.
There was a man named Jaffar who sold Malaysian teakwood carved cabinets out of a house on Braddell Road, but you didn’t see all the furniture from China, India and Indonesia like you do now.
There are lots of food deliveries today, but even in 1989 it was like that. We had a walk-up, and Peter the delivery man from Heng Heng Groceries would have to climb the stairs with it all. Then he would unload it and go away with the boxes; everything was recycled.
There weren’t many clothes in the stores, but we had Molly the dressmaker – she’d copy pretty much anything for you! And she would also call you like clockwork to check if you needed anything made. Other than that, the local wet markets – like Whampoa – were the place to buy shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts.
Our children learnt some Mandarin, starting at the Casa Dei Bambini Montessori school on Newton. But there was more of a Malay influence then; many people wore batiks and sarongs. We mixed with the locals quite a lot; it was an incredible life – kids had immense freedom and would be climbing trees and grabbing coconuts. They could take buses and taxis safely, and we visited the various cultural enclaves of Singapore, which were more prominent before extensive redevelopment had taken place. When our children went to the States, they felt far more independent than their friends.
We didn’t have low-cost flights, but we would read Lonely Planet guides, and everyone shared their travel notes. We stayed in Ubud, Bali when there was really nothing there but a few guesthouses. From the age of nine, for six years, our youngest, George, travelled over the border to Malaysia every weekend to learn to ride horses at the newly established Riders Lodge in Kulai, Johor. George’s early riding start in Asia led to him later completing a degree in Equestrian Science at the University of Montana. Douglas enjoyed motorbiking in Malaysia and testing the track at the newly built Shah Alam Circuit. After hosting several motorcycle grand prix races, it closed in 2003.
School & Scouts
Tanglin, UWC and the Singapore American School (SAS), which was located on two campuses at Ulu Pandan and King’s Road, were the largest schools. Our kids started at the SAS campuses in town and later moved to the Woodlands campus. Our two younger sons were very involved in the Boy Scouts; I think it really gave them confidence, adventure and vital outdoor skills, all while living in a City State. Hayden enjoyed being a Cub Scout in the same Pack as his uncles. He was especially happy when his Uncle Chris, who is the paramedic, visited and taught first aid to his Den.
What’s next for the Lawsons? For one thing, Laura and Doug, after making tremendous improvements in their health, are certified coaches for a healthy living habits programme they were introduced to by their physician in the states. Since their arrival in 1989, they have witnessed a massive change in diet, an abundance of attractive Western fast food, and a fast-growing rate of obesity and diabetes in Singapore. Now they are actively involved with the Asia expansion of their programme and working in both the expat and local communities. So, it’s never too late to start something new! At some point, the whole family says they plan to retire to America but so far, Singapore always draws them back. We wish them well!
This article first appeared in the January 2022 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
Want to know where to live in Singapore? Have a look at our guide to different neighbourhoods here.