How to be a Singapore local: 10 ways to fake it

How to be a Singapore local: 10 ways to fake it

Don't leave home without a pack of tissues and learn how to talk properly, "lah"

You probably know it as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” (thank you, William Gibson), but few can deny Singapore is one fine city. 

As in, the fines still exist, the Merlion remains cheesy and the city is just as disconcertingly clean and green as ever.

But fitting in with the locals isn't as easy as one might think. 

Whether you’re stopping over on a visit or moving here full-time, these 10 tips will help you get with the Singapore vibe faster than you can say “can, lah!”

1. How to get a seat at a hawker center

Hawker center tables don't stay empty for long. Stake your claim with a packet of tissues. Or an iPhone. Don't ever leave home without a packet of tissues. Not only will you use the tissues to mop the sweat off your brow, but you'll need it to "chope" (translation: reserve) a table at a hawker center.

It's an unspoken but understood indicator of an already occupied table. Under no circumstances should you remove a packet of tissue paper placed at an empty hawker center table and sit down.

Also, if you see an iPhone being employed in a similar manner, the owner merely forgot to bring his/her tissue packet and this is the next best thing. Again, do not assume it’s free for the taking.

If you’re getting desperate, zero in on a table of diners and hover. The closer you stand to them, the faster they will slurp down their noodles and vacate their seats. Score!


2. How to drive

Just two things to remember when hitting the mean streets of Singapore. Horn: good. Signal light: bad. Cars are exorbitantly expensive in Singapore -- it costs at least S$63,000 (US$51,400) just to be allowed to buy one, never mind the actual purchase price -- so you'd think people who own them would drive carefully.

They don't. 

Switching lanes in Singapore is best done in this manner: speed up, slowly drift across, and flip the indicator only at the very last moment before cutting in.

Signaling any earlier will let drivers behind know you want to get in front of them, so they'll speed up to close any possible gaps.

Horns are used liberally. Not to warn others about impending danger but to shame them for bad driving or not moving through a parking gantry quickly enough.


3. How to speak

When in doubt, consult your trusty Singlish Dictionary. Or just slap "lah" onto the end of every sentence.English may be the official language but Singlish is Singapore’s master tongue.

A colloquial form of English spiced with half-a-dozen or more other languages, locals sprinkle their speech with seemingly random Singlish words such as: siao (crazy), meh (to express surprise) and oi (to get someone’s attention).

When in doubt, consult The Coxford Singlish Dictionary for a full glossary. But if it all proves too baffling, focus on mastering the use of "lah." 

Just as Australians employ "mate" and the English "innit," "lah" is often used at the end of a sentence in place of and/or together with a full stop, question mark or an exclamation mark.

Useful sentences include: “Today is very hot, lah!” “Can you tell me where the closest MRT station is, lah?” “I swear I’m not married, lah.”

4. How to dance 

Dear, sweet Belinda. You'll always be a star in Singapore. Singapore’s highly controlled public image spills over to its residents' preferences for mass forms of organized dance.

While elders pull on chaps, don a cowboy hat and break out into public line dancing exhibitions, youngsters prefer cheesy dance routines performed to late 1980s and early 1990s tunes complete with literal hand movements.

Popular tunes include Belinda Carlisle’s “Circle in the Sand”, Al Corley’s “Square Rooms” and Rick Astley’s “Never Going to Give you Up."

The cheese factor is all part of the fun so as the lyrics prompt you, make circles in imaginary sand, heart shapes with your fingers and squares with utmost conviction.


5. How to dress

"I know it's Louis Vuitton. But I think I'd prefer one with a bigger logo, lah." Singaporean women are bag ladies. They’d rather survive on instant noodles than forgo the opportunity to tote the latest designer bag.

Preferred brands are the ones with obviously placed logos (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and Chanel).

The Singaporean male is also no stranger to designer brands and logos. But don’t squeeze him into a Hedi Slimane suit, it’s too hot.

What’s Sunday best? A Ralph Lauren polo T-shirt (collar popped up), a pair of Bermudas plus the latest model of Havaianas or Crocs.

Also, no one wears a suit during the day. Do that and everyone will know you’re a Singapore virgin.


6. How to get the most out of your taxi ride

Get on with "uncle" or "auntie" –- that’s how most Singaporeans address elders, especially taxi drivers –- and you’re halfway towards obtaining permanent residency status.

Start by greeting your newfound uncle, asking how his day is. If there is no response, press on and ask for tips on where and what you should eat.

If this still proves futile, ask for an opinion on the government; but beware this will likely open up the floodgates.

Oh, and don’t bother asking uncle to use the built-in GPS, it’ll only get him or her flustered.

Turn on your data roaming, pull up a map, or just ask for a street directory.

More on CNN: Singapore's most tech-enabled taxi 


7. How to spend your weekends

Walking through the shopping mall all day hunting for sales is both mentally and physically exhausting. Many Singaporeans turn to reflexology for relief. Before 4 p.m., it’s often too hot or rainy to venture outside, so locals prefer weekends to follow a surefire combination of eating-shopping-napping-foot rub-movies -- and usually in that order.

Weekend meals either involve a lazy brunch at the latest dining hot spot or driving across the island for bowl of wonton noodles that you’ll have to spend 30 minutes queuing for.

To walk off the food, wander aimlessly around the nearest shopping mall; if there’s an IKEA close by, even better.

Once you've digested, it’s off for a session of reflexology where uncle will get rid of the week’s stresses.

To round off the day, navigate yourself into a darkened movie theatre where the audience will burst out in giggles at toilet humor or any reference to sex -- especially when the jokes aren’t funny.


8. How to avoid getting fined or jailed while …

Go ahead, chew away. Just don't get caught trying to sell the sticky stuff. ... chewing gum

According to the law, you can chew gum for therapeutic value. Read into this loose interpretation whatever you like.

Just don’t bring huge quantities into Singapore, or they'll assume it's for sale on the black market. 

... being artistic through graffiti

Swiss graffiti "artist" Oliver Fricker should have just done what young Singaporeans do. Keep spray-painting talents to the confines of the *scape Youth Park, where it’s been deemed kosher.


9. How to shop

Rare is the Singaporean who can walk past a sign like this and resist the urge to shop. If it’s not on sale or there isn’t a queue, you don’t want it.

Adopt the Singaporean obsession with bargains and purchase a product only if it’s on sale. If you have to pay full retail price, badger the sales assistant for a discount or freebies -– they usually crack after 10 minutes.

The only time you should willingly pay full price for anything is when there’s a queue. The time spent lining up adds to your bragging rights and shows you’re a true-blue Singaporean shopper.


10. How to express yourself

Complaining is a national sport so don’t be afraid to express your displeasure at any of the following: bad service, the soaring cost of living, public transport delays and your favorite hawker stall closing down.

However, speaking up is preferably done online and not at Speakers’ Corner, where a permit is required before you can get on your soapbox.

Online forums and comment threads tagged to stories such this one is where you really feel the pulse (and angst) of the people. 

Got your own tips on how to be a Singapore local? Share them in the comments box below. 

In between sunning herself in the Caribbean, Bali and other exotic locales, Charlene Fang keeps her feet (and fingers) grounded as the managing editor of inSing.com. She blames her wanderlust on the years spent working as the editor of CNNGo Singapore and Time Out Singapore. Her ramblings have also been published by the likes of Travel+Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Wallpaper*, ELLE and The Australian.

Read more about Charlene Fang
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