6 Touchy Issues Expats Must be Aware of in Singapore

6 min read

Enough about how we say “one” or “lah”. Here’s a no-holds barred look at what expats should know, to really avoid confrontations:

1. Don’t make us explain the chewing gum ban, we’re tired of reciting it

Gum is one of the Touchy Issues Expats Must be Aware of in Singapore
We’re done explaining this one; see below on the chewing gum ban. Please.

This is actually two points. First, whatever joke you’re going to make chewing gum, we’ve heard it. Don’t bother. Second, the average Singaporean has had to explain the chewing gum ban to nine out of 10 foreigners we meet. So for the last time, here’s the clarification:

  • You don’t get caned for chewing gum. In fact, it’s not even illegal to chew gum – it’s illegal to import and sell it (and you’ll get fined for that, not caned).
  • Some types of gum are allowed, such as for dental or medicinal purposes.
  • It’s not because it “jams the MRT”. That’s just a bad example someone once gave on TV, and it never went away. Singapore will ban just about anything that costs too much in taxpayer dollars to clean up.

2. Don’t mock the food

If there’s one way to get Singaporeans to unite, it’s to make fun of local food. Back in 2012, Diner En Blanc almost provoked a revolt when attendants were told not to bring local food. And as we write this, Singapore is applying to have its hawker culture enshrined under UNESCO.

6 Touchy Issues Expats Must be Aware of in Singapore
Our fertility rate is low, but our food scene is thriving. We literally like food more than children.

We’re serious enough to start a major fight with Malaysia over this whole food thing – from the spelling of chendol (THAT IS HOW IT’S SPELLED), to where dishes originated from. To be safe, just don’t ever mouth the words “actually I thought chilli crab was from Malaysia?”


3. Yes, we’re a nation of complainers; but know the upside before calling us out on it

Singaporeans aren’t angry or violent people; we’re complainers instead.

When we feel the cost of living is too high, we don’t picket our parliament house and throw bricks – we just have a good moan on the Straits Times forum. When we feel certain laws are too restrictive, we don’t incite revolt – we have a shared rant about it with a taxi driver.

6 Touchy Issues Expats Must be Aware of in Singapore
Singaporeans complain. It’s a plus point, since we do this instead of actually fighting.

Our complaining is not all bad, since we use it as a harmless (if sometimes annoying) replacement for violence. Once you understand this, the complaining becomes much easier to accept.

On a related note, do not attempt to resolve our complaining by providing some kind of answer. You’re just inviting a longer and more detailed complaint; it’s like trying to put out a fire with petrol. Just leave it till we stop.

4. Despite being a model of racial harmony, race is still a touchy topic

6 Touchy Issues Expats Must be Aware of in Singapore
We’re intolerant toward intolerance. It’s a paradox, but it mostly works.

Two out of three Singaporeans won’t touch on the topic of race, to avoid any confrontation. Key danger zones include:

  • Essentialism – the idea that certain traits are somehow innate in certain races. This is rubbish from the days of British colonialism, when it was held that certain races were more prone to laziness or theft.
  • Ethnic quotas – There is an ethnic quota to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves in certain neighbourhoods – but sellers hate it when the quota is filled, and it restricts who they can sell to. Some Singaporeans also consider it archaic.
  • Racism in rentals – This is not specific to Singapore; but many landlords will stand by their right to choose tenants based on race, and still claim it’s not a racial thing. The conversation on this can get heated really fast.
  • Political positions and race – There are some local issues about not choosing a non-Chinese Prime Minister, or our reserving the President’s position for Malays. This is a really touchy topic, which expats are advised to tiptoe around.

5. Resale flat prices

Saying that flat prices are too high will irk pro-government types, or those who own flats and want their profits. Saying flat prices are affordable will irk pro-opposition types, who fear they and their children won’t be able to afford homes (and they’ll see you as being “disconnected”, more so if you’re already an expat).

It’s very hard to take a stand on home affordability without provoking one side or the other.

HDB flats in Singapore
No, it doesn’t help that we live so close together when we’re also fighting over this.

(Private property prices aren’t as inflammatory – 82 per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB flats, so we’re more concerned with the public housing market).

If you really want to know more details, check out the flat prices and issues here, instead of starting that conversation.

6. Domestic helpers can be a pretty touchy issue as well

To be clear, Singapore does crack down on those who abuse domestic helpers; but there are also surveys that say six out of 10 domestic helpers are abused.

Domestic helpers at a showroom
Maybe for starters, some maid agencies can stop price-labelling them like supermarket products.

Some Singaporeans really do believe their maids should never go out, never keep their own cash, not have internet access, etc. Conversely, many Singaporeans are strong supporters of better rights for domestic workers – and the head-to-head clashes between the two get heated.

Expats inevitably notice this, such as if your domestic helper is ever denied entry to your country club.

Whatever your stance on this, just bear in mind that it’s a sensitive issue locally.

What else do you find Singaporeans are sensitive about? Voice your thoughts in our comments section or on our Facebook community page.

Looking for a property? Find the home of your dreams today on Singapore’s largest property portal 99.co! You can also access a wide range of tools to calculate your down payments and loan repayments, to make an informed purchase.

About Ryan Ong

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