A Singapore Survival Guide for Expat Wives

I have now been an expat wife for two years. Settling down in Singapore is relatively easy. It’s easy to get around, it’s safe to go anywhere alone, there’s no fear that someone will snatch your purse. However, while the country is an easy place to settle down at, living around Singaporeans can take much getting used to.

I have listened attentively to the horror that some expat wives are going through when moving to Singapore. Their stories are not unique, for I also experience some of the things they told me. It took me one good year myself to understand the Singaporean behavior and how to get around it successfully without being stressed out.

So I decide to write this …. so expat wives don’t need to spend 12 months or so figuring out these things on their own, stressing themselves out along the way.

1. Don’t expect them to be considerate. They will still slam the door on your face and won’t hold the elevator door open for you, even if you are struggling to carry six shopping bags and have a baby in arm.

A friend of mine had been knocked over by a Singaporean when she swung her car door open without looking, hitting my friend to the point where she fell onto the grass. This lady did not even helped her up, apologized, let alone offered to buy her new clothes. She just walked off as if nothing happened.

In another occasion, my Japanese friend was hit by a car which reversed out of the parking lot without looking. My friend wasn’t hurt, but the driver apologized only after her husband knocked on his window and blocked the car’s way out until the guy apologized to his wife.

2. Ask them to speak English s l o w e r. Regardless of what you read in the brochures that Singapore is an English-speaking country, many expats find their English hard to comprehend – not only because they speak a distinct Singlish, but also because they speak rapidly. So ask them to speak slowly. Even my husband and I, who have spent quite a few years here, still have to do this in restaurants and shops.

3. Occasionally, you need to scream to get proper service. Almost no one has ever heard me raising my voice, let alone see my rage. But in Singapore, generally speaking, customer service or any of your service providers don’t answer your questions or solve your issues if you say it nicely. It’s like … as if, “If you make your complaints nicely, then obviously you’re not bothered much by it.” Then they have 1001 reasons to say, “Someone will call you back”, “Sorry, cannot!” or “This is not our fault” until you lose your patience.

So I have learned over time that in extreme cases, the only way to get proper service in Singapore is to raise the tone of your voice plus refuse to leave until you get a firm solution. I have several other posts that show when I consider this necessary. When you do this, make sure there are other people around you who will hear you and make the customer service looks like a total fool. And, again, refuse to leave until you get a solution (and by the way, a solution doesn’t include, “Someone will call you back in three days.” They almost never call you back).

Some people have called me bad-tempered and rude for suggesting this. But think about it this way. If you’re a mother like me, you would know that there would be occasions where shouting at your kids is the ultimate way to get them to listen to you. I raise my voice at my son not even once a week because in most conflicts, we reach an agreement over a normal talk. But at some point, there would be that moment where your kids just refuse to listen, keep cutting you off, and not respecting your turn to speak. Then you know, raising your voice is a matter of necessity, not rudeness.

The same thing applies to phone conversations. If you are making a complaint over the phone, don’t let the customer service / your supplier cut you off. They are good at making excuses and chances are they will shout at you first before you do at them, and they will try constantly to cut you off when you’re speaking. DO NOT let this happen to you. When they cut you off, tell them, “Excuse me, you’re cutting me off. Listen to me, I am not finished.” And, again, DO NOT hang up until you get a firm solution. In addition, there are times when you just have to tell them what you want them to do, repeat it a few times, then hang up after you’ve said what you need to say before they can open their mouth and tell you another reason why they can’t do it.

In the extreme cases where they just keep failing you, report your issue to CASE (Singapore’s Consumer Association), Small Claims Tribunal plus write a letter to The Straits Times. Businesses are generally very competitive in Singapore, and having their names mentioned negatively in a media is a big blow.

4. Some parking issues ….. Oh, boy, … this is the issue that still bugs me constantly to this day. Many of them don’t park within the lines, and in doing so they may not leave you enough space to park + open your door properly. If you can find another parking spot, just avoid these types of cars … they’re not worth arguing with. If the only empty spot is right next to this type of car, see if the driver is inside. If the driver is waiting inside the car, knock on the window and ask the driver to straighten up his/her car. They usually do it when you ask them. If the driver is not there, write on A4 paper what a “wonderful considerate driver” he/she is 🙂 – and put it on the front of the car for everyone to see.

They also slam the side of your car when they swing their door open … it doesn’t occur to them to open their door slowly. So (believe me, I do this constantly!) whenever I park next to a car that has a chance of bumping into me, I would take a photo of this car + my car, including its license plate. If I see a ding on the side when I return to my car, I have evidence to report to my insurance company so the company can sue the car owner for damages. People think I overreact by doing this. But after two dings on my car because other people slammed their door on mine (in one occasion, I was still in the car when the lady did it!), I learned my lesson.

Just like you learn to watch your purse more carefully after some pickpocket snatched it, I learn to take precautions after two people successfully damaged my car by sheer negligence.

When someone is about to steal your parking space. There have been times when the car park is full and people fight over space. Some times, when you are just a bit over an empty parking spot and you need to back up to get into that slot, the car behind you might refuse to back up (even though there’s no car behind him/her) because he/she might want the same spot. In times like this, you (or your husband, preferably) should step out of the car, knock on the car door behind you, and say, “Excuse me, I believe you can see that I’m trying to back up and I would appreciate if you back off, now.” Keep eye contact. You don’t need to raise your voice but make sure the other person see that you’re serious and that you would do something if he/she doesn’t follow your advice. I have done this several times (yes, little tiny me!) when my husband is not even around, and every single one of them (including car owners who adult males three times my size) would back off.

5. You should have a written record for every conversation with a service provider. This applies to anyone you require considerable service from – interior designer, contractor, aircon maintenance, telecommunication and internet, etc. They will try to break verbal agreements, rush their work, charge you more, reduce their amount of work without giving you partial refund, etc. So in your every conversation with them, make sure you keep a note of it. Even when it is a phone conversation, follow up that phone conversation with an e-mail (referring to our phone conversation just now, I would like to reiterate the points that we’ve agreed: …).

Long time ago I stopped having phone conversations with any service providers … I do them purely by SMS and e-mail, and I require a working contract signed by both parties. This way, I have evidence when any issues come up (issues regarding sloppy work, overcharging etc are almost a certainty).

Again, some people call this overreacting. Then I suggest you wait until you have to deal with a renovation contractor or when you request many additions to your basic phone / cable subscription. When your telco provider overcharged you and your contractor said that your marble floor is sandy because “it’s the style this year!” instead of admitting that they did a crappy polishing job, you would be grateful to have all those written records 🙂

There are many other issues, but these are the ones that I most commonly experience, and the ones I still have to deal with almost on daily basis. Hopefully settling down to Singapore is a bit easier after reading this post 🙂