How to live like a local in Singapore: Exploring the history, culture and tradition of one of the world’s finest countries

Singapore may only be 50 years old under its current independent rule, but that doesn't mean you can't find architectural history around the country that precedes it. The beautiful Sultan Mosque (Masjid Sultan) in the Kampong Glam precinct, for instance, was completed (in its current design) in 1928.

For many Australians, Singapore is seen as the country with “that amazing airport”, which serves as a gateway to Asia. You start here – flying in with airlines like Singapore or Scoot – before travelling onto other destinations in Asia or Europe. Those that spend time here may only be able to fit in a day or two, heading to the usual tourist destinations – Orchard Road for shopping, Raffles for a Singapore Sling, Sentosa for the attractions, Gardens by the Bay for a slice of nature and maybe the famous night safari at Singapore Zoo.

And if you don’t venture too far outside of these tourist hotspots, your impression of Singapore may end up being quite different from its reality. So what is that reality and how do you find it? Today we’re going to take you on a look into a side of Singapore you need to discover, and let you in on how you, too, can live like a local and explore all of this great Asian country’s hidden gems.

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The author visits one of the popular spots for locals and tourists alike – Haji Lane in Bugis. Photo by Jasmin Osman.

Singapore is often criticised for being a sanitised version of the rest of Asia: clean, full of rules and without the sort of “history” and “grit” you may find elsewhere. It is “only a 50 year old country” after all. “I don’t go to Asia to find what I can have at home”, some may fairly argue. But the beauty of Singapore is that it can deliver just about everything you might be searching for in a trip to Asia. After all, 5.4 million people don’t call this country home just because they have a good night zoo.

There is a side to this country that only the locals seem to know about. It’s the places to eat (you can read more about some of our favourite places to eat in Singapore HERE and HERE) the islands to visit and the markets to shop. It’s the cultural experiences that make Singapore a multicultural home for people from all over the Asian region, of all religions and persuasions. In spite of all the rules, it’s certainly a country that sees itself as a destination to bring people – and cultures – together, and not divide it, as is often the way in Western countries, including Australia.

To experience this side of the country, I was lucky enough to be taken on a journey around the country with Tribe Tours, a reasonably new tour operator whose mission is to bring the local flavour of Singapore to visitors. They offer experiences like “Disappearing Trades“, where you meet local bread makers, coffee roasters and paper house makers. They’re the craftsmen and women who were the lifeblood of Singapore economy from the 1950s through to the 1980s. Now, their businesses are being overrun by international conglomerates who are coming in and offering cheaper, more efficient alternatives. So for many you meet on this journey, this may your last opportunity to experience this side of the country.

We started our day visiting the local markets in Geylang. Here we found traditional Malay wet and dry markets offering an assortment of ingredients for the locals. You’ll find these throughout the country, and each provide slightly different offerings based on their location and the needs of the surrounding population. You won’t find pork here, for instance.

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You’ll find plenty of locals shopping at the Geylang Serai Market: this is the “Dry Market”, where you’ll find spices and ingredients like dried fish.
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The “Wet Market” at Geylang Serai Market is where you’ll find your fresh fish and meats – this is where locals will shop instead of a Supermarket. It’s called the wet market because the floors are generally, well, wet. You’ll be able to haggle here and from about 4am to Noon.

Later in the day, I was taken to a traditional bread maker, where I had some of the most delicious bread I’ve ever tasted – straight out of the oven. They say it’s the lack of eggs and the limited amount of yeast, with no preservatives, that makes the bread taste so good. Though a loaf (and they make up to 1200 of them a day) will only last a few days because of it. In addition to their staple variety, they also have a brown bread, which has brown sugar, and milk bread, with milk powder. I had a slice of the milk bread with kaya (a staple of the region) on it (something they’re happy to sell to anyone at their store).

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Businesses like this are again being priced out by mass production, even though the alternative may pale in comparison. Where there used to be hundreds of bread makers around the country, there are now just 5. This bread maker in particular was able to survive as his bread is used by a popular chain of cafes – one of which you’ll find at that fancy Airport I mentioned earlier.

I was welcomed into a similar experience at one of the best curry puff manufacturers in the country; a favourite dish in Singapore. As long as the locals keep buying the product, they’ll stay in business.

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mmmm…. curry puffs….

And it’s not just food makers that are being affected. Earlier in the day, I was taken to a traditional Paper House, a family run business that services a custom of a section of the Chinese community. The idea of this factory is that they produce paper versions of mansions, cars and just about anything you can think of, which is burnt to dust in order to provide for the afterlife. It’s an age old tradition, and one that continues – but with corporations making import of these items cheaper, it’s unlikely this small business will be able to survive for the next generation. It’s fascinating to see them in action, adding glue with precision to design incredibly detailed paper versions of luxury.

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So, enough about food – what do the locals do for fun? There are plenty of places where local culture and tourist experiences cross over – the Singapore Zoo for instance – but if you want a real local experience you need to jump in a taxi or Uber to Changi Jetty and get a “bumboat”* over to Palau Ubin, a national park situated on an island off the coast of the mainland. Here you’ll find a preserved section of Singapore’s history.

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Many told me that this was what the country was like at its founding – plenty of green trees, temples, places to walk and no skyscrapers booming overhead. A few people live on the island but it’s predominantly a getaway for locals to bike around the quarries that litter the park, and get some sensational seafood right on the water, looking back at a city which now bares little resemblance to its original state.

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Don’t have a bike? It only costs a few dollars to rent a bike when you arrive. The island has plenty of trails that are best explored with a set of wheels.
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A popular seafood restaurant right on the water delivers some incredible meals. It’s a great place to enjoy a Tiger beer and watch the world go by, as you chow down on some sambal prawns and mussels.

One of the other tours that Tribe Tours operates is called “24 Hours” which gives you some insight into a day in the life of an average Singaporean. It’s at the end of this tour where you’ll truly understand life for a local, because you’ll be lucky enough to see how more than 80% of the country live – in Housing Development Board (HDB) apartment flats. What we in Australia would probably call public housing. But these aren’t necessarily run down apartments designed purely for the lower class, this is comfortable accommodation for anyone, partially subsidised by the government, allowing everyone in the country to live comfortably (though some complexes are notably more “upmarket” than others).

At 110 square meters, the three bedroom apartment I visited in Sengkang was considerably larger than my own in Sydney, and costs about a third of what it does here. This is a country that has to build up, however, and to fit 5 million people into a country 1/100 the size of Tasmania and 2/3 the size of New York City, it’s not surprising that such a large portion of the population lives in apartment buildings. Anyone who’s visited Hong Kong can speak of the same experience. What is surprising was just how large and comfortable these apartments were, and just how vibrant and multicultural it was.

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Walking into the apartment complex, I saw kids of all races and ages playing together in the complex’s common area. A small Indian woman, a resident, worked away on the garden, while an elderly Chinese man read his paper nearby. It seemed slightly Orwellian – a bizarre utopia where all nations of the world are living together in piece and harmony, while all living in massive buildings of the same colour and shape. But it’s all done with purpose – every complex like this in Singapore requires a certain quota of races and religions to properly represent the ecology of the population. And as every apartment is delivered completely empty, those that live here are able to design their apartment all the way down to the materials that make up the floor, which ensures anyone from any culture will feel right at home here. Without forced isolation of certain ethnic communities, the idea is that you live in a safer country, because there’s not “you” or “I”. There is only “us”. And that is a beautiful thing.

But there is one drawback – take away that strong connection to a certain community, and bring in larger companies with cheaper, more efficient technology, and you’re going to see a lot of traditions dissipate.

Some may see the changes in Singapore as a positive, others may go the opposite direction, but the important thing for travellers is that the old traditions of the country can be found and experienced if you know where to look. It may not have the Taj Mahal of India, the Beaches of Indonesia or the Great Wall of China, but Singapore is a city and a country that can be whatever you want it to be. It can be every bit the cultural experience you want it to be – as in most of Asia – or if can just be a place to enjoy a Singapore Sling. The choice is yours, but being so close to Australia it shouldn’t be a difficult one. Just like the locals, there’s no reason you can’t have both.

Getting There

Direct flights to Singapore from Australia start at just $199 each way with Scoot (Perth to Singapore), and the Singapore Airlines budget carrier also flies out of Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast. Domestic Connections are available with Tiger Airways.

Other direct services operate out of Darwin, Brisbane and even Canberra with the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates, British Airways and Qantas. Jetstar caters for some routes, and Air Asia also offers an alternative budget route, however they fly via Kuala Lumpur, as do Malaysian Airlines.

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*You don’t need to make a booking to get a boat – basically they wait for 12 people to show up, then you pay $3 and they’ll take you over. It takes about 8 minutes and many passengers will bring their bikes along for the ride. It should also be noted that this part of the journey was not a part of either Tribe Tours itinerary mentioned.

The writer travelled to Singapore with Scoot Airlines and stayed at the converted 1920s Townhouses of the Naumi Liora in Chinatown (55 Keong Saik Rd) as a guest of the hotel – a building with plenty of its own history. The trip was supported by Singapore Tourism and many of these experiences were only possible through the generous day trip provided by Tribe Tours. You can learn more about all the experiences Tribe Tours offers HERE.