Megha is a millennial twin mama who loves all things food, lifestyle and travel related. Born in England to South Indian parents, she grew up bouncing between small towns near Manchester, London and Birmingham. She later moved to the Middle Eastern cities of Riyadh and Manama, spent 15 years in India, and eventually wound up in Singapore. A dentist by education, scientist by profession and writer at heart, Megha loves cooking and baking, good fiction novels, taking way too many photos, planning events unnecessarily far ahead of time, unlimited buffets and chocolate!
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I am native of a small suburb of Udupi city, located in the Southern state of Karnataka in India but my hometown is the 'the city of Palaces', Mysore, also located in the same state.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I am currently living in Singapore.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved to Singapore in 2006.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No. I was born in Oldham in England and spent my formative years in different towns in England. A few years later, my family moved to the Middle East which culminated in many happy memories of early life in Saudi Arabia and subsequently Bahrain. I was an eight-year-old girl with missing teeth and pigtails when my parents decided to permanently relocate to India.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I got married in 2006 and immediately moved to Singapore with my spouse.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: At the time, we moved because my husband had been working in Singapore. Fresh out of dental school, my career prospects in Singapore didn't look very promising due to issues with validation of foreign degrees. I spent the first two years taking a much-needed break after graduation. I explored every inch of Singapore, nurtured my love of cooking and baking, made lots of new friends, read books, watched movies, went on holidays with my husband and just had a marvellous time in general! But the yearning to further my education soon set in. I got a scholarship to pursue MSc by research at the National University of Singapore which paved the way for a career switch from dentistry to biomedical research. For the past decade, I have been working in the field of science with my research experience extending to cell biology, molecular biology, microbiology, cancer biology and nanobiotechnology.
Living in Singapore
Q: What do you enjoy most about Singapore? How would you rate the quality of life?
A: I love everything about Singapore (baring the sultry weather!). To me, Singapore is a city of contrasts and hidden depths. The quality of life here is excellent. Singapore is clean, green, politically stable and, most importantly, a safe place to live. Also, this is a wonderful country to raise a family.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: Not really. I have always felt safe and welcome in Singapore. Over the years, I have made lots of local friends. I have been shown kindness by complete strangers. That said, I miss my family and friends back home. And I also prefer shopping for clothes back home!
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: For me personally, the biggest adjustment I had to make was with respect to my career. I did not envision switching careers. It was something that just happened to me. No regrets though!
I can’t really say that there was much culture shock. I think that is another advantage of living in Singapore. It's a great blend between the East and the West and is home to such a diversity of cultures that it isn’t hard to adapt to. However, I did take some time to get used to 'Singlish' and seeing everyone dressed in tees, shorts and flip flops all the time! To this day I miss not being able to chew gum, because it's illegal. Even though it has been 15 years since I landed on this sunny island, I still feel a bit intimidated by the strict laws. Another peculiar thing was that it took us several years to own a car because of how expensive it is! And lastly, it was only after becoming a mother that I realised how 'kiasu' (being afraid to lose out) the locals here can be!
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Singapore?
A: The honest truth is that Singapore is an expensive place to live for expats.
Things that are expensive: living in an upscale condominium or landed property, childcare, international schooling and owning a car, among other things.
Things that aren't expensive: groceries and provisions, local food, income tax, utilities, public transport, taxi and live-in domestic help.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Singapore?
A: On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate it 8. The connectivity is good, the stations are clean and well maintained and the incidence of train breakdown is fairly low.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Singapore? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend in Singapore?
A: The standard of healthcare in Singapore is good. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate it 7.
Medical facilities are top notch and private clinic/hospital staff are proficient in English. The private sector services are obviously more expensive because of the shorter waiting times and comfort.
Only citizens and permanent residents (PRs) can utilise Medisave, the compulsory state insurance scheme that requires both employees and employers to make monthly contributions that can be used for hospital coverage. For expats, many companies in Singapore offer health insurance in their employment packages. If this isn't an option then they will have to take out insurance on their own.
From personal experience, I have experienced both the good and bad in relation to healthcare. After suffering from two recurrent miscarriages in 2013, I underwent a battery of tests and was diagnosed with Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome. I was put under the care of a gynaecologist specializing in high-risk pregnancy who started me on blood thinners immediately when I conceived the twins. I also had severe gestational diabetes that required daily self-administering of insulin. With respect to my pregnancy and delivery, we were very happy with the way everything was managed. My twins and I made it safely and we will forever be grateful to the wonderful doctors and nurses who looked after us.
I did, however, have a bad experience when I was nursing my twins and developed mastitis which subsequently led to a full-blown abscess and ended in a frantic trip to the ER. After multiple post-surgical hospital follow up visits and dressings, I still had severe pain and discharge weeks later due to a terrible reaction to the dressing material and ended up having a second surgery in India to fix the botched job done in Singapore.
Personally, we have had good experiences at National University Hospital (NUH) and Mount Elizabeth Hospital, so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these hospitals.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Singapore?
A: Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. Incidences of violent crime, sexual assault and terrorism are extremely low. If you are a law-abiding citizen, you have nothing to worry about! But, keep in mind the strict rules. Everyone who comes here should be aware that spitting on the street, littering, forgetting to flush a public toilet, jaywalking, feeding pigeons and smoking in banned areas are some of the fineable offences, among many others. And I should also mention that there are severe consequences for offenses that elsewhere may not be seen as very serious, such as caning for graffiti and the death penalty for drug-related offences.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Singapore? What different options are available for expats?
A: I would rate the standard of housing as satisfactory.
The cost of housing in Singapore depends on factors such as the property’s proximity to the city, relative age of the property, availability of recreational facilities and the quality of furnishings that come with the accommodation. About 80% of Singapore’s housing market belongs to the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Apart from this, you can also find condominiums, serviced apartments, and landed properties.
Private condominiums or "condos" are usually the first choice for most expats. These are mostly high-rise apartments that have several shared facilities like gyms, swimming pools, gardens and play and barbecue areas. The rent mainly depends on the district they are located in.
Landed properties consist of detached houses, semi-detached houses, terraced houses, and bungalows. The rent and maintenance fees are often quite high.
Public housing, also known as HDB apartments, are the least expensive of all the housing options. They are most often situated in areas that are close to basic facilities such as schools, banks, malls, clinics and public transport systems, but as accommodation goes, they are quite basic and typically devoid of luxurious amenities.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: Orchard, Tanglin, Holland Village, Bukit Timah, Pasir Panjang, Clementi, Hillview, Dairy Farm, Bukit Panjang, Hougang and Pasir Ris are some neighbourhoods that I would recommend.
Q: How is the climate in Singapore? Do you have any tips for expats on how they can adjust or manage the weather?
A: Singapore lies almost on the equator so the weather is hot and humid all year round. I don’t remember the last time I had a good hair day! Jokes aside, there are no seasons in Singapore, so the tropical vibe can quickly lose its appeal. Singapore also experiences heavy rainfall. This is the aspect of life in Singapore that I like the least. On the flipside, having sunny weather all year round can be seen by many as an advantage!
I would recommend always slathering on sunblock and keeping an umbrella handy at all times. Fitness enthusiasts should take extra care to avoid overheating and dehydration during strenuous outdoor activities such as running or cycling.
Q: Are there any activities, attractions or events that you would recommend for new arrivals in Singapore? What are your favourite leisure spots?
A: There are a plethora of activities and attractions in Singapore that cater to individuals with different preferences.
For those who prefer the outdoors, there are beautiful nature parks and gardens such as the Singapore Botanical Gardens, MacRitchie Nature Reserve, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Upper and Lower Pierce Reservoir Parks, Upper and Lower Seletar Reservoir Parks, Pulau Ubin, Coney Island Park, Rower’s Bay Park, and many more. For art and culture lovers, Singapore is home to some of the best museums and galleries in Asia. For those who appreciate architecture there is Marina Bay Sands, Esplanade, National Gallery, Gardens by the Bay, Jewel Changi and heritage shophouses, among others.
Some of my favourite leisure spots are MacRitchie Nature Reserve, Lower Pierce Reservoir Park, Rower’s Bay Park, Sentosa island, Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Singapore Zoo.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Did you ever experienced discrimination in Singapore?
A: Singapore is a multiracial and multicultural country, and one that affirms its ethnic diversity as a strength. Children celebrate racial harmony day in school and are taught to respect other races and religions from an early age. That said, every society grapples with bias and discrimination, and Singapore is not immune to this. I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is growing anger amongst a section of Singaporeans towards the high number of foreign workers in the country. Although I haven’t personally experienced discrimination on the basis of race or gender, I am aware that minority groups are subjected to some form of discrimination even if it isn’t overtly visible. It is unfortunate that the Covid-19 pandemic created a bit of a divide between the local residents and expat community by reinforcing the concept of “us” and “them”. In a few instances, it even inflamed racial tensions. I do believe that in Singapore’s racial harmony is a work-in-progress. But despite the exodus of the expat community in the past 2 years, Singapore remains an attractive destination for expats.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Yes definitely. I made a lot of friends from different backgrounds when I was studying in University. Even after so many years, many of us still keep in touch. I have also made friends in my neighbourhood and with fellow parents through my children.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: I am friendly and outgoing by nature so I don’t face any difficulties with making friends. Also, I have never pigeonholed myself into sticking with fellow expats. I have several local friends who have become an integral part of my life. I have found most Singaporeans to be courteous, diplomatic, discrete and largely non-confrontational. A large percentage of them love to eat and travel, which makes them my kind of people! I have learnt so much about Singaporean culture from them. My advice to new expats would be to keep an open mind and heart. Embrace diversity and learn how to be respectful of other cultures.
Working in Singapore
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: When I initially arrived in Singapore in 2006, I was on a Dependent’s Pass (my husband was on Employment Pass). We applied for PR the very next year and got it within 3 months. Back then, it wasn’t as daunting of a task as it has been in the past few years. Looking back, it was the best decision we ever made!
Q: What is the economic climate in Singapore like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job?
A: Singapore is one of the world’s most prosperous nations, with a regulatory, business-friendly environment and a very low unemployment rate. That said, Singapore’s job market is highly competitive and, with companies increasingly looking to hire locals (citizens and PRs), getting a job as an expat is no walk in the park.
My advice for expats looking to find employment in Singapore would be to focus on the in-demand industries, familiarise yourself with the local employment practices, comprehensively research online job portals, as well as reputed agencies, and prepare a strong resume and cover letter. Also, if coming as a family, I would strongly advise thoroughly checking the cost of living to make sure the salary package that is offered to you is sufficient, thereby avoiding disappointment down the line.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Singapore? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: From a personal standpoint, I would say that the work culture is better here. We follow a 5 days per week schedule with normal working hours of 40-45 hours per week. Over the years, there have been very few instances of us having had to work late into the night or work on weekends. The work-life balance is something my husband and I have grown to love and appreciate greatly! For the most part, we have been able to enjoy quality time with family. Weekends are reserved for fun activities with the kids, which has been going very well indeed (touchwood!). And for a developed country, having the luxury of live-in domestic help means that we can escape from most of the routine house chores and instead channel that time into family, friends and indulging in hobbies.
Family and children
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: My seven-year old twins are highly energetic and outgoing. Checking out different green spaces over the weekend is a routine activity. As a family, we love going to Sentosa island because there are so many things to do there! Tanjong beach and HydroDash are two of my children’s favourite places on the island. They also love going to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and the Trick Eye Museum. Apart from Sentosa, we enjoy going to the Singapore Botanical Gardens, Singapore Zoo, River Safari and Night Safari. The water play areas at Garden’s by the Bay and Singapore Zoo get top vote too. Among the outdoor parks, Admiralty Park is the one we visit the most.
There are many child-friendly restaurants in Singapore, so eating out is something we do a lot with the kids as well.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Broadly speaking, there are two different types of schools in Singapore: international schools and local schools. International schools tend to be much more expensive than local schools. The two also observe different school calendars and holidays.
Many of Singapore’s international schools follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum while others offer the curriculum of their country of origin. The latter offer the chance for children of various nationalities to stay connected to the language and customs of their home country. For expats, there is a wide range of international schools in Singapore that they can choose from. International schools offer global education, world-class facilities and a greater range of immersive extracurricular activities for children.
On the other hand, Singapore’s local schools are consistently ranked the best in the world, probably due to the emphasis placed on maths and science from the outset, or the fact that the schools follow an English-based bilingual system. The environment, however, is fiercely competitive and is known to exert tremendous pressure on the students especially in the top tier local schools. Furthermore, Singapore citizens, followed by PRs, are given admission priority in local schools. That said, locally-educated children are exposed completely to Singaporean culture by being part of the local system, which can be a benefit for long-term residents.
Which school is best? Only you can be the judge of that. There is no right or wrong. It all boils down to each individual child’s needs and learning aptitude, the preferred curriculum, the location and, most importantly, your budget!
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Singapore?
A: I know expats who have loved living in Singapore and some that have not liked it at all. I think it all boils down to your attitude and expectations.
My advice would be to make sure you negotiate a good expat package so you can live in a nice place, afford a car and send your children to the school of your choosing. Also, hire a domestic helper (one who has previous experience in an expat household and comes heavily recommended) because it really makes life so much easier! Don’t live in an expat bubble; interact with local people and experience their way of life because that is what makes the journey of relocation a more enriching one. Use public transport, check out the local wet markets, hawker centres and public libraries. Seek out the many green spaces that Singapore has to offer but make sure to explore the hidden gems too. Singapore is a culinary haven for foodies so do check out the vibrant and diverse local dining scene. And travelling around the region is without a doubt the best part of living here, so do make full use of that!
As a parting note I’d say, stay healthy & follow the rules!
►Interviewed in December 2021