Tuesday, 21 October 2014

First Steps in Singapore

 Its been a while since I last wrote anything but we have been a bit busy regrouping ourselves on the other side of the world quite literally to our floating home - Kevin measured it and as the crow flies it was about 40 miles further to travel west than east around Planet Earth! We travelled via Northern Ireland and Kempston - about 24 hours flying, two hours on a ferry, several more driving and quite a lot of simply hanging about in terminal buildings. But we did get to see even if all to briefly various family members and apologies to all those family and friends we failed to fit in during our short sojourn in N Europe - you are all welcome to come and stay with us in Singapore!

Ardglass - was it only Summer 2013 when we were here last?
Our new home is an island city state some 74nm (about 85 statute miles) north of the Equator, the temperature is an almost constant tropical 26 deg. It’s a tiny place some 26 miles EW and 14 miles NS – diamond shaped like the Isle of Wight off the S coast of England, Singapore is an uncannily similar size (the IoW is 25 miles by 13 miles) but with significantly more land area. However where the Isle of Wight has a population of around 140K, Singapore has some 5.4 mi!! The difference couldn’t be more extreme – one lush green rolling hills, hedgerows, chalk cliff and small market towns, the other high rise buildings and expressways, although some small areas of jungle survive around the reservoirs that are vital for the survival of this tiny place.

We could be in the Caribbean but this is Old Holland Road!
The buildings range from the ultra-modern Sky Park (the one you see in every picture of Singapore’s skyline that looks like a skateboard balanced on two tower blocks) via the newer Esplanade Theatre Complex (a cross between a spikey beetle carapace and a durian fruit) to the very old traditional three storey shop houses jutting over the pavement. It is amazing that often you’ll find a short row of shop houses squashed between two high rises as if the developers couldn’t face another battle with the owners to buy them up – but lovely to see them defiantly surviving en masse in areas like Little Indian and Chinatown. And everywhere there are trees and green palm fronds –it is after all tropical and in any space not paved over things grow like topsie!

Since we arrived we’ve been reacclimatising to the heat and humidity – it actually seems cooler and drier than Grenada and Trinidad but perhaps that is because we are now living “indoors” and not in the cockpit of an anchored boat. There is AC in the serviced apartment we currently call home, The Wilby Bukit Timah, but we usually turn it on in the evenings just before we go to bed for an hour or so – it is lovely to sleep in a cool bed and not wake up drenched in sweat. The rest of the time open windows and doors create sufficient cooling draft to be comfortable.


A city oasis - a forgotten part of Old Holland Road
just a few minutes walk from our serviced apartment
Kevin & I have attacked being an expat again fairly systematically based on past experience – arrive, get local pay as you go SIMs for our phones, wait for the paperwork regarding residence visas to be completed and meanwhile start the hunt for somewhere to live. Armed with Armed with Kevin’s “FIN” number conveniently issued prior to our arrival we could open a bank account, rent a car (a huge Hyundai Sonata) and start the process of signing a lease. 

Singapore has one of the highest car ownerships for any city in the world. Cars are actively discouraged by government taxes in the form of a certificate of entitlement lasting for ten years which the potential owner has to bid for, often costing more than the actual price of the car itself. Once a car is ten years old it has to be removed from Singapore much like in Dubai. Public transport is excellent but carrying home a weekly shop in rucksacks belongs to our cruising world where we were time rich and money poor. With the opposite being true here we decided leasing a car would be the sensible thing to do as it would also enable us to visit Malaysia once our residency paperwork is done.

The residency thingy was relatively pleasant and painless. Our appointment at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was early in the morning, the staff friendly and helpful, plenty of comfy seating plus today’s papers if you needed something to while away the short wait and our passes, an employers pass (EP) for Kevin and a dependants pass (DP) for me arrived exactly a week later. For the first time I have a photocard with a smiling me on it, the lady at MOM insisted we laugh at the camera! Some countries could learn a thing or two about customer service from the Singaporeans.

Apartments are extremely expensive here, some of the highest rents in the world meaning a reasonably sized 2 bed unfurnished flat can cost upwards of $S3500 per month with a minimum term of 2 years (divide by two for sterling prices). Fortunately at present supply outstrips demand so prices can be negotiated downwards a bit. The catch is that at that price many don’t have more than a couple of tiny shower rooms, few have an oven just gas rings and a microwave. However all have amazing storage as since 1997 every flat has to have a household bomb shelter due to past hostilities with Indonesia a few miles south! And there is a whole new estate agent speak to be wary of – bath means bathroom not bath tub, “hall” means living/dining area – usually the front door opens straight into this, modern kitchen means it is at one end of the open plan “hall”, common bed/bath means the subsequent bedroom(s)/bathroom(s) over and above the master bedroom with ensuite bathroom.

We've even found some time for a spot of geocaching!
Modern Singaporean architects seem to have decided that walls of windows are the way to go so I’ve seen floor to ceiling glass enclosing entire apartments even in bath rooms overlooked by neighbouring apartments in the same development. Or worse, glass internal walls separating master bedrooms from their ensuites - who wants to watch their loved one on the throne? Older buildings often have a narrow cupboard like room a few feet deep for their second bath containing a toilet at the far end, a shower attached to one wall with the drain central on the floor and then up by the entrance a small sink – the whole room being not much wider than the door and 6-9 feet deep. Extremely impractical unless you like mopping up. I quickly learned to ask agents about bathroom arrangements before planning a viewing but still managed to find in one brand new development a pint sized bathtub that I would have had difficulty fitting my hips in, Kevin's large waist would not have fitted.

Most kitchens have some sort of outdoor area usually occupied by the washing machine and tumble drier but sometimes still having their original configuration as a “wet kitchen” with a couple of gas hobs for frying as the Chinese love deep and stir fried food but hate the smell pervading the home. The sinks are also located in the wet kitchen. In a room off this tiny courtyard too you’ll find a third toilet cum shower room for the maid (known as a helper here) – presumably she either sleeps in the bomb shelter which is located off here if there is one or on the floor of the “wet kitchen”.

Once Kevin had viewed a shortlist of apartments I’d put together we decided which one to make an offer on - a spacious nicely furnished living room, seperate kitchen and a 15th floor balcony with city views persuaded us. The process is straightforward but more like tendering for a major government contract than arranging a place to live for a couple of years. Firstly most tenancies are two year; there is a stiff premium for anything less. Secondly the prospective tenant has to write an LOI (letter of intent) outlining their offer (in our case the agetn advised a figure substantially below the original asking price as the place ahd been empty since early summer) and any conditions like cleaning, painting, removal or changing of furnishings and AC service required prior to signing the lease, or rather their agent draws it up and the tenant reviews and signs it. It includes clauses ensuring the landlord pays the agent their commission. Once the landlord has signed and a month’s rent has been transferred as a deposit, the agent gets both parties to sign a lengthy tenancy agreement full of old fashioned legalise. You can tell the Brits once ruled here!

The only one to benefit from all this paperwork is the agent who once the paperwork is completed leaves the scene with their hefty commission of 50% of the deposit never to be seen again! Meanwhile some landlords have their own agents who are busy promoting the apartment so at viewings it is not unusual to have a crowd – the prospective tenants, their agent, the landlord (and even his wife), his agent and sometimes too the current tenants. I have even been to viewings where both agents had several colleagues with them!

Utilities are the next hurdle we’ve to work through. Gas, water and bin collections are managed by a single authority. Many kitchens used bottled gas which may or may not simplify the paperwork, we forgot to check what our new home has – doh! Anyway the application is all online except that the main form has to be printed, filled in, signed and scanned. Uploading photographs of the meters avoids an appointment to have them read by the authority so that is a task we’ll need to do once the lease is signed. An appointment will bring the gas man within two working days to turn on the supply if applicable though there is a same day service for an extra $S60. And much like our newly converted post-paid SIMs the setup costs, including the hefty deposit foreign private apartment tenants are liable for, are sensibly included in the first bill.

So now all we have to do is wait until November 1st so we can move into our fully furnished apartment… oh and purchase all the stuff we didn’t bring with us like towels, bed linens, crockery, cutlery, saucepans etc. which are not supplied.

Grenada or Singapore?

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