Trip Coach: April 12, 2005

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Writer Lim Li Min answered your travel questions on Singapore

Singapore and North Korea have two things in common. They both like to get to know their citizens extremely well, and they both attract the kind of tourist that likes to gawk at a strangely exotic place while all the while knowing they could never live there. But that's about where the similarities end. While North Koreans barely have enough money to keep warm at nights, Singapore is one of Asia's richest countries, with some of the tastiest food, hippest nightclubs and funkiest stores anywhere east of Rome. True, Singapore does try to micro-manage everything from its citizens' creative output to making sure you flush after going to the bathroom, but for the tourist making his or her first foray into Asia, that can actually be kinda comforting.

Writer Lim Li Min answered your travel questions on Singapore on Tuesday, April 12, at 12pm EST.

Read "This Article Has Not Been Authorized" from the April issue of Budget Travel magazine.

To fund her travels around west Africa, Asia and Latin America, Lim Li Min sold really bad paintings to Hong Kong pedestrians and taught English in Italy. But as she likes putting down roots occasionally, she became a journalist, living in both Malaysia and Hong Kong. During her years as a student in Singapore, she got to know Orchard Road's shops really well, but is thankful that the city now offers far more than just air-conditioned malls. She is presently learning Thai to help her watch local films -- a great way of getting to know a new place well -- and lives in Bangkok with her journalist husband. Writing mainly on travel, culture and the arts, her work has appeared in Time magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the Asian Wall Street Journal and other regional publications.

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Lim Li Min: Ni Hao (that's hello) and Selamat Datang or welcome to this live chat session. Feel free to ask anything you want on Singapore...

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Torrance, CA: What are the best seasons to go weather-wise?

Lim Li Min: Hi Torrance. Simple answer is that it's great almost any time of year in most parts of Southeast Asia, including Singapore. In the words of Adrian Kronaur in Good Morning Vietnam, "The weather today is HOT". Some people say that the monsoons are to be avoided, but I disagree. The rains tend to leave the whole place cooler, heightening the fragrances of Singapore's lush plantlife. Unlike the eastern seaboard of the U.S., or the monsoons in places such as India, the rains here tend to come in heavy bursts, at times lasting a few hours, So even during the monsoons, you can still be out and about. And if you do get caught in a downpour, you're probably not going to be too far from a noodle or tea shop.
There are some variations through the year, though. November through January are the coolest and wettest months, with July typically being the driest. But pack a small umbrella whatever time of year you come. Hope that helps. Best of luck.

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Redwood City, CA: I lived in Singapore from 1990 to 1998 and loved it. I think it has the best governement of any counntry that I have known and I have lived in 8 and visited 65.

It is easy to criticize, but I think the fact that very few Singaporeans ever leave or stay away from Singapore speaks for itself. What other country has such a high rate of home ownership?

It's the best place that I know.

Bob Robillard

Lim Li Min: Hey Bob. Well, I would say it's all down to personal tastes really. I do agree that Singapore is great value for money; especially for someone coming from the States or Europe. The weather's great, the people are friendly and the food is something else.
And I think you've echoed the sentiment of my story. Singapore represents a pretty unique experiment -- it provides a great deal of commercial freedom, but it has decided that much of the country's social and political aspects will be controlled centrally. To a very great extent, that works on a practical level, especially from a tourist's point of view. It's totally safe, the infrastructure works perfectly, there's no corruption. (Contrast that with many other parts of Asia).
But I know a lot of Singaporeans who have emigrated to Malaysia and Perth, Australia. Infact the latter is known as "Little Singapore". A lot of Singaporeans who leave for New York or London are of a creative bent, and feel that the government's rather overbearing approach stifles their freedom of expression. I'm glad you had a great time in Singapore, and I do have many expat friends who also love it, but it isn't for everyone in the long term.

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Madison, Connecticut: Dear Ms. Min:
I guess I have three questions. Please answer some or all...

I have a lot U.S. broadcasting experience. I noticed while surfing a few years ago that Singapore seems to have a highly developed and modern communications infrastructure(e.g., lots of radio stations and radio station websites). What are the prospects of a talented US broadcaster getting a job and/or residency status?

I'm also a Jazz singer. Are their venues where a Jazz/American Standards balladeer could get work?

What is the prevailing view of "mixed" marriages or relationships? Would a "caucasian" American male and a Chinese or Malaysian female couple be well accepted socially??

Thank You, RSK

Lim Li Min: You're right. Singapore does have a lot of local and foreign broadcasting outlets. Much of the local scene is controlled by the government's MediaCorp, the biggest of the local broadcasting groups. But a whole host of big international broadcasters have their Asian headquarters there too. For example: CNBC Asia, the BBC, Reuters (both their text and TV operations are based here). The government has a handy website listing all the foreign media organizations registered in the country app.mita.gov.sg/internet/journalists/j_mdguide_details.asp
Life is pretty tough if you're a journalist in Asia right now. A lot of media outlets have been laying off staff, or just not replacing people who have left, but it's always worth enquiring.
For PR applications have a look at: http://app.ica.gov.sg/serv_pr/per_res/app_for_pr.asp
"Mixed" relationships are a very common sight in Singapore. The stereotypical "mixed" relationship of a balding, white, overweight, middle-aged guy going out with a young, svelte, long-haired local girl was hilariously encapsulated by Jim Aitchison in "Sarong Party Girl". But many friends of mine (both male and female) are in such relationships, and they definitely do not fall into the SPG category. Most are in highly paid professions such as banking, financial analysis or in journalism.
Good luck!

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New York, NY: Is Singapore small enough that you can rely on public transportation? Or should you rent a car? And if you rent a car, do you need a special permit?

Lim Li Min: New York, NY: Is Singapore small enough that you can rely on public transportation? Or should you rent a car? And if you rent a car, do you need a special permit?
Singapore is a pretty tiny island of about 239 square miles. In other words, you could conveniently drive around it in a couple of hours. However, being such a small island, the government tries it's best to limit cars coming into the CBD (Central Business District). To enter here, your car will have to have an electronic transponder with a pre-paid card which gets deducted each time you enter the CBD.
I would say, forget about driving in Singapore; check out the lovely colonial architecture of restored shophouses in Chinatown or some of the more modern buildings by bus or taxi. Everyone speaks English, so getting on and off is a cinch as long as you're armed with a map. The taxis are cheap by Western standards, and Singapore's about the only place where drivers will actually stop the meter if they miss a turning.
If you're really in a hurry, go underground on the MRT. It's fast, cheap, clean and efficient, but you don't get to see much.

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Towson, MD: What time of the year is considered off season in Singapore? Are the special events at certain times during the year that you would highly recommend going for?

Lim Li Min:
Being multi-cultural, you're going to find festivals celebrated by the four major religions, namely Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism and Christianity. Look out for Chinese New Year in February, kicked off by fireworks, much chomping on "love letters", a type of thin wafery biscuit and the exchanging of "ang pows", red envelopes with money. That's good news if you're unmarried, bad news if you are because you'll have to give all your relatives who are single ang pows. Chinatown just lights up at this time, and lion dances are rife.
The next big event to look out for is Hari Raya, which varies from year to year based on the lunar calander. This marks the end of the Muslim fasting month. Expect Malay women in pretty baju kurung or traditional dress, people eating lots of beef rendang, a type of coconut curry, and lots of mosque-going.
If you're afraid of needles, avoid Thaipusam. Hindus carry or pull kavadis, semi-circular steel structures, piercing their skin with needles and spikes. Some walk on hot coals and nail beds. This practise is banned in India, so if you do get a chance to see it, grab the opportunity.
Singapore is going for events and the arts in a big way. Here are some highlights which you can Google: the Singapore arts festival in June, Womad (world music festival in August), Singapore food festival in March, the international film festival that'll be starting later this week, and of course, one you shouldn't miss, the Great Singapore Sale in May. Happy eating and shopping!

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New York, NY: Where is the best place to get a suit made in Singapore and what is the approximate price?

Lim Li Min: Try the Far East Plaza shopping mall at 14 Scotts Rd, Singapore 228213 for a whole range of expert tailors. Or head directly to Jack Custom Tailors, 14 Scotts Rd, #03-143 Far East Plaza, Singapore 228213, telephone: +65 6736-0273. Not really sure about prices, but my guess is that you could pick one up for about S$400 (US$242.50). However, since I now live in Bangkok, I can safely say you're more likely to get a better bargain (with probably the same level of expertise) here.

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Salt Lake City, UT: Can you please talk about terrorism and Singapore?

Lim Li Min: Singapore has been described as a great piece of real estate in a terrible neighbourhood. Singapore is surrounded by countries which have either been attacked by Islamic fundamentalists or are being used as bases by them. There have been plots targeting Singapore itself, but these have been foiled by the country's Stalin-like security forces.
From a tourist's point of view, Singapore is probably one of the safest places in the region right now, so I think you shouldn't worry too much.

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Nanticoke, PA: What can one expect to pay for safe, clean budget lodgings? Is ten days in Singapore a took long of a stay? By train how long a journey to KUALA LUMPUR?

Lim Li Min:
Hi Nanticoke. If you're really watching your budget here are a couple of options: Hangout@Mt.Emily
10A Upper Wilkie Road
011-65/6438-5588, hangout hotels.com, doubles from $46, dorms from $15
Sleepy Sams
55 Bussorah Street, 011-65/9277-4988, sleepysams.com, doubles from $39, dorms from $15
Generally, Little India and Chinatown are backpacker havens, although I've seen some truly sleazy dives in Little India. Chinatown is more upmarket and it's there you'll get boutique hotels, starting from $40.
Yes, 10 days is truly too long in Singapore. While not discounting its sights, it's basically only good as a 2-5 day city stopover. That said, don't forget to see my faves: the Asian Civilisations Museum, Arab Street and the Night Safari. Oh, and The Arts House in the old Parliament Building is great too.
If you're looking for beaches, Singapore has some -- although they're not like those in the movie "The Beach". But you can still get away if you have a bit of time to spare: try neighbouring Malaysia or Indonesia's Bintan island. Bintan is only a short ferry hop away, and Malaysia and Singapore are separated by a one-kilometre causeway.
The Singapore-KL train is a good bargain. You hop on at night (around 10pm or so) and get into KL just after dawn. It's clean and costs only $10. Go for a second class ticket, which includes a sleeping berth and air-conditioning.

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Pleasant Hill, CA: Is there such a thing as "Singapore Chow Fun" noodles in Singapore and, if so, where does one find the best? Can we have the recipe?

Lim Li Min:
Hmmm, I've asked a couple of Singapore mates about this, and nobody seems to have a definitive answer. To my mind "chow fun" means fried rice in Cantonese, so I wondering if this is a Californian concoction....??
Noodles in Singapore are akin to pasta in Italy. There is huge variety of noodles with all kinds of sauces. You'll get fried noodles, noodles in soup, "wet" noodles (with a sauce). Best places for these are the hawker centres I mentioned in my article. Just point to whatever you like. At around $1 a pop, you'll get a yummy, although not nutritionally balanced meal.

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Lexington, KY: I lived in Singapore from 1993-1995 and found it to be quite interesting. One thing that interested me was that fact that there was such a low crime rate (probably due to such strict laws). I actually happened to be living there when the whole Michael Faye incident was going on. Why do you think that American countries have not taken on more strict laws? To me, it seems it would do a lot of good in some areas!

Lim Li Min: Hi there. I think you're absolutely right about the low crime rate, but I don't think you're comparing apples with apples here. The U.S. is a huge country of more than 200 million people, while Singapore is a tiny island nation of just six million. As such, Singapore is far easier to govern and control.
Furthermore, since independence from Britain in 1957 (first as part of Malaysia and then as a truly independent country in 1965), the Singapore government decided that the civil liberties of the individual were less important than the economic development of the whole country. Such social engineering would be impossible in a country the size of the U.S., and given America's long tradition of upholding the rights of the individual, you will always have dissenting voices.
The Michael Faye incident was quite telling. A lot of my Singaporean friends said they actually thought he got what he deserved.

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Atlanta, GA: What is the situation regarding anti-semitism in the region? Also, how has the anti-gay situation improved? Thank you.

Lim Li Min: We're a bit pressed for time but do check out .jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/singapore.html, Singapore has had its fair share of Jews.
As for homosexuality, the government has backpeddled a bit. They recently opened the civil service to gays, are trying to court the pink dollar, but balked at throwing a huge gay party recently.

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Lim Li Min: Well, that's all folks. Thanks for joining me; it's been great fun. Hope you all have a blast in sunny Singapore.

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