Why should you opt to study in Singapore for your undergraduate or graduate education? That’s an easy question with several answers: great weather without extremes, top-rated universities, safe and clear environs, English-speakers everywhere, and a flourishing economy that lets you stay back for a rewarding career.
Here we try to evaluate Singapore as an educational destination for international students. The article also features tips from the ESSEC Business School Asia-Pacific on how to make the most of your time in Singapore.
International student life in Singapore
Strict laws, heavy fines, and corporal punishment keep Singapore crime-free. The city-state is categorized as safe by travel websites, earning the “low-risk” tag for using taxi and other transport, pickpockets, mugging, and terrorism.
However, pickpockets do operate in tourist areas. In some areas, you need more vigil, but if you dress conservatively and not in tourist attire, you should be safe.
Generally, though, the streets are safe even at night, and eateries are open. For the safety of the people, the government has installed street cameras virtually everywhere.
Do remember that that use of recreational use of drugs is punishable by death, and that drawing graffiti, rioting, and visa and drug violations brings judicial caning sentences.
Drunken driving earns you ten years in jail. You cannot bring chewing gum into the country, and smoking or drinking in public spaces, jaywalking, and littering are banned.
As an international student, take particular care of your health. Get health insurance, because hospital bills can be very high if you do fall ill. That said, try not to fall sick, by eating healthy food, exercising, and meditating.
Tropical Singapore is mostly sunny with no distinct seasons. When it rains, it pours, but the showers last only for an hour or so.
The average temperature is highest between April and August at 29 degrees Celsius, with the highest average temperature between March and June at 32 degrees C.
The coldest month is January at 27 degrees C, with the coldest average temperature in January and February at 24 degrees C.
It’s humid most of the time (80 percent humidity) and your sweat glands will work overtime.
After you arrive
First, try to become familiar with public transport, which includes trains, buses, and taxis, and learn where to shop for basic necessities.
You are well-advised to learn some cooking before you get to Singapore as restaurants, particularly those that offer Indian cuisine, are expensive.
By cooking your favorite dishes from home, you can also get over some of the homesickness that you’re bound to feel.
Before you arrive, it is best to arrange for accommodation in Singapore, have a bank account, and take care of all paperwork.
Don’t leave out your prescriptions for medicines, if you are taking any. Save key numbers and addresses in your phone.
A child has to undergo six year of compulsory education consisting of primary education from classes 1 to 4 and orientation stage from class 5 to 6. English, the mother tongue, and mathematics are taught, along with music, arts, craft, physical education, and social sciences. Science is taught from class 3.
Secondary education, in government-funded or aided or independent schools, comprises four or five years and special, express, and normal courses. The first two prepare students for the Singapore-Cambridge GCE-O level exam in four years.
Students opting for the normal course go along academic or technical streams to complete the GCE-N level exam in four years, and if successful, the GCE-O level exam in the fifth year.
After GCE-O, students either choose to study in a centralized institute for a three-year pre-university course or join a junior college for a two-year pre-university course. At the end of junior college, students sit for the GCE-A level exam.
After passing the exam, students can opt for either domestic universities or universities with tie-ups with international universities.
Renowned domestic universities include the National University of Singapore (NUS, QS 2019 world rank 11, Asian rank 1), Nanyang Technological University (NTU, QS 2019 world rank 13, Asian rank 2), and Singapore Management University (SMU), which have joint programs with international universities.
International universities that have a presence in Singapore include INSEAD, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Duke University, SP Jain Centre of Management, and ESSEC Business School.
Read more about the best business schools in Singapore.
Renowned universities that have collaborations with universities in Singapore include Johns Hopkins University, Georgia Institute of Technology, MIT, Wharton School, Stanford University, and IIT Bombay.
Preparation is an important input if you want to get the best out of classrooms. The professors, who teach in English, are of top caliber and keen to help their students; some of them may even inspire you.
Students are generally shy to speak in class in the first year or so, but they come out of their shell as their program progresses (but they always address professors formally with a Mr/Ms).
But being not so bold in class doesn’t mean that they are unable to give insightful answers when called upon to do so.
The curriculum is rigorous, and is a good challenge for students who did well in school.
You will have lectures where professors explain theory, followed by practical tutorials, where you will have an opportunity to ask questions and clear doubts, make presentations, and do exercises and individual work.
Many local students take a printout of material beforehand as theory classes tend to cover course content fast.
Students need to keep long working hours. The average grade is a B, and most students, except the really gifted ones, struggle to balance work and play. Exam time is stressful, as in most other universities. You will find that many students are obsessed with grades.
Singapore universities offer an enriching life beyond the classrooms, too. To quickly review the programs and facilities available at the three most known universities (NUS, NTU, and SMU), students are welcomed with freshman orientation camps and academic year openers.
Campuses are self-contained with facilities that cater to a variety of interests, from music to theater, and sports to cultural activities.
Entertainment options are also plentiful, with night clubs and bars. Cultural activities and community service all have avenues on campus. Foodies have cafes and eateries that cater to all tastes.
Outside campus, there are malls and community centers in every large neighborhood. Community centers have gyms and sports facilities that students can enjoy.
Given the tropical weather, you can indulge in adventure activities such as windsurfing, dragon boat racing, wake boarding.
Singapore is home to four large ethnic identities: Chinese, Malay, Indian, “others” (those who don’t belong to the three major categories) and ensuring multicultural harmony is a top priority of the government.
Communities have their own distinct ethnic neighborhoods, for example, “Chinatown” and “Little India.”
Meritocracy ensures that talent from all over the word is encouraged, giving foreign students and employees equal opportunities along with the local people.
A blogger points out that English may be one of the four national languages (along with Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil), but the local people have their own variety, “Singlish,” spoken at express speed.
The main religions are Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism. All religious communities get equal respect in this secular immigrant country.
The festivals of all religions and also the National Day Parade (August 9) are celebrated as public holidays.
Democracy, peace, progress, justice, and equality are represented in the stars in the Singapore national flag.
Singapore has many TV and radio networks and newspapers and magazines. Popular sports include football, basketball, swimming, cricket, rugby, badminton, and cycling. Watersports such as sailing, kayaking, and water-skiing are also widely enjoyed.
Singapore got 4/7 for political freedom and civil liberties (I is the most free) from Freedom in the World, a US organization.
Reporters without Borders ranked it 158th in its Press Freedom Index in 2020 out of 180 countries. There are also tight restrictions on art and cultural performances.
Nevertheless, Singapore has a diverse music and art tradition, with traditional and modern styles along with their fusion. Literature mainly comprises literary works written in the country’s official languages.
Food and cuisine
On campus, parts of the major universities look like large food courts. At the NUS, for example, you have the Alcove Asian Restaurant Bar (“zi char,” variety of homemade-like dishes at low prices), Spice Table by Pines (comfort food), Humble Origins (café), and many more; NTU has Bakery Cuisine, Boost Juice, Fun World Café, etc., besides various food courts, MacDonald and Subway; at SMU, Reedz, Boyle’s Coffee and Love Bites, Grove Café (all with vegetarian options), and many more delight foodies.
Street food is extremely popular, and every street corner is virtually a foodie’s paradise. Most major cuisines are available at these eateries and posher restaurants. Singaporeans also relish seafood, and a favorite dish is stingray barbecued stingray served on a banana leaf and with sambal (chilli).
Vegetarians have plenty of options, and almost all dishes have vegetarian versions. Many vegetarian-friendly joints can be found in all areas.
Options includes dishes such as “prata” and dal curry, Indian and Chinese “rojak,” vegetarian ingredients mixed with sauce, and “kueh,” the traditional cakes and sweets, to name just a few.
Diversity in Singapore also means cultural diffusion. You will see Malay hawkers selling Tamil food, and Chinese stalls selling Malay ingredients.
International students can find either on-campus or off-campus accommodation. On-campus accommodation includes student halls (with or without meals) at monthly rents of S$200 (US$ 144, Rs. 10,726, as on July 2, 2020) and above, with higher rents for greater facilities. Apartments for married couples are available for rents from S$3,000 for a semester, or six months.
Off-campus accommodation includes hostels, some with tie-ups with universities, studios, and apartments. Student accommodation is available for $S1,700 for six months besides utility deposits, and private apartments for $S1,500 monthly. You can live in style if you can afford it. Condos/studios come at $S1,000 a month and apartments for $S 4,000 a month.
The Housing Development Board provides public accommodation with all basic facilities. The rent depends on the location and is usually S$650-$S 2,000 a month and can be shared by one to five people.
It is important to do bit of research before choosing your accommodation. Go over the rental deed, particularly the exit clause. Be wary of unscrupulous agents.
At the NUS, the average annual undergraduate tuition fees for arts come to about $S30,000, for architecture and law $S39,000, for business $S32,000, and for engineering/science/computing S$38,000.
At the NTU, the average annual UG tuition fees for accountancy, business, computing, and computer engineering programs are about $S37,000 without the tuition grant.
At SMU, the average UG fees for accountancy, business, science, and social sciences come to S$47,000. The fees for students with tuition grant is about $S24,000.
International students who secure the highly selective MOE Tuition Grant pay much lower fees, in many cases 50 percent less. They need to work for a Singapore entity for three years after graduation.
Generally speaking, you can expect to pay $S35,000 in tuition fees annually for graduate programs in a reputed university in Singapore. You may be eligible for a substantial Fee subsidy with a service obligation.
An international student may need $S700-$S2,000 a month on living expenses, which means $S8,400-$S24,000 annually.
This is if you estimate $S200-$S700 for accommodation, $S300-$S450 for food (at food courts), $S100-$S300 for personal expenses, S$40-$100 for utilities, $S50 each for transport and telecommunication, and $S100 per term for books/stationery.
Without tuition grant, you may require a minimum of $S40,000 each year, depending, of course, on your program and your lifestyle.
Singapore is an expensive country—a haircut may leave you poorer by over $S30—and any income as a student would be welcome.
International students can work 16 hours during semester and unlimited hours during vacation.
However, they should be full-time students in approved institutions and hold student passes issued by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority. Students studying in a university or institution that is not approved for student passes cannot work.
Moreover, any part-time work should be connected with an industrial attachment program and should be required for graduation and be in the nature of an internship.
Unlike other countries, in Singapore, students cannot take up any part-time job that is offered to them.
Also read: How I got a job in Singapore after MBA
A day in the life of a student in Singapore
[By a final-year student at a top business school in Singapore, paraphrased for conciseness]
By 7.30 am, I am ready to hop down to the dormitory cafeteria for breakfast, along with my friend. During lulls in the conversation, I run through my timetable.
At 8.45 I grab my laptop and briskly walk to my university, located near my hostel. In my class, “Marketing Practice and Impact,” I enjoy discussions with my classmates and the professor.
After lunch, and sometimes after a project meeting, I head for my Bahasa Indonesian language class, an elective that we are supposed to take as part of the NUS holistic education experience.
I have no further meeting or classes, so I have a quick bite at the canteen and the catch a shuttle bus to an on-campus incubation center for startups.
At the center, called “The Hangar,” I get a chance to be involved in a tech startup and share ideas with entrepreneurs.
At 6 pm, I return to hostel for dinner with friends and hit my books. At 10 pm, it’s time for a dance class at the learning hub on campus.
At midnight, it’s time to call it day, and get ready for another day of new opportunities.
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