Only in Singapore: 10 things that make the city-state unique

Natthawat Jamnapa | Getty Images

Singapore is often called "just another bland modern city," with gleaming high-rise buildings and sophisticated infrastructure, but digging a little deeper, there's far more to the city-state.

The epitome of a melting pot, the island nation brags a blend of culture, producing foods, customs and traditions not seen elsewhere.

From local cuisine to "choping" to Changi Airport, CNBC takes a look at 10 things that make Singapore unique as it celebrates 50 years of independence.

By Ansuya Harjani
Posted 3 August 2015

Taxi uncles

Joseph Samuel Chan

You'll find you have many "uncles" when you live in Singapore.

Unlike in the West, the term isn't reserved just for relatives or close family friends, it's regularly used to address cabbies - no matter their age.

Famous for their rants on social and political issues, taxi uncles offer some of the most candid insight into life in Singapore.

Street speak

Janine Tan

English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil may be the four official languages of the city-state, but Singlish is the one most frequently heard on the streets.

The quirky dialect, which began to take root when Singapore gained its independence in 1965, combines English with a hodgepodge of words and phrases from Chinese dialects including Hokkien and Cantonese as well as Malay and Tamil.

Some common Singlish words include kaypoh – which is Hokkien for a busybody or nosey parker, makan – or food in Malay and ta pau – a Cantonese phrase for "take away" used in the context of food. Of course, there's the nearly ever-present "lah," tacked on the end of sentences to indicate the speaker really, really means it; it's never a question.

Bread ice-cream carts

Janine Tan

Forget waffle cones or cups, Singaporeans love their ice cream between two slices of soft rainbow colored bread.

The native snack, sold by street vendors across the island, is the perfect way to cool down under the sweltering Singapore sun.

Changi Airport

Bloomberg | Getty Images

The pride and joy of Singaporeans, Changi is famous for its high level of efficiency and extensive range of amenities.

Passengers can expect to be home within an hour of landing in the city-state, while those in transit have access to everything from free movie theatres and gaming centers to shower facilities, leg massage stations and sleeping lounges.

Changi was voted the world's best airport for the third straight year in 2015 at the annual World Airport Awards in March.


Janine Tan

Kleenex packets serve a dual function here in Singapore.

Apart the obvious, they are also used to reserve tables at food courts or public eating areas – a common practice called "choping."

The more daring "chopers" use their staff IDs, keys and even mobile phones to reserve their seats while they are off purchasing food.

If that isn't a testament to how safe the city is, I don't know what is!

Bag drinks

Syafa'at Salleh

From your morning kopi-o to afternoon teh tarik, hot and cold beverages purchased from hawker centers are often served in plastic drawstring bags with a straw. Why? It's cheap and convenient.

Void deck weddings & funerals

Janine Tan

With weddings and funerals seen as more communal than private life events for certain communities in Singapore, void decks – or the largely vacant ground floor of public-housing apartment blocks – are often used to host sacred ceremonies.

Hawker centers

Janine Tan

The heart and soul of Singapore's food scene, hawkers serve up the best of local cuisine – from chicken rice to char kway teow.

These foodie havens located across the island offer the cheapest dining options in the pricey city state, with dishes averaging just 5 Singapore dollars ($3.70). But the squeamish should be sure to check the grade -- each stall's cleanliness is ranked A, B or C.

Spice in all forms

Janine Tan

Chili sauce with fries, cut red chili with fried rice, chili blachan with fried noodles, chili oil with dumplings – Singaporeans love their spice, in whatever form.

You'll find supermarket shelves in the city-state stocked with dozens of hot sauces from all over the world.

Gum control

Getty Images

Chewing gum is a tightly controlled commodity in the city state.

The government outlawed the sale of gum in 1992 in an effort to keep public areas clean. But the ban, which grabbed global attention when it was first announced, has since been eased. Just over a decade ago, pharmacies and dentists were granted permission to sell so-called therapeutic gum used for medicinal or dental purposes, such as nicotine and sugar-free gum.

While the restrictions continue to be perceived as overbearing by some, their value is quickly apparent in Singapore's pristine streets.