Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Overseas Adventures: Car Culture in Other Countries - Singapore

As a bit of a car nerd, I have always been interested in car culture in other countries. Unfortunately, my day job prevents me from having much opportunity to travel. The large majority of my exposure to the car culture in other countries has been exclusively through media: whether it is movies, television, or online videos. Singapore is one of those countries that I have always been interested in learning more about, especially when it comes to cars. The things I hear about the types of cars you see on the streets, and about the owners has always had me somewhat curious about what makes car culture in this Pacific Rim city-state so different from the rest of the world. Luckily for me, my best friend's 30th birthday ended up bringing me to Singapore, and I would be able to get a first hand look at the types of cars, the traffic, and the people behind the wheel.

The first thing most people should know about Singapore is that owning a car is incredibly expensive. Unlike here in the United States, where all you need to own a car is a valid driver's license and valid insurance, things in Singapore can get pretty crazy. There are a series of licenses and taxes one must acquire before the purchasing process can even begin. By the time your car is actually purchased, the amount of money spent on licenses, registration, and taxes can often cost more than the car itself. The reasoning behind this apparently has a lot to do with the size of the city-state. Singapore's streets are already fairly congested as it is. Can you imagine how much worse things would be if every person of legal age on the island owned a car?

A more accurate representation of
car ownership in Singapore
Simply put, owning a car in Singapore is not for the faint of heart...or the light of wallet. This fact had led me to believe that anyone wealthy enough to own a car in Singapore would probably be driving something high end to flaunt their wealth. It was not until I set foot in the country that I realized how wrong I was. In fact, most cars you see on the streets are very basic compact cars that you would see here in America: Honda Civics, Toyota Corollas (known as the Altis overseas), Hyundai Sonatas and Elantras, etc. Even when I encountered higher end luxury cars, they were always equipped with a diesel or smaller displacement engine. This is because, like most other countries in the world, Singapore also taxes cars based on engine displacement. The larger the engine, the more taxes it incurs. Even if you were wealthy enough to own a car in Singapore, it would make sense to own something sensible so you are not paying even more taxes because your engine happens to be a little bigger than everyone else's.

Of course, that is not to say there are not the extremely wealthy floating around Singapore. I was admittedly a little surprised by the lack of high end luxury cars and super cars in the area where I was staying. The hotel my friend and I stayed at was located in the very tourist friendly Marina Bay area, where there is a plethora of high end hotels and casinos. Sure, you will get the occasional Bentley or Rolls Royce limo dropping people off, but no high end sports cars or super cars.  It was not until we went to explore Orchard Road, where all of the high end malls and department stores in Singapore are located, that I saw quite a few super cars roaming the streets. I suppose if you want to see nice cars, go where the wealthy shop.

Because traffic can be pretty hectic in Singapore, the locals rely mainly on the city-state's relatively robust public transit system. With bus stops on nearly every corner, and MRT (mass rapid transit, or subways) stations at nearly every major intersection (with some stations in the basement levels of certain malls and hotels), getting around Singapore on a budget and in air conditioned bliss is fairly easy. Just as the entire city-state itself is very clean, buses, MRT stations and trains are all very clean and well lit. Singapore's system reminds me a lot of Taiwan's public transit system, and I can only dream that some day, we will have such a clean and efficient system here in Southern California.  

Public transit not your cup of tea? Fear not, as Singapore's taxi system is quite affordable. In fact, one of the most interesting things I discovered while in Singapore was how taxi friendly it was. For most major hotels, malls, and landmarks, there are designated taxi lanes for drivers to drop off and pick up customers. Even when you are just roaming around the city, it is not difficult to find a taxi queue with cars waiting to pick up passengers. Rates are quite affordable too, especially if you are traveling in a group. To get from Changi Airport to our hotel at the Marina, it cost three people SGD$20 (around $15 USD) and got us to our hotel in about 15 minutes, where as the airport's hotel shuttle service would have cost us SGD$9 (around $6.50 USD) per person, and taken nearly an hour. Even though taking a taxi is affordable, it does not guarantee your driver will be a safe driver. On our way to my friend's birthday dinner, our driver tried a little too hard to do an impression of Lewis Hamilton. Ironic since our hotel is located along the Singapore GP street circuit.

The grand stands of the Singapore GP Street Circuit
After my experience in Singapore, I feel like their car culture is a bit of a mixed bag. Obviously, there are still people who love their cars as magazine stands are full of various automotive publications. Unfortunately, the financial burden of owning a vehicle in Singapore seems to make it extremely prohibitive for many car enthusiasts. Even if you have enough money to own a car, getting something sporty and fun may not make financial sense once taxes and fees are factored in. Vehicle modification does not seem to be very big in Singapore either. During my stay, I encountered a grand total of one heavily modified second generation Subaru WRX STi, and that was it. Anyone who owned anything else similar either had it completely bone stock, or made modifications that could not be seen. I have to assume it is because such modifications could incur additional fees.

For most, it seems as owning a vehicle in Singapore is a very low priority. With an efficient and affordable public transit system, and a relatively affordable taxi system, getting around Singapore without your own car is not difficult or expensive. I still believe people should drive in other countries, even if it is only for a short period of time, to become more worldly drivers. In the case of Singapore though, especially if all you are doing is just visiting, I would say just learn the public transit system. Your wallet will thank you.