Turning Singapore into a 'shopping mecca' was all part of the master plan for the transformation from third to first world country. Singapore needs foreign money and is ideally placed geographically in Southeast Asia for travellers stopping over between Europe, Australasia and other parts of Asia. There isn't much to do there though, no fabulous tropical beaches or anything, so what do you do?
You create lots of shopping opportunities and embark on a huge marketing exercise telling the rest of the world that Singapore is a fantastic place to shop. Wealthy tourists who are also hungry consumers can then spend a few days on the island merrily shopping to satisfy their materialist appetites, and as they do so Singapore gets some of their money.
There are bargains in Singapore but new arrivals need to be aware of a few things and exercise caution to guard against unscrupulous Chinese salesmen. The situation has improved in recent years but there are still a few things to look out for. I'll get on to that in a minute.
Status conscious Singapore is big on brand names. Most Singaporeans can reel off a list of fashionable brand names just like I can reel off the English alphabet. Along Orchard Road are outlets for all the major fashion houses with their pretentious shops, products and staff. Personally I find the whole industry quite pathetic.
There is value in brands because of what that brand says about quality, reliability and after sales service, etc. I like Canon cameras because I have owned that brand for over 20 years and that manufacturers products have served me well. It is the same with Quad amplifiers and loudspeakers, Rohan travel clothing and Porsche cars.
Buying brands purely for status though just doesn't figure to me. "Oh yes, I am wearing clothes by this Italian designer and they are very expensive so I am a better person than you." Manufacturers are quite aware of this weakness in people and have tapped into it. BMW make good products but are aware that their brand is the most important thing they have. Everyone in Asia wants a BMW or a Mercedes and BMW are quite happy to churn out thousands of fairly ordinary cars to satiate these desires knowing they will be bought for the badge on the back of the car. The cars are no better (and sometimes inferior) to Hondas and Fords but that isn't what matters.
Anyway, I digress but if you want designer labels they are all available in Singapore along Orchard Road. For those who crave status but haven't got the funds for the official merchandise there are plenty of fake products available too, from Rolex watches to Louis Vuitton handbags. Because this illegal trade is not tolerated by developed countries it is all done 'under the table'. This stuff is sometimes sold in the markets around Bugis and obvious tourists in Singapore will often hear a "Psss" as they are walking along Orchard Road from a dodgy Chinese trying to attract their attention to buy dodgy gear.
To me, shopping in Singapore has always been synonymous with cameras and electronic gear. On my first trip in 1990 I was the classic green, wet-behind-the-ears tourist. I had a four day stopover in Singapore and decided that it was a good place to buy a camera. I already had a good SLR so decided on a less complicated point-and-shoot affair to complement my system. I didn't really know what I wanted but thought that I would get good advice and a good price in Singapore. How wrong I was.
I found myself in a shop on the receiving end of some rather heavy pressure selling techniques. The shop sold cameras at the front and there was a tailor shop at the back. While trying to sell me a camera they persistently tried to sell me tailor-made articles of clothing. I bought a camera and thought I had done well to actually get out of the shop without buying a jacket, two pairs of trousers, three neckties and a safari-suit.
The camera wasn't what I needed or wanted at all. It was a point-and-shoot but it was as big as my SLR with a standard lens and had none of the features so there was little advantage over my SLR. When I returned home it was put away and hardly ever used again. When I looked at the prices in my local retailer in the UK I had paid the same price for it so there was no cost saving. That taught me a lesson.
There are bargains in Singapore but not everything is what it seems. The first thing is to know exactly what you want and to know exactly what is the best price you can get it for at home. Convert this amount into Singapore dollars and make sure that you are actually paying less if you make a purchase in Singapore. Also make sure that there is an international guarantee.
Singaporean salesmen know every trick in the book. Bait and switch is one tactic. They will try to get you hooked but then get you interested in another product, one that you haven't researched so don't know how good it is or what the true price should be. One tried to sell me a camera and made the offer sound very good with a lot of accessories included and a free printer. I almost bought it but managed to get out of the shop without doing so. When I got back to my room and researched it at dpreview.com the reviews were awful. The salesman was just trying to get rid of stock he couldn't sell. He wasn't interested in my queries about Canon cameras probably because those are easy to sell.
On my last visit I was looking for a digital SLR. The salesmen realise that if a customer is purchasing a digital camera body they will also probably buy extra items such as a lens, a lens filter, CF cards and maybe a camera bag. The price they give you for the camera body might be very good but what they then try to do is overcharge you for the other things. One guy at Sim Lim Square gave me a fantastic price on the camera but his lens price was about 400 SGD higher than elsewhere. I told him I'd take the camera and buy the lens at another shop but he refused to sell just the camera alone as this didn't fit in with his plan.
Something else to watch out for is the addition of GST (now 5%) and credit card charges. On big purchases paying by credit card is normally the only way to pay as people don't tend to carry around huge wads of cash but in Asia they charge for this unlike Europe and the States. Salesmen will tell you that it is possible to claim back the GST at the airport when you leave so don't worry about it. This is true to some extent but you don't get back all of the GST you are charged on the purchase.
The salesmen are good at high pressure selling. At certain places lots of tourists walk around to browse what's on offer, often without any real intention of making a purchase. The salesmen know this and are very good at getting people in the shop. Once inside they are clever at finding out what it is that person might want to buy and once they have this information they go for the jugular.
At first they will be your best friend. They shake hands, smile a lot, put an arm round you, ask where you come from, tell you what a wonderful country you live in, etc. They are quite familiar with foreign exchange rates so will happily tell you the price of something in your own currency to make it sound like a real bargain (that's before adding on expensive accessories, GST and credit card charges).
However, if you decide that you really don't want to buy anything and are a strong enough person to walk out without making a purchase just see how they change. From being their best friend in the world you are now just a piece of shit. They will stare at you coldly or just ignore you as you walk out. Some will even curse you. Nice. Now they are showing their true selves.
A couple of places to be very careful of are the aforementioned Sim Lim Square and Lucky Plaza in Orchard Road. When buying camera equipment I would strongly suggest purchasing from a proper camera shop, not a place selling cameras and all manner of other electrical equipment.
Funan IT Mall is quite a good place to buy computer equipment and there are a couple of camera shops too. You don't have to worry too much about being ripped off or buying shoddy goods there. Parisilk in Holland Village is somewhere else where prices are quite reliable and honest, it is favoured by many Singapore expats. Mustafa, in the Little India district, is quite reliable with honest prices but they don't have much of the latest camera and electronic equipment. If you want a something simple such as an electric shaver or a basic electrical item Mustafa is fine.
If you are looking for a camera I'd strongly suggest avoiding places like Lucky Plaza and Sim Lim Square. Avoid anywhere that sells all kinds of electronic goods and has salesmen at the door trying to lure in customers. Try to find proper camera shops. Here are a few recommendations:
John 3:16 Photo Supplies
Funan The IT Mall
109 North Bridge Road #03-37
Tel: 6337 2877
Fax: 6337 1897
Handphone: 9674 8664
176 Orchard Road #03-10 Centrepoint
Tel: 6733 3848
Fax: 6738 3848
To check current camera equipment prices, take a look at the forums on the ClubSNAP web site which is run by Singapore photography enthusiasts. 'Sticky' forum threads give prices for cameras and accessories from retailers all over Singapore. It's a very useful resource if you are visiting Singapore and plan to do some camera shopping.
There isn't much of a second-hand market in Singapore because of the general obsession with owning the latest equipment out. However, there are a couple of places in Peninsular Plaza and also in the building that lies between Peninsular Plaza and Funan The IT Mall.
Whenever one of the big manufacturers brings out a new model the second-hand shops are suddenly full of the model it replaced as Kiasu-obsessed Singaporeans trade in perfectly good equipment to get the latest and greatest. In early 2004 I was looking around for a Canon 10D digital body. If I could have found a good used model at a fair price I would have bought it but there were none available.
I went back to Singapore in October 2004 shortly after Canon had brought out the successor to the 10D, the 20D. There were second-hand 10Ds everywhere. So ... Kiasu.
Get The Best Deal On Your Singapore Hotel Room
Listed opposite are some suggestions for hotels in Singapore based on budget. Each link will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
Images of Thailand