The best things in life are free

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First published on 8 Mar 2008.

So this is what it feels like to be squeezed. GST recently went up from 5 to 7 per cent, housing prices are at an all-time high, and newspapers, television and magazines are constantly shoving products or services in our faces. Of course, it is a must to get slimmer, buy the newest Nokia phone and own the sleekest Bulgari watch. The condo and the car are necessities as well, and we must save up for that expensive wedding package and brand new-diamondon the telly. Why? Because everyone else is doing it. Never mind about being overworked and having no life. But wait, I have a life. I fork out big bucks for my expensive gym membership in town. I paid $400 for a Phantom of the Opera ticket. That’s culture, you know. 

All this sound familiar? Maybe yes, maybe no, but here’s a secret: not everything in Singapore has to cost money. Yes, you read right – you do not have to spend money to have a good time, whether you are living here or just visiting. 

And because we like a good deal – OK, we admit it: we’re cheapskates – we did a bit of research and found that there is no shortage of free entertainment and products, even in increasingly expensive Singapore. Feeling a thirst for thrift? Here are more than 20 ways to save a cent. 

Make it a girls’ night out
Good news for female freeloaders: many clubs and bars here still believe that the ‘free drinks for girls will attract the guys’ promotion drawsin massive crowds. The trend is borderline passé, but bars and clubs still seem to think it’s viable, even when ladies pass the drinks to their boyfriends and the promotion doesn’t really rake in the good-looking, rich bar-goers that clubs crave. Pop down to Attica every Wednesday for free entry and prizes, like a Lee Hwa diamond pendant, trips to Bintan, and goodies from Moët & Chandon and Toni & Guy. Make it a midweek pub crawl and head to Gotham Penthouse that same night for free flow from midnight to 2am, and a sexy dance performance by male troupe Odyssey (pictured right). For salsa music, visit Union Square with your dancing shoes for unlimited housepours every Friday. Enjoy it while it lasts, ladies (and gents). 

Grow closer to God (or Allah, or Buddha…)
Singaporeans have it good – access to the powers that be is absolutely free. (Unfortunately,we’re not talking about the Lee family here.) Don’t believe us? Ask any tourist and they’ll tell you that in other countries, paying an entry fee for places of worship is not an uncommon practice: the Taj Mahal charges US$21 (S$32) per entry to foreigners, while the Vatican slaps on a hefty 12 Euros (S$25) for admission. But you don’t spend acent to get into Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, the largest Buddhist temple in Singapore, replete with prayer and meditation halls, a hospice, gardens and a vegetarian restaurant. Guided tours can be arranged in advance, and do take care to respect the signs prohibiting footwear on the marble floors inside the pagodas. Sultan Mosque is the large stand unofficial centre of worship forlocal Muslims, but visitors are welcome to enter (except during prayer services, so avoid Fridays). Look for the curious features at the base of the dome, which is composed of many glass bottles. And at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, you’ll not only find the oldest Catholic church on the island, but also the home of Singapore’s Archbishop.The most interesting fact, though, is that the church houses the oldest working organ, which dates back to 1912 (no small feat, considering our humid weather). Organ builder Robert Navaratnam plays the instrument at some church masses. Corner him, buy him a kopi and he’ll gladly give you a most detailed history of his passion. 

Get ready for take-off 
Budget travellers, your airport has arrived. There’s a host of things to do at Changi Airport that only travellers-in-transit can take advantage of – and we suggest you do. Most tourists know about the free two-hour tour of Singapore, where– if you’ve got five hours to kill – you can take a Colonial tour (a bumboat ride on the Singapore River and a visit to classic sights like the Raffles Hotel) or a Cultural tour (to Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Katong). But if you prefer to stay put, then make use of the internet access points scattered throughout the concourses (pictured right), take a nap on the ‘snooze chairs’ (with built-in alarms) or try your hand at video games at the Xbox terminal – all complimentary, of course. Go to the Visit Singapore website for more information. 

Pop into the Arts House 
The free events at this arts venue are not as extensive or made-for-the-masses as The Esplanade’s.The good thing, of course, is that you get more interesting, unexpected stuff, like documentary screenings, underground bands and book-club meetings. You’ll also see more niche-related art installations and music events several times a month.

KID-FRIENDLY! Check out the museums
As in most cities, museums are free on certain nights of the month, and Singapore is no exception.The National Heritage Board  allows free entry to one of its cultural institutions, the Singapore Art Museum ), for three hours (6-9pm) on Fridays or for two (noon-2pm) on weekdays. And that hardly seems like enough time for SAM, which houses more than 7,000 South-East Asian artworks on permanent display. The flagship of the National Heritage Board’s museums, the National Museum of Singapore, reopened in December 2006 after three years of refurbishment and at a cost of a whopping $132 million. And you can see part of it, the Living Galleries, for free,daily from 6 to 9pm. The Living Galleries showcase Singapore’s rich ethnic society through thecultural themes of food, fashion, film (and wayang) and photography. Bring the kids, too – there are hands-on features that allow you to smell spices and feel fabrics. 

Take in the skyline
The view from New Asia Bar on the top floors of Swissôtel The Stamford  is one of the most breathtaking of the city, where you can see The Esplanade, The Padang and maybe even offshore islands on a clear day. The views are reserved for paying patrons of the bars and restaurants on the 69th to 72nd floors – but you can take the elevator up on the pretext of going to have a drink and see a portion of the view in the lobby area outside the lift. The best times to steal a glance are on weekday afternoons; any other time, and especially on Fridays and Saturdays, they usually put a cover-charge booth on the first floor. It is a painful $20 for entry and a drink at New Asia Bar on the 72nd floor, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Go public 
Believe it or not, there are more than 120 pieces of art littered around the city. Most sit outside museums and office buildings. And we’re not just talking about the too-famous ones, like the bronze statue of Sir Stamford Raffles by Thomas Woolner at Raffles’ Landing Site. There’s art all around you, if you care to look. At The Esplanade’s entrance and the Citylink underpass, there are often new art presentations every month. But our favourite pieces include a mix of national and international pieces, like Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure’ (OCBC Centre, 65 Chulia Street), which was made in1938 but finally appeared in Singapore in 1983. It’s reputedly the largest of Moore’s 850 pieces; westress ‘large’, as it may be a bit difficult to get thewhole of the sculpture if you intend to go thereto take pictures. Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Singapore Brushstrokes’ (Millenia Walk, 9 Raffles Boulevard) is another piece worth the walk, featuring sculptures of heights between 20 to 40 feet that look like gigantic brush strokes in bold colours and thick black outlines. It’s one of the last pieces that Lichtenstein was commissioned to do in 1995, and was brought to Singapore only months before his death in 1997. Fernando Botero’s ‘Bird’, a monument to peace and prosperity, and Salvador Dali’s ‘Homage to Newton’ (pictured right) (both at UOB Plaza, 80 Raffles Place) which celebrates Newton’s discoveryof the law of gravity, are also worth a visit.

Get on the bus
Why take a taxi when there are so many freeshuttles running daily? Most free rides are to major shopping malls or department stores that are a bit out of the way, with no MRTs nearby. Of course, there is nothing that will take you from your doorstep to town and back. However, there are some oft-frequented routes with free buses that are just too good – and too easy – to pass up. For example, if you plan to go to Tampines, you can hop on to the free IKEA-provided shuttles from Tampines MRT or Bedok MRT to IKEA Tampines that come every half hour, and take a separate paid-bus service to your specific destination within Tampines. (Or walk, if you’re really that cheap.) Little journeys like this can save you quite a bit of coin when you add it all up. In the west, the IMM shuttle bus, courtesy of IMM Mall, goes to and from International Business Park and Jurong East, Boon Lay and Clementi MRTs every 30 to45 minutes. In town, SMRT also provides free shuttle services through SMRT Link buses to Chinatown and Little India from Dhoby Ghaut MRT, and to Chinatown from Outram Park MRT during the weekends and public holidays, while Great World City has a bus service from Orchard, Chinatown and City Hall MRTs to its shopping mall. Look out for the Great World City sign on the buses.

Tap your feet
Pop over to The Esplanade and there are, on average, three to four free music events a week that do the range of crowd-pleasing genres – acoustic pop, light R&B, rock, indie, jazz and classical music. But every once in a great while, the folks at The Esplanade let their hair down and present hardcore metal or even modern blues, so be on the lookout for those offbeat offerings. We like the midday serenade of its Lunchbox series each month and Sunday afternoon’s programming. 
Click here and follow the ‘Free Programmes’ link for more information.

Go surfing
Of course, everyone knows about the island-wide wi-fi service, Wireless@SG (go to to signup). But typically, what you save in money you lose in time (at a slow 512kbps, even dial-up is faster and steadier). For absolutely free and fast surfing, plonk down at Funan DigitaLife Mall, Novena Square and the National Library. And though many cafés offer free and rapid wi-fi for paying customers, half the places don’t really notice who comes and goes. We’re just sayin’.

Catch a flick in Little India
Want to see what Woodstock would’ve looked like if it involved film? Then get thee to the open plot of land at the junction of Weld Road and Sungei Road every Sunday evening. There, you’ll find Hindi movies projected on to a huge white screen and speakers blaring out the bhangra– an alfresco Bollywood spectacle, if there everwas one. Organised by the Singapore Contractors Association, a market accompanies the film screening as well to cater to thousands of Indian foreign workers. It all might be a bit intimidating for some, but dare to go there, curious cats – it’s a scene like no other.

Take a walk on the wild side

Walking in hot and humid Singapore might be a crazy idea, but try it on for size on cooler days. Parks are under-populated, as walking is not a terribly popular pastime – and that is a good thing if you’re searching for peace and quiet. The Pasir Ris Mangrove Boardwalk Trail at the Pasir Ris Park (between Pasir Ris Road, Elias Road, Pasir Ris Green, Pasir Ris Close, JalanLoyang Besar) is a more unusual offering. It’s the island’s third-largest seafront park, housing a five-hectare mangrove swamp reserve that you can walk through via a wooden boardwalk. Be warned, though, mangrove swamps are an acquired taste (or rather, smell), even for the most dedicated nature lover, but persevere and you can see all sorts of inhabitants, like mudflats and ponds, birds galore and insects you would never encounter in normal urban life. Fort Canning Park (Fort Canning Centre, Cox Terrace) is a good bit of green for history fans. There is almost too much to do, despite its puny size: a spice garden, a replica of the first botanical garden set up by Sir Stamford Raffles, gothic-looking gates that mark the entrance into the park, old Christian graves, underground bunkers used during World War II and an ongoing archaeological excavation site. The Registry of Marriages is also nearby, so expect to see many newlywed couples perspiring in their ridiculously hot suits. If you are a hiker, the TreeTop Walk at MacRitchie Reservoir (Venus Drive, off Upper Thomson Road, pictured right) takes you through the different stages of a mature secondary forest. It’s the first of its kind in Singapore and South-East Asia. The bridge part rises as high as 27 metres, and you can see as many as 80 bird and eight reptile varieties, and 18 rare species of trees. National Parks Board calls it one of the best hiking routes, but be sure to wear the right shoes; it’s graded moderate-to-difficult. Getting to the bridge, and walking it and back is a 10.5km journey. And, oh, beware of falling branches – a man was killed by one earlier this year after a heavy rainfall. 
Contact the National Parks Board (1800471 7300) for more information on individual parks. 

KID-FRIENDLY! Bring history to life
It’s a bit out of the way, but the decommissioned tank and two M114 artillery guns at the adopted Army Green Park at Kent Ridge Park (Vigilante Drive, off South Buona Vista Road; 1800 471 7300) are the best – and ironically safest – things for kids to play around and learn a bit of history. One of the last battles for Singapore occurred in that area. 

Have a presidential picnic
Around the time of public holidays, the presidential grounds of the Istana is open to the public from 8:30am to 6pm. Bring your own food and have a picnic and, if you fancy it, participate in the cultural and arts events (like dances, brass bands and martial arts demonstrations) that usually take place. The main Istana building itself was completed in 1869 and the gardens – which make for a lovely walk – contain an old Japanese artillery gun, lily ponds, the burial grounds of the Bencoolen Muslims and even a nine-hole golf course. Another popular public attraction is the changing of the guard, which happens the first Sunday of the month and starts at 6pm. Free admission to Singaporeans and permanent residents; $1 charge for other visitors. Click here for details on the next open house. 

Check out the history of cinema
One of the more unique museums (free or not) is the Cathay Gallery. It showcases the history of the Loke family, who set up the Cathay movie-theatre empire. Inside, there’s a treasure trove of memorabilia relating to the family, like images of old Angkor Wat as captured by the late Dato Loke Wan Tho, who started the business. The cool bit is seeing old cinema tickets and what cinema seats used to be like 50 years ago, during the golden age of Singapore cinema going. Old movie promotional posters are on display, like one for Return of the Jedi with the words ‘Jedi Kembali’ (‘Jedi Home’) on it. Worth a visit to see images of what pop culture used to be like in the Singapore of yore. 

Rant about Kant 
Lau Kwong Fook, a freelance philosopher and editor, runs The Philosophy Café every third Wednesday of the month at the Gone Fishing Café. The issues discussed are more philosophy for a modern world, like poor artists versus rich bankers, abortion issues, whether religion is entertainment for the masses and the like, rather than the hard stuff, so anyone can jump right in and participate. 

Speak your mind 
Located at the junction of Upper Pickering Street and South Bridge Road, Hong Lim Park is Singapore’s designated area for free speech, where you can say anything you like: against the government, the PAP or Lee Kuan Yew, with no consequences. However, there are still some rules; we are in S’pore after all. You can’t just go up and talk when you feel like it. You have to register at the nearby police post and (surprise, surprise), no amplifiers or mic systems of any sort are allowed – and with the din of the traffic, it’s nearly impossible to be heard (so you can forget about mass rallies). It might still be worth popping by for a look at night, because, as a bit of side history, it used to be the area for cruising. Even nowadays, you might still see the occasional guy looking for some, uh, inspiration. 

KID-FRIENDLY! Get wet and wild 
Taking your kids out somewhere special needn’t mean having a meal at fast-food chains all the time, no matter how much they insist. VivoCity shopping mall has a super-cool kiddie playground with fun-looking water spouts on level two, and a water feature on the third-floor rooftop that somehow became a wading pool for kids. The pool is cleaned every day, but always looks rather brownish and gathers quite a bit of gravel that might cut children’s feet, so be a bit careful. Bring a towel and be warned – it can get impossibly hot on the roof. Another place is Bugis Junction’s outdoor fountain, next to the Seiyu department store on the ground floor, where you will often see drenched, screaming kids having a whale of a time. As the water comes from the floor and in various shapes and patterns, guessing where the next sprout will spurt from is half the fun. 

Muse about music 
The Singapore Botanic Gardens offer more than just fresh air and pretty flowers. At the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage, smack-dab in the middle of the gardens, there are regular free concerts that lean heavily on the classical stuff, but sometimes showcase traditional cultural music. Concerts range from award-winning school brass bands to choral ensembles and orchestras. Performances are about two to three times a month during the weekends. 
Click here for details. 

Street walk
Who would imagine that squeaky-clean Singapore has red-light districts? There are altogether five DRAs (designated red-light areas): Keong Saik Road (off New Bridge Road), Flanders Square (off Pertain Road and the main Serangoon Road), Desker Road (between Besar Road and Serangoon Road), Orchard Towers and the ever-popular Geylang (between Lorong 4 and 22, pictured right). Though we’re not suggesting you join the biz, a stroll through any of these districts, and specifically Geylang, is an eye-popping experience. Most of the action is along even numbered lorongs (streets), but Lorong 20 (at Westerhout Road), is where a fair bit of the action takes place. Here, legal, commercial sex houses with large red numbers woo customers with working girls sitting in fish tanks (no joke), waiting to be picked. There are also illegal options: street-walkers from China, Indonesia, Eastern Europe and transvestites ply their trades on the roads, despite the frequent police raids on the area. Best to go in a group as the neighbourhood, brimming with local men and foreign workers with roving eyes, might be a bit intimidating for some. Lone females walking through might also be stopped with the intrusive question of ‘How much?’ At least they’re direct, no? 

Our feature Singa-Poor? provides more advice for backpackers or travellers on a budget in Singapore.

By Greg Leow
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