These days, thanks mostly to this blog, I get one or two emails a week from people interested in living aboard a boat here in Singapore. There are tentative “is this possible” type queries; “I’m on my way to Singapore in my boat right now” ones; and everything in between. Most commonly I hear from people (usually but not always expats) who are seriously considering living aboard for some mixture of reasons that often include financial and lifestyle factors.
I try my best to give my honest advice to everyone who asks. Just based on the level of interest apparent in the emails I receive, it seems it may be useful to publish some thoughts about living aboard in Singapore for those who are thinking about doing it. As always I’m happy to have a more personal discussion — just email me at beevek at gmail dot com and, if you’re in Singapore, maybe we can even get together for a chat over coffee.
There is of course one big caveat: everyone’s situation is different, but my advice is specific to my own experience. So pick and choose from what I have to say but by no means think of it as authoritative!
Reasons to live aboard in Singapore
Around the world, people live aboard boats for a huge variety of reasons. A sense of adventure or the desire to do something just a little different seems to be an overarching commonality. You’ll need that sense of adventure to live aboard in Singapore, because despite what seems to be steadily growing interest, there are as best I can tell fewer than 20 people living on boats here.
I think Singapore has a unique set of circumstances that has kept the number of liveaboards fairly low despite its tropical island setting. The culture here is decidedly un-adventurous. Singaporeans themselves rarely seem to consider living anywhere but an HDB flat (as the less desirable option) or a condo (as the more desirable one). To be fair, living aboard is never presented to anyone as a viable alternative. When I first arrived in Singapore in mid 2008, I was looking for an apartment to rent. I told my agent I wanted a short term rental because I was planning to buy a boat and move aboard soon. She just laughed at me.
I also think the proclivities of Singaporeans are not well suited to affordable boat living. Singapore is a place of the shiny and new, clean and polished. Recently my fiancée rented space at a flea market to try to clean out her closets. Most of the customers who showed up were foreigners. Singaporeans don’t like used stuff. And if you’re not super-rich, it’s all but impossible to afford a shiny new boat suitable for living aboard. When I tell someone here I live on a boat, the assumption tends to be that I must, indeed, be super-rich — because the picture that pops into most peoples’ heads is of a shiny, upscale, celebrity-style mega-yacht with all the accouterments thereof. Oh, how I wish.
Perhaps by extension of the above point, Singapore is not a good place for do-it-yourselfers. Instead it’s more of a place for hire-someone-else-to-do-it-for-youers. As someone who’s coming from a land where Home Depots and Lowes and similar hardware shops are nearly as common as grocery stores, the frustrations of maintaining and updating a boat in Singapore can be pretty grueling, and more often than not when I walk into a shop asking about some part or tool or whatever, I get the feeling the shopkeeper is thinking “what on earth is this crazy ang moh up to?” There are, however, the rare but occasional shopkeepers who are genuinely excited and want to help. I try to keep track of them.
These preferences of Singaporeans go a long way to explaining why most live aboards in Singapore are expats. My proclivities, as opposed to those apparent in a lot of Singaporeans I meet, tend toward adventure; a willingness to put up with some mild discomfort and annoyance in order to do something different; a whole lot of patience and willingness to slog through tough, complicated, and downright dirty tasks as long as I’m learning something new along the way; and, frankly, less of a focus on “face“. Do I care that living on a rough and tumble, 40+ year old boat is less prestigious than living on a shiny new 80 ft mega-yacht in the eyes of Singaporean society-at-large? Not even remotely. And if you do, you probably shouldn’t think about living aboard in Singapore unless you’re ostentatiously wealthy.
As an aside, don’t take all of the above as an indictment of Singaporeans. By and large, they simply have different priorities in life than I. That’s true of most Americans too. Most anybody, really.
Ironically, the apartment I rented three years ago from the agent who laughed at me cost more per month in rent than I have spent monthly, on average, on berthing, maintenance, new equipment, repairs, fuel, and anything else boat related since I moved aboard. And I haven’t exactly been sitting idle. One of the biggest reasons to live aboard in Singapore is cost. Rental and purchase prices of flats in Singapore are astronomical already, and are rising meteorically. From Q4 1998 to Q1 2011, private property prices in the core central region of Singapore have risen about 105%; outside central Singapore, they’ve risen 84% (per the Singapore Department of Statistics). Residential HDB prices over the same period have risen 99%. Over a slightly shorter but still illustrative period in the US (Q1 2000 to Q2 2010), property prices have instead risen just 42% (according to FHFA). The going purchase rate for small 1-2 bedroom private condos (expats can’t buy HDB flats) looks these days to be north of S$800k (~US$660k); it is perfectly normal for me to hear a 28 year old say he just bought an S$1M flat (with a 50 year mortgage, of course).
In the past, I have done some cursory cost comparisons between living aboard in Singapore and renting flats. I found living aboard my boat to be slightly lower in cost than renting a tiny studio flat in a new-ish condo. Not super cheap, but not expensive either, relatively speaking. And I find it vastly more palatable to spend my money fixing up my boat, tinkering and learning along the way, instead of pouring it into the black hole of a landlord’s wallet.
I grew up in a small, quiet place. Only in recent years do I find myself in cities: first Boston, then New York, and now Singapore. Singapore’s density is on a whole other level from anything I’ve encountered before. In fact, Singapore is the third densest country in the world after Macau and Monaco. And oh, how nice it is to go home to a quiet dock, a cool sea breeze, rocking to sleep away from the traffic and shouting and dragon dances and even cock-a-doodle-doo-ing roosters that would interrupt my sleep every night when I lived in the city. Peace and quiet and a little separation are a great reason to live aboard in Singapore.
Everyone will have their own reasons for living aboard. Maybe the most important reason I have for doing so has nothing to do with Singapore at all. Sometime, long ago, maybe when I was six or seven or at least less than ten years old, the crazy idea popped into my head that it’d be fun someday to live on a boat. Where the idea came from I don’t know. That idea never went away, it stuck with me, nagged at me, and came back in full force when I realized I was coming to Singapore, which on a map at least looks like a perfect place to live on a boat. I have a troublesome habit of sticking to my guns when it comes to childhood aspirations: that’s pretty much the same reason I trudged through grad school long enough to get a PhD. And now here I am, living on a boat. Who knows what other latent childhood fantasies will come to light later in life.
Be it childhood fantasy, or more adult considerations like money or solitude or life meaning or learning, or better yet a healthy mix of them all, I think it’s important to have a good reason to live aboard if you’re thinking of doing so in Singapore. It won’t be easy, but it can be rewarding if you’ve got the right attitude and enough motivation.
I’m planning to follow up on this post with a few more about topics like buying and bringing a boat to Singapore; technicalities of living aboard here; some rough cost of living analysis; and anything else that comes to mind. If there’s a topic you’re interested in on which I may be able to provide some insight, let me know.