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For the "real" Singapore, visit the heartlands

Updated on June 17, 2015
Toa Payoh centre lined with shophouses. Photo taken by ozlady (Flickr).
Toa Payoh centre lined with shophouses. Photo taken by ozlady (Flickr).

This is not at the top of the list in most tourist guides, but a visit to one of the satellite townships built by the government (Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh, Clementi, Bedok, etc.) is certainly one of the things I would recommend if you ever visit Singapore.

What is fascinating about these towns is that they are real, not re-created like so many tourist attractions these days, yet full of typically Singaporean things to see and do.

The Singapore "heartlands"

I am not sure when these towns started being called the "heartlands", but the description fits, because there lies the heart and soul of Singapore. A majority of Singaporeans (approximately 85%) live in these suburban towns, making their home in HDB flats, housing built by a government body called the Housing Development Board ("HDB").

Life in Singapore is centred around these suburban towns, which have a range of facilities -- from a community centre and likely a community library, to food centres, a wet market, shops catering to the needs of people living nearby, schools, clinics, and other amenities.

Typical HDB residential block
Typical HDB residential block

Sights and sounds

If you go early enough in the mornings, you will see children in school uniforms making their way to school; "aunties" going to to the wet market dragging their trolleys, perhaps with their maids accompanying them; residents young and old having their morning the (local version of tea made with sweetened condensed milk) and noodles at the food centre or local kopitiam (coffee shop). Buy a cup of the yourself, and watch the people as they start their day.

The evenings are just as lively, full of residents making their way home from work or school, stopping by at the food stalls, the bakeries, the grocery stores, the snack shops, the DVD rental stores, etc. to buy what they need.

If there is a community library in the town you are visiting, do go take a peek. You will likely see people there with their laptops, taking advantage of the library being one of the Free Wifi spots scattered throughout Singapore. By the way, tourists can also take advantage of the Free WiFi service too. (You just have to register -- information and instructions on the service, called Wireless@SG, can be found here).

And do not forget to venture out from the town centre to explore the residential HDB blocks. Look up, and you will likely see bamboo poles with clothes hung out to dry. And you may just see foreign workers going about cleaning or trimming the trees. In the evenings, parents and their young children can be seen at the playgrounds. Older folks will likely go out for a walk. Do not be surprised to bump into a group or two engaging in community activities like line dance or qigong and the like. These are popular in the heartlands.

The Best New Towns To Visit

Probably the best new towns to visit are

  • Toa Payoh
  • Ang Mo Kio

They are not too far from central Singapore, and easily accessible via MRT or bus. These estates are also fairly mature, with a good mix of old and new flats.


Prices at these town centres are usually lower than Orchard Road. You may just find some bargains. You will find clothes, shoes, snacks, fruits, groceries, etc.

Just keep a sharper eye out for quality of material and workmanship when you buy anything. Examine the products to make sure there are no defects, loose stitching, etc.

Food, food, food

Singaporeans love food, so you MUST check out the food at the neighbourhoods. Typical fare include:


  • Kaya toast with half-boiled egg. Toast is served with kaya (a spread made from eggs and coconut milk) and butter, and a half-boiled egg, or two. Nowadays, this traditional breakfast favourite can also be found in more upmarket outlets like Ya Kun.
  • Nasi lemak. One of my personal favourites. This dish comprises rice cooked with coconut milk. The rice is served with fish, peanuts, fried anchovies and chilli (If you cannot take spicy food, this dish is also delicious without the chilli). Nowadays, nasi lemak stores in Singapore also serve the dish with fried chicken, spicy fish cake (otah), egg and/or vegetables.
  • Various kinds of dumplings (pau). Chinese dumplings with a variety of fillings are also popular. There are sweet varieties and spicy varieties. Try the pau filled red bean paste, or pau with lotus seed paste filling, both sweet.
  • Roti prata. A type of Indian grilled bread, this is usually served with curry, or if you prefer it, a non-spicy dhal dish. Another of my breakfast favourites.
  • Noodles. Noodles with fish balls or fish cakes are a common sight.

Other Meals

  • Ready-prepared food with rice. A plate of white rice will be dished out, and you just select the dishes arrayed on the counter, and they will be spooned out on the rice for you. We usually choose about three different dishes.
  • Chicken rice. Another Singaporean favourite. This comes either roasted or boiled.
  • Laksa. This noodle dish is spicy, so be careful!
  • Indian Bryani Rice. Another fairly spicy but flavourful dish.

If in doubt, you can always ask the locals around you to point out the best food stalls. Or just look at which stalls have the longest queues -- a reliable method during peak hours.

An aside: in food centres in Singapore, if you see packets of tissues on the table, that means the places have been "reserved" by people who have gone off to order their food. You will have to find another place to sit.

© 2008 Marlene_OnTheWall


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    • lilian_sg profile image

      lilian_sg 7 years ago from Singapore

      It's quite a good off the beaten path tip! I would recommend it to especially to those who have more time to spare =)

      Some of my suggestions here too:

    • Marlene_OnTheWall profile image

      Marlene_OnTheWall 8 years ago from Singapore

      That's great, Derek. Found anything worth sharing in your walks through the heartlands? I believe Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio are probably the largest if you're talking about suburban areas, with maybe Clementi close behind. Closer to the centre of the city, Tiong Bahru (market and surrounding areas) is a fascinating visit.

    • profile image

      Derek 8 years ago

      I've been in a habit of exploring the heartlands recently especially in the mornings, for breakfast or just a walkabout. I've already gone through the 'big 4' and other smaller ones like Hougang, Jurong etc. Are there any others that are comparable in size to TP or AMK?