Learning to Drive in the World’s Most Expensive City

Musings / Friday, October 12th, 2018

The girl from China started learning the same time as you. She already pass her practical test, and you are still here!” – My “main” school driving instructor

*This quote, in Singlish, does NOT reflect my personal views and this is NOT meant to offend those from China. After all, my ancestors are from China and I am very proud of my Chinese roots and my heritage. This is simply a quote, ad verbatim, from one of my “main” driving instructors at the driving school that I used to take lessons at.

At the dawn of 2018, I set a few personal, non-academic life goals. As 2018 was my final year of (self-declared) “reckless freedom” before I entered the working world proper, I wanted to take advantage of the time when I was free from the obligations of university to accomplish all the things I wanted to do in university but lacked the time or money to. Take it as Pearlynn 2.0, if you will.

Becoming a licensed driver was one of my (on hindsight, highly ambitious and and naive) Pearlynn 2.0 goals.

It turned out to be one of the most harrowing, traumatic and expensive decisions of 2018.

Now, driving is not necessary in Singapore. The public transport system is, for the most part, efficient, affordable and reliable.

Furthermore, it is incredibly expensive to own a car in Singapore. The sales price of an entry level Toyota Altis is $100, 000. (For the gory details, read all about the high cost of owning a car in Singapore here.) In fact, most people see a car as a depreciating asset (much like one’s beauty, lol). (Omg and since we are on this topic, you might want to read what this MP said about young people choosing not to buy cars in Singapore)

However, I naively and selfishly wanted to earn a driver’s license because I saw it as a rite of passage to adulthood and that it would be useful in the far future when I finally had the ability to purchase my own car or if I went on road trips overseas.

After haggling out an agreement with my parents, I was given the green light to give driving a try.

To private or not to private, that is the question

While my father has a driver’s license, he earned it over 30 years ago and none of us in the family had any clue about learning how to drive in Singapore (my younger brother is currently taking driving lessons, but only hopped on the bandwagon after I started learning how to drive).

Normally, any self-respecting Singaporean would’ve done his or her homework and diligently researched on the topic, weighed the pros and cons and spoke to others who are currently learner drivers or have recently obtained their license before taking the plunge.

Normally, Pearlynn would be the kind of person to be incredibly kiasu and conduct the above mentioned research meticulously.

But I didn’t.

In my eagerness to kickstart the learning process, I decided from the outset that I would learn from a driving school because I naively thought that it would be more beneficial for a swaku, sotong, slow learner like me. I figured, naively (The word “naive” is overused here, but I don’t have a better word to describe how naive my thought process was!), that the structure would maximise my chances of minimising the cost of driving by maximising my chances of passing my practical test on my first try (wasn’t that a tongue twister).

I was so wrong.

A Quick Primer: The Process of Obtaining Your Qualified Driver’s License (QDL) in Singapore

Now, if you intend to learn how to drive, or if you are a foreigner hoping to convert your license (only applicable if you wish to stay in Singapore for a period of more than 12 months, read all about it here), this might be of interest to you.

*This roughly summarises the process of obtaining a Class 3A Automatic Transmission Vehicle in Singapore only. If you want to be licensed to ride a motorbike, drive a lorry/truck, the process might differ. For a clearer and possibly more accurate picture on the cost and process, read this and this.

Step 0: Registration 

School: $150 – $200 ++

Private: $50 – $70

Step 1: Basic Theory Test (BTT)

Passing grade: 45 / 50

Cost: $6.50

This is a theory test that you take online, at the driving centre. It is in a Multiple Choice Question (MCQ) format, where you answer questions on the Highway Code. There are textbooks for this and several online sites that have questions largely similar to the questions asked during the test.

Step 2: Provisional Driving License (PDL)

Cost: $25

Once you pass your BTT, you may apply for a PDL at the Traffic Police Counter. The PDL is valid for 2 years. The PDL allows you to sit for practical driving lessons with a qualified instructor. Without the PDL, you will not be allowed behind the wheel.

Practically, this also means that you have 2 years to pass your PDT to obtain your driving license.

Step 3: Final Theory Test (FTT)

Passing grade: 45 / 50

Cost: $6.50

The FTT is very similar to the BTT, though in my opinion, it includes more practical knowledge, such as lane discipline and knowing how to change lanes, overtake cars etc.

Step 4: Practical Lessons


School instructors: $75 ++ (non-peak hours) or $84 ++ (peak hours) per 90 minute lesson

Private instructors: $30 – $40 ++ (main road lessons) and $70 – $80 ++ (circuit lessons) per 60 minute lesson

Number of practical lessons required: 20 – 25 minimum for schools and no minimum for private instructors (whenever you feel ready)

Essentially, students can choose to learn under driving schools, of which there are three – (1) Singapore Safety Driving Centre, (2) Bukit Batok Driving Centre and (3) Comfort Delgro Driving Centre or from private instructors.

There are several pros and cons to learning from either school or private instructors, and many articles have covered this in great detail.

Personally, I wished I’d chosen to learn from private instructors from the get go. I will elaborate on this later.

Unfortunately (well, I find it unfortunate), the govt. stopped issuing private driving instructor licenses in the 1980s. I am unsure as to the precise reasons why, but I suspect it is to streamline the learning and ensure that all students receive the same type of instruction. Many of the private instructors are well into their late 60s, and potentially close to retirement. So if you wish to learn from a private instructor, I’d say quickly sign up with them!

Step 5: Traffic Police Practical Driving Test  (PDT)

Passing grade: 18 demerit points or less, and no Immediate Failures (IFs)

Kissing the kerb rewards you with 10 demerit points and mounting a kerb is an Immediate Failure. Other IFs include – Tester intervention (any time they step on the brake), failure to stop at the stop line (NO Hollywood stop, you literally have to stop the car for a solid two seconds), stopping at a yellow box (save for waiting to make a right turn only – the exception doesn’t apply to left turns!). The yellow box is LAVA!!!

You’re usually made to pay for a warm-up round prior to the actual test. I’d highly encourage attending the warm-up round.

#1 Circuit

There are 7 “items” to get through in the circuit. I think the objective of the circuit is to ensure that learners have good brake control and can react to unusual situations. Some of them include:

  • Crank Course – Shaped like the letter “Z
  • “S” Course – As the name suggests. When I asked instructors for the purpose of this course, their answer is always, “Shopping mall parking is like that what”
  • Vertical Parking – Failure to complete this in 3 mins results in an Immediate Failure (Yes, they actually enforce this)
  • Parallel Parking – Failure to complete this in 5 mins results in an Immediate Failure (Yes, they actually enforce this)
  • Reaction and Response – Intentionally mounting a kerb forwards and backwards without striking the pole (don’t ask me why)

Sometimes, testers throw in a bonus gift – Emergency Brake. Just slam on the brakes as hard as you can, “let the tester and everything in the car fly”, as my private instructor says and signal before moving off.

#2 Main Road

If you accumulate more than 18 demerit points or any IFs during the circuit segment, you will not be allowed on the main road. You will simply be asked to drive back to the office to wipe your tears and take out your wallet for a few more lessons and another PDT.

There are roughly 12 test routes that the tester can take you on, but they mainly cover the following:

  • Left filtering
  • Right turns
  • Changing lanes
  • U turns

While you may not make out with any kerbs or incur any IFs, sometimes you can still fail by mere accumulation of several tiny demerit points. Common mistakes include failure to check blindspots for safety. My private driving instructor calls it “Do – Re- Mi” – checking your rearview mirror, your side mirror and then your blindspots.

There are no short cuts to this. You simply have to wayang. In fact, you’re encouraged to literally strain your neck to ensure that you check your blindspots thoroughly.

For my PDT performance, I even threw in an extra act, a tip I picked up from scouring numerous forums on driving in Singapore – announce your safety checks aloud.

When approaching a pedestrian crossing, I’d slow down before the white line, and then look left and right and announce, “No pedestrians”, before moving off.

When filtering out on the left, I’d announce, “Clear” to show that there were no oncoming cars before turning into the left lane.

When changing lanes, and after completing my “Do – Re – Mi” performance, I’d announce, “Clear” before moving to the lane. Changing lanes must also be done lane by lane.

Every command by the tester, “Turn left”, “Change lanes” etc., I’d reply sweetly (trying HARD to hide my nervousness), “Yes sir”.

It was probably too much for the tester. I swear he was probably rolling his eyes at how wayang I was hahaha. But it worked for me and that might work for you too.

Personally, in my humble opinion, the testers look out for two main things:

  1. SAFETY ABOVE ALL ELSE – This is your Golden Rule, your non-negotiable
  2. Confidence on the road

Step 6: Qualified Driving License (QDL)

Cost: $50

This QDL is valid for the entirety of your life (barring any suspensions/revocations due to drink driving etc.).

*If you’re a non-local reader (yay hello!), you’ll soon realise how much we Singaporeans love our acronyms, lol.

To some, I am simply being overly dramatic. You might have obtained your driver’s license on your first attempt, after casually sitting for 15 – 20 lessons with a private instructor, and spending at most $2, 000 (usually $1, 000 to $1, 500) on driving in total.

Well, this post serves as an encouragement for those who are in the situation that I was in.

There is NOTHING NATURAL ABOUT DRIVING. I analogise navigating the driving circuit to being a circus performer, like a monkey made to perform a circus act, to clap and spin in circles when commanded to.

Everyone is different and everyone learns at the different pace. SO PLEASE. Progress at a pace that you feel comfortable with.

My Personal Practical Driving Lesson Experience

*This is simply my personal experience. What worked for me might not work for you. As always, conduct your own research and make an informed decision that best suits your individual learning needs.

If it isn’t already obvious, I started learning from school instructors, but switched to a private instructor towards the end.

I didn’t thrive under the school system. In fact, I struggled.

While the school emphasised on a One Team instruction, where student learners would learn from a fixed group of instructors, they forgot to add that you have to book for lessons 2 months in advance and you can only book for a maximum of 12 lessons per month.

Given that I was a student on a budget, I was unable to cough up the funds to pay for my lessons all at once and I couldn’t lock in my availabilities 2 months in advance.

Hence, I ended up booking for the lessons in the slots that the other students didn’t want – the morning peak hour lessons where there were too many cars and so time on the circuit would be compromised and I had a variety of different instructors who knew only my Learner ID and not my name, much less the areas that I needed to work on.

Granted, I am contributorily negligent. If I knew I was broke, I shouldn’t have started learning driving in the first place. The fact that I had lessons during the most unpopular hours and with a rotating cast of different instructors was my fault for not being able to book lessons 2 months in advance.

Furthermore, I was highly uncomfortable with the comments made by the instructors. The opening quote of this blog post is one of the many callous remarks made to me. Others include:

The reason why you can’t drive is because you studied too much when you were younger. You didn’t play video games, so you have poor road sensing.

You failed your test twice. You shouldn’t be on the road.

Your test is tomorrow, and you still don’t know this?

Driving is a privilege. If you don’t have enough money for lessons 2 months in advance, then don’t learn.

Several times, I had to pull over and hold back my tears. The comments messed with my confidence on the road.

I remember one particular lesson, where I was learning the crank course for the FIRST TIME. The instructor kept sighing loudly in exasperation when I kept kissing the kerb, and “taught” me how to navigate the course in a highly frustrated tone.

Eventually, when we were waiting at the traffic lights, I squeaked, forcing back hot tears, “Please be patient with me. I know I am a slow learner, but this is my FIRST TIME on the crank course. This is not my fifth lesson on the crank course, where I will understand if you are frustrated with me. If you continue being this way, I want to drive back and end the lesson.”

He quietened thereafter and told me that “Actually, a lot people fail at the crank course”.

I failed my PDT twice, and passed on my third try.

For those who have failed their driving test several times, DO NOT DESPAIR. Maybe it was me, but it seems like my peers find driving easy. No one around me ever discussed the stress that comes with the PDT. I must also add that I am a late bloomer, as most of my peers took their PDT when they turned 18 and so I probably missed out on the stress among my peers during that season.

First Attempt

At my first PDT attempt, I’d taken 40 lessons with the school (waaaaaaay more than the average person) and on the advice of my “main” driving instructor (I say “main” because it was under the One Team system, but like I said, I kept missing out on cash to book the lessons 2 months prior, and so ended with many different instructors), booked a morning slot, on a Saturday morning. This was, according to him, the best time to pass because (1) it was after bus lane hours and (2) there would be less heavy duty vehicles on a weekend, since everyone would be resting at home.

My main instructor was absolutely right on those points, and my research (only research for PDT, LOL) concurred with his views.

During my warm-up, I gracefully sailed through the circuit and the main road segment without so much as a mishap. As promised by my instructor, the roads were empty and the weather was sunny. Perfect for passing the test.

During my actual PDT, I decided that it would be a brilliant idea to strike a conversation with the Traffic Police tester to calm my nerves (LOL PEARLYNN!) HAHAHA. It went something like this:

Me: “So, how long have you been with the Traffic Police?”

Him: Silence

Me: “Do you like being a Traffic Policeman?”


Me: Whimpers (in my head)

My circuit segment went by flawlessly. I didn’t hit any kerb, I didn’t mount anything. All was great.

When we ambled into the main road, I thought “OMG, I might stand a chance!”.

Remember what I said about a Saturday morning being empty and easy to pass? Well, that is applicable for 830AM. At 930AM, the whole of Singapore decided to congregate at my driving test route. It became horrendously packed with cars, buses, lorries and trucks.

We did a left filter to the left lane, and then I had to change lanes, three times, to the right most lane to execute a U turn. I didn’t correctly gauge the speed of the oncoming car on the right lane I wanted to change to, and tried to cut into the lane, when the tester slammed on his side of the brakes and yelled at me, “YOU KNOW YOU ALMOST KILLED US! THAT YOUNG MAN IN THE MERCEDES DRIVING VERY FAST, WHY YOU CANNOT WAIT FOR HIM TO GO FIRST?”


Score: 30 demerit points, 2 IFs (I just didn’t bother to drive properly after my first IF – bad mentality I know, I got heavily reprimanded for it so I’ve learnt my lesson!)

I bawled all the way home, even the taxi driver who picked me up was terrified of me. I boarded the taxi, cell phone glued to my ear, as I whined to my mom about my expensive failure.

Me: *Dramatically* MOM, I fa-a-ailed!!!

Taxi Driver: Err

Me: *Continues bawling, doesn’t even hear the driver*

Taxi Driver: *After cruising around aimlessly for a few minutes, clears his throat and decides to be a little louder* Mdm, you haven’t told me where you want to go

Second Attempt

I booked another PDT 2 weeks after my first failure. With the fire in my belly, I was spurred to ace my PDT. Since I incurred an IF on the main road while changing lanes to execute a U turn, all my subsequent remedial lessons involved changing lanes and making many U turns and right turns.

During the test, I completely messed up my circuit -.- (No, this time I decided that it wasn’t appropriate to make small talk with the tester)

I nearly forgot how to parallel park, I kissed the kerb while reversing out (10 demerit points) and I kept forgetting to put my handbrake down sufficiently for the slope. The tester decided that he didn’t want to pass me and kept mounting the little demerits until I chalked up a cool 30 points.

Score: 30 demerit points, 0 IFs (slight improvement I guess?)

I spent HOURS scrolling through several blogs and articles on those who have failed their driving tests multiple times. This article is particularly comforting.

I was desperate and willing to do anything to pass. I even texted my “main” school driving instructor on What’s App for advice, along the lines of “I failed my test twice. I am very sad, what should I do?”

Do you know what he did? He blue ticked (i.e. ignored) me.

I felt like even he had given up on me. 

Third Time’s The Charm

By this time, I felt utterly embarrassed. The consensus is that learning how to drive a Manual car is much harder than learning how to drive an Auto car, and so failing your PDT on your second attempt with an Auto car is almost prohibited.

*That said though, I did share my second failure with my friends and many of them kindly shared their personal experiences with me to encourage me. Some passed on their first try, but after 50 + lessons. Some took the full 2 years to pass. One even stopped for 10 years after the school instructor berated her and passed on her fourth attempt. My friend’s mom passed on her seventh attempt, which is also the same number of tries that my brother’s friend took. My good friend’s boyfriend, who now drives everywhere, took 3 times to pass. The underlying message was “If at first you don’t pass, try and try again.”

Huh! You learn “Auto” and second time still haven’t pass?

After my second failure, I decided to switch to a private instructor (thank you Jey for introducing me to him!). To me, it was akin starting afresh and allowed me to mentally move on.

I was sick and tired of camping at the school’s office (because I could never lock in the money or lessons 2 months in advance), picking up the unwanted lessons of others, emptying my bank account and facing those instructors who couldn’t be bothered with me because they would receive a fixed salary at the end of the month, regardless of how they were as instructors.

I am so thankful for my private instructor. He gave me the confidence that I needed and provided me with tips that I didn’t get even after 53 (yes, you read that correctly) lessons with school instructors.

Indeed, you may point out that learning under the school instructors alone were sufficient for me to pass, and that, ceteris paribus, I would’ve passed on my third attempt with the school instructors regardless.

But emotionally and mentally, I was spent. I was very close to giving it up (some friends very kindly advised me to drop this 2018 goal to focus on my studies and pick it up again in 2019, since it was financially and emotionally draining, which I was seriously considering) and I simply couldn’t bring myself to head back to the office and desperately book another random few classes that nobody else wanted.

I sat for a trial lesson with the private instructor and he was highly confident that I would pass on my first try (under him).

At 68 years old with two grandchildren (maybe more, I can’t remember), he is sharp and sprightly. Without so much as peering out of the car, he can tell you precisely when you’re going to hit the kerb or when to execute a change of lanes. He also has a bright red sponge ball installed on the front of the car’s bonnet, to help noobs like me get the hang of the centre of the car. Immensely helpful.

After 5 circuit and road lessons with him, I passed my test on a sunny Thursday afternoon!!! Prior to that, I was unable to sleep or eat properly, and kept having actual nightmares about either being late for my test or messing up the circuit.

During the test, I ONCE AGAIN kissed the kerb on my way OUT after reversing into a lot (*SMH*). This was a cool 10 points.

Tester: You know that’s 10 points right?

Me: Yes

By then, I had resigned to fate. I decided that I was going to drive as best as I could, regardless of my 10 points for making out with the kerb. I mentally ignored every time the tester looked down at his clip board. THANKFULLY, the rest of the circuit went well and we slowly made it out to the main road.

At the end of the test, we pulled up to the main office.

Tester: Handbrake up, put to P, turn off the engine

Me: *shaking all over* switches the engine back ON

Tester: I said, turn OFF the engine

Me: Switches the engine back ON

Tester: You don’t know how to turn off the engine???

Me: Fumbles and finally switches it OFF


Tester: Follow me to the tester room

In the testing room, he proceeded to berate me on my mistakes. I hugged my necked (yes I did) and felt a HUGE ball form in the base of my throat.

I broke down and cried at the tester’s office when at the end of his lecture, he ticked the PASS box and handed me the pamphlet on applying for my QDL.

Another tester in the office handed me a piece of tissue and chuckled, “Eh don’t cry leh. Later people think you fail when you passed.”

Score: 18 demerit points – for striking a kerb, wide turning and late signalling at a stop sign (this was unmerited, but whatever, I wasn’t going to argue about that if he had passed me!!!)

It was a full EIGHT months of self-doubt and stress. I could FINALLY heave a sigh of relief and move on from my life. I felt unburdened and the hot, happy tears were pouring out unbridled.

I wanted to take a picture (yes, I am cheesy like that) and personally thank my private driving instructor but he was already busy with another student. Another day in his job.

I sent him a text to thank him. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards him because, to me, without his tips and most importantly, his confidence in me, I would not have passed!!!

The message is in Chinese because he predominantly speaks and texts in Chinese. He replies me in English though hahaha. His English is actually pretty good, although he is more comfortable with Chinese.

If you wish to learn from him, HMU!

For tips on passing your PDT, check this out. It was written by my SMU classmate for The Smart Local.

So, this sums up my tumultuous eight month affair with driving. It’s been a journey, and a story to keep for my children and grandchildren.

Lots of love


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