I knew Singapore was different as soon as I got on the MRT (rapid transit system) at the airport and made my way into the city. Everyone around me was moving quickly and seemed so sure of themselves, at least when compared to other Southeast Asian countries where so many people just hung about hoping someone would ride in their tuk-tuk or taxi, “if not today then maybe tomorrow”.
Singapore is a country in a hurry. Besides, it’s known for having the fastest walkers in the world; certainly the escalators between MRT platforms couldn’t be faster; they’re rather frightening in fact. And even though this island is only a few kilometers from the equator, MRT stations and trains are air-conditioned so being in the tropics doesn’t slow them down at all.
Singapore is also known for being orderly and clean. You can hardly take a photo in a MRT station because it’s so shiny there is a glare. Just taking a sip of water in the station can earn you a hefty fine and don’t even think about lighting up.
Singapore wasn’t always like this. When it first became one of the greatest seaports of the Orient it was known for its opium dens, gambling houses, brothels and secret societies. Bugis Street, nicknamed ‘Boogie Street’, was famous for its ‘parade of transvestites’ until it was torn down in the 1980s, replaced by the Bugis Transit Station, a shopping mall and a McDonald’s restaurant!
Few Singaporeans would trade the lives they have today for life back then, even if the old one seems a little more exciting. When Singapore became an independent country in 1965, after years of British colonial rule, its population was made up mostly of uneducated workers from China, India and Malaysia who were just going to stay a short while; there was no common language, religion or culture; unemployment was high and the standard of living very poor.
So what happened? A very ambitious program for modernization was put in place and by the 1990s Singapore was one of the most prosperous nations in the world. They made public housing, public education, and green space priorities. Since it’s independence, the population has nearly doubled to more than five million and yet the amount of green space has increased from a little more than a third of its area to nearly half. And this city-state is an island—a little red dot on the map without any room to spread. Plans are now underway to go from a being ‘a garden city’ to being ‘a city in a garden’. Now that is impressive!
Travel brochures give the country glib labels such as “the world’s only shopping mall with a seat in the United Nations”. Well that is just wrong. Singapore has an intriguing history that is evident if you visit its museums and neighbourhoods. Sure, there are skyscrapers but they are a backdrop and not the whole show. Just take a ride down the Singapore River and you’ll see that for yourself.
The Asian Civilizations Museum has outstanding exhibits on the cultural and religious development of the whole region and the influence India and China has had. For anyone travelling in several Southeast Asian countries, it is an excellent resource for bringing all you have seen together. The Peranakan Museum explains what it is like being a ‘cultural hybrid’ and the impact those who identify with more than one racial group have had.
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Singapore’s past and present can be found in its neighbourhoods, particularly Chinatown and Little India. I stayed in Little India and each morning as I walked to the Little India MRT Station I almost felt like I was back in that country but that it had gotten a lot tidier! Singapore’s religious diversity is evident in the many different places of worship, for no religious group forms a majority here.
All this cultural diversity has resulted in food that is simply legendary. Even the mall food, especially at the Bugis Street MRT, is incredible and the many choices wonderfully displayed. And there was even British culinary influence for the Raffles Hotel was the birthplace of the “Singapore Sling”.
A travel writer recently applauded Singapore for loosening up, for building more casinos and permitting bungee jumping. Like wow! If that’s what you’re looking for then there is also the world’s highest observation wheel and lets not forget the shopping.
Before arriving in Singapore, I heard an interview of novelist Meira Chand whose work explores ‘cracks between cultures’. She was born in London of Swiss-Indian parents and spent most of her adult life in Japan and India before finally settling in Singapore. She had just become a Singapore citizen and had to give up her British one in order to do that. When I heard that I was rather surprised but now that I’ve been to Singapore I am not.
Good for you, Singapore! Just ignore all the naysayers.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012