Singapore, Introduction To Asia
To understand Singapore you need to realize that it is the extension of one man’s intelligence, dream and drive. And that man is Lee Kuan Yew, the original prime minister of the Republic of Singapore. Yes, it is true he was aided in his task by the people of Singapore. It is interesting to ponder on what would have happened to Singapore if Lee Kuan Yew, one of the remarkable men of his century, had not been present.
Lee Kuan Yew is a nonya. That is he can claim both Malay and Chinese heritage. He was born in 1923 and was prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. And during his rule, as a simple statement of fact, Singapore went from being something of a backwater to becoming the most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia.
Lee Kuan Yew went to Cambridge University where he got a double starred first which is not something that is given out with the rations. He became a lawyer and was admitted to the English bar but returned to Singapore to work, as a committed socialist, with the unions.
In 1963 Lee took Singapore into the newly created Federation of Malaysia.
This created all sorts of problems. In Singapore 75 percent of the members of the PAP were Chinese and there was much tension between Chinese and Malays. There was communal rioting in Singapore and in 1965 Lee Kuan Yew was told by his Malaysian colleagues in the federal government that Singapore must leave the federation.
Singapore had to secede and it then became a sovereign state with Lee Kuan Yew as its first prime minister.
It is fair to say that in return for a mildly authoritarian style of government that sometimes infringed on civil liberties Lee Kuan Yew brought Singapore honest and efficient administration and spectacular prosperity.
Lee Kuan Yew resigned the office of prime minister in November 1990.
It is, perhaps, sad that such a great man who did not believe in inherited power has appointed his children in just such a manner. Does not affect the tourist. Possibly affects the future of Singapore.
Singapore is not a big place. It sits at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula 137 km north of the Equator. The main part is Singapore Island and there are also about 60 very small islands.
The main island is connected to Peninsular Malaysia by a road and rail causeway which bridges the Johor Strait.
Singapore does not depend on tourism for a living. It is the largest port in Southeast Asia and one of the busiest in the world.
Singapore is not just a small island. It is also a very flat island. Most of it is less than 15m above sea level and its highest point is Timah Hill which soars to 162m.
Singapore is near the equator and in the monsoon region. The average monthly temperature varies from about 27 degrees C in June to 25 degrees C in January and the difference is not noticeable. The wettest time of the year is November-March and the period with the least amount is May to September. Not that it makes very much difference.
Rain falls somewhere on the island every day of the year. Which is why it is very green. Do not let the rain worry you. In the constant warm temperature you very quickly dry out.
There is not much left of the original Singapore. There is a fragment of evergreen rain forest preserved around catchment areas and some mangrove vegetation survives in the Kranji area on the northwest side of the island but otherwise it is all cultivated in one way or another.
The city is in the south of the island but, in truth, most of the island of Singapore has now been built up and over. At one time it looked as though every old building in Singapore would be knocked down and replaced with a new and shining skyscraper. Eventually the penny dropped and the government decided that refurbishing rather than demolishing the once-common Chinese shop-house would not be a bad idea. And keeping the Raffles hotel operating in its old premises but with a new style was part of the campaign.
Nevertheless the Housing and Development Board (HDB) has changed forever the face of Singapore and has housed a staggering four-fifths of the population high-rise HDB flats located in housing estates and new towns.
About three quarters of the population of Singapore is Chinese with Malays next and Indians the third.
But it does not break down as easily as that. Nearly half of the Chinese originate from Fukien province and speak Amoy; a third is from Swatow and speaks Teochew and most of the rest are Cantonese. That is three different dialects which are not understandable by all although, of course, written Chinese is a unifying force.
The Malays are pretty much one group although some of them speak Indonesian dialects which although very similar to Malay have some vocabulary differences. The Indians are the biggest mixture of them all. The majority are Tamils but there are also Malayalis and Sikhs as well as Pakistanis and Sinhalese.
There are four official languages – English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. And there is a fifth which although not recognized officially, is distinct enough to be the subject of several learned papers. This is Singaporean which is Singapore’s very own version of the English language.
It contains words and grammatical from all the languages of Singapore. Therefore “Must be, lah” is an affirmative declaration while, “What to do now, lah?” is an expression of helplessness in the face of fate. It is a lovely and expressive language based totally on English. If you speak English you will never have language problems in Singapore.
Singapore is a singularly pleasant place to visit. It is the ideal destination for someone making their first foray into Asia.
The chances of your being robbed in Singapore are pretty close to nil. And if you are, the local constabulary will move heaven and earth to fang the wretched miscreant and return your goods.
The roads are spotlessly clean – drop a bus ticket and you will very probably be fined. The road crossings are safe – go jaywalking and once again your wallet will be lightened. The roadside food stalls are the cleanest in the world. No one gets gippy tummy in Singapore.
The developers are something else again. Sadly, like developers all over the world their motto is ‘nothing exceeds like excess’. Almost everything that was old and worthwhile and interesting came under the wrecker’s ball.
Singapore eventually saw the folly of this and you can still find parts of the old Singapore.
The Tourist Promotion Board maintains a flood, a deluge, an inundation of brochures telling of the wonders of the city state. But it bridles madly at the sign of any criticism.
Despite this nonsense Singapore is a most attractive place to visit – for one reason. The people. Singaporeans are joyous, intelligent, friendly. In the restaurants you are served with pleasure.
Singapore need never run a politeness campaign. Its people are the politest and the warmest in Asia. Partially this has something to do with the racial mix. Within Singapore, Malays, Chinese of several varieties, Tamils and Europeans get on in the most amazing racial harmony.
This harmony spills over to the visitor. In Singapore, I promise you, the people positively love having you as an honored guest.
Pretty much all of the attractions in Singapore are man-made and of relatively recent origin. It is astounding that on this flat little island so much has been created to keep the visitor entertained.
What are the main attractions of Singapore? This is my list. Yours will almost certainly be very different.
Food. You can eat yourself silly with 100 different cuisines and still not have scratched the surface in Singapore.
My own view, formed after spending a lifetime in the area, is that the food in Singapore – because of its wide range of styles – is arguably the best in Asia.
You can eat very cheaply by sticking to the open air restaurants that abound. They are all squeaky clean and serve ambrosia at discount prices. The first place to try is the Satay Club on Elizabeth Walk and then make your own discoveries.
The Jurong Bird Park. When I have business in Singapore I make it a point to keep half a day clear to go and sit on my own in the Jurong Bird Park. This has the largest aviary in the world. What they have done is net off a valley so that there is a waterfall inside the aviary. It brings balm to the soul.
Visit The Off-Shore Islands. It is easy to think that Singapore is just one diamond shaped island for that is the way that it appears on most maps. In fact there are several smaller islands that you can visit.
Boats can be hired from Clifford Pier which is just across the road from Change Alley. On the islands you will find an older, more peaceful Singapore. One where Stamford Raffles – the man who founded the place – would feel very much at home.
Visit The Tiger Balm Gardens. This place is truly a nonsense – but a most enjoyable nonsense. Full of statues and grottoes and buildings all garishly painted. They are, as I understand it, intended to give you an idea how heaven and hell look in the Taoist religion. Incidentally, Tiger Balm ointment, which provided the funds to build this place, does cure what ails you.
Wallow In The Luxury Of An Up-Market Hotel. My theory is that the local towkays – the millionaires – have all tried to one-up each other in the construction of hotels. The result is that in Singapore you can stay in a hotel with appointments and service you could simply not afford anywhere else in the world.
Spend Time In One Of The Many Gardens. My favorite is the Japanese Garden, again in Jurong. A well-designed Japanese garden always gives me a special sense of peace. This is almost certainly the best Japanese garden outside Japan.
And so it goes. The average visitor spends 3.7 days in Singapore which is enough time to get the feel of the place, to go shopping, to eat yourself stupid and to make instant but lasting friendships with the local Singaporeans.
Then you can nip across the causeway to Malaysia. This is where the real Asia begins. Singapore is but a foretaste. For the first time visitor it is difficult to think of a better introduction.