Singapore, Introduction To Asia
by: Gareth Powell
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This harmony spills over
to the visitor. In Singapore, I promise you, the
people positively love having you as an honored
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.