Singapore has always been a crossroads between East and West. Once upon a time, its port swelled with Chinese, Arab, Malay, Indian and European traders who went to exchange exotic wares. Today, the city-state has expanded to become one of the world's busiest ports, and over time, as goods have been exchanged, cultures have mingled as well. To the casual observer, Singapore appears to be a clean and orderly mass of shopping malls and McDonald's. But the curious who dig a bit deeper will find that the cultures of the original settlers are still very much alive and well in this truly multicultural melting pot.
Singapore's dedication to preserving cultural heritage has created a number of excellent museums and thriving, ethnically distinct neighborhoods. Chinatown and Little India still retain some of their original cultural relevance for Singaporeans while attracting foreign visitors who marvel at the endurance of cultural identity. A stroll through any of the city's neighborhoods will reveal Taoist temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches cohabitating peaceably side by side. Cultural intermingling has also produced unique Eurasian and Peranakan (Straits Chinese) cultures, each with its own fashion, furnishings and food.
Speaking of food, with so much cultural diversity, dining in Singapore is varied and good—gastronomic experiences range from the finest Continental cuisine served with polished silver to delicious local dishes served in an open-air hawker center with plastic chopsticks. It's a small wonder Singaporeans love to eat.
Singapore is both an island and a country, but perhaps it is best described as a city-state. Like the great city-states of the past, it offers civilization and order in the highest degree. Its combination of Western-style development and Eastern-style order seems to present the best of both hemispheres: It's a modern metropolis where you feel safe walking the streets, and it's an Asian business center that's a model of efficiency. Singapore is also an ethnically mixed city, and close to one-quarter of its population is made up of expatriates or foreign workers from all over the world. Known for its desire to become the technology hub of Asia, Singapore is the most wired country in the region.
Another trait Singapore shares with historical city-states: Its authorities strongly believe that they can safeguard the status quo with regulations against almost anything and everything that—in their view—could possibly upset the sense of tranquility. It is important to note that in terms of cultural values, Singapore is a relatively conservative society compared with most Western countries and even other developed cities in Asia. Controversial topics such as same-sex marriage and religion should be approached with sensitivity. In reality, visitors will find the place is not as restrictive as suggested by the long lists of hefty fines for such things as littering and jaywalking. Some visitors to Singapore leave singing the praises of a society that "works," but others feel the government's near-compulsive fixation on cleanliness and order makes Singapore sterile in every sense of the word.
Singapore's strategic location at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula has ensured its importance, which is greater than its size might seem to justify. Singapore consists of the island of Singapore and some 63 islets within its territorial waters. The main island is about 26 mi/42 km from west to east and 14 mi/23 km from north to south. Total land area is 264 sq mi/683 sq km, about three times the size of Washington, D.C. It's a mostly undulating country with low hills (the highest, 540-ft/166-m Bukit Timah Hill, is to the northwest of the city).
Singapore's Central Business District (or CBD, as it is called locally) actually spreads across both the central and southern parts of the island (you'll know when you're there—it boasts striking high-rise structures designed by such world-famous architects as I.M. Pei and Kenzo Tange). You can get a good visual orientation to the city as you cross the Benjamin Sheares Bridge on the East Coast Parkway, which links the airport to the city center. The Singapore cityscape looks magnificent, particularly at night when buildings are brilliantly lit. Offshore, there appears to be another city all lit up because of the many ships anchored there—Singapore is one of the two busiest seaports in the world, along with Hong Kong.
Naturally, many of the city's attractions are clustered closely together. Orchard Road, the shopper's haven, is located in the northern part of the city center. Chinatown, where you'll find the charming restaurants of Boat Quay, is just to the southeast of Orchard Road, and Little India is northeast. Sentosa Island, with its many amusements, is directly to the southwest of the city center. These frequently visited neighborhoods, as well as more suburban areas, remain a bustling hive of pedestrian activity well into the evening.
The earliest records of Singapore date back to the second century AD, where it was identified as a trading post. In the 11th century, it was part of the Indian Srivijaya Empire, and in the 14th century, it was ruled by the Javanese Majapahit empire. It was an important trading centure of the Sultanate of Johore in the 16th and early 17th century, until Portuguese raiders burned it down. It faded into obscurity until 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles established the British East India Company's presence in Singapore. This began the city's status as a free port and British colony. As thousands of Chinese, Indians and Malays flocked to the island, Raffles maintained control by segregating the city into ethnic neighborhoods: the Chinese in Chinatown, Indians in Little India and Muslims on Arab Street. This division had the unintended effect of preserving the distinct cultures you can find there today.
Singapore flourished during the mid-1800s, as the Industrial Revolution in the West created a demand for rubber and other Asian raw materials. The introduction of steamship travel and the opening of the Suez Canal brought the East and West closer than ever. Thanks to its strategic location and port status, Singapore boomed.
The country remained under the control of the British until it was captured by the Japanese at the start of World War II—one of the most embarrassing defeats in British history. After the war, the Allies' plan to unite Singapore with Malaysia was scuttled by Malaysian nationalist groups who feared that the ethnic Chinese would dominate the less populous Malays. The plan for a union was revived in the 1950s by Singapore's prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who believed his country could not survive without the natural resources of Malaysia. Lee realized his dream in 1963 when Singapore was united with Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. But the union lasted only 23 months with much racial and political tension—Malay leaders, shocked to see Lee's party attempt to become a national force, unceremoniously tossed Singapore out of the federation.
Since then, and contrary to Lee's fears, Singapore has done very well on its own. Under the stable authoritarian leadership of Lee and his handpicked successor, Goh Chok Tong, the country has averaged more than 8% growth annually and become a major service and transportation hub. Although much of the rest of Asia suffered a steep economic decline at the end of the 1990s, Singapore's bustling economy merely slowed down.
In 2004, Singapore elected a new prime minister to succeed Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong, who had been groomed for the role by his father, Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore government continues to be ruled by Lee's party, with little tolerance for dissent. However, corruption is very low, and the economy is back on track. The government maintains a firm grip on politics but has allowed greater expression in media and the arts, a signal of its emerging understanding that creativity is essential to the kind of technological innovation Singapore seeks.
Today, Singapore's melting pot continues to draw new immigrants. The Economic Development Board has successfully spearheaded initiatives over the past decade to draw some of the world's top talent in industries critical to Singapore's economic vitality, particularly in areas such as finance, wealth management, higher education, and research and development. An influx of high-net-worth individuals (such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Savarin) has driven the market for luxury housing sky high, with new, super-luxury apartment buildings mushrooming in every corner of the city's downtown, posh neighborhoods and waterfront districts.
Although a small island, Singapore offers a broad range of sightseeing options, thanks to its ethnic and religious diversity. And not all attractions are associated with modern, urban Singapore: Surviving enclaves of the early migrant settlers dot various parts of the island.
The country's nerve center during the days of British rule, the Colonial District still has the regal charm of the original British government buildings and living quarters. Sites include the old Parliament House (which sits back-to-back with the current Parliament House completed in 1999), the National Museum of Singapore (it has a remarkable jade collection), the waterfront Fullerton Hotel (formerly the central post office building) and St. Andrew's Cathedral.
Belatedly, Singapore has curbed its aggressive campaign to replace old buildings with new ones and has begun revitalizing some of its most cherished landmarks. Empress Place, which now houses the Asian Civilisations Museum, the waterfront's Clarke Quay and the Raffles Hotel (birthplace of the Singapore Sling) have all been restored to highly polished versions of their former glory. For the most part, neighborhood restorations are relatively small in scale—they're more like exhibits than neighborhoods—but with a little imagination, you can get a feel for Singapore's colorful past.
Many of the top attractions, including the National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, are best enjoyed on foot in the morning, the coolest part of the day, or in the early evening. Maps of established walking trails are available at the entrances and at the tourist offices. Among the other attractions that should not be missed: Little India's Sri Veeramakaliamman temple or Chinatown's Thian Hock Keng temple, and the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. For those who want to get a feel for the bustling lives of the locals, we recommend taking the MRT trains to any of Singapore's outlying districts, especially Katong in the East, Geylang (the area near the Paya Lebar station), Pasir Ris or Toa Payoh.
The entertainment scene in Singapore is highly competitive. Clubs tend to have a short lifespan, so they try to cram as much action as possible into whatever space they have. Larger establishments have live music, dancing, food, karaoke rooms and multiple bars. In general, clubs close around 2 am Sunday-Thursday, 3 am Friday and Saturday. Sometimes the doors are closed at the official closing time, but the party carries on inside.
Nightspots are mostly concentrated on Orchard Road and its outskirts, in the Mohammed Sultan area and in the Tanjong Pagar District (south of Chinatown). Pubs within crawling distance of one another are clustered in Peranakan Place (Emerald Hill Road, just off Orchard Road opposite Specialist Shopping Center), the CHIJMES complex, the St. James Power Station, Clarke Quay and the traffic-free enclave on the riverside, Boat Quay. Locals are known to pub crawl until early morning and then settle down to breakfast in a suburban food center once the subways and buses start running again at 6 am.
Singapore has a well-deserved reputation for satisfying the most discerning gourmet. Cuisines range from spicy Indian curries and tantalizing Chinese fare to Nyonya (a combination of Chinese and Malay) delicacies, as well as the finest in French and Italian cooking.
However, restaurants in Singapore open and close with amazing rapidity, and key staff, responsible for a restaurant's success, job-hop with similar speed. New and exciting establishments pop up everywhere, in everything from restored shops to godowns (warehouses). Club Street, in the Tanjong Pagar district, offers a host of upscale restaurants and bistro-type establishments. Or try visiting one of Singapore's neighborhood food centers—bazaars with stalls offering Indian, Chinese, Indonesian and Malaysian food, all at very low prices.
You get the best value at the hawker centers, which are either open-air, with a common area for diners, or air-conditioned food courts occupying the basement or the top level of shopping centers. For a glimpse of Chinatown's colorful past, visit the stretch of Smith Street known as "Food Street," where you'll find a long row of stalls offering a broad palette of local and other Asian hawker favorites. Popular with both locals and tourists, the streetside tables along Smith Street are usually packed during prime evening hours.
Two stretches along the Singapore River—Boat Quay and Clarke Quay—offer more than 35 alfresco and indoor establishments serving diverse cuisines. Boat Quay is the preferred destination for local workers from the financial district after they escape their offices. Expect aggressive hawking as you stroll along Boat Quay, which has even more dining places than does Clarke. (Best refusal: "Sorry, I've just eaten.")
General dining times are 7-10 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2:30 pm for lunch and 7-10 pm for dinner. Most food outlets stop serving dinner by 10 pm, although some hotel coffeehouses and many stalls at certain hawker centers are open throughout the night. Reservations are generally not required at most restaurants but are recommended for large groups, on weekends and some public holidays.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than S$15; $$ = S$15-$30; $$$ = S$31-$75; and $$$$ = more than S$75.
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