Singapore: A Complex City State

30 10 2008

I am just back from a weekend spent with my friend and former coworker P in the lovely country of Singapore. I was in Taiwan visiting relatives and wanted to see P so I booked a flight on the budget airline Jetstar, which has direct flights from Taipei to Singapore daily.

A view of Singapore from the plane.

Downtown Singapore is very westernized and skyscrapers are a common sight.

Although it’s mostly known these days as a major Asian business center, to me Singapore is still an exotic locale. For one thing, I have never been so close to the equator; Singapore is only 1 degree north of the equator and you can feel it. I thought southern Taiwan, being south of the Tropic of Cancer, was hot and humid. It is nothing compared to the heat and humidity of Singapore. It is like walking into a hot and spicy soup. Thus it is unsurprising that people are dressed very casually here – it’s just too hot to wear too many clothes.

Singapore is definitely in the tropics.

Singapore is also a fascinatingly diverse country that is made up of a mixture of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures with a little bit of British thrown into the lot.  One of the things I like best about Singapore is that it is a nation of juxtapositions, where traditional and varied Asian cultures can meld with western technology.  It is its very complexity that makes it strong and interesting.

Singapore was actually a lot less British than I expected, despite the fact that it was a British colony for over a hundred years. I’m not saying that the British did not leave a mark, because they certainly did with English being the official language, the government and infrastructure having been guided by the British colonial system, and the smatterings of colonial architecture evident in the various ministries and historic hotels.

A ministry of some sort.

Although the population is 75% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 9% Indian, the city-state was also much less Chinese than I expected. Perhaps it’s just the places I visited in Singapore, but based on knowing countries like Japan, Taiwan, and China (regionally), where the population and culture is very homogeneous, Singapore was not dominated by Chinese culture.  For example, Chinatown is very small in Singapore, despite the large ethnic Chinese population.

The bright rehabilitated buildings of Chinatown.

Hawker stands in Chinatown.

Chinatown is only a few blocks wide in Singapore, and located right downtown.

Some may say that it’s because it’s Chinatown everywhere in Singapore, but I do not find it so.  There is certainly Chinese influence in the architecture on the island, but I felt that the western and southeast asian aesthetics were more dominant. In addition, there seemed to be a great movement for integration of the different ethnic groups under the overall larger umbrella of Singaporeans.

Perhaps the Chinese-ness of Singapore is deeper than I can detect as a visitor.  I know for a fact that my friend P has grown up in a very traditional Chinese household in many respects.  In addition, her English is littered with Chinese, as is common in Singlish (Singaporean English).   She has also told me in the past that many people in the older generations are more comfortable speaking Chinese.  She has even mentioned that there are some/many Singaporean Indians who can speak Chinese, which I thought was really cool.  Maybe the Chinese influence in Singapore is so deep that it is not immediately apparent because it has so seamlessly integrated into everything here.  In any case, observing the different cultural influences on Singapore has been one of the most interesting parts of visiting, in my opinion.

Instead, from my very unscientific assessment, Singapore is a mixture of its cultures, with the Southeast Asian influence among the strongest. Where does my evidence come from? The food.  Just take a look at any of the many food halls, coffee shops, and hawker centers.  In most of these places, there is an equal representation of Chinese, Malay, and Indian food and its variations.  Chinese Indian, Chinese Malay, Vegetarian Indian or Chinese, and Halal Chinese are just a few examples of the fusion cuisine common in Singapore.

A coffee shop near Pasir Ris.

Further reflecting that cultural complexity, Singapore is also very westernized and boasts a highly developed economy.  Since separating from the UK, joining Malaysia, and seceding to form its own nation, Singapore has turned its lack of natural resources into a positive and is now the 6th wealthiest nation per capita in the world.  Because of its small relative size, from the beginning of its independence the Singapore government has focused on industrializing of its economy and attracting direct foreign investment.  This led to the establishment in the latter half of the 20th century of a modern economy based on electronics manufacturing, trade, petrochemicals, tourism, and financial services.

The famous Merlion – the symbol of Singapore.

Merlion Square

View of the Esplanade, aka the Durian.

On the whole, the streets of Singapore are very clean and neat.  This is probably due to the fact that there is a $1000 Sing Dollar fine for littering.  Buying and selling chewing gum is also strictly prohibited, although the actual act of chewing gum is ok.  Because of this, a lot of gum is brought into the country by individuals.  Unlike Japan, where a rigid social structure keeps things neat and tiday, in Singapore cleanliness and tidiness is reinforced by a system of fines.  While this is very different from the American system, most of these fines and rules only serve to encourage civil behavior and discourage unruly behavior.

Unrefurbished streets are rarer these days in Singapore. Here is a part of the older part of town, which has not yet been overhauled and cleaned up.

Next: Singapore Part 2: Food




2 responses

31 10 2008

great commentary on Singapore!!! 😀

31 10 2008

I see that you have been busy since I last visited! I agree with aglassof wine, great commentary on Singapore.

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