Thursday, January 24, 2013

Intro to Singapore 101

At my alma mater, Mount Holyoke, students referred to all introductory classes as “Baby” Whatever:  so welcome to Baby Singapore!

Chinatown's "Food Street" is lined with little restaurants.

This intro class is necessary because, although many of my acquaintance have either visited or lived in Singapore, they are few and far between.  My very own sister thinks I live in Malaysia now!  And another, highly educated, well-traveled relative believes I’m in the Southern Hemisphere!  This leads me to conclude that a few facts about Singapore will serve to orient my readers.

Just some flowers you see everywhere in Singapore.

Singapore is located less than 100 miles north of the equator.  As a result, the weather is tropical (an average daily temperature of about 90 F, and humidity in the range of 85%), and the length of days and nights (about 12 hours each) does not change throughout the year.  “Winter” in Singapore is the rainy “monsoon” season, which I hope is soon ending.  On a good day in winter there’s at least an hour of rain, and sometimes 24 hours.  In Massachusetts, sunsets can be spectacular on a clear day, and winter skies are often the loveliest of the year.  Singapore’s sunsets end quickly and in winter are often obscured by clouds.

Bird sheltering from the downpour.

This is an island nation:  one large island, and over 60 small ones, at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula.  The land area is approximately 272 square miles but Singaporeans are using land “reclamation” to extend the land area and it has grown by 20% in in the past 50 years.  Despite the increase in land area, Singapore is still less than 1/5 the size of Rhode Island!


Singapore was ruled by the British from the time of its founding in the 1820s by Sir Thomas Raffles until after the British were defeated during World War II by the Japanese Army.  Singapore gradually separated from Britain during the 1950s, and briefly joined with Malaysia from 1963 to 1965.  During that period, however, the Malaysian government began to put in place preferential treatment for citizens of Malay descent.  This was unacceptable to Singaporeans, who are 75% Chinese, about 9% Indian, about 3% Eurasian and “other”, and about 13% Malay. 

Opening ceremony for Chinese New Year celebration featured a snake made of lit red lanterns.

Singapore is one of the “Asian Tiger” economies, which have grown tremendously while other economies have stalled or shrunk.  Singapore is very business-friendly, and is rated as one of the least corrupt governments in the world (second, I believe, to New Zealand).  The rich people here are very, very rich.  Poor people here are pretty well assisted by the government.  The unemployment rate is about 2%.  Something for the USA to envy! And another thing: the gross domestic product per capita, nearly $60,000 in Singapore, places it in international rankings way ahead of the US where the GDP per capita is several thousand below $50,000.

The Mustafa Center is an enormous 24-7 store that has everything, likely to be packed on weekends and busy all the rest of the time.

Singapore has a reputation as the “no” country:  no chewing gum, no littering, no assaulting the bus driver, no spitting, no vandalism, no being nude in your own home with the curtains open:  and the list is long.  The challenge, in Singapore’s early years of independence, was to unite citizens of sharply differing backgrounds, and to pull the nation out of the ruins of the Japanese invasion.  Lots of rules, sternly enforced, got everyone on the straight and narrow.

A beautifully restored shophouse with modern skyscrapers all around.

Singapore is largely a nation-city.  Old Singapore, before World War II, had mostly two-story buildings for business in either the Chinese or the British style of architecture (and inevitably the two were often blended in one building).  After independence in 1965, the Singapore government concentrated housing development on high-rise apartments to ensure that even the poorest citizens had a decent roof over their heads.  As the nation prospered, the two-story “go-downs” (warehouses) and shop-houses of old Singapore were demolished in favor of shiny, air-conditioned multi-use tower blocks.  Thankfully, sometime in the 1990s, the government recognized the cultural loss of the old buildings and slowed their demolition.  Many old mansions have been remodeled into “clubhouses” for soaring condominiums built where gardens once surrounded the stately homes of the rich.

Nicknamed "The Garden City", Singapore's national flower is the orchid.

That doesn’t mean that Singapore is an urban wasteland.  Despite being the third most densely populated nation on earth (slightly more than 5 million people live here so there’s something more than 18,000 people per square mile), there are trees, flowers, and gardens everywhere.  With all the sunshine and near-daily rain, encouraging plant growth is not the problem.   The greater challenge is to encourage desirable growth instead of mold and mildew.  Singapore’s heat and humidity are made much more bearable by the presence of gardens.  The latest contribution the nation has made, also designed as a tourist attraction, is the indoor, self-sustaining and stunning Gardens by the Bay.

These futuristic, fantasy-world giant trees at the Gardens by the Bay are topped with photovoltaic cells.

So, now you have an idea of where I am now, in time and place.  I lived here for six months with my family 12 years ago, and came away with mixed feelings about Singapore.  There is much to enjoy, but although this is probably the most accessible of Asian countries for an American to encounter, it is still a very foreign place for me.  As a Causasian and a Christian, I am in a tiny minority.  I don’t have a workplace except my own desk, or belong to an expensive Expat club, or have kids in a school here, so my social interactions are quite limited.  I am determined that during this long stay, I will find my way into Singapore, and leave it with greater understanding and appreciation.  And meanwhile, I plan to enjoy every minute of the local cuisine!  

Fried kway teow with extra veg! 


  1. Wonderful article! Only Wikipedia is specific in noting that Singapore is just BELOW Malaysia. (I'd assumed that the Malay Peninsula was just a shortening of MalaySIA. Silly me.) Anyway, for you to spend six months in a tropical place that has a Food Street, modern buildings, an above-average standard of living, and plenty of commerce sounds pretty good to us! We're glad you're our tour guide, Beth! Thanks!

  2. Hi Beth! Henry and I so enjoyed your "lesson" on Singapore. Keep 'em coming!