“The handiest and most marvellous city I ever saw”, wrote the natural historian William Hornaday of Singapore in 1885, “as well planned and carefully executed as though built entirely by one man. It is like a big desk, full of drawers and pigeonholes, where everything has its place, and can always be found in it.” This succinct appraisal seems apt even now, despite the tiny island’s transformation from an endearingly chaotic colonial port, one that embodied the exoticism of the East, into a pristine, futuristic shrine to consumerism. In the process, Singapore acquired a reputation, largely deserved, for soullessness, but these days the place has taken on a more relaxed and intriguing character, one that achieves a healthier balance between Westernized modernity and the city-state’s traditional cultures and street life.
The foundation for Singapore’s prosperity was its designation as a tax-free port by Sir Stamford Raffles, who set up a British trading post here in 1819. The port plays a key role in the economy to this day, though the island now also thrives on high-tech industry, financial services and tourism, all bolstered by a super-efficient infrastructure. All these achievements were accompanied by a major dose of paternalism, with the populace accepting heavy-handed management by the state of most aspects of life in exchange for levels of affluence that would have seemed unimaginable a couple of generations ago. Thus it is that since independence much of the population has been resettled from downtown slums and outlying kampongs (villages) into new towns, and the city’s old quarters have seen historic buildings and streets bulldozed to make way for shopping malls.
Yet although Singapore lacks much of the personality of some Southeast Asian cities, it has more than enough captivating places to visit, from elegant temples to fragrant medicinal shops to grand colonial buildings. Much of Singapore’s fascination springs from its multicultural population, a mixture of Chinese, Malay and Indian, which can make a short walk across town feel like a hop from one country to another, and whose mouthwatering cuisines are a major highlight of any visit. The city also rejoices in a clutch of fine historical museums that offer a much-needed perspective on the many successes and sacrifices that made Singapore what it is today, plus a lively arts scene featuring no shortage of international talent and local creativity.