“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.Read More
Top 5 dishes
Top 5 dishes
Singapore has no national dish – but that’s because it has any number of dishes that could happily qualify for that title. As many travellers never graduate beyond extremely predictable fried rice and noodle plates, here’s our selection of five of the best things to try.
Satay A mainly Malay dish of mini-kebabs on twig-like sticks, barbecued over coals and eaten dipped in a peanut-based sauce, accompanied by glutinous rice cakes and cucumber and onion slices.
Fish-head curry Many Indian restaurants offer this fiery stew containing a large fish head – eyes and all; the cheeks are the best bits.
Chicken rice Widely available at hawker centres, this Hainanese speciality features steamed chicken served atop rice cooked in chicken stock, served up with chicken consommé – the simplest of concepts, but incredibly satisfying.
Chilli crab Whole crabs wok-fried and served in a gloopy gravy made with tomato, chilli, garlic and a little egg. It’s mainly served at seafood outlets, though some ordinary Chinese restaurants offer it too.
Laksa A Peranakan classic of rice noodles, prawns and other morsels steeped in a rich, spicy, curried coconut soup; not hard to find at hawker centres and food courts.
Singapore is the only country with an ethnic Chinese majority not to use Chinese as its main language of education and business. English enjoys that role – but here it’s often upstaged by the entertaining, though often baffling, Singlish, a mash-up of English together with the grammatical patterns and vocabulary of Chinese and Malay. Pronunciation is staccato, with final consonants often dropped, so “cheque book” would be rendered “che-boo”. In two-syllable words the second syllable is lengthened and stressed by a rise in pitch: ask a Singaporean what they’ve been doing, and you could be told “slee-PING”.
Conventional English syntax is twisted and wrung, and tenses and pronouns discarded. If you ask a Singaporean if they’ve ever seen a Harry Potter film, you might be answered “I ever see”, while enquiring whether they want to go out to buy something might yield “Go, come back already”. Responses are almost invariably reduced to their bare bones, with words often repeated for stress; request something in a shop and you’ll hear “have, have”, or “got, got”.
Exclamations drawn from Malay and Hokkien Chinese complete this pidgin, the most ubiquitous being the Malay suffix “lah”, used to add emphasis to replies, as in: “Do you think we’ll get in for free?” “Cannot lah!” If Singlish has you totally confused, try raising your eyes to the heavens and crying “ay yor” (with a drop of tone on “yor”) – an expression of annoyance or exasperation.
Although these linguistic quirks often amuse foreigners and locals alike, there is much official hand-wringing that poor English could compromise Singapore’s ability to do business globally, so much so that a government-backed Speak Good English movement has been set up to try to shore up standards.