INTRODUCTION Despite the immense changes the past century has wrought upon the tiny island of Singapore, natural historian William Hornadays succinct appraisal is as valid today as it was in 1885. Since gaining full independence from Malaysia in 1965, this absorbing city-state has been transformed from a sleepy colonial backwater into a pristine, futuristic shrine to consumerism. It is one of Southeast Asias most accessible destinations, its downtown areas dense with towering skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls, while sprawling new towns with their own separate communities and well-planned facilities ring the centre. Yet visitors prepared to peer beneath the states squeaky-clean surface will discover a profusion of age-old buildings, values and traditions that have survived the profound social and geographical change. And the island has not been overwhelmed by development even as you make your way in from the airport, youll be struck immediately by Singapores abundance of parks, nature reserves, and lush, tropical greenery. Inevitably, given its geographical position, the state is seen by most people as a mere stopover and, because of its size, you can gain an impression of the place in just a few hours. However, justifying a lengthier stay is easily done.
Singapores progress over the past three decades has been remarkable. Lacking any noteworthy natural resources, its early prosperity was based on a vigorous free trade policy, in place since 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles first set up a British trading post here. Later, mass industrialization bolstered the economy, and today the state boasts the worlds second busiest port after Rotterdam, minimal unemployment, and a super-efficient infrastructure. Almost the entire population has been moved from unsanitary kampungs (villages) into new apartments, and the average per capita income is over US$12,000. Yet none of this was achieved without considerable compromise indeed, the states detractors claim it has sold its soul in return for prosperity.
Put simply, at the core of the Singapore success story is an unwritten bargain between its government and population, which accepts the loss of a certain amount of personal freedom, in return for levels of affluence and comfort that would have seemed unimaginable thirty years ago. Former prime minister, and now senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew has gone on record as saying, "When you are hungry, when you lack basic services, freedom, human rights and democracy do not add up to much." Outsiders often bridle at these sentiments, but the population, trusting the wisdom of its leaders, seems generally content to acquiesce to a paternalistic form of government that critics describe as soft authoritarianism. Consequently, Singaporeans have earned a reputation for cowed, unquestioning subservience, a view that can be overstated, but which isnt without an element of truth. The past has taught Singaporeans that if they follow their governments lead, they will reap the benefits. In addition, they take a pride in their country that occasionally extends to smugness witness the huge celebrations that accompany National Day, Singapores annual collective pat on the back. Yet there is good reason to be proud: Singapore is a clean, safe place to visit, its amenities are second to none, its public places smoke-free and hygienic. And as the nations youth (who dont remember a time before the improvements they take for granted) begin to find a voice, public life should become increasingly, if gradually, more liberal and democratic.
Whatever the political ramifications of the states economic success, of more relevance to the five million annual visitors to Singapore is the fact that improvements in living conditions have been shadowed by a steady loss of the states heritage as historic buildings and streets are bulldozed to make way for shopping centres. Singapore undoubtedly lacks the personality of some Southeast Asian cities, but its reputation for being sterile and sanitized is unfair. Shopping on state-of-the-art Orchard Road is undoubtedly a major draw for many tourists, but to do Singapore real justice, youve got to venture beneath its affluent sheen. Under the long shadows cast by the giddy towers and spires are the dusty temples, fragrant medicinal shops, and colonial buildings of old Singapore, neatly divided into historical enclaves, each home to a different ethnic culture. Much of Singapores fascination springs from its multicultural population: of the 2.7 million inhabitants, 78 percent are Chinese, a figure reflected in the predominance of shops, restaurants and temples across the island; fourteen percent are Malays; and seven percent are Indians (the remaining one percent is made up of other ethnic groups). This diverse ethnic mix textures the whole island, and often turns a ten-minute walk into what seems like a hop from one country to another. One intriguing by-product of this ethnic melting pot is Singlish, or Singaporean English, a patois which blends English with the speech patterns, exclamations and vocabulary of Chinese and Malay.
The entire state is compact enough to be explored exhaustively in just a few days. Forming the core of downtown Singapore is the Colonial District, around whose public buildings and lofty cathedral the islands British residents used to promenade. Each surrounding enclave has its own distinct flavour, ranging from the aromatic spice stores of Little India, to the tumbledown backstreets of Chinatown, where its still possible to happen upon calligraphers and fortune tellers, or the Arab Quarter, whose cluttered stores sell fine cloths and silks. North of the city, youll find the countrys two nature reserves Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment Area and the splendid Singapore Zoological Gardens. In the west of the island, the East meets Disneyworld at Tang Dynasty City and Haw Par Villas; while the east coast features good seafood restaurants, set behind long stretches of sandy beach. In addition, over fifty islands and islets lie within Singaporean waters, all of which can be reached with varying degrees of ease. The best day trips, however, are to Sentosa, the island amusement arcade which is linked to the south coast by a short causeway (and cable car), and to Pulau Ubin, off the east coast, whose inhabitants continue to live a kampung life long since eradicated from the mainland.