October 15 - November 4, 2007
The name Singapore is derived from Singa Pura which means Lion City in Sanskrit. Ironically, although there were once tigers in the area, there have likely never been any lions in Singapore.
Singapore was part of Malaysia until it was expelled in 1965. Therefore, most of its history prior to 1965 is best discussed along with the history of Malaysia. Only a thumbnail sketch is included here along with a few milestones in their history.
In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived from Britain. He promoted the development of Singapore as a city and a trading port. In the ensuing years, Singapore prospered as a free-trade port.
Singapore continued to function as a trading port under British rule until it was invaded by Japan on February 15, 1942. The Japanese renamed the island Syonan and occupied it from 1942 till 1945. During those years, they ruled with a brutal will. More than 140,000 allied troops were imprisoned or killed at the infamous Changi Prison; thousands of Chinese were executed at Sentosa and Changi Beach; and Malays and Indians were subjected to systematic abuse.
At the end of World War II, the Japanese left Singapore. The British were welcomed back, but their colonial rule was not. Singapore wanted its independence.
Enter Lee Kuan Yew. Lee was straits-born 3rd-generation Chinese. He was a Cambridge educated attorney and politically shrewd. In 1954, he was the guiding force in the founding of the socialist People’s Action Party (PAP). He was also its secretary general. Lee led the PAP to victory in the 1959 elections that gave Singapore full internal self-government. Lee became Singapore’s first prime minister – an office he held for 31 years.
In 1963, Singapore joined Malaysia in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. This, however, was a very brief marriage. The Malaysian government, in an effort to protect its Malay population, imposed affirmative action laws favoring Malays over other populations. Singapore, which was mostly Chinese, refused to follow these mandates. Tensions grew between the Chinese and Malays, and riots erupted in 1964. As a result, Malaysia ousted Singapore from its federation on August 9, 1965. Singapore proclaimed itself a republic one month later.
Lee remained in office through these years. He pushed through ambitious industrialization programs – particularly ambitious because Singapore had few natural resources other than its labor force. He directed a prosperous economy with the world’s highest rate of home ownership. Lee also created a clean and safe social environment at the expense of individual freedoms. Singapore enacted strict regulation of social behavior as well as censorship of the individual and the press.
Lee Kuan Yew resigned as prime minister in 1990; however, he continues to hold the influential position of “minister mentor”. He was replaced by Goh Chok Ton, and Ton was subsequently replaced by Lee Hsien Loong, the senior Lee's eldest son, in 2004.
Singapore is a city, island, and country. It is small – only 28 miles from east to west and 15 miles from north to south. Its total area is only 267 square miles. It is at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and it is linked to the Malaysian state of Johor by a causeway.
Singapore’s population is approximately 4.5 million. This population is 77% Chinese, 14% Malay, 8% Indian, and 1% other. The religions on the island reflect the ethnicity of its population. The majority of the population are Buddhists (Chinese) followed by Muslims (Malays). There are also Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists, and Confucians. Singapore has four official languages: Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, and English.
Singapore remains an active trading center, and it is the third busiest port in the world. It is also a financial and industrial center.
Our time in Singapore
Much to our surprise, we loved Singapore! It is a fast-paced cosmopolitan city, and we are not exactly ‘city people’, but we loved it nonetheless.
Our introduction began with our arrival at Raffles Marina. This is a great marina. It is well maintained, and the staff goes all out to provide service to its visitors. In addition to the expected services, they provide ‘extra’ free services such as unlimited wireless internet access and an English-language newspaper delivered to the boat every morning. It is not cheap to stay there, but it is worth the expense.
Raffles Marina is a ways out of town, so it also provides a free shuttle back and forth between the marina and town every few hours. It will drop you and pick you up at one of the two nearest public transit stations. And the public transportation…
Singapore strongly discourages private car ownership, and to enable their population to move about without cars, they have developed a wonderful public transportation system. At the top level is the train system (MRT). There are a few light-rail systems (LRT) that connect to the MRT, and there are buses that cover the rest of the island. Also, most companies provide shuttles for their employees (such as Raffles Marina does) that connect with the transit stations. Despite more than four million persons living on the island, there is no rush hour traffic in Singapore. The trains and buses may be a bit crowded, but there is always room to get on.
We spent a lot of time on the trains. They are safe, comfortable, and extremely convenient. They are even easy to use for those new to the system. One criticism that must be made of the mass transit system is that it is definitely not user friendly to those with any mobility limitations. We saw a few elevators, but there were very few and they were inconvenient. There are lots of stairs and escalators which could not be negotiated by anyone in a wheelchair. And we never saw anyone in a chair on the train. But it is otherwise a wonderful system.
Riding the MRT enabled us to explore a lot of the island. Of course we spent too much time and money in the malls. Singapore is a shopping mecca even for those of us that don’t enjoy shopping. We needed a few things of the electronic kind – new keyboard, handheld VHF radio – and we found a few entire multistory malls selling only electronics. It is somewhat overwhelming after just coming from an area where children do not have pencils and paper for school. But we found all that we were looking for and then some.
Singapore also has some great restaurants, but we got hung up on one in Little India, and we didn’t explore much beyond there. If we got hungry, we rode the MRT to within two blocks of our favorite. Very convenient and delicious.
Singapore is infamous for its legislated social controls, and we expected to find a miserably repressed population. There are established fines for littering, jay walking, not flushing the toilet, eating or drinking in public, smoking in public, chewing gum (we heard that this may have been repealed), and myriad other social faux pas. We expected a rigid up-tight atmosphere, but that is not at all what we found. The Singaporeans were very friendly and outgoing. And yes, the city is squeaky clean. However, given some of the places we have traveled recently (being told to throw our garbage in the ocean in northern Indonesia), we enjoyed the tidiness and cleanliness. We may not want to live with these social controls, but they create a pleasant place to visit.
As a break from the malls and restaurants, we also visited the Botanic Gardens. They were beautiful. As we expected, they were very well maintained. We did, however, cut our visit short because the weather was so miserable. It was extremely hot and raining, and that is common in Singapore.
If we have one major complaint about Singapore, it would be the weather. It is brutal. It is just north of the equator, and it is extremely hot and humid. We spent three weeks in Singapore, and we had only two or three days without rain. This is not a cooling refreshing rain. Rather it is a humid thunderstorm. The weather is quite miserable.
All in all, we really enjoyed Singapore. Neither of us would want to live in such a controlled society, but it is a great place to visit. You won’t hear us say this about many cities, but if you get the opportunity to visit Singapore, we would recommend it. We would not hesitate to return.
But we still planned to reach Thailand by early December, so we needed to move on. We will remember Singapore as a big surprise for both of us - a very nice surprise.