When I told my friends that I was going to visit Singapore back in June, everyone warned me about the “Land of Five Cs” (credit card, condo, cash, car, and country club membership). Surprisingly, my five days in Singapore were totally enjoyable, and I look forward to going back there again. If you are reading this post on Catterfly, I’m sure either you have already visited this part of Asia or you are thinking about making Singapore your next destination, to both I say “YES”!
Strategically nestled on the very southern tip of the Malay peninsula, Singapore is a tiny yet seemingly mighty country and city. The earliest written record of Singapore occurs in a 3rd-century Chinese account, in which an island called Pu Luo Chung is mentioned. This name is transliterated from its original Malay name “Pulau Ujong” — Island at the End. The name “Singapore” comes from Sanskrit “Imamura”, which means “lion city”. It is said that when the Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama visited the island more than 700 years ago, he saw a lion and thus named the place accordingly. According to Malay Annuals, Sang Nila Utama later founded the Kingdom of Singapura and reigned from 1299 to 1347.
By the 14th century, Singapore became a trading port of the Ionosphere (areas in Southeast Asia that are influenced by Indian languages and cultures). In the next 500 years, the city witnessed a few changes of power before falling into British possession in 1824. During the second world war, Singapore suffered greatly under the Japanese invasion. One example is the Sook Ching massacre, which took the lives of 20,000 – 50,000 ethnic Chinese people.
When Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, announced that the nation would separate from Malaysia in 1965, not many people believed that Singapore would become one of the most developed countries in the world in a short amount of time. Yet it became a reality — today, Singapore ranks No.6 by GDP per capita. As a result, or perhaps it was the cause, there is a palpable sense of efficiency in the air, quite pronounced to the nerves of those who lead a more relaxed lifestyle. A lively example is the speed at which my hostel staff got things done. One night, the folks next-door were still talking after curfew time. Reluctantly I got up, climbed out of my pod bed and went to the front desk to complain. When I was only halfway through the sentence, the owner sprung from his chair in a heartbeat, strode toward the room and said: “I’m sorry, I’ll talk to them now.” Wow!
There are a few things I really like about Singapore. The first is its cultural diversity.
Having grown up in a largely homogenous society, anything that is remotely “cross-cultural” fascinates me. So when I stepped out of the airport and saw one signage after another written in four languages, you can imagine how amazed I was: “FOUR languages, not two, FOUR!” It was in this excitement I learned that Singapore celebrates its multicultural heritage through four official languages — Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil. It also surprised me that Singapore uses Simplified Chinese instead of Traditional Chinese. I was always under the impression that the Chinese people in Southeast Asia prefer the latter, apparently this is not the case in Singapore. In 1976, Singapore fully adopted the Simplified Chinese system from China. This is very intriguing to me given that the simplification of Chinese characters has a subversive connotation to the traditional Chinese culture, and yet the traditional culture is very well preserved in Singapore. Or maybe, in a way this is a sign that Singapore knows how to preserve its cultures while being as adaptive as possible in the time of rapid changes. A nation as tiny and with as little natural resource as this must stay agile to survive. Singapore not only survived, but has also been flourishing.
On my second day, I went to a talk on Chinese and English translation. The speaker moved from Texas, US to Singapore over 25 years ago and she is now a proud Singaporean. She said: “As Singaporeans, we always feel that our English is bad and our Chinese is bad too.” The audience laughed in agreement. I however, wasn’t bothered by the fact that many Southeast Asian Chinese people speak Mandarin Chinese with a heavy accent. The reason is simple —Mandarin was as much a dialect as Cantonese, Hokkien, Wu and many other dialects! I still wonder if Beijing weren’t chosen as the capital back in 1949, would Cantonese become the official language of China and would Singapore also make Hokkien or Cantonese its official language? As a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese traveling in Southeast Asia, I often wished that my Cantonese were a bit more fluent and that I could speak a bit of Hokkien to connect with the Chinese diaspora there.
Apart from the linguistic and cultural diversity, Singapore also offers a wide variety of food with guaranteed food safety. I learned that many Singaporeans don’t have kitchens at home due to the expensive rent and their busy work schedule (Singapore has one of the longest working hours logged for 2016). The meals sold at shopping mall food courts are surprisingly affordable. I enjoyed a couple of meals there for under 7 Singaporean dollars each. When you don’t know where and what to eat, check out the food court in a shopping mall! Just be sure to avoid the peak time after work.
Another place that surprised me with its loveliness is an independent bookstore called “Books Actually”. If a city’s museums serve as the window to its past, then the local independent bookstores are the window to its present. I found an impressive collection of literature books by local writers and poets, mostly in English but also in Chinese, Tamil and Malay. Don’t miss out on this place if you’re a book person. I didn’t go to any of the popular tourist destination, so I can’t say much about them, but I do recommend checking out the video projection work at the Rotunda in the National Museum of Singapore, a visual trip guaranteed!
Enough about the good things, so what did I not like about Singapore? As I mentioned before, it’s a culturally and linguistically diverse place, yet the lifestyle available there are sadly limited. This is also why Singapore obtained its “fame” as the Land of Five Cs — materialism permeates the Singaporean society. On the flip side of the efficiency is the lack of relaxed ness and uniqueness. Often I would walk down the streets wondering why not a single person is smiling. I didn’t sense much passion from the passerby either. As a digital nomad with a hippie heart, my desire for spontaneous connections with kindred spirits wasn’t satiated in Singapore.
Nonetheless, this place has more to offer than I expected. I definitely look forward to coming back, and I hope you will enjoy your time in Singapore!