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Cities in the Spotlight: Singapore

Updated: Mar 11

In today's post we will be travelling to Singapore.


Singapore City Information

Singapore, officially the Republic of Singapore, is a sovereign island city-state in maritime Southeast Asia. It lies about one degree of latitude (137 kilometres or 85 miles) north of the equator, off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, bordering the Straits of Malacca to the west, the Riau Islands (Indonesia) to the south, and the South China Sea to the east. The country's territory is composed of one main island, 63 satellite islands and islets, and one outlying islet, the combined area of which has increased by 25% since the country's independence as a result of extensive land reclamation projects. It has the second greatest population density in the world. With a multicultural population and recognising the need to respect cultural identities, Singapore has four official languages; English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. English is the lingua franca. Multiracialism is enshrined in the constitution and continues to shape national policies in education, housing, and politics. Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the British Empire. In 1867, the colonies in Southeast Asia were reorganised and Singapore came under the direct control of Britain as part of the Straits Settlements. During the Second World War, Singapore was occupied by Japan in 1942, and returned to British control as a separate crown colony following Japan's surrender in 1945. Singapore gained self-governance in 1959 and in 1963 became part of the new federation of Malaysia, alongside Malaya, North Borneo, and Sarawak. Ideological differences led to Singapore being expelled from the federation two years later and it became an independent country. After early years of turbulence and despite lacking natural resources and a hinterland, the nation rapidly developed to become one of the Four Asian Tigers based on external trade, becoming a highly developed country; it is ranked ninth on the UN Human Development Index and has the second-highest GDP per capita (PPP) in the world. Singapore is the only country in Asia with a AAA sovereign rating from all major rating agencies. It is a major financial and shipping hub, consistently ranked the most expensive city to live in since 2013, and has been identified as a tax haven. Singapore is placed highly in key social indicators: education, healthcare, quality of life, personal safety, and housing, with a home-ownership rate of 91%. Singaporeans enjoy one of the world's longest life expectancies, fastest Internet connection speeds and one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.


Singapore Historical Significance

Ancient Singapore

In 1299, according to the Malay Annals, the Kingdom of Singapura was founded on the island by Sang Nila Utama. Although the historicity of the accounts as given in the Malay Annals is the subject of academic debates, it is nevertheless known from various documents that Singapore in the 14th century, then known as Temasek, was a trading port under the influence of both the Majapahit Empire and the Siamese kingdoms, and was a part of the Indosphere. These Indianised kingdoms were characterised by surprising resilience, political integrity and administrative stability. Historical sources also indicate that around the end of the 14th century, its ruler Parameswara was attacked by either the Majapahit or the Siamese, forcing him to move to Malacca where he founded the Sultanate of Malacca. Archaeological evidence suggests that the main settlement on Fort Canning was abandoned around this time, although a small trading settlement continued in Singapore for some time afterwards. In 1613, Portuguese raiders burned down the settlement, and the island faded into obscurity for the next two centuries. By then, Singapore was nominally part of the Johor Sultanate. The wider maritime region and much trade was under Dutch control for the following period after the Dutch conquest of Malacca.

British colonisation

The British governor Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore on 28 January 1819 and soon recognised the island as a natural choice for the new port. The island was then nominally ruled by Tengku Abdul Rahman, the Sultan of Johor, who was controlled by the Dutch and the Bugis. However, the Sultanate was weakened by factional division: the Temenggong (Chief Minister) of Tengku Abdul Rahman, as well as his officials, were loyal to the Sultan's elder brother Tengku Long, who was living in exile in Riau. With the Temenggong's help, Raffles managed to smuggle Tengku Long back into Singapore. Raffles offered to recognise Tengku Long as the rightful Sultan of Johor, under the title of Sultan Hussein, as well as provide him with a yearly payment of $5000 and another $3000 to the Temenggong; in return, Sultan Hussein would grant the British the right to establish a trading post on Singapore. A formal treaty was signed on 6 February 1819.

In 1824, a further treaty with the Sultan led to the entire island becoming a British possession. In 1826, Singapore became part of the Straits Settlements, then under the jurisdiction of British India. Singapore became the regional capital in 1836. Prior to Raffles' arrival, there were only about a thousand people living on the island, mostly indigenous Malays along with a handful of Chinese. By 1860 the population had swelled to over 80,000, more than half being Chinese. Many of these early immigrants came to work on the pepper and gambier plantations.[43] In 1867, the Straits Settlements were separated from British India, coming under the direct control of Britain. Later, in the 1890s, when the rubber industry became established in Malaya and Singapore, the island became a global centre for rubber sorting and export.

Singapore was not greatly affected by the First World War (1914–18), as the conflict did not spread to Southeast Asia. The only significant event during the war was the 1915 Singapore Mutiny by Muslim sepoys from British India, who were garrisoned in Singapore. After hearing rumours that they were to be sent to fight the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim state, the soldiers rebelled, killing their officers and several British civilians before the mutiny was suppressed by non-Muslim troops arriving from Johore and Burma. After World War I, the British built the large Singapore Naval Base as part of the defensive Singapore strategy. Originally announced in 1921, the construction of the base proceeded at a slow pace until the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Costing $60 million and not fully completed in 1938, it was nonetheless the largest dry dock in the world, the third-largest floating dock, and had enough fuel tanks to support the entire British navy for six months. The base was defended by heavy 15-inch (380 mm) naval guns stationed at Fort Siloso, Fort Canning and Labrador, as well as a Royal Air Force airfield at Tengah Air Base. Winston Churchill touted it as the "Gibraltar of the East", and military discussions often referred to the base as simply "East of Suez". However, the British Home Fleet was stationed in Europe, and the British could not afford to build a second fleet to protect their interests in Asia. The plan was for the Home Fleet to sail quickly to Singapore in the event of an emergency. As a consequence, after World War II broke out in 1939, the fleet was fully occupied with defending Britain, leaving Singapore vulnerable to Japanese invasion.

World War II

During the Pacific War, the Japanese invasion of Malaya culminated in the Battle of Singapore. When the British force of 60,000 troops surrendered on 15 February 1942, British prime minister Winston Churchill called the defeat "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history". British and Empire losses during the fighting for Singapore were heavy, with a total of nearly 85,000 personnel captured. About 5,000 were killed or wounded, of which Australians made up the majority. Japanese casualties during the fighting in Singapore amounted to 1,714 killed and 3,378 wounded. The occupation was to become a major turning point in the histories of several nations, including those of Japan, Britain, and Singapore. Japanese newspapers triumphantly declared the victory as deciding the general situation of the war. Between 5,000 and 25,000 ethnic Chinese people were killed in the subsequent Sook Ching massacre. British forces had planned to liberate Singapore in 1945; however, the war ended before these operations could be carried out.

Post-war period

After the Japanese surrender to the Allies on 15 August 1945, Singapore fell into a brief state of violence and disorder; looting and revenge-killing were widespread. British, Australian, and Indian troops led by Lord Louis Mountbatten returned to Singapore to receive the formal surrender of Japanese forces in the region from General Seishirō Itagaki on behalf of General Hisaichi Terauchi on 12 September 1945. Meanwhile, Tomoyuki Yamashita was tried by a US military commission for war crimes, but not for crimes committed by his troops in Malaya or Singapore. He was convicted and hanged in the Philippines on 23 February 1946. Much of Singapore's infrastructure had been destroyed during the war, including those needed to supply utilities. A shortage of food led to malnutrition, disease, and rampant crime and violence. A series of strikes in 1947 caused massive stoppages in public transport and other services. However, by late 1947 the economy began to recover, facilitated by a growing international demand for tin and rubber. The failure of Britain to successfully defend its colony against the Japanese changed its image in the eyes of Singaporeans. British Military Administration ended on 1 April 1946, with Singapore becoming a separate Crown Colony. In July 1947, separate Executive and Legislative Councils were established and the election of six members of the Legislative Council was scheduled in the following year. During the 1950s, Chinese communists, with strong ties to the trade unions and Chinese schools, waged a guerrilla war against the government, leading to the Malayan Emergency. The 1954 National Service riots, Hock Lee bus riots, and Chinese middle schools riots in Singapore were all linked to these events.

David Marshall, pro-independence leader of the Labour Front, won Singapore's first general election in 1955. He led a delegation to London, and Britain rejected his demand for complete self-rule. He resigned and was replaced by Lim Yew Hock in 1956, and after further negotiations Britain to grant Singapore full internal self-government for all matters except defence and foreign affairs. During the subsequent May 1959 elections, the People's Action Party (PAP) won a landslide victory. Governor Sir William Allmond Codrington Goode served as the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State).

Republic of Singapore

After being expelled from Malaysia, Singapore became independent as the Republic of Singapore on 9 August 1965, with Lee Kuan Yew and Yusof bin Ishak as the first prime minister and president respectively. In 1967, the country co-founded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Race riots broke out once more in 1969. Lee Kuan Yew's emphasis on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, and limitations on internal democracy shaped Singapore's policies for the next half-century. Economic growth continued throughout the 1980s, with the unemployment rate falling to 3% and real GDP growth averaging at about 8% up until 1999. During the 1980s, Singapore began to shift towards high-tech industries, such as the wafer fabrication sector, in order to remain competitive as neighbouring countries began manufacturing with cheaper labour. Singapore Changi Airport was opened in 1981 and Singapore Airlines was formed. The Port of Singapore became one of the world's busiest ports and the service and tourism industries also grew immensely during this period.

The PAP, which has remained in power since independence, is believed to rule in an authoritarian manner by some activists and opposition politicians who see the strict regulation of political and media activities by the government as an infringement on political rights. In response, Singapore has seen several significant political changes, such as the introduction of the Non-Constituency members of parliament in 1984 to allow up to three losing candidates from opposition parties to be appointed as MPs. Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) were introduced in 1988 to create multi-seat electoral divisions, intended to ensure minority representation in parliament. Nominated members of parliament were introduced in 1990 to allow non-elected non-partisan MPs. The Constitution was amended in 1991 to provide for an Elected President who has veto power in the use of national reserves and appointments to public office.

In 1990, Goh Chok Tong succeeded Lee and became Singapore's second prime minister. During Goh's tenure, the country went through the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2003 SARS outbreak. In 2004, Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, became the country's third prime minister. Lee Hsien Loong's tenure included the 2008 global financial crisis, the resolution of a dispute over land ownership at Tanjong Pagar railway station between Singapore and Malaysia, and the introduction of the 2 integrated resorts (IRs), located at the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. The People's Action Party (PAP) suffered its worst ever electoral results in 2011, winning just 60% of votes, amidst debate over issues including the influx of foreign workers and the high cost of living. On 23 March 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, and a one-week period of public mourning was observed nationwide. Subsequently, the PAP regained its dominance in Parliament through the September general election, receiving 69.9% of the popular vote, although this remained lower than the 2001 tally of 75.3% and the 1968 tally of 86.7%. The 2020 election saw the PAP drop to 61% of the vote, while the opposition Workers' Party took 10 of the 93 seats, the highest number ever won by an opposition party.


Travel to Singapore

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Celebrating its melting pot of cultures, Singapore has that spark, and it's fast becoming one of Asia’s hit-list destinations. Whizzing around Singapore can take a matter of minutes, thanks to one of the world’s most efficient and widespread public transport systems. Hankering for breakfast in Little India, but want to visit the temples in Chinatown before lunch? No problem, you’ll be there in a jiffy using the sparkling MRT system – and why not stop at Marina Bay for a spot of shopping on your way? Plus, with new metro lines opening practically every two years, this island just keeps on becoming easier to explore.

Food in Singapore is taken very seriously. From cheap hawker fare to Michelin-starred fine dining, food-enamored Singaporeans will line up for it, Instagram the hell out of it and passionately debate whether it is up to the hype. Don’t fret about finding a place to chow down, as each neighborhood is home to local hawker centers and coffeeshops dishing up some of the island’s best meals for just a couple of bucks. Simply follow your nose or join the longest queue – whatever morsels lie at the end, they are almost guaranteed to be scrumptious.

The concrete jungles that once dominated Singapore’s skyline are slowly giving way to green skyscrapers, which look more like living ecosystems than business hubs. Fervently working towards its "City in a Garden" dream, the nation is ploughing money into becoming more sustainable and, well, green. Head out of town a little and you’ll find plenty of walking trails, treetop jungle bridges, wildlife galore and the city's green jewel, the Unesco World Heritage–listed Singapore Botanic Gardens: these are the lungs of Singapore.

When the sweltering outdoor heat gets too much, Singaporeans love ducking inside for a spot of retail therapy and a good dose of air-conditioning. Orchard Rd is the queen of shopping malls: with all the high-street brands, plenty of high-fashion houses, and a few discount outlets thrown into the mix, everyone’s needs (and more often wants) are catered for here. If you prefer your shopping a little less mass-market, head out to local neighbourhoods for independent designers, quirky art galleries, bustling markets, Chinese medicines, Persian carpets and a sari or two.


Must See Sites

Gardens By The Bay; Singapore's 21st-century botanical garden is a S$1 billion, 101-hectare fantasy land of space-age biodomes, high-tech Supertrees and whimsical sculptures. The Flower Dome replicates the dry Mediterranean climates found across the world, while the astounding Cloud Forest is a tropical montane affair. The blooming Floral Fantasy, opened in 2019, interweaves floral artistry and technology magically, complete with a 4D ride. Connecting two of the Supertrees is the OCBC Skyway, offering knockout views. At 7.45pm and 8.45pm, the Supertrees burst into light for the Garden Rhapsody show.

Singapore Botanic Gardens; Singapore's 74-hectare botanic wonderland is a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the city's most arresting attractions. Established in 1860, it's a tropical Valhalla peppered with glassy lakes, rolling lawns and themed gardens. The site is home to the National Orchid Garden, as well as a rare patch of dense primeval rainforest, the latter home to over 300 species of vegetation, over half of which are now (sadly) considered rare in Singapore. Look up to see trees reaching 50m high, growing here even before the modern founding of Singapore. The National Orchid Garden itself is the legacy of an orchid-breeding program that began in 1928, and its 3 hectares house over 1000 species and 2000 hybrids. Of these, around 600 are on display – the largest showcase of tropical orchids on Earth.

Singapore Zoo; The line between zoo and botanic oasis blurs at this pulse-slowing sweep of spacious, naturalistic enclosures and interactive attractions. Get up close to orangutans, dodge Malaysian flying foxes, even snoop around a replica African village. Then there's that setting: 26 soothing hectares on a lush peninsula jutting out into the waters of the Upper Seletar Reservoir. Taxi (S$30 from the CBD) is the easiest way to get here or alternatively catch bus 138 from the Ang Mo Kio MRT station. There are over 2400 residents here, and as far as zoos go, the enclosures are among the world's most comfortable. Among the highlights is the Jungle Breakfast with Wildlife, a morning buffet enjoyed in the company of orangutans. Close encounters with free-roaming ring-tailed lemurs, lories and tree-hugging sloths await at the giant Fragile Forest biodome, or spy on shameless, red-bummed baboons doing things that Singaporeans still get arrested for at the evocative Great Rift Valley exhibit. If you have kids in tow, let them go wild at Rainforest Kidzworld, a wonderland of slides, swings, pony rides and farmyard animals happy for a feed. There's even a dedicated wet area, with swimwear available for purchase if you didn't bring your own. The zoo prides itself on fostering respect for nature, and works together with other like-minded institutions on conservation projects both locally and regionally. One stain on its otherwise admirable record is the animal shows it still puts on; although elephant performances ceased in 2018, there is still an educational elephant presentation which sees the mammals interacting with their surroundings, by way of enrichment toys and verbal requests from keepers.

MacRitchie Reservoir; MacRitchie Reservoir makes for a calming, evocative jungle escape. Walking trails skirt the water's edge and snake through the mature secondary rainforest spotted with long-tailed macaques and huge monitor lizards. You can rent kayaks at the Paddle Lodge, but the highlight is the excellent 11km walking trail and its various well-signposted offshoots. Aim for the TreeTop Walk, the highlight of which is traversing a 250m-long suspension bridge, perched 25m up in the forest canopy. Trails then continue through the forest and around the reservoir, sometimes on dirt tracks, sometimes on wooden boardwalks. It takes three to four hours to complete the main circuit. From the service centre (which has changing facilities and a small cafe), near where the bus drops you off, start walking off to your right (anticlockwise around the lake) and you'll soon reach the Paddle Lodge. TreeTop Walk is around 3.5km beyond this.


Must Try Food & Drink

Laksa; Characterized by its rich and spicy broth, this comforting noodle soup is one of the classic dishes found in many Southeast Asian countries. It was developed under the influence of different culinary traditions, which has led to the creation of numerous regional varieties that differ in flavors and ingredients. Two of the most famous versions are the sour, tamarind-based asam laksa and the creamy curry laksa. Especially favored in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, laksa is usually prepared and enjoyed at hawker centers as a hearty main course.

Hainanese Chicken Rice; Originally invented on Hainan, a tropical island located south of China, the humble Hainanese chicken rice has evolved into one of the most popular dishes in Singapore. It consists of steamed chicken that is cut into bite-sized pieces, then served with fragrant white rice. When plated, the dish is drizzled with soy sauce and sesame oil, and it is served with sliced cucumbers and a spicy chili sauce. Frequently, the steaming liquid is subsequently spiced and served as a soup. The recipe was brought to Singapore by Hainanese migrants in the 19th century, and the first vendor selling this unique dish in Singapore opened his stall in the 1940s. There is, however, some difference between the Hainanese and Singaporean varieties of the dish: the Hainanese prefer to use pork broth and serve the dish with pounded ginger instead of chili sauce. Regardless of the original, the Singaporean version became the favorite variety, and today it is often referred to only as Singaporean chicken rice. Although it is also served in restaurants, this well-known dish is usually sold by street vendors which can be found on every street corner in Singapore.

Rambutan; Rambutan is a medium-sized evergreen tree originating from the rainforests of western Malaysia and Singapore. The trees produce fruits that are round with leathery skin that’s covered in soft hairlike spines. The colors range from dark red to yellow. The pulp is subacid to sweet and it contains a single seed. The seeds contain up to 40% fat, which is extracted and used for making soap. In the Philippines, people sometimes roast the seeds and eat them as a snack. The fruits are usually eaten out of hand and they are sold fresh or canned. People use rambutan in jams, jellies, preserves, fruit salads, and savory dishes (in Southeast Asia). There are many cultivars of rambutan, such as red, yellow, orange, clingstone, and freestone. Although rambutan is mostly cultivated in Southeast Asia, the fruit is also gaining popularity in Central America.

Singapore Sling; Originally known as Gin Sling, Singapore Sling is a gin-based cocktail that was invented around 1915 in Singapore by a bartender named Ngiam Tong Boon. While the original recipe calls for gin, cherry brandy, and orange, pineapple, and lime juice, the cocktail is nowadays prepared by shaking gin with cherry liqueur, Cointreau, grenadine, Bénédictine herbal liqueur, pineapple juice, freshly squeezed lime juice, and Angostura bitters. Singapore Sling is typically served straight up in a hurricane glass garnished with a Maraschino cherry and a pineapple wedge.

Mooncake; An ancient Chinese delicacy eaten during the Mid-August Festival or Moon Festival, known as mooncake, is a pie-like pastry made with a shortcrust base called yueh ping that is traditionally filled with black sesame seed or lotus seed paste, along with red beans, roasted pork, mung beans, dates, and salted duck egg yolks. Nowadays, mooncakes are available in a variety of different sweet and savory fillings, some of which are fruits like honeydew, litchi or pineapple; chocolate or mixed nuts; abalone and seaweed; green tea, and even cream cheese or ice cream. Their round shape is not only reminiscent of the moon, but also a symbol of return or a full circle, which in Chinese philosophy stands for fulfillment, oneness, perfection, and unity. Mooncakes are meant to be shared among people, so they are typically enjoyed sliced into small wedges and usually served with Chinese tea. In ancient times, these pastries were prepared as an offering to the Moon, but over centuries they have become the most popular food of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Chilli Crab; Like many other dishes in Asia, chilli crab started as a street food item, but it has eventually become so popular that today it is considered to be the national dish of Singapore. It consists of a stir-fried crab covered in a succulent, spicy sauce. The story of chilli crab's origin is a well-known anecdote - it was invented in the 1950s by Cher Yam Tian, who wanted to modify her stir-fried crab recipe by adding bottled chili sauce into the dish. The result was so delicious that her family persuaded her to start selling the dish, so chilli crab began its way to become the signature dish of Singapore. The dish is served in many restaurants in the country, and since the crab is served in a shell, the consumption of chilli crab is a unique experience. The diners must use their hands to crack the shell open in order to get hold of the tender crab meat hiding on the inside. Usually, mallets or nutcrackers are used to ease the whole procedure. Bread is commonly served together with the crab, and it is mainly used to soak up the delicious spicy gravy.

Roti Prata; Roti prata is a Singaporean specialty consisting of a ghee-flavored pancake that is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. It is typically served with mutton curry or various fish dishes. There are many prata stalls throughout Singapore, so the texture of roti prata ranges from chewy and flaky to super crispy. The pancake can also be turned into a dessert by adding ingredients such as chocolate, ice cream, or cheese.

Har Cheong Gai; The name of this Singaporean dish translates as shrimp paste chicken. It consists of chicken wings (or drumsticks) that are dipped in a classic combination of eggs, flour, and starch, and a marinade consisting of shrimp paste, rice wine, sesame oil, and other seasonings. This unique combination of ingredients results in a golden and crispy chicken that is packed with flavor. Har cheong gai is commonly found at numerous hawkers centers throughout Singapore, and it is usually served with a dipping sauce on the side.

Roti John; This classic street food item consists of a French loaf that is sliced lengthwise and generously doused with a mixture of lightly beaten eggs, minced meat, onions, and various combination of spices and vegetables. The bread is then fried top-down, until the topping sets and becomes crispy. The history of roti John is shrouded in mystery, but most agree that it was created by a hawker named Shukor in Singapore, sometime in the 1970s. From there it spread to other parts of Malaysian peninsula and has become a classic hawker dish that is always freshly prepared and served warm, typically sliced into smaller pieces. It is also believed that the dish was created to suit Western taste since the term John is universally used to denote Caucasians in Asia.


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