At my alma mater, Mount Holyoke, students referred to all introductory classes as “Baby” Whatever: so, welcome to Baby Singapore!
This intro class is necessary because, although many of my acquaintance have either visited or lived in Singapore, they are few and far between. My very own sister thinks I live in Malaysia now! And another, highly educated, well-traveled relative believes I’m in the Southern Hemisphere! This leads me to conclude that a few facts about Singapore will serve to orient my readers.
Singapore is located less than 100 miles north of the equator. As a result, the weather is tropical (an average daily temperature of about 90 F, and humidity in the range of 85%), and the length of days and nights (about 12 hours each) does not change throughout the year. “Winter” in Singapore is the rainy “monsoon” season, which I hope is soon ending. On a good day in winter there’s at least an hour of rain, and sometimes 24 hours. In Massachusetts, sunsets can be spectacular on a clear day, and winter skies are often the loveliest of the year. Singapore’s sunsets end quickly and in winter are often obscured by clouds.
This is an island nation: one large island, and over 60 small ones, at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. The land area is approximately 272 square miles but Singaporeans are using land “reclamation” to extend the land area and it has grown by 20% in in the past 50 years. Despite the increase in land area, Singapore is still less than 1/5 the size of Rhode Island!
Singapore was ruled by the British from the time of its founding in the 1820s by Sir Thomas Raffles until after the British were defeated during World War II by the Japanese Army. Singapore gradually separated from Britain during the 1950s, and briefly joined with Malaysia from 1963 to 1965. During that period, however, the Malaysian government began to put in place preferential treatment for citizens of Malay descent. This was unacceptable to Singaporeans, who are 75% Chinese, about 9% Indian, about 3% Eurasian and “other”, and about 13% Malay.
Singapore is one of the “Asian Tiger” economies, which have grown tremendously while other economies have stalled or shrunk. Singapore is very business-friendly, and is rated as one of the least corrupt governments in the world (second, I believe, to New Zealand). The rich people here are very, very rich. Poor people here are pretty well assisted by the government. The unemployment rate is about 2%. Something for the USA to envy! And another thing: the gross domestic product per capita, nearly $60,000 in Singapore, places it in international rankings way ahead of the US where the GDP per capita is several thousand below $50,000.
Singapore has a reputation as the “no” country: no chewing gum, no littering, no assaulting the bus driver, no spitting, no vandalism, no being nude in your own home with the curtains open: and the list is long. The challenge, in Singapore’s early years of independence, was to unite citizens of sharply differing backgrounds, and to pull the nation out of the ruins of the Japanese invasion. Lots of rules, sternly enforced, got everyone on the straight and narrow.
Singapore is largely a nation-city. Old Singapore, before World War II, had mostly two-story buildings for business in either the Chinese or the British style of architecture (and inevitably the two were often blended in one building). After independence in 1965, the Singapore government concentrated housing development on high-rise apartments to ensure that even the poorest citizens had a decent roof over their heads. As the nation prospered, the two-story “go-downs” (warehouses) and shop-houses of old Singapore were demolished in favor of shiny, air-conditioned multi-use tower blocks. Thankfully, sometime in the 1990s, the government recognized the cultural loss of the old buildings and slowed their demolition. Many old mansions have been remodeled into “clubhouses” for soaring condominiums built where gardens once surrounded the stately homes of the rich.
That doesn’t mean that Singapore is an urban wasteland. Despite being the third most densely populated nation on earth (slightly more than 5 million people live here so there’s something more than 18,000 people per square mile), there are trees, flowers, and gardens everywhere. With all the sunshine and near-daily rain, encouraging plant growth is not the problem. The greater challenge is to encourage desirable growth instead of mold and mildew. Singapore’s heat and humidity are made much more bearable by the presence of gardens. The latest contribution the nation has made, also designed as a tourist attraction, is the indoor, self-sustaining and stunning Gardens by the Bay (http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/home.html).
So, now you have an idea of where I am now, in time and place. I lived here for six months with my family 12 years ago, and came away with mixed feelings about Singapore. There is much to enjoy, but although this is probably the most accessible of Asian countries for an American to encounter, it is still a very foreign place for me. As a Causasian and a Christian, I am in a tiny minority. I don’t have a workplace except my own desk, or belong to an expensive Expat club, or have kids in a school here, so my social interactions are quite limited. I am determined that during this long stay, I will find my way into Singapore, and leave it with greater understanding and appreciation. And meanwhile, I plan to enjoy every minute of the local cuisine!