When to go | Events | Attraction |
has traded in its rough-and-ready opium dens and pearl luggers for
towers of concrete and glass, and its steamy rickshaw image for
hi-tech wizardry, but you can still recapture the colonial era with
a gin sling under the languorous ceiling fans at Raffles Hotel.
At first glance, Singapore appears shockingly modern and anonymous,
but this is an undeniably Asian city with Chinese, Malay and Indian
traditions from feng shui to ancestor worship creating part of the
everyday landscape. It's these contrasts that bring the city to
One day you're in a hawker stall melting over a bowl of Indian curry,
the next you're enjoying high tea in whispered environs complete
with air-con, starched linen table cloths and gliding waiters. Super-safe
and mega-clean Singapore may be, but its sultry rhythms wash inexorably
beneath the regimented beat of big-city life.
In the crowded streets of Chinatown, fortune tellers, calligraphers
and temple worshippers are still a part of everyday life. In Little
India, you can buy the best sari material, freshly ground spices
or a picture of your favourite Hindu god. In the small shops of
Arab St, the cry of the imam can be heard from the nearby Sultan
Area: 683 sq km
Population: 4 million
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +8 (Standard Time)
Telephone Area Code: There are no area codes in Singapore; just
dial the eight-digit number.
Singapore is a city, an island and a country. Sir Stamford Raffles
founded Singapore on the Singapore River, which is still the heart
of the city, encompassing the central business district and the
popular entertainment and dining precinct along the quays. Most
of Singapore's tourist action is centred around Orchard Rd, Chinatown
and Little India.
When to Go
Go anytime. Climate is not a major consideration, as Singapore gets
fairly steady annual rainfall. Co-ordinate your visit with one of
the various festivals and events: Thaipusam is a spectacular festival,
occurring around February. If shopping and eating are major concerns,
April brings the Singapore Food Festival and the Great Singapore
Sale is held in June.
The multicultural people of Singapore celebrate with the roar of
a Chinese dragon at New Year, feasting for the living and the dead
and dancing with the fervour of religious passion. Every phase of
the lunar cycle brings a new opportunity for colour and festivity.
Because they follow the lunar calendar, the dates of Chinese, Hindu
and Muslim festivals vary from year to year. Chinese New Year, in
January or February, is welcomed in with dragon dances, parades
and much good cheer. Chinatown is lit up with fireworks and night
markets. Vesak Day in May celebrates Buddha's birth, enlightenment
and death. It is marked by various events, including the release
of caged birds to symbolise the liberation of captive souls. The
Dragon Boat Festival, held in May or June, commemorates the death
of a Chinese patriot who drowned himself as a protest against government
corruption. It is celebrated with boat races across Marina Bay,
accompanied by much eating of rice dumplings.
The Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is usually celebrated
in September. This is when the souls of the dead are released for
feasting and entertainment on earth. Chinese operas are performed
for them and food is offered; the ghosts eat the spirit of the food
but thoughtfully leave the substance for the mortal celebrants.
During Ramadan, food stalls are set up in the evening in the Arab
St district, near the Sultan Mosque. Hari Raya Puasa, the end of
Ramadan in November, is marked by three days of joyful celebrations.
The festival of Thaipusam is one of the most dramatic Hindu festivals
and is now banned in India. Devotees honour Lord Subramaniam with
acts of amazing body-piercing - definitely not for the squeamish.
In Singapore, devotees march in procession from the Sri Srinivasa
Perumal Temple on Serangoon Rd to the Chettiar Hindu Temple on Tank
Rd. Dates for the festival vary according to the lunar calendar.
1 Jan - New Year's Day
Jan/Feb - Chinese New Year
Feb/Mar - Hari Raya Haji
Mar/Apr - Good Friday
1 May - Labour Day
May - Vesak Day
9 Aug - National Day
Oct - Deepavali
25 Dec - Christmas Day
The Muslim centre of Singapore is a traditional textile district,
full of batiks from Indonesia, silks, sarongs and shirts. Add to
this mix rosaries, flower essences, hajj caps, songkok hats, basketware
and rattan goods, and you have a fair idea of the products haggled
over in this part of the city. The grand Sultan Mosque is the biggest
and liveliest mosque in Singapore, but the tiny Malabar Muslim Jama-ath
Mosque is the most beautiful. There's fine Indian Muslim food along
nearby North Bridge Rd and the foodstalls on Bussorah St are especially
atmospheric at dusk during Ramadan.
Chinatown is Singapore's cultural heart and still provides glimpses
of the old ways with its numerous temples, decorated terraces and
its frantic conglomeration of merchants, shops and activity. Gentrified
restaurants and expensive shops are gradually overtaking the venerable
The mark of Sir Stamford Raffles is indelibly stamped on central
Singapore. By moving the business district south of the river and
making the northern area the administrative centre, Raffles created
the framework that remained the blueprint for central Singapore
through generations of colonial rule and the republican years of
independence. Places of interest include: Empress Place Building,
an imposing Victorian structure, built in 1865, that houses a museum,
art and antique galleries and a chic restaurant; the incongruous
Padang, where flannelled cricketers once caught, bowled and batted
in the searing heat; Raffles Hotel, a Singaporean institution which
has become a byword for oriental luxury; and any number of imposing
churches, such as St Andrew's Cathedral and the Cathedral of the
Jurong Town, west of the city centre, is a huge industrial and housing
area that is the powerhouse of Singapore's economy. This might seem
an unlikely spot for a number of Singapore's tourist attractions
but it is home to the Haw Par Villa (an incredibly tacky Chinese
mythological theme park), the beautifully landscaped Jurong Bird
Park, Chinese Garden and the hands-on Singapore Discovery Centre.
This modest but colourful area of wall-to-wall shops, pungent aromas
and Hindi film music is a relief from the prim modernity of many
parts of the city. This is the place to come to pick up that framed
print of a Hindu god you've always wanted, eat great vegetarian
food and watch streetside cooks fry chapatis.
Dominated by high-class hotels this is the playground of Singapore's
elite, who are lured by the shopping centres, nightspots, restaurants,
bars and lounges. A showcase for the material delights of capitalism,
Orchard Rd also possesses some sights of cultural interest where
a credit card is not required.
The granddaddy of Singapore's parks, Sentosa Island is the city-state's
most visited attraction. It has museums, aquariums, beaches, sporting
facilities, walks, rides and food centres. If a day isn't enough
to take in all the sites and activities, the island has a camping
ground, hostel and luxury hotels.
According to Malay legend, a Sumatran prince encountered a lion
- considered a good omen - on Temasek, prompting him to found Singapura,
or Lion City. It mattered little that lions had never inhabited
Singapore (more likely the prince had seen a tiger); what did matter
was the establishment of the region as a minor trading post for
the powerful Sumatran Srivijaya empire and as a subsequent vassal
state of the Javanese Majapahit empire in the mid-13th century.
Singapore might have remained a quiet backwater if not for Sir Stamford
Raffles' intervention in 1819. The British had first established
a presence in the Straits of Melaka (now called Malacca) in the
18th century when the East India Company set out to secure and protect
its line of trade from China to the colonies in India. Fearing another
resurgence of expansionism in the Dutch - which had been the dominant
European trading power in the region for nearly 200 years - Raffles
argued for an increased British presence, which he was promptly
given. Under his tutelage, Singapore's forlorn reputation as a fetid,
disease-ridden colony was soon forgotten. Migrants attracted by
a tariff-free port poured in by the thousands, and a flourishing
colony with a military and naval base was established.
Singapore's inexorable growth continued into the 20th century. However,
the outbreak of WWII brutally exposed the fallacy of British might:
they suffered the ignominy of defeat when Japan invaded the colony
in 1941. The British were welcomed back after Japan's surrender
in 1945, but their right to rule was no longer assured.
By the 1950s, burgeoning nationalism had led to the formation of
a number of political parties as Singapore moved slowly towards
self-government. The People's Action Party, with the Cambridge-educated
Lee Kuan Yew as leader, was elected in 1959. Lee became prime minister,
a position he was to hold for the next 31 years. In 1963, Singapore
formed a union with Malaya (now Malaysia) but by 1965, the nascent
federation was in tatters. Singapore became independent soon after
and was once again the economic success story of the region. Shrewd
and pathologically pragmatic, Lee fashioned a government heavy on
strict social order and the suppression of political opposition.
Lee Kuan Yew resigned as prime minister in 1990 and was replaced
by Goh Chok Tong, a leader more inclined towards consultation and
liberalism. The country's first presidential election was held in
August 1993 - prior to that, presidents were elected by members
of parliament. The most recent election was in September 1999 when
the presidency, a largely ceremonial role, was won by SR Nathan.
Economically, the southeast Asian region's late-1990s downturn (a
euphemism if ever there was one) hit Singapore as hard as anywhere
else - in one three-month period in late 1998, unemployment in the
country doubled. The city-state is slowly bouncing back, however,
and on the street things are lively as ever, though the exodus of
well-trained professionals seeking glittering international opportunities
is a growing concern.