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Singapore (新加坡) is a city-state in Southeast Asia. Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, since independence it has become one of the world’s most prosperous countries and boasts the world’s busiest port.
Combining the skyscrapers and subways of a modern, affluent city with a medley of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences and a tropical climate, with tasty food, good shopping and a vibrant night-life scene, this Garden City makes a great stopover or springboard into the region.
Singapore is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world for a lot of reasons. One of which is the less stringent entry requirements.
Singapore is a small island country. With a population size of over 5.5 million people it is a very crowded city, second only to Monaco as the world’s most densely populated country.
However, unlike many other densely populated countries, Singapore – with more than 50% of its area covered by greenery and with over 50 major parks and 4 nature reserves – is an enchanting garden city.
Large self-contained residential towns have mushroomed all over the island, around the clean and modern city centre.
The centre of the city is located in the south — consisting roughly of the Orchard Road shopping area, the Riverside, the new Marina Bay area and also the skyscraper-filled Shenton way financial district known, in acronym-loving Singapore, as the CBD (Central Business District).
Riverside (Civic District) — Singapore’s colonial core, with museums, statues and theatres, not to mention restaurants, bars and clubs.
Orchard Road — Miles and miles of shopping malls.
Marina Bay — The newest feature of Singapore, dominated by the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort (hotel, casino, shopping mall, convention centre and museum) and the Marina Barrage. The newly opened Gardens by the Bay situated next to Marina Bay Sands integrated resort is a large public garden which house two huge cooled conservatories – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest as well as a cluster of gigantic Super Trees.
Bugis and Kampong Glam — Bugis and Kampong Glam are Singapore’s old Malay district, now largely taken over by shopping
Chinatown — The area originally designated for Chinese settlement by Raffles, now a Chinese heritage area popular with tourists. Singapore’s largest (arguably only) gay enclave is here too.
Little India — A piece of India to the north of the city core.
Balestier, Newton, Novena and Toa Payoh — Budget accommodations and Burmese temples within striking distance of the centre.
North — The northern part of the island, also known as Woodlands, forms Singapore’s residential and industrial hinterlands. Singapore Zoo is located here.
West — The western part of the island form Singapore’s residential areas with Star Vista.
Jurong— Home to Nanyang Technological University and the last housing frontier before the industrial area. Attractions include Singapore Bird Park, Singapore Science Centre and Singapore Discovery Centre.
North East — Home to many residential towns with a heart of Serangoon NEX, Hougang Mall and Compass Point
Tampines — A residential town located in the heartlands, in the far east of the island close to Changi Airport.
East Coast — The largely residential eastern part of the island contains Changi Airport, miles and miles of beach and many famous eateries. Also covers Geylang Serai, the true home of Singapore’s Malays.
Sentosa — A separate island once a military fort developed into a resort, Sentosa is the closest that Singapore gets to Disneyland, now with a dash of gambling and Universal Studios thrown in.
North West — the aspiring north west that goes into the undeveloped jungles, and the military training areas (Ama Keng, Lim Chu Kang, cemeteries, Kranji Camp and SAFTI).
In the centre, Singapore’s addressing system is fairly similar to Western countries (such as 17 Orchard Road), but the new housing developments on the outskirts may appear more intimidating: a typical address might be “Blk 505 Jurong West St 51 #01-186”. Here, “Blk 505” is the housing block number (Blk = Block), “Jurong West” is the area, while “St 51” is the street name/number, and “#01-186” means floor 1 unit number 186, stall or shop 186. The first digit of both housing block and street number is the neighbourhood’s number (in this case 5), making it easier to narrow down the right location. There are also 6-digit postal codes, which, considering the small size of the island, generally correspond to exactly one building. For example, “Blk 9 Bedok South Ave 2” is “Singapore 460009”. Finally, you will also encounter Malay terms in addresses: the most common are Jalan (Jln) for “Road”, Lorong (Lor) for “Lane”, Bukit (Bt) for “Hill” and Kampong (Kg) for “Village”.
Useful tools for hunting down addresses include StreetDirectory.com, GoThere.sg and OneMap.sg.
Singapore is a microcosm of Asia, populated by Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a large group of workers and expatriates from all across the globe.
Singapore has a partly deserved reputation for sterile predictability that has earned it descriptions like William Gibson’s “Disneyland with the death penalty” or the “world’s only shopping mall with a seat in the United Nations”. Nevertheless, the Switzerland of Asia is for many a welcome respite from the poverty, dirt, chaos, and crime of much of the Southeast Asian mainland, and if you scratch below the squeaky clean surface and get away from the tourist trail you’ll soon find more than meets the eye.
Singaporean food is legendary, with bustling hawker centres and 24-hour coffee shops offering cheap food from all parts of Asia, and shoppers can bust their baggage allowances in shopping centres like Orchard Road and Suntec City. In recent years some societal restrictions have also loosened up, and now you can bungee jump and dance on bar tops all night long, although alcohol is still very pricey and chewing gum can only be bought from a pharmacy for medical use.
Two casino complexes — or “Integrated Resorts”, to use the Singaporean euphemism — opened in 2010 in Sentosa and Marina Bay as part of Singapore’s new Fun and Entertainment drive, the aim being to double the number of tourists visiting and increase the length of time they stay within the country. Watch out for more loosening up in the future.
The first records of Singapore date back to the second and third centuries where a vague reference to its location was found in Greek and Chinese texts, under the names of Sabana and Pu Luo Chung respectively.
According to legend, Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama landed on the island and, catching sight of a strange creature that he thought was a lion, decided to found a new city he called Singapura, Sanskrit for Lion City, c. 1299. Alas, there have never been any lions anywhere near Singapore (until the Singapore Zoo opened) or elsewhere on Malaya in historical times, so the mysterious beast was more probably a tiger or wild boar.
More historical records indicate that the island was settled at least two centuries earlier and was known as Temasek, Javanese for “Sea Town”, and an important port for the Sumatran Srivijaya kingdom. However, Srivijaya fell around 1400 and Temasek, battered by the feuding kingdoms of Siam and the Javanese Majapahit, fell into obscurity.
As Singapura, it then briefly regained importance as a trading centre for the Melaka Sultanate and later, the Johor Sultanate. However, Portuguese raiders then destroyed the settlement and Singapura faded into obscurity once more.
The story of Singapore as we know it today began in 1819, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles made a deal with a claimant to the throne of the Sultanate of Johor: the British would support his claim in exchange for the right to set up a trading post on the island.
Though the Dutch initially protested, the signing of the Anglo-Dutch treaty in 1824, which separated the Malay world into British and Dutch spheres of influence (resulting in the current Malaysia-Indonesia and Singapore-Indonesia borders), ended the conflict. The Dutch renounced their claim to Singapore and ceded their colony in Malacca to the British, in exchange for the British ceding their colonies on Sumatra to the Dutch.
Yawning proboscis monkey, Singapore Zoo
Well-placed at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca, straddling the trade routes between China, India, Europe, and Australia, Raffles’ master stroke was to declare Singapore a free port, with no duties charged on trade. As traders flocked to escape onerous Dutch taxes, the trading post soon grew into one of Asia’s busiest, drawing people from far and wide. Along with Penang and Malacca, Singapore became one of the Straits Settlements and a jewel in the British colonial crown. Its economic fortunes received a further boost when palm oil and rubber from neighbouring Malaya were processed and shipped out via Singapore.
In 1867, Singapore was formally split off from British India and made into a directly ruled Crown Colony.
When World War II broke out, Fortress Singapore was seen as a formidable British base, with massive naval fortifications guarding against assault by sea. However, not only did the fortress lack a fleet, as all ships were tied up defending Britain from the Germans, but the Japanese wisely chose to cross Malaya by bicycle instead!
Despite hastily turning the guns around, this was something the sea-focused British commanders had not considered, and on 15 Feb 1942, with supplies critically low after less than a week of fighting, Singapore was forced to surrender. The British prisoners of war were packed off to Changi Prison. Tens of thousands perished in the subsequent brutal Japanese occupation. The return of the British in 1945 to one of their most favoured colonies was triumphalist.
Granted self-rule in 1955, Singapore briefly joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 when the British left, but was expelled because the Chinese-majority city was seen as a threat to Malay dominance. The island became independent on 9 August 1965, thus becoming the only country to gain independence against its own will in the history of the modern world!
The subsequent forty years rule by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saw Singapore’s economy boom, with the country rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest and most developed in Asia despite its lack of natural resources, earning it a place as one of the four East Asian Tigers. Now led by Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) continues to dominate the political scene with 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament. Societal restrictions have been loosened up in recent years though, with the government trying to shake off its staid image, and it remains to be seen how the delicate balancing act between political control and social freedom will play out.
Hawkers at night on Smith Street, Chinatown
Singapore prides itself on being a multi-racial country, and has a diverse culture despite its small size. The largest group are the Chinese, who form about 75% of the population.
Amongst the Chinese, Southern Min/Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Teochew and Cantonese speakers are the largest subgroups, with Mandarin acting as the lingua franca of the community. Other notable “dialect” groups among the Chinese include the Hakkas, Hainanese and Foochows. There is also a strong presence of mainland Chinese in Singapore after the Singapore government opened up the immigration policy for mainland Chinese since mainland China started its economic reforms in the 1980s, resulting in the new wave of immigration of mainland Chinese to Singapore during the late 20th century. The mainland Chinese in Singapore speak Mandarin.
Malays, who are comprised of descendants of Singapore’s original inhabitants as well as migrants from present day Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, form about 14% of the population.
Indians form about 9% of the population. Among the Indians, Tamils form the largest group by far, though there are also a significant numbers of speakers of other Indian languages such as Hindi, Malayalam and Punjabi.
The remainder are a mix of many other cultures, most notably the Eurasians who are of mixed European and Asian descent, and also a handful of Burmese, Japanese, Thais and many others. Slightly over one-third of Singapore’s residents are not citizens.
Singapore is also religiously diverse, with no religious group forming a majority. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Singapore. Buddhism is the largest religion with about 33% of the population declaring themselves Buddhist. Other religions which exist in significant numbers include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Taoism. In addition to the “big five”, there are also much smaller numbers of Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha’is and Jains. Some 17% of Singaporeans profess to have no religious affiliation.
Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
High (°C)30.1 31.2 31.6 31.7 31.6 31.3 30.9 30.9 30.9 31.1 30.6 30.0
Low (°C) 23.3 23.6 23.9 24.4 24.8 24.8 24.6 24.5 24.2 24.1 23.7 23.5
Singapore – Weather forecast
Between May and October, forest fires in neighbouring Sumatra cause dense haze that regularly reaches unhealthy levels – although it is unpredictable and may come and go rapidly. Check the National Environment Agency’s site for current data. In general, Singapore is best avoided from June to October if you have chronic heart or lung conditions or you simply don’t want to suffer unhealthy pollution.
As Singapore is located a mere 1.5 degrees north of the Equator, its weather is usually sunny with no distinct seasons. Rain falls almost daily throughout the year, usually in sudden, heavy showers that rarely last longer than an hour. However, most rainfall occurs during the north east monsoon (November to January), occasionally featuring lengthy spells of continuous rain. Spectacular thunderstorms can occur throughout the year, any time during the day, so it’s wise to carry an umbrella at all times, both as a shade from the sun or cover from the rain.
The temperatures are relatively high in the day, as expected in a tropical country, but windy conditions are expected at night. Bear in mind that spending more than about one hour outdoors can be very exhausting, especially if combined with moderate exercise. Singaporeans themselves shun the heat, and for a good reason. Many live in air-conditioned flats, work in air-conditioned offices, take the air-conditioned metro to air-conditioned shopping malls connected to each other by underground tunnels where they shop, eat, and exercise in air-conditioned fitness clubs.
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