Singapore Sunday, March 12, 2016
Joe has been to Singapore a few times while working, and always had favorable impressions of the city (it’s a city/State actually), so he was eager to return after 10 years away. Well, safe to say, Singapore has prospered and become even more enjoyable since his last visit.
First a bit of history that hopefully sets the stage: In the 1700s the British East India Trading Company was one of many trading in the Strait of Malacca and nearby places. Britain purchased Singapore (the island at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, about 250 square miles) so that trade through Asia could be chartered through the BEITC.
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was the administrator for the BEITC, and he organized Singapore by setting out a plan of roads, trade routes and neighborhoods where locals of different origins could reside (a Chinese area, an Indian area, a Malay area). The Raffles Hotel which still bears his name (as well as many roads in the city) are a testament to his planning acumen and vision).
Raffles’ stroke of brilliance was in designating Singapore as a free port – no taxes were paid on trades here, and rival ports which imposed taxes suffered as Singapore grew. By the end of WWII, Singapore was a British colony, and this heritage is still evident, even in the perfect Queen’s English spoken by residents.
So, Singapore prospered, but it became a messy place. Enter “Harry Lee’” in the 1950s. Lee Kuan Yew was brilliant local guy who had a vision for Singapore – Lacking in natural resources, Singapore would have to figure out a way for its people to make its destiny by providing value to others. Harry urged Singapore to gain independence from Britain (which it did), and become an industrial powerhouse. He said, essentially, that Singapore needed to become a first world nation, not a third world nation.
Under Harry’s leadership as Prime Minister, Singapore reclaimed land and build up swampy areas so that businesses and residential areas could be formed. His government (Singapore became independent in 1956) offered incentives to businesses to build plants and employ people. Petrochemical and bioscience companies came to Singapore, and the government offered scholarships to students from other lands to study in Singapore (a period of service after graduation was required, and many students stayed even longer). The population enjoys a 97% rate of literacy, and English and Malay are the national languages. Military training is compulsory for males from age 18 on (reservist style training until age 40).
Many regulations were imposed in prior years to govern conduct, and taxes for violation were imposed (no tossing of cigarette butts into the street, taxes for failing to send children to school, no littering, etc.), and these continue to this day. Singapore is a place today where you get in a line for a taxi at a taxi stand, with no one running ahead of you as you might find in NYC or elsewhere. When a pedestrian crosses the street, the turning cars just wait until there is no one in the intersection. It’s very civil and calm.
There are 2 casinos in Singapore, but the government discourages gambling by locals (a local must pay $100 to go to a casino, but it’s free for those from outside Singapore).
So today we have an island that is largely Chinese (75%), then Malay, Indian and other folks making up the balance. While religion still defines many of them when they discuss themselves, we decided on this trip to Singapore not to focus on the houses of worship, to give you a break from the endless temples, shrines, etc.
Part of the calm that a visitor enjoys in Singapore is due to the small number of cars. On an island of 5.5 million, only 10% of the population owns cars, due to regulations that limit the number of cars. If you wish to have a car and drive, you first must obtain a certificate through a government auction that permits you to drive – this is a ten year permit that costs (base car price) about $45,000 (Singapore dollars, about $35,000 US). Now you buy a car for about S$45,000 (basic Toyota model), pay some registration and insurance fees, and then you can drive for 10 years. Thankfully, a great mass transit system allows the bulk of Singaporeans to commute to work, school and elsewhere without the need for a car. The road system, by the way, is very organized and impressive.
Singapore is often quoted as the world’s most expensive city, but we understand from locals that this is due to the auto expense. Our experience on this visit is that the travel/taxi, food, incidental cost is not even close to the expense in NYC.
We’ll post some pix to show the varied architecture of Singapore – it is very diverse, as well as pix from the Gardens by the Bay, the aquarium at Centosa Island (which is a giant resort complex), and the Toronda Bird Park.
The Gardens by the Bay complex is incredible – very environmentally sophisticated and designed to promote consciousness of this aspect of life, but also lots of fun and very colorful.
Tomorrow we are on the road, so to speak. We’re headed to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China in the next several days.
Hope this finds you well.