Singapore has always been a crossroads between East and West. Once upon a time, its port swelled with Chinese, Arab, Malay, Indian and European traders who went to exchange exotic wares. Today, the city-state has expanded to become one of the world’s busiest ports, and over time, as goods have been exchanged, cultures have mingled as well. To the casual observer, Singapore appears to be a clean and orderly mass of shopping malls and McDonald’s. But the curious who dig a bit deeper will find that the cultures of the original settlers are still very much alive and well in this truly multicultural melting pot.
Singapore’s dedication to preserving cultural heritage has created a number of excellent museums and thriving, ethnically distinct neighborhoods. Chinatown and Little India still retain some of their original cultural relevance for Singaporeans while attracting foreign visitors who marvel at the endurance of cultural identity. A stroll through any of the city’s neighborhoods will reveal Taoist temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches cohabitating peaceably side by side. Cultural intermingling has also produced unique Eurasian and Peranakan (Straits Chinese) cultures, each with its own fashion, furnishings and food.
Speaking of food, with so much cultural diversity, dining in Singapore is varied and good—gastronomic experiences range from the finest Continental cuisine served with polished silver to delicious local dishes served in an open-air hawker center with plastic chopsticks. It’s a small wonder Singaporeans love to eat.
Singapore is both an island and a country, but perhaps it is best described as a city-state. Like the great city-states of the past, it offers civilization and order in the highest degree. Its combination of Western-style development and Eastern-style order seems to present the best of both hemispheres: It’s a modern metropolis where you feel safe walking the streets, and it’s an Asian business center that’s a model of efficiency. Singapore is also an ethnically mixed city, and close to one-quarter of its population is made up of expatriates or foreign workers from all over the world. Known for its desire to become the technology hub of Asia, Singapore is the most wired country in the region.
Another trait Singapore shares with historical city-states: Its authorities strongly believe that they can safeguard the status quo with regulations against almost anything and everything that—in their view—could possibly upset the sense of tranquility. It is important to note that in terms of cultural values, Singapore is a relatively conservative society compared with most Western countries and even other developed cities in Asia. Controversial topics such as same-sex marriage and religion should be approached with sensitivity. In reality, visitors will find the place is not as restrictive as suggested by the long lists of hefty fines for such things as littering and jaywalking. Some visitors to Singapore leave singing the praises of a society that “works,” but others feel the government’s near-compulsive fixation on cleanliness and order makes Singapore sterile in every sense of the word.
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