'We've built a nation with our hands'
Updated: May 6
Singapore, located at the southern tip of Malaysia, after a rich maritime history became an independent sovereign country in 1965. Despite it's tiny size, Singapore has built itself to be one of the giants of Southeast Asia. With its growth based on international trade and economic globalisation, it has the second-highest GDP per capita in the world.
Today's Singapore bears little resemblance to the Singapore I visited for the first time in 1977. Then, Orchard Road was made up of lines of traditional shophouses that are synonymous with most parts of Asia. Then, I enjoyed a meal with a local family above one of the Orchard Road shops. Not long after that visit, Orchard Road was redeveloped; the shophouses were replaced with modern hotels and shopping centres, thus transforming it from its traditional roots to a modern western city.
We are here for just one day, so we plan to make the most of our Singapore experience. Big Bus, a hop-on-hop-off tour, which operates across the world provides an excellent tour here. There are two routes; the City Tour includes stops at the Gardens by the Bay, the Botanic Gardens, Raffles Hotel and many more city sights and shopping stops. There is a stop right across the road from our hotel. The Heritage Tour visits Little India, Chinatown and the Malaysian Kampong Glam. Here, we see many examples of the traditional shophouses, which are now heritage-protected.
The last time we visited Singapore was during Lunar New Year in late January 2012. Crowds of people surged along the footpaths, making it difficult to move in the humid heat and intermittent showers of torrential rain. Whiffs of roast duck and curries and exotic spices used in Singapore's diverse cuisines permeated the air. Everyone moved at the same pace, lest they be knocked over if they changed their pace at all. It was bright, colourful and dynamic. Today, as we try to work out how to get from the Ion Centre to Weelock Place; there is no longer a pedestrian crossing at this intersection, I realise that the large crowds are missing. Has the footpath been widened? If so, where did the extra space come from? Or by diverting the foot traffic to a subway beneath the street, have the crowds now dissipated and become less obvious? Or has post-COVID Singapore been adversely affected with fewer people now visiting the city?
We go in search of an old Hawkers restaurant that used to operate out of a small carpark each evening. We were able to get a meal and a beer for less than $10 then. We could sit at the temporary tables on little plastic stools, beer in hand and watch the world pass us by. There was a wonderful atmosphere with a nice meal thrown in. We cannot find it today. Perhaps it has been replaced with a new building or we have simply forgotten where it is. So much has changed here that Singapore is almost unrecognisable. Today, we enter a food hall to grab a bite to eat and whilst Tom selects duck cooked in the traditional Chinese way, I choose a prawn laksa, filled with chilli spices, noodles, and lots of recognisable and some unrecognisable things. It doesn't matter because it is delicious.
Today's Big Bus tour has given us a great overview of the city, both the modern retail, financial, and entertainment areas and the historic zones. As we travel through in the open-air upper storey of the bus, I marvel at how Singapore has committed itself to retaining and improving upon its Garden State reputation. The city is green; large tracts of treed avenues, parks and the Botanic Gardens make this one of the greenest cities I have ever visited. The Botanic Gardens are home to hundreds of thousands of plant species, and it is set apart from most other cities in the world for its tropical rainforest located within the city limits. It is also the first tropical garden on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. Singapore committed to plant a million trees by 2030; so far it has planted over half of its commitment.
Singapore has a rich and diverse history. More importantly, though, is its commitment to maintaining its stance on unity of its people, celebrating their cultures, religions, and ethnicities. It is apparent that Singapore also celebrates its history in the way that its traditional, colonial, and modern architectures compliment each other. The people are proud of their country and its achievements within a relatively short period of time and they continue to surge ahead in their ability to create an exceptional country from its humble beginnings.
Title quote: 'One People, One Nation, One Singapore' - Jeremy Ian Monteiro / James Maxwell Aitchison