Singapore Island

Singapore, or the Republic of Singapore, is Southeast Asia's smallest state in extension, a city-state. It's an island (plus three bigger and 56 quite small islands at it's coasts; the main island is also called Pulau Ujong in Malay) at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsuala, only 137 kilometers north of the equator. Before it became an independent state it was part of Malaysia, but split up in 1965.

The name 'Singapore' is rooting in the old Indian sanskrit language. 'Singha' means 'lion', 'pura[m]' stands for 'city', so it's the 'lions city'. The name dates back to medieval times, when a Prince from Sumatra came to the island and believed to see a lion there. It's curious, because Southeast Asia is a world region in where no lions live, not in present nor in the past. Lions live in Africa and, partially, in southwest Asia, partially until India. So, the name seems to be based on a legend.

However, Singapore is the name for both, the city and the state.

The Skyline of Singapore

Singapore Esplanade

The Esplanade with the famous skyline of the Singaporean banking center. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Since the place is relatively small for it's population of 5,2 million residents, land reclamation plays an important role for Singapore. Since 1960 Singapore gained some 130 km2 of land from the sea. Land from Singapore Island itself, from the seaground or from neighbouring countries is used to extend the island's size into the sea. According to plannings Singapore will grow until 2030 for another 90 km2.

Hindu Deities

Pediments of a Hindu Temple in Singapore

Figures at the pediments of a Hindu Temple. A lion appeares here. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Little of the original vegetation, the tropical rainforest, is left on highly urbanised Singapore Island, although there is a small National Park (Bukit Timah Nature Reserve) in the northwestern part of the island.

Singapore's population consists by more than three quarters of Chinese, followed by Malays, Indians and others like Indonesians and Westerners. Remarkable is that, besides all the appearance of the usual religions like Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and others, some 15% of the Singaporians don't follow any religion. That's mostly the Chinese. In neighbouring Indonesia not following one of six state accepted religions is already a crime after the constitution and criminal code.

Interesting that some 40% of the residents are foreigners. The workforce alone consists of 44% of foreigners.


History of Singapore

Singapore's first, old medieval name was 'Temasek'. In the early middle ages Temasek was already a quite important and wealthy trade port, belonging to the Srivijaya empire of Sumatra. After a time it lost it's importance. There are almost no traces left of the old city of Temasek.

Colonial Housefront

Old Colonial Shops in Singapore

Typical housefront with old, colonial shops and flats above. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Modern Singapore was founded by Stamford Raffles in 1819. There is a Raffles statue at the spot which was Raffle's supposed landing point. In 1819 the island was home for twenty Malay families, fishermen, and a refuge for pirates. Raffle's founding began with the opening of a small trading post for the British East India Company in agreement with the sultan of Johor. Five years later the company bought the whole island from the sultan.

In 1867 Singapore became, together with the other Straits Settlements Penang, Malacca and Dinding (well known for Pangkor Island) a British crown colony.

The opening of the Suez Canal two years later boosted Singapore's trade enormously, together with the trade of the other Straits Settlements.

Singapore in the 1850s

In 1854 Alfred Russel Wallace arrived in Singapore. He used it as kind of a base for his eight years long journeys through the whole Malay Archipelago. Later he wrote in an account on Singapore:

Few places are more interesting to a traveller from Europe than the town and island of Singapore, furnishing, as it does, examples of a variety of Eastern races, and of many different religions and modes of life. The government, the garrison, and the chief merchants are English; but the great mass of the population is Chinese, including some of the wealthiest merchants, the agriculturists of the interior, and most of the mechanics and labourers.

The native Malays are usually fishermen and boatmen, and they form the main body of the police. The Portuguese of Malacca supply a large number of the clerks and smaller merchants. The Klings of Western India are a numerous body of Mahometans, and, with many Arabs, are petty merchants and shopkeepers. The grooms and washermen are all Bengalees, and there is a small but highly respectable class of Parsee merchants.

Singapore in the 1850s

Singapore in the 1850s.

Besides these, there are numbers of Javanese sailors and domestic servants, as well as traders from Celebes, Bali, and many other islands of the Archipelago. The harbour is crowded with men-of-war and trading vessels of many European nations, and hundreds of Malay praus and Chinese junks, from vessels of several hundred tons burthen down to little fishing boats and passenger sampans; and the town comprises handsome public buildings and churches, Mahometan mosques, Hindoo temples, Chinese joss-houses, good European houses, massive warehouses, queer old Kling and China bazaars, and long suburbs of Chinese and Malay cottages.

By far the most conspicuous of the various kinds of people in Singapore, and those which most attract the stranger's attention, are the Chinese, whose numbers and incessant activity give the place very much the appearance of a town in China. The Chinese merchant is generally a fat round-faced man with an important and businesslike look. He wears the same style of clothing (loose white smock, and blue or black trousers) as the meanest coolie, but of finer materials, and is always clean and neat; and his long tail tipped with red silk hangs down to his heels. He has a handsome warehouse or shop in town and a good house in the country. He keeps a fine horse and gig, and every evening may be seen taking a drive bareheaded to enjoy the cool breeze. He is rich, he owns several retail shops and trading schooners, he lends money at high interest and on good security, he makes hard bargains and gets fatter and richer every year.

In the Chinese bazaar are hundreds of small shops in which a miscellaneous collection of hardware and dry goods are to be found, and where many things are sold wonderfully cheap. You may buy gimlets at a penny each, white cotton thread at four balls for a halfpenny and penknives, corkscrews, gunpowder, writing-paper, and many other articles as cheap or cheaper than you can purchase them in England. The shopkeeper is very good-natured; he will show you everything he has, and does not seem to mind if you buy nothing. He bates a little, but not so much as the Klings, who almost always ask twice what they are willing to take. If you buy a few things of him, he will speak to you afterwards every time you pass his shop, asking you to walk in and sit down, or take a cup of tea, and you wonder how he can get a living where so many sell the same trifling articles. The tailors sit at a table, not on one; and both they and the shoe-makers work well and cheaply. The barbers have plenty to do, shaving heads and cleaning ears; for which latter operation they have a great array of little tweezers, picks, and brushes. In the outskirts of the town are scores of carpenters and blacksmiths. The former seem chiefly to make coffins and highly painted and decorated clothes-boxes. The latter are mostly gun-makers, and bore the barrels of guns by hand, out of solid bars of iron. At this tedious operation they may be seen every day, and they manage to finish off a gun with a flint lock very handsomely.

Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Vol. I, 1869

In February 1942 Singapore surrendered to the Japanese army after the Battle of Malaya. Winston Churchill called it "the worst disaster (...) in British history". Singapore then suffered the harsh regime of the Japanese occupants, well known for committing many atrocities among all the people in occupied countries. There was also a prisoner of war (POW) camp at Changi, the east part of the island, where nowadays the international airport is. James Clavell wrote the novel 'King Rat' about this camp, in which he himself was confined as a young man. The British took Singapore over again after the end of World War II in September 1945.

In the 1950s the political situation wasn't stable. There were several riots in these years. Singapore gained partial self government over internal affairs from the British. Opposition against the government came from a strong Chinese Communist movement, even resulting into a Communist Insurgency War. In Eric Ambler's brilliant novel 'A Passage of Arms' an ambush for such Chinese Communists triggers the story.

In August 1963 Singapore declared full independence from Britain and joined the Federation of Malaysia, but left it again two years later. There were too many conflicts and disagreements between Singapore and Malaysia to keep joined together. Malaysia for example insisted on the notorious Bumiputera rights to favour Malays over all the other ethnics, as it happens in Malaysia still today. Even race riots broke out in Singapore in 1964.



Singapore is a parliamentarian republic. Head of state is the president who is elected every six years from the people directly. Voting is mandatory for the Singaporean citizens. Between 1993 and 2011 there were no elections in Singapore, because no other candidate than President Ong Teng Cheong was accepted by the election commission. The 2011 election was won by Tony Tan.

There is practically only one dominant political party in Singapore, that's the People's Action Party (PAP). Critics describe Singapore as a one-party state, because the PAP uses rigid methods to fight opposition. The PAP never lost an election since the city-states independence.

Singapore is widely considered being an authoritarian state. There are many strict reglementations on the freedom of the people in public and private live. The surveillance level is high. When more than three people talk about politics or religious affairs in public, they must apply for a police licence to do so. Cameras are stationed at many places, surveilling public live extensively. Everywhere are signs teaching the people how to behave and how not to.

No Entrance - Shooting

Protected Place - shooting included. Making the photo shot was accompanied by a uniformed guard who immediately told me not to make a photo. I saw several signs of this kind. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Singapore's draconic punishments are notiriously. For even smaller offences the law threatens with fustigation (caning). Caning is a brutal, standardized procedere done by specially trained officials. It's applied on the naked buttocks with a 120 centimeter long, elastic cane, 13 milimeters in diameter. The speed of the cane reaches 160 km/h; at the moment of the hit the official is pulling the cane to rip off the skin. That's meaned to injure and leave scars for the rest of the life. This pretty sadistic punishment is applied to tourists and other foreigners as well in case they come in conflict with the local laws.

I think there is no country in Southeast Asia which does not have the death penalty. According to amnesty international Singapore probably has the highest execution rate in the world relative to it's population. In relation to the population it's more than 30 times as many executions than in the USA. On the immigration formular is always a warning given in red letters: Death Penalty for Drug Trafficking! The last death penalty in Singapore was executed in 2010.

The media like newspapers, TV and radio are strictly state controlled; beside state-owned media are half-state-owned media allowed. There is a strict state censorship on them. Also foreign reporters are not allowed to report critically on Singaporean politics. Malaysian newspapers are generally forbidden. On the 'press freedom index' Singapore ranks low.


Foreign Affairs

For being such a small country ("a red spot on the map", as former Indonesian president Habibie once boasted), Singapore has a vital interest in stability in the region. It was one of the five founding members of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). It's also still a member of the British Commonwealth.

Nevertheless there is a history of tensions between the city-state and it's both bigger neighbours since independence.

Singapore depends on freshwater supplies from Malaysia. It's getting freshwater and has to treat it to gain drinking water. Part of the imported water is sold back to Malaysia. There are conflicts about the price. Good water is a rare source.

There are also conflicts about the seaborders, about bridge building and land reclamation with Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore has been banned from sand supplies by both countries due to that.

Singapore has strong relationships both to China and to the USA. The European Union is it's biggest trading partner, followed by China and the USA.

The greatest fear after independence was a military invasion from Malaysia. As a tiny country the Singaporeans made an arrangement with Israel, another tiny country surrounded by big, Islamic enemies. Israelian specialists built up the Singaporean forces from the scratch. Both countries share similar strategies in defence now. Remarkable is therefore, that Israel is not recognised by Islamic Malaysia and neither by Indonesia.


Singapore's Economy

The PAP implemented some Socialistic means in the Singaporean economy. State owned companies dominate the local economy; there is a big public programm running for creating housing for the people.

Though, on the other hand the Singaporean economy is one of the most deregulated and privatized of the world.

The small country is ambitious in developing a strong biotechnological industry. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are attracted to come to Singapore by the state agency for science, technology and research.

Singaporean Cash

Two Singapore Dollar

Two Singapore Dollars. Funny thing: photoshop refused to process the image and gave me a message that it would protect Singaporean currency from being faked. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Well known is the city as an important international financial center and for it's international harbour. The port of Singapore is one of the most modern and among the biggest in the world. That's due to it's strategical position, being a keypoint between China/Japan on one side and Europe/middle east on the other. Rumours are around since long that high Thai officials are constantly bribed for not carrying out the plan to build a shipping canal at the Isthmus of Kra, what would be an important shortcut for all the ship traffic between east and west.

Singapore is the only Asian country which enjoys the best ratings of Standard & Poor, Moody's and Fitch (AAA). There are more than 7,000 international corporations acting in the city-state.

Gambling contributes as well to the national economy. The island hosts the world's second biggest casino gambling market. Chinese love gambling. I saw many Chinese being completely possessed by gambling. It's, by the way, a variation of business.

By the way: Singapore has also the highest percentage of millionaires in the world. A sixth of the households owns more than a million US dollars in disposable wealth, excluded property, businesses and luxury goods. Included this the percentage of millionaires would even be higher, particularly because real estate property here is among the most expensive in the world. On the other side the state refuses a minimum wage for workers. Clearly to see here that the richness of some is based on the exploitation of the labour of others, like everywhere.

There is almost no agricultural sector in Singapore. Singapore is highly industrialised and depends much on exports and refining imported goods.

Tourism plays also an important role. 2011 Singapore had around 12 million touristic visitors from all over the world, mainly from other Asian countries.

Interesting to see that Singapore, in sharp contrast to all other Southeast Asian states, is rated as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. What does not mean, that there is no corruption. It's all relative.


Travelling Singapore

On the contrary to other Southeast Asian countries Singapore is a place with high living costs and one of the most expensive cities in the world. So, it's no bargain to go there for a journey. Food and accommodation prices are considerably higher than in neighbouring Malaysia or Indonesia.

The Raffles Hotel

Raffles Hotel Singapore

The Raffles Hotel is one of the hotels with a high reputation in Singapore. Among the guests were Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Conrad, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Queen Elisabeth II and Winston Churchill. Entrance exclusively for guests only. The 1897 opened hotel houses a tropical patio, a museum and a Victorian-style theatre. It's said that here, in the hotel's garden, the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot in 1902. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Though, tourism plays an important role for the city-state. Annually more than 10 million tourists arrive here, and they spend in average 3 to 4 days in Singapore.

Arriving in Singapore and having a first look around gave me the impression of a soulless, buisy place. People do not look happy and business is everything (the sickness of our time). The skyline of the skyscrapers made me feeling like in Frankfurt am Main - another banking place and, in my humble opinion, the worst city in Germany.

But, digging deeper, Singapore is worth to spend a few days in. There is a number of interesting places to explore.

The civic district at the mouth of the Singapore River and Marina Bay is the oldest part of the city. Here is the place where Raffles was supposed to set first his foot on Singaporean land. In this area the first settlement was built, and in the following years a number of buildings who formed landmarks, where erected, among them the British government buildings.

The planning here followed the 'Jackson Plan', which was organized by Stamford Raffles in 1822 to give the new trade post a basic structure. Phillip Jackson, the colonies engineer, carried the plan out. The structure of the civic district is still the same today. Therefore it's a good starter for a visitor to have a walk around here. There is a well round tour designed by the tourist authorities. One of the buildings here is the Asian Civilizations Museum, the former 'Empress Place Building', finished in 1867.

The Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore

Empress Place Building, Singapore

The Asian Civilisations Museum, former 'Empress Place Building' at the mouth of the Singapore River. Classical, solid, imperial architecture. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

Raffles planning also included different districts for different ethnics. There is an old European quarter in the city, a little India, a Chinatown and a Malayan part of the city (Kampong Glam with Kampong Gelam Palace). They all are worth a visit. It looks to me that in none of the other parts of the former Straits Settlements the buildings are in such a good shape as they are here.

But there is much more to see. Besides historical sights there are a lot of modern places to visit. The Esplanade, The National Museum and many more places of arts and culture. Unfortunately everything is, as everywhere nowadays, totally commercialized and loses it's soul due to that. Visiting Singapore requires a certain preparation in advance.


Daytrip to Singapore

Singapore Causeway

Johor-Singapore Causeway

The Johor-Singapore Causeway, blocked by traffic. Image by Asienreisender, 2012

To avoid the high costs for accommodation it's possible to stay in Johor Bahru and having daytrips to Singapore. Johor Bahru is the southernmost city of Malaysia and on the Asian mainland in general. Separated from Singapore through the Straits of Johor, it's a dirty, ugly place, with too many of these rude Malays and Indians. It's not cheap, either, but defenitely cheaper than Singapore. What I heared is that the hotels around Larkin bus station, not too far from Johor Bahru center, are less expensive than in the city. Anyway, the disadvantage of this solution is the long delay at the border. One has to cross the 'Johor-Singapore Causeway', built in the early 1920s, which connects Johor Bahru with Woodlands (Singapore Island). It's a long procedure to first passing the Malaysian border check, then find the right (express) bus and waiting patiently for it's delayed arriving, passing the bridge (disastrous traffic jams, more stop than go), passing the Singaporean border check (Woodlands CIQ checkpoint, overcrowded, slow, long lines), then waiting for the express bus again. Took me three hours for the few kilometers. Masses of Malaysian workers and students do the trip almost every day. The way back in the evening costs another two and a half hours. A big waste of time for being controlled and delayed by the completely inefficient transport system. Besides, it's not easy to find the way in the huge terminal in Johor Bahru (Sultan Iskandar Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex). No proper signs, one has to ask people to find out where exactly to go. Two uniformed guards sent me, as a pedestrian, out to the highway.

Asienreisender Up to the top!

Published on December 17th, 2012

Last update on May 8th, 2015