A dear reader asked me recently, how she should introduce Singapore to someone from her country. As much as Singapore is known to me, it made me realise that there are still many who may be unsure of what this tiny island, country, city and state all rolled into one, is all about.
There are many things you can find about Singapore online – what our land size is (it’s bigger than it used to be when I was growing up due to land reclamation), our population (which has also grown 50% since I was in Primary school), our government, and our laws.
If I were to liken Singapore to an ingredient, I would say that we are a chilli padi aka bird’s eye chilli. We are tiny, a mere speck on the face of this globe, but we are not easily bullied. In less than a lifetime, Singapore has managed to develop from a small fishing port, into a financial powerhouse. A visitor from the 1950’s, would not recognise 1970’s Singapore. And a 1970’s visitor, would not recognise Singapore from the 1990’s and 2000’s. Gone are the kampongs and dirt paths my father ran along as a young boy. We are surrounded now by modern skyscrapers and high-rise flats. Everything moves at a much faster pace.
Nearly everything in Singapore is new. Cars cannot be more than 10 years old, so our roads are plied by spanking, shiny engines that do not spew our black fumes. Our roads are well maintained so any potholes are fixed swiftly. Fancy glass buildings are constructed as soon as one deemed too ‘old’ and outdated is knocked down. Only heritage buildings are kept for conservation but even then, they are often made over so that they don’t look too shabby against the background of modernity.
One thing that has not changed, is Singaporeans’ love for food. Chicken rice, laksa, mee siam, roti prata, hokkien mee, chilli crab… These are only the tip of the iceberg of the myriad of foods that are part of our local food scene. Most of our dishes are some resemblance to ones in Malaysia, but they’re not exactly the same. Some might say that Malaysian food is one step tastier than ours, but only because they are still happy to cook with copious amounts of salt and lard/oil. Singapore has turned into a country of healthier eaters since our government’s initiative to encourage hawkers to cook with less salt, less oil, and more vegetables. As a result, our tastebuds have adjusted accordingly.
Singapore is really a melting pot of many cultures and races. Most of us have grandparents and grand-grandparents who hailed from China, India and Malaysia. Over the generations, I would say that Singaporeans have come to hone an identity that is no longer tied to our ancestral homelands. We are known to be kiasu – afraid to lose out, kaisee – afraid to die, wherever there’s a queue, we’ll be there regardless of what the queue is for. We also have our own version of English, fondly known as Singlish, which contains smatterings of Mandarin, Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), Malay, and Tamil words. Wherever we are in the world, when we hear the familiar inflections and intonations of the language many of us grew up conversing in, it feels like home.
Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world. Growing up, it was something I took for granted. I could walk home alone in the dead of the night, when all the houses leading up to ours were asleep, and never feel vulnerable or afraid. My friends and I would leave our bags and mobile phones on the tables of McDonald’s to go and order food in between bouts of ‘studying’ before our exams. I still walk around sometimes with my bag unzipped, much to the chagrin of Mum. It is not to say that crime does not exist here, it does, but rarely compared to many other countries.
There are many perks to living in Singapore if you ask me. I love how our streets are flanked with green grass and leafy trees that are pruned regularly. We have well-manicured parks and green belts to ensure that our concrete jungle does not become too suffocating. We have good food available to us everywhere at all hours of the day. Our small size makes it quick to travel from one end to the other end of the island, made easier by our near-seamless public transport.
What I love the most is the intermingling of different cultures. I won’t be so naive to say that Malays, Indians, Chinese and Eurasians are treated entirely equally, but I believe there is general mutual respect and love for each other as individuals and as a group. I daresay that for most of my childhood years, I was colourblind. Friends were friends because they were genuine, generous and funny, not because of how they looked. In my adolescent years, my best friend was Malay, and even today, I have Indian friends whom I love dearly.
To sum up, I would say that Singapore is perhaps largely a country of privilege. We have access of education for all, good healthcare even in the public sector, and lots of financial perks showered upon the majority by our government. It is not flawless, and no country is perfect, Singapore included. However, we are a sheltered bunch – great at complaining, but probably not as resilient in the way our forefathers were. On the surface, we look middle class, with most people being able to afford a comfortable life, but we do have homelessness and poverty, much of which goes unseen.
Still, I have to admit that after years of living abroad, I am proud of the country I am from. This little red dot is still home. And when our world starts to open up again and travelling resumes, I will be more than happy to have friends from other countries (all of you reading included), to come and visit. I’ll gladly share with you places to visit, and food that you die-die-must-try while you’re here!