Asia’s English-Speaking Surprise
“The tiny city-state of Singapore, an ultra-modern country of skyscrapers, well-maintained parks and greenbelts, clean air, and prosperity, is a surprise in this part of the world,” writes Asia Correspondent Wendy Justice. “Ancient restored Chinese-style shop houses and 19th -century colonial buildings lie in the shadows of towering high-rise condominiums, financial companies, banks, and global corporations, making for a unique blend of past, present, and future.
“Located just one degree north of the equator, Singapore is an island immediately south of the Malay Peninsula. It is a short, five-minute drive across the Singapore Strait from the southernmost Malaysian state of Johore. Due to its tropical location, the weather is consistently warm and humid, with high temperatures rarely exceeding the low-90s and lows rarely dipping below the mid-70s. Because it’s an island, refreshing sea breezes offer relief from the heat, a rare advantage on the Southeast Asian subcontinent. Located outside the earthquake-prone areas of neighboring Indonesia, Singapore is largely protected from natural disasters. The monsoons lie farther north, though intense tropical rainstorms can happen at any time.
“It wasn’t so long ago that Singapore was little more than a malaria-infested jungle port populated mainly by Malay fishermen and traders from the Middle East, India, China, and points beyond who took advantage of its favorable location at the confluence of several major routes of the spice trade. The British realized the potential of Singapore and, in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles established an outpost, turning the island into one of Britain’s most profitable commercial and military centers.
“The island succumbed to the Japanese during World War II in 1942, and, in 1945, following Japan’s surrender, it reverted to British rule, remaining a British colony until 1963, when it became an independent republic. Today, many stately British buildings remain in use, tucked away among the skyscrapers, serving as government buildings, banks, theaters, and museums.
“In addition to these buildings, Britain left another legacy–her language. Although the dialect is uniquely Singaporean, English remains the de facto language of Singapore. In addition, Singapore gives ‘official’ status to the Chinese, Malay, and Tamil languages. As a result, though a cornucopia of languages are heard throughout the country, Westerners can feel secure that English will be spoken and understood by almost any Singaporean you’d meet.
“Singaporeans are proud of their history, and historical markers throughout the city detail changes that have occurred over the years. Along the Singapore River, for example, bronze statues display scenes from the days when the country was a rough-and-tumble port city, with a ghetto sprawled out along the riverbanks and traders and con men hustling in the mayhem. Today, Singapore enjoys one of the busiest ports in the world, and the Singapore River is clean enough to take a swim, just one benefit of Singapore’s efforts to rise to the challenge of becoming a modern, developed country.
“Fines for littering have made Singapore one of the cleanest countries in the world. Some visitors complain that it is so clean now that it seems vaguely sterile. The heavy-handed government that characterized the early republic of Singapore has relaxed, though, and today Singapore is a safe and comfortable place to live. Crime is almost non-existent.
“Many Southeast Asian cities have grown into big metropolitan areas with little attention to city planning. Singapore again distinguishes itself from its neighbors in this respect. From the tiny parks and playgrounds on the grounds of almost all high-rise condominium complexes to the large city parks, botanical gardens, and nature preserves, it’s easy to find peace and tranquility in this densely populated but well-planned country.
“With 23% of the land consisting of nature and forest preserves, Singapore has one of the highest percentages of multi-use land of any country in the world. Parks such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, East Coast Park, Fort Canning, and the beautiful Chinese Gardens are all just a few minutes away from the busy city center.
“Another monument to its city planning is Singapore’s transportation system. The public transportation here is among the best in the world. Modern and clean light-rail trains cover many parts of the country, making the journey from one end of the island to the other in less than an hour. Buses, which are modern, clean, and frequent, service almost all areas not easily accessed by the train, with comfortable seats and elaborate GPS systems that let riders view where they are on the bus route at any given moment.
“Taxis are also available…and metered, another exception to the norms in Southeast Asia. The use of private vehicles is discouraged. If you do drive, you’re assessed high license and gasoline taxes, in addition to road-use tolls that are automatically charged through electronic devices mounted on dashboards on all Singaporean vehicles. The result of this system is good air quality, rare traffic jams, and well-maintained streets, with wide city boulevards and controlled-access freeways.”
P.S. Wendy has much more to share about the good life in this unique Southeast Asian haven. More on Asia’s English-speaking surprise haven soon…