We've come 9,400 miles and traveled to 1º17' north of the equator to Singapore. If you look at a map and draw a line from Europe through the Suez Canal to Asia, the Straits of Malacca and this tiny island will be on your route. Until the 1800's it was a sleepy fishing town named after a lion a Malayan rajah imagined that he saw here.
The lion has been a symbol of this place that has never had any lions ever since.
The British, Stamford Raffles in particular, put Singapore on the map in the early 1800's.
He sought to make this tiny speck of an island at the bottom of the Malay peninsula, a major trading port where the local Malay, Indian merchants, Chinese coolies, and the British bosses could live together in peace and prosperity. After his death the place fell apart for a while when opium addiction ran through the population, but in the 1940's, Lee Kwan Yew had a similar vision.
Yew was a British educated, locally born Chinese, who worked to make a federation of Malay ports a viable country. However, the Malay resented the hard working Chinese who dominated Singapore and they kicked the island out of the federation. All alone with no natural resources, this tiny spot 0f 246 square miles tried to go it alone. Under Yew's wise, but dictatorial rule, disparate ethnic groups, religions, and cultures were all brought together always working with an eye toward the greater good. Singapore is famous for being a place where personal freedom takes second place to economic prosperity. When we first came here in 1979, airport officials were cutting the hair of arrivals who sported the length fashionable at that time. It was illegal to chew gum - you might spit it on the ground. Signs were posted everywhere warning you to flush the toilet, not spit on the street, stay in your lane, etc. etc. A young US citizen was caned here not all that long ago when he when into a drunken frenzy and damaged property. Sinful products like booze and cigarettes were taxed sky high. But because of Yew's firm hand, it was safe to eat street food, all religions were respected and flourished, everyone received a great education, and the rest of the world felt safe to invest here.
Today Singapore is the largest container port.
Over 600 banks are based here and the locals have one of the highest standards of living in the world. Land reclamation has given Singapore a bit more space and they are building two convention resorts that are destined to rival any in Las Vegas. Old buildings have been knocked down and there are plenty of high rises to be seen,
but an effort has also been made to retain the local flavor. China Town still looks like China Town, but the buildings are air conditioned, well constructed, and beautifully maintained. People seem quite willing to give up some personal freedom for a comfortable life style.
The tour today started with a bum boat ride on the Singapore River, hardly a river, but a spot where fresh rain water flows into a narrow sea channel. The ride was spectacular. The river banks were lined with trees and flowers, modern high rises, well preserved European style buildings, and low rise restaurants and night clubs.
The variety of food choices in these restaurants was enticing. It looked like you could eat here every day for a year and not eat the same ethnicity twice. We have been to Singapore twice and taken a bum boat before, but we only recognized two of the buildings. My how the place has grown.
We walked through the prosperous banking area which felt a bit like Wall Street, to a outdoor restaurant where we ate Ya Kun Kaya toast, a local delicacy of coconut and butter spread on bread. The proprietor had signs on the wall illustrating how his father had begun the business, sleeping on the restaurant counter so he would be available whenever any customer stopped by. The Chinese certainly know how to work hard!
This feeling was reinforced when we went to a museum in China Town,
which chronicled the life of poor Chinese workers here as late as the 1950's. They lived in cramped, airless quarters in this hot, humid place, eight to ten to a room, sharing one toilet and shower on a floor where sixty people lived. We were impressed by the museum and the effort made here to remember the past and honor those who sacrificed so much for their descendants.
The final stop was the Sri Mariamman Temple,
one of the most gaudy Indian temples we have ever seen. Local worshippers had gathered for a final blowout, before closing the place down for the day.
Drums were beat, horns were blown, incense wafted, and everyone chanted. Unlike previous temple visits, they kept us behind an invisible line that prevented us from being too intrusive on their worship.
Then we were turned loose to shop and as always, felt much more temptation that our suitcase weight will allow. A familiar mantra.