Singapore: Asia 101 (Pt. 1)

Photo by Eddie Miller

Photo by Eddie Miller

As I’m always saying, it’s good to get away from work with a little traveling. But it can also be rewarding to get to work…when it involves a trip across the globe.

Case in point: My friend Samantha, a writer here in Los Angeles, recently started doing research for a story set in Singapore. It didn’t take her long to realize that the only city-state in Southeast Asia seemed a complicated place, and that some face time would be in order.

So Samantha grabbed her notebook, husband Eddie and an open mind, and flew off to investigate this fascinating cross-section of the Asian world.

From most places in the Western world, Singapore is far.  Los Angeles is no exception.

The couple’s Japan Airlines journey from L.A. to Singapore took almost 24 hours, including a two-hour stopover in Tokyo. They set up camp at the Regent, a mid-rise, atrium-centered business hotel built in the ’70s, re-done in the ’00s and set in the touristy Tanglin district. (Samantha would have loved to splurge on the ultra-swanky, garden-fringed Shangri-La city resort…but then, she also wishes that unicorns were real.) For the next six days, 8 hours a day, they explored the whole city from end to end.

Here’s what they learned about Singapore:

Often called “Asia 101,” Singapore offers a Westernized introduction to the whole gamut of Asian culture. Reflecting its history as a major outpost on the Spice Route, the city boasts a pan-Asian mix of influences — Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and more. However, unlike many other cities in Asia, English is spoken everywhere and you can always find clean food, water and streets. With Hilton, The Gap and Dunkin Donuts vying for space with a gajillion different houses of worship, Samantha painted me a picture of Singapore as a great big riverside Marriott with a Chinese buffet in the lobby and a golden temple out back.

Little India temple; Orchard Road-area shopping

Little India temple; Orchard Road-area shopping

Singapore owes its squeaky-clean image to a strict, paternalistic government. For instance, chewing gum is considered a controlled substance here and requires a prescription. Gum was once enormously popular in Singapore, but when public spaces started ending up spackled in chew, the government declared it illegal. When a threatened Wrigley pushed to declare gum a “dental aid,”  the government called Wrigley’s medical bluff and placed gum behind the pharmacy counter.

Public service campaigns are huge here. The (ironically named) Speak Good English Movement encourages Singaporeans to speak clear, unaccented English without any trace of a dialect. The Wash Your Hands Right campaign features signs in public bathrooms that describe (a staggering) seven steps to cleaner paws.

Clean Your Hands Right

Clean Your Hands Right

As the city’s fortunes rise, the general population dwindles. Small, island Singapore is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, its economy fueled largely by biotech and finance. The government used to fear overpopulation and sought to discourage married couples from having more than one child; by the end of the go-go 1990s, this plan worked a little too well. Today, most young Singaporeans are more focused on building careers than starting families. The “Romancing Singapore” campaign was, um, conceived in the early ’00s to inspire young people to once again pair off and procreate.

Meanwhile, the minority population grows. A couple of times, Samantha and Eddie heard Romancing Singapore sarcastically referred as the “Have More (Chinese) Babies Campaign.” Singapore is open to many cultures and religions (Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and more)  but despite the we’re-all-in-this-together vibe, the Chinese here are society’s top dogs in terms of wealth, education and status. While young Singaporean-Chinese form a growing brain drain to medical careers elsewhere, darker-skinned and less educated folks (e.g., Indians and Indonesians) are increasingly flocking to the city to find work.


Fortunately, there’s work to be found…in tourism-based construction. Like Dubai, Singapore is a mecca of new construction projects; leisure here is a booming business. Big shopping/resort developments like Resorts World at Sentosa Island and Clarke Quay have cropped up amidst metal forests of cranes. Gambling was recently made legal — happily for betting fans Samantha and Eddie — and fancy new high-end casinos are going up all over town.


<All photos here by Eddie Miller>

Continued in
Singapore: Asia 101 (Pt. 2)

See also
TWT Travel Binder: Singapore


  1. One thing I would say about Singapore, is even though there are some subtle stratifications in society between ethnic groups, Singapore’s government and society bends over backwards to make sure that its citizens are “Singaporeans first” and Malay, Chinese, whatever other ethnic background they’ve come from second. Three examples of the things they do to really make this idea second nature are, the English campaign, so they can avoid a linguistic “tower of babble” and have everyone on the same page language-wise. The second is citizenship rules, there is no such thing as “dual citizenship” in Singapore, you’re either in or you’re out, but they’re very welcoming of people from other countries (especially if you’re trained in industries where they’ve been suffering “brain drain” and have need, like medicine.) The third is national service. Two years are required by everyone. On a practical level, it’s in Singapore’s interest to have a ready national defense as they are surrounded by neighbors who may not be hostile, but if they decided they wanted to be definitely would be a major threat to the tiny country. But what national service accomplishes in peace-time is it bonds all races, religions, classes, from early on as they go through the “boot camp” experience.

    And the photo of the poor gent on the bench was actually taken because it was so rare we had to take a photo of the one homeless person we saw our entire trip. In the 1960’s-70’s Singapore razed their slums and shanty-towns and put up those rather sterile housing blocks so all their people could live, with varying degrees of government assistance, but also with the opportunity to buy and own one’s flat, in modern, “first world” housing. And it seems to have been a very successful marriage, a society that is heavily socialist and capitalist all at the same time. A real sociological eye-opener, yet one certainly wonders how feasible this model would be elsewhere or on a larger scale.

  2. Wow…Sammy, I can hardly imagine a big city with almost no visible homeless people. Between my L.A. neighborhood and yours, I’m fairly sure we see at least ten un-homed folks day, at various levels of mental wellness.

    Singapore has me imagining it as a big ol’ Asian kibbutz with high-rises and hawker centres instead of tomato farms…I’m more intrigued by it than ever. I wonder if it’s the only place on Earth where socialism and capitalism are so tightly knit?


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