My unknown Singapore

The first time I ever went to Singapore, I boarded the plane knowing nothing about my destination. I knew nothing much more than the fact that it was an international business hub and that it had been a British colony in the past. Normally, before I travel, I gather information about the country I am visiting. I try to have an overview on its history, culture, religion and most important traditions. And food. I do a lot of research on local food.

But 2014 was hectic year and the trip was a very last minute decision. Because a Singaporean friend had invited me over, I trusted her to show me around and tell me about her country.

The first thing I noticed, inevitably, was the heat and humidity. I landed past midnight and we took a taxi to my friend’s home. She lived with her parents and brothers in a gigantic building with infinite hallways and corridors, through which I followed her until we reached their apartment. I would later learn that these buildings are called HDB Flats (Housing and Development Board), and that around 80% of Singaporeans live in publicly developed housing blocks, grouped in precincts.

Blue HBD Flats in Singapore

The next morning we took the subway to go downtown. On the way to the station, I pointed out at the numerous flags proudly displayed on balconies. “National Day is coming soon”, my friend said. “Next year will be bigger because we will celebrate Singapore’s 50th birthday“. 50th birthday. I had never stepped foot in such a young country.

I noticed every sign was written in English, Chinese (Mandarin), an unknown language to me, which turned out to be Malay, and Tamil. When I asked about it, I was told that these were the 4 official languages in the country. “We all learn English at school, along with a second language, which depends on our ethnicity. Since I am Chinese, I learnt Mandarin”.

Screenshot of SingStat App, by the Singapore Dept. of Statistics

“It depends on our ethnicity”. I am ashamed to say that, since my friend was Chinese, I assumed everyone in Singapore was too. The truth is Singapore has citizens from many ethnicities, the main ones being Chinese (74.3%), Malay (13,4%) and Indians (9%). Since the first census under British rule in 1984, Singapore has used the CMIO Framework to classify its citizens: Chinese – Malay – Indian – Others. This model has been kept since then, and used in public policies such as housing, where the Ethnic Integration Policy mandates racial quotas in public flats and neighbourhoods to reflect the overall population composition. A recent study showed that citizens nowadays still find this model relevant.

Being such a multicultural country, Singapore is also multi-religious. You can walk past a Buddhist temple, and 10 steps further you find a Hindu temple. Most restaurants and food providers are halal certified to cater also for the Muslim population. The Singaporean constitution aims to protect minority rights and non-discrimination for race or religion, and students are taught about the 1964 racial riots (a clash between Malay and Chinese) and instilled with values of social and national harmony, and it is working.

Receiving all this information after only 24h in Singapore made me think about the little knowledge that I had about Asian history in general. And, actually, about any non-European history. It sparkled such a big curiosity in me, that I recently asked my friend to get me a good Singaporean History book. I received Singapore, a Biography (Mark R. Frost, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow). It’s well written and easily readable, and it contains personal stories that help you understand the country better. I can’t wait to go back soon, visit the National Museum and all the landmarks I have now read about.

And, of course, to go back to all the delicious food I had. Multicultural population means multicultural food!


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