Malay: Selamat datang ke Singapura!
English: Welcome to Singapore!
Mandarin: 欢迎来到新加坡! (Huānyíng lái dào xīnjiāpō!)
Tamil: சிங்கப்பூர் வரவேற்கிறது! (Ciṅkappūr varavēṟkiṟatu!)
The Strait of Malacca is the busiest strait in the world – over a quarter of everything shipped by sea passes through this narrow strip of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Singapore, situated at the southern end of the strait, is therefore very strategically located when it comes to trade. It is a major port along the shipping routes between the Middle East and the Far East, so it is no surprise that it has long been influenced by foreign powers.
The original inhabitants of Singapore were the Malays; they speak Malay and have cultural and linguistic ties to the people in the surrounding countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. As trade through the region began to grow, many Chinese men moved in to conduct business; they intermarried with the local women, creating a wealthy mixed-race group of people called the Peranakans, who speak their own dialect that is a mixture of Malay and Mandarin. Then came the British; eager for spices, they set up colonies along the Strait of Malacca to be controlled by the East India Company. Along with the British colonizers came many workers from all over, especially from China and India, to help build the growing trade hub.
All of this resulted in the island of Singapore today having a population of predominately (75%) Chinese descent, mixed with smaller numbers of Malay and Indian descent. The country also has four official languages: Malay (the national language), English (the working language), Mandarin, and Tamil (a south Indian language). Each of the different ethnic groups has left its mark on the city in its own way, which can be seen in the various ethnic neighborhoods throughout the city.
The first neighborhood is Chinatown, located near the site of the old port where the Chinese laborers used to haul goods. This neighborhood contains many old shophouses that have been preserved to show how the people originally lived. The shop-owners used to live directly above their shops; often, dozens of people lived in the same room, creating terrible living conditions. Nowadays, though, no one lives in the shophouses, and most have been converted into restaurants, and shops catering to tourists and locals alike. During my visit, preparations for Chinese New Year were in full swing. The streets were decorated with lanterns, lights, and banners to welcome the Year of the Dog. In Chinatown and in other areas around Singapore, people were rushing around buying supplies to decorate their homes, and visiting temples and fortune tellers in order to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year.
On the slopes around the outskirts of Chinatown and other neighborhoods are rows of Peranakan houses. As the upper class in the old Singaporean society, the Peranakans built large houses and decorated them elaborately with materials imported from both China and Europe. The Peranakans, drawing from both their Chinese and Malay heritage, developed a unique culture and dialect of their own, and their houses were the focal point of many of their cultural activities. However, as Singapore has modernized, the Peranakans have lost their status in society, and their culture is beginning to die out, despite efforts to preserve it.
The next neighborhood I visited was Little India. Here, there are restaurants and Hindu temples in both the south and north Indian styles. However, because much of the Indian community in Singapore originates from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the main Indian language in Singapore is Tamil, not Hindi. Many of the buildings in Little India are brightly painted with murals depicting various activities that historically characterized the Indian community in Singapore, such as horse racing and providing laundry services. At the Hindu temple of Sri Veeramakaliamman, many people were passing through to give offerings and pray to the pantheon of Hindu gods before picking up a plate of food offered for free by a local family inside the temple. At the time of my visit, the Hindu festival of Thaipusam had just concluded. This festival, which celebrates the victory of the Hindu gods over evil, involves a large procession through the streets of Little India ending at the temple.
Finally, I visited the Malay neighborhood of Kampong Glam. “Kampong” means “village” in the Malay language, and “Glam” comes from the name of a local tree. As most Malays are Muslim, the beautiful Sultan Mosque forms the center of Kampong Glam, and it is surrounded by numerous restaurants serving halal food of mainly Malay and Lebanese cuisine. The nearby Malay Heritage Centre gives an interesting glimpse of the Malay culture and lifestyle from pre-colonial times all the way to the end of World War II and Singapore’s independence.
The cuisine in Singapore also reflects the country’s diversity. At meal times, I often did as the locals do and headed to one of the many hawker centers to find something good to eat. These covered, but open-air establishments host many stalls where vendors sell a wide variety of Chinese, Malay, and Indian dishes and drinks. The hawker centers are cafeteria-style, with open seating and centralized tray-return stations. Although not the cleanest parts of Singapore, these eateries are very popular among the locals because the prices are low enough and the food tasty enough to make eating out every day a common lifestyle among Singaporeans. Some of the dishes that I enjoyed at the various hawker centers include laksa (Peranakan noodle soup made with coconut curry and prawns), chicken rice (a classic Singapore dish), biryani (Indian spiced rice), and prawn mee (Chinese noodle soup with prawns).
Being a hub for international trade, it was natural that Singapore became home to many different cultures. Based on my interactions with local guides, Singapore’s success as a peaceful, diverse, and prosperous country seems to be a point of pride among Singaporeans. In just half a century, Singapore has had presidents from all of the main ethnic groups. On Racial Harmony Day each year, schoolchildren are encouraged to celebrate their cultures with traditional dress, food, and games.
Overall, I left Singapore with a good impression. With a sampling of some of the cultures I will visit on this trip, I am excited for what is to come! Now that I’m fully recovered from the jetlag, I’ll be heading north along the Malay peninsula and into Malaysia. I’ll keep you posted!