Singapore Stories and Tips

Why do they call it, "Asia Light"?

Orchard Road with Christmas lights Photo, Singapore City, Singapore

Singapore had the potential to be one of the most interesting cities in Asia to visit, because of its rich heritage. Since independence from Britain in 1964, government policy has always defined the ethnic composition of Singapore in terms of three main groups: Chinese, Malays and Indians, although the multiethnicity of Singapore is actually more complex than that. The ethnic Chinese are actually composed of many different ethnolinguistic groups: Hokkiens and Cantonese are probably the biggest ethnic Chinese groups. Although the first Indians to come to Singapore were mostly Tamils, Singapore has also, since independence, been home to Bengalis, Punjabis and other Indian ethnic groups. Peranakans, of mixed Chinese and Malay descent, were the first large group of mixed ethnicity, and mixed marriages have increased over the last decade. Immigration and the growth of the expat community has also led to the increased population of other ethnic groups, from all over

This rich, multicultural heritage makes Singapore a truly multicultural community. At any time on the bus or train, a visitor will here several different languages being spoken, though the lingua franca remains to be "Singlish," a pidgin English generously interspersed with words from Bahasa Melayu, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil and other languages.

Given this rich heritage, why, then, do most travelers to Singapore find the city-state to be "Asia Light," a "sanitized," "contrived" microcosm of Asia? During my last trip to Singapore, this question was at the back of my mind as I visited places both familiar to me (I had lived in Singapore in the 1980s and come back to visit once before this trip), and unfamiliar to me.

I found the answer to my question when I watched a video at the Chinatown Heritage Centre (see my review in this journal). One of the interviewees lamented how the "spirit" of Chinatown (see my review in this journal) had been destroyed when Chinatown was converted into a pure commercial area, and its residents transferred to the ubiquitous government-built HDB flats which house some 90% or so of Singaporean citizens.

What the interviewee said of Chinatown is true for much of the rest of Singapore as well. The Singapore government has been swift and efficient in its efforts at rapid urbanization, and its attempts to open Singapore to Western culture in order to "keep pace" with the Western world. The small land area of Singapore was a problem that the government prioritized from the very beginning, and the government's land management efforts have been at the heart of Singapore's blueprint for development.

The result has been tremendous success at achieving the goals of the land management programs: providing decent housing for all its citizens and completely eradicating the squalid living conditions still found in most other Asian countries, a good balance of urban modernity and greenery (no street in Singapore has a shortage of green spaces), and a logical distribution of scarce land among the various needs of the community.

There has, however, been one major casualty of this heavy-handed planning: and that has been Singapore's local color. Authentic local color does not emerge self-consciously, with the goal of trying to impress tourists. Rather, it emerges organically, when a community takes a locale, owns it, and transforms it at the grassroots according to its own needs, wants, and culture, with no intention of trying to "sell" itself to travelers. This, however, is not what has happened in most of the ethnic enclaves marked out on Singapore tourist maps.

To go back to Chinatown as an example. Although the government has insisted that Chinatown remain Chinese with all the shops and restaurants in the area remaining "Chinatown-themed," the whisking away of residents from this area has turned the area into nothing more than a China-themed mall, with businesses hoping for nothing more than to sell the Chinese theme to tourists looking for a quick, tacky souvenir to put on their refrigerator. You do not go to Chinatown to see experience the ethnic Chinese way of life, to witness the different tensions and triumphs of an ethnic Chinese subpopulation trying to keep alive the culture it has brought to Singapore from the Chinese mainland, amid the multiracial tensions that are part of Singapore's history.

The result? Even in the predominantly-Chinese Singapore, Chinatown is, for the most part, "Chinatown Light." Chinatowns in other parts of the world feel far more authentic than Singapore's Chinatown. The same is true for Singapore's "Arab Quarter" as well. Little India is probably the only true ethnic quarter remaining in Singapore.

This is not to say that you can't find local color in Singapore. Of course you can! But don't rely on the maps given for free by the Ministry of Tourism to tell you where to find it. This trip, I was on the hunt for just that--to find Singapore's true local color. In the rest of the journal, I describe some of the places where I found it.

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