Vietnamese who grew up in the 1980s like myself were taught in school textbooks that Vietnam has “golden forests and silver seas”. In other words, we were blessed with an abundance of natural resources. We were told that we should be proud of our green paddy fields, our plentiful fish in the ocean and the trees in our many forests.

Yet, natural resources are only a part of what makes a country wealthy and successful. And in a place like Singapore — an entire nation in an area barely larger than Phu Quoc Island — resources certainly aren’t easy to come by. With a population in excess of 5 million, even water supply is a struggle. So what does the tiny country of Singapore do to make up for the lack?


“[Singaporeans] are generally very hard-working and very determined,” says Vietnamese resident Mai Chu. Mai moved to the Lion City after graduation, and has lived and worked there for the past four years.


After all, it was only in 1965 that Singapore finally gained independence from the Federal States of Malaysia and prior to that it was ruled for almost 140 years by the British. At independence, Singapore had a population of only two million made up of myriad ethnicities, and struggled with issues like low education, bad sanitation and high unemployment. Yet today Singapore is the world’s sixth wealthiest country and a model for urban planning around the globe. Considering what the country has done in less than five decades, Mai’s assertion is an understatement.
Under Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, the country’s first Prime Minister, Singapore established heavy control over social development in the form of strict rules and tight regulations for its citizens, including the policy of English as the lingua franca and the extension of trade and industry in an effort to industrialise the developing country. Yet if it wasn’t for a focus on planning and its tiny size through its status as an island, much of this wouldn’t have been possible.




Cultural Kaleidoscope


Aside from its impressive economic development and its lack of natural resources, Singapore has a unique charm thanks to its cultural diversity, distinctive architecture and food, and its determination to become a city filled with greenery.


Singapore’s long history as a major port of call for British trading ships plying the routes between Europe and East Asia lends to its development as a prospering commerce hub that attracted thousands of migrants from Europe, China, India and Asia. Nowadays, its population is comprised of a majority of Chinese citizens with smaller portions of Muslim Malay, Indian and a handful of other ethnicities coexisting in one place. Consequently, Singapore is a mecca for multi-culturalism.


Take Singapore’s Chinatown, for example. Here, you can find an array of Chinese clan associations, the Sri Mariamman Temple — Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple — a mosque, an elaborate Indian temple, and even the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. All coexist harmoniously. In Singapore, it’s not surprising to see an ethically Chinese woman receiving blessings in a Hindu temple or a woman in her sari praying in front of a statue of Buddha.





Here in the Chinatown District, taking in the Hokkien-style architecture and two-storey houses flanked by long terraces of shop houses on Pagoda Street, Smith Street or Mosque Street before the shops open is the perfect morning setting for early rising tourists. When the shops do open, don’t expect only to find them selling Chinese products or foods, but all kinds of international culinary specialties or products, from Mexican food to stylish Japanese bicycles.


Only a short distance from Chinatown, the Baba House at 157 Neil Road, originally belonging to a rich local family circa the early 20th century, is an exquisitely restored structure of Peranakan heritage, or a mix of Chinese and Malay roots. It is a shining example of the historical integration of peoples in this country. East Coast Road is also home to shops and restaurants owned by later generations of Peranakan.


With a call to book in advance, Raymond Wong, owner of the Rumah Kim Choo boutique gallery at 111 East Coast Road, will gladly give you a tour around his collection of Peranakan antiques, which boast beautifully beaded slippers, wedding costumes and traditional ceramics and furniture. Of course, an introduction to Paranakan food isn’t far behind, thanks to the restaurant located just next door.


After venturing out of Chinatown, the Muslim Quarter and Little India offer an alternative cultural experience. The Kampong Glam houses that form the centre of what was once the seat of Malay Royalty, offer up plenty of shops, cafés, and sheesha bars, mostly along Haji Lane. Just around the corner is Jamal Kazura Aromatics at 27 Arab Street, an alcohol-free perfume shop that is packed with both customers and shelves of shiny, colourful glass perfume bottles. Muslim culture forbids the consumption and use of alcohol — here it is followed to the letter.




British Legacy


To many, though, the heart of Singapore lies in the colonial district and the quays. The area offers different scenery from the rest of the country, with the influence of former British rule still visible in the architecture of pristine colonial buildings lining the area’s streets. A range of museums, galleries, massive shopping centres, sprawling parks and three riverside entertainment strips contribute to the energetic vibe of this living city. Here, you can take in the diverse and eclectic Singapore art scene at Waterloo Street, Singapore Arts Museum, CHIJIMES or St. Andrew’s Cathedral. They all lie within walking distance of each other.


Dotting the city’s skyline are cranes, fancy hotels, lounges and bars, all along Boat Quay, Clark Quay and Robertson Quay — an area that is Singapore’s answer to a hyper-developed world. Aside from the contemporary ‘durian’ — otherwise known as the Esplanade Theatre on The Bay — another impressive feature of the downtown area is Marina Bay Sands in the southeast region of the island. It houses the world’s largest infinity pool, over 2,500 rooms and a number of bars and restaurants inside the giant three-towered complex, and has become one of Singapore’s newest icons flaunting the wealth, prosperity and modern lifestyle of the city.


A Changing Nation


Quick development also means that Singapore needs expert urban planning to balance nature, concrete and glass. Still, the Island State has balanced its contrasting elements well, since about 50 percent of its landmass is covered with foliage. Plus, with the Singapore urban plan reviewed every five years, new changes are in store, with more public spaces and green areas in the pipeline. By 2030, improvements to Singapore’s already impressive public transport system will come in the form of eight in 10 homes lying less than a 10-minute walk of a train station. Plans are also presently underway to create some 700km of cycling tracks.


Many say that Singapore is a good place to start exploring Asia, but that seems only to be a half-truth. The country is a demonstration of what can be achieved by constant planning and a belief in cultural integration. Together with its small size, which makes it far easier to control the country’s development, all have made the miracle that is Singapore not just a possibility, but a reality. For many Asian visitors, including myself, Singapore is a good place to start seeing the world.


The Tiger in the Air


Singapore Airlines and Vietnam Airlines offer regular flights between Vietnam and Singapore. A good, cheap and reliable alternative is the no frills Tiger Airways ( Book in advance and you can travel to the Lion City for as little as US$150 (VND3.15 million) return.

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