Travel Guide

Singapore: One Island, Many Cultures

While experiencing and delving into a truly multicultural society is one of best reasons to travel in Singapore, race and religion have long been, and continue to be, sensitive issues in this nation. Travelling in a cosmopolitan country, with great cultural and ethnic diversity, calls for tourists to be sensitive and delicate in dealing with any issue regarding race or religion, just as locals do (most of the time). While many travellers will be familiar with dealing with cultural differences, Singaporean society may present others with intense culture shock. Hence, examining the state of multiculturalism in Singapore is a meaningful exercise in understanding the country.

The pivotal, prime location of Singapore on the crossroads of the region's trade routes would impart the cosmopolitan aspect of the island's society for centuries to come. It is noted that even in the 14th century, before modern Singapore was founded, the island held a port which was home to many cultures from around the region, known as Temasek. Vessels from the great Asian kingdoms anchored in the harbour of this trading post, hailing from lands in India, China, and Southeast Asia, bringing peoples from these origins. At this point, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Orang Laut (indigenous “Sea People”), as well as Javanese and Siamese, lived along the Singapore River.

When colonial Singapore was founded, the burgeoning free port that was created drew immigrants in significant numbers from around the world. Singapore’s early immigrants came mainly from the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago, China, the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka, with a minority of administrators from Europe and Arabian traders. It is interesting to note that in early Singapore, each ethnic group had their specialisations in terms of occupation and community, and were organised in ethnic neighbourhoods in Raffles' Town Plan, which remain standing today.


The indigenous peoples of Singapore were made up of mostly Malays from the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago, including the Bugis. They were largely involved in agriculture or worked as camp followers and settled around the Sultan's Palace in Kampong Glam. This was divided into three sections, one for the Arabs, the other one for Bugis and the last one for the Sultan.

The Chinese form the largest demographic group in modern Singapore. The first Chinese immigrants came from Riau and Melaka, many belonging to the distinct Straits-born Chinese community. Junks from China soon docked in Singapore, bringing Chinese from various dialect groups, including the Hokkiens (Fujian province), Cantonese and Hakkas (Guangdong), Teochews (Shantou), Kwongsais (Guangxi), Hokchius (Fuzhou), Hainanese (Hainan Island). They were mostly farmers, labourers or craftsmen, settling in the Chinese Kampong within present-day Chinatown.

Indians form a signifcant minority in Singapore. The first Indians came from Penang and Malacca. Others migrated from the Coromandel and Malabar coasts of Southern India (mainly from today’s states of Madras and Kerala), and from Gujarat, Punjab, Sind, Bengal and Sri Lanka. These early Indian immigrants were mostly soldiers, camp followers and labourers. Others worked as clerks, merchants, teachers, traders and money-lenders. They initially settled in Chulia Kampong along the upper part of the Singapore River but eventually moved to present-day Little India.

Apart from the British colonial administrators, most Europeans came as professionals and traders. Most brought their families with them and while many returned home eventually, others settled down and became citizens. Europeans descendants (mainly the Portuguese) who had married Asians created Eurasian families. They lived together with rich Asian businessmen in the European Town, where the Raffles Hotel was built.

The concept of racial segregation was eventually abandoned; modern housing estates are ethnically integrated to promote racial harmony. However, the atmosphere along the streets of these culturally distinct ethnic districts can still be seen in the present day. The old streets of Chinatown remain, the Muslim characteristics of Kampong Glam are still prominent, and Little India retains its distinct ambience. There are marks of colonial British and European influence in Neo-Classical buildings around the city. These sites provide a window of insight into the rich cultural heritage behind each ethnic group, especially in terms of architecture and festivals.

The need for racial and religious harmony was made strikingly apparent in the days leading to Singapore's independence. At that point, Singapore had merged with Malaysia, and racial tensions increased as Singaporean Chinese felt discriminated against by the federal policies of affirmative action, which granted special privileges to Malay citizens. Meanwhile, Malays in Singapore were being increasingly incited by the federal government's accusations that Singapore's ruling People's Action Party was mistreating the Malays, as well as seditious Indonesian activities. Numerous racial riots resulted, including the notorious series of 1964 Race Riots that first took place on Prophet Muhammad's birthday on 21 July, resulting in 36 deaths and 556 injuries. The resulting unrest caused the price of food to skyrocket and disrupted the transportation system, causing further hardship for the people; curfews were frequently imposed to restore order.

One of the 1964 Racial Riots
One of the 1964 Racial Riots

Modern Singapore is vastly different, with a much stronger sense of social cohesian and a cosmopolitan society where people live harmoniously and positive interaction among different races is common. At the time of independence, the new state of Singapore was declared first and foremost a multiracial nation. Multiracialism and racial harmony are part of official policy, and issues of race and religion are rarely openly discussed, unless moderated. Respect for different religions and personal beliefs is also heavily emphasised by the government. Most Singaporeans do think of themselves as Singaporeans, regardless of race or culture, and there is a prominent national identity that is distinct from any ethnic or cultural lines, which continues to grow.

Today, races in Singapore are not just restricted to that of Chinese, Malay Indian and Others. As mixed-blood children are becoming more common due to increasing numbers of inter-marriages, having a mixed race reflected on the identification card is becoming more widespread among children of dual ethnicities.


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