If you haven't had a chance to delve into Singaporean culture and history beyond the surface, these are ten things you probably didn't know about our sunny island!
1. Kampong Buangkok - Singapore's last village
The modern urban jungle that is Singapore today is indeed a far cry from its origins. We're not even talking about 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles landed on the swampy coast in. In fact, when Singapore achieved independence in 1965, a significant proportion of the island's population still lived in villages, known as kampongs. These villages were known for a culture of kinship and friendliness, where neighbours shared and interacted with one another beyond mere greetings. The government has tried to emulate this in today's public housing estates. However, with closed doors and locked gates, to say that Singapore has lost most of its kampong spirit is not a hyperbole.
Kampong Buangkok is the mainland's last surviving kampong, found in the north-eastern part of the island. The lush gardens of chilli and lime plants, colourful wooden and cement houses with corrugated metal roofs, and narrow dirt paths stand in stark contrast to the public housing apartments that surround the village. Despite its significance as the final slice of Singapore's kampong heritage, the government has planned to do away with the village in view of development. Take this chance to go back to simpler times, before it fades away for good.
2. Singapore's other founders
With his name inscribed on institutions throughout the island, Sir Stamford Raffles is everywhere. From Raffles Place and Raffles City to Raffles Hotel and Raffles Institution, the mere mention of this man is associated with prestige, grandeur and fame; and understandably so. Signing the treaty that secured the British presence in Singapore, establishing the colony as a free port, and governing town-planning in this thriving settlement are just some of Raffles' endeavours that kicked off Singapore's modern history. While his role in establishing modern Singapore is indeed nothing short of definitive, the efforts of two other figures have been eclipsed in light of Raffles' contributions – William Farquhar and John Crawfurd.
Raffles had left Singapore in the hands of William Farquhar, who was then Resident and Commandant of Singapore. He initiated plans to clear the jungle and develop basic housing in the settlement, and organised defences against Dutch attacks. Furthermore, he helped to boost trade and population in Singapore by spreading news to the established settlement in Malacca, which helped to solve Singapore's food shortage problem. Crime and infestations of rats and centipedes were solved by Farquhar's decision to offer small rewards and establish a police force. John Crawfurd signed the treaty that made Singapore a British colony and was also the Resident after Farquhar. He also set up a local court and played a significant role in helping the settlement to prosper. While they are only remembered in history textbooks, their efforts must not be forgotten.
3. Kranji - Singapore's countryside
Few tourists ever venture beyond the city. This is perhaps why Singapore is mostly perceived by outsiders (and even some locals) as a concrete jungle of looming skyscrapers, air-conditioned malls and suburban housing estates. The greener side of the island is a secondary image – the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Sentosa Island and the Nature Reserves north of the city. However, there is indeed a countryside in Singapore. Located in the north-western region of the island, Kranji is Singapore's rural getaway, a centre of local agriculture, eco-tourism, and conservation.
Aeroponic and hydroponic farms, aquaculture and fish cultivators, dairy farms and farm resorts are found in this hidden gem where urbanites go to get in touch with nature and escape the stresses of living in the city. School buses bring students here to find out more about farming, which is an eye-opener for kids who spend most of their lives surrounded by concrete walls in air-conditioned comfort. The taste of fresh organic produce and the sounds of nature are some of the simple treasures to be found here. Venture to Kranji to discover a side of Singapore others rarely find!
4. True Singaporean dishes
While the cornucopia of dishes available is testament to Singapore reputation as a food-lover's paradise, it's hard to distinguish which dishes are truly Singaporean. The wide variety of cuisines present in Singapore is a result of its history as a meeting point for immigrants, traders and explorers from the corners of the world, with significant influence from Chinese, Malay, Indian and European culinary traditions. This means that many of Singapore's popular and famous dishes were in fact brought to the island by immigrants in older days, such as Hainanese chicken rice and Hokkien noodles. However, out of necessity or creativity, some dishes were created right here in Singapore, and are hence indisputably Singaporean.
Char Kway Teow (Fried noodles)
Teochew-style bak chor mee is flat yellow noodles served with pork minced meat and flavoured with sambal and vinegar, and was invented on Hill Street in the 1930s. Satay bee hoon is rice vermicelli served with a chilli-based peanut sauce, slices of cuttlefish and fried fish cake, pork slices and cockles, and fuses Chinese and Malay cuisines. Lor mee consists of thick flat yellow noodles served in a thick starchy gravy, with meats, fish cake and a hard-boiled egg. This dish was created when there was a shortage of meat, when stalls in Rochor market stewed small pieces of meat and fish balls to make the thick gravy. What is possibly Singapore's most famous culinary export is a fish salad known as yusheng. The famous “Four Heavenly Kings” chefs from the old Cathay Restaurant created this signature dish in the 1960s, to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Raw fish is surrounded by a colourful array of shredded vegetables, condiments and spices, served cold. Don't miss out!
5. One hill against a whole continent
The tropical climate and dense foliage that surrounds you the moment you reach Singapore hint at something greater. According to renowned naturalist and conservationist Dr David Bellamy, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve contains more plant species than found in the whole of North America. This green haven is the last remaining area of primary forest in Singapore, and is centred around Singapore's tallest peak, Bukit Timah Hill (163m).
Once an active granite quarrying site, the dense foliage of Bukit Timah now hides an ecosystem of 160 species of animals. This 164-hectare nature reserve offers a range of outdoor activities, including nature walks, jungle treks, and mountain-bike trails. It's a great retreat back to nature.
6. “Beach Road”
Beach Road today cuts through Downtown Singapore, surrounded on either side by the urban mass that characterises the city today, with no shore in sight. However, in the early 19th century, Beach Road, as its very name hints, did run by the seaside. In fact, a sandy beach existed on the waterfront of Beach Road. This coastal road fronted the sea and was home to large seaside villas. These luxurious homes were the residences of wealthy Europeans merchants. One of these bungalows was converted by the Sarkies brothers into the famed Raffles Hotel.
Raffles Hotel on Beach Road
Since the 19th century, reclamation has gradually moved the shoreline all the way to Republic Boulevard and beyond. Around a fifth of Singapore's total land area is reclaimed. Places such as Marine Parade and Changi Airport were constructed on reclaimed land, and reclamation was viewed as a viable option to cope with the rising demand for more land as the population grew. However, with greater awareness of the environmental impacts and geopolitical concerns of reclamation, the government has had to find different ways of maximising land use, such as building upwards, encouraging mixed-use developments and even building underground.
7. 280 Metres
Singapore's skyline of skyscrapers around Raffles Place and the Marina Bay is iconic. 4300 high-rises and 49 downtown skyscrapers have characterised Singapore as a high-rise nation (both literally and figuratively). However, three skyscrapers share the title of tallest building in Singapore - United Overseas Bank Plaza One, Republic Plaza and Overseas Union Bank Centre.
Skyline of Singapore
That the three towers, which share the title of 91st-tallest building in the world, are each 280 metres tall is a curious fact. The reason is the Central Business District's proximity to Singapore's airports and airbases, including Changi Airport. There is a national height restriction on buildings of 280 metres that is imposed by the national aviation authority, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. As such, Singapore's buildings never rise beyond 280 metres – but that's enough for this small city-state to make its mark in the world of architecture.
8. Majulah Singapura
It's quite a wonder that while English is spoken throughout the island, significant icons and aspects of Singapore are in Malay. The national anthem, Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore), national coat of arms and army drill commands are all in Malay. However, a moment of thought clarifies the matter. While the first language of the nation is English, Malay is Singapore's national language, which reflects the country's historical and geographical position in the Malay Archipelago.
The other official languages of this nation are English, Chinese and Tamil, of which Malay, Chinese and Tamil are considered the "mother tongues" of Singapore's ethnic communities. A fusion of influences from these languages form Singlish – Singapore's ubiquitous colloquial-speak.
9. Citizens of the Commonwealth
The impressive colonial structures around the Padang are not the only vestiges of Singapore's colonial past. While many locals may not be aware of this fact themselves, the Republic continues to be a part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and gives its name to the Singapore Declaration, which outlines the values and goals of the Commonwealth. These include the promotion of democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism, and world peace.
As such, Singaporean citizens are also Commonwealth citizens and are entitled to certain rights in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries. However, unlike other Commonwealth nations, Singaporean citizens do not receive consular assistance from British embassies in non-Commonwealth countries without a Singapore representative. This is due to the Singapore government's option not to afford Singaporeans this privilege. Nonetheless, Singaporeans enjoy the same civic rights as British citizens. These include the right to vote in all elections (parliamentary, local, and European), to stand for election in British House of Commons, to sit in the House of Lords, and to hold public office, with certain conditions, of course.
10. Time Out of Joint
Singapore is in the 'wrong' time zone. Taking just the country's longitudinal co-ordinates into consideration, Singaporean clocks should be seven hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). However, since 1982, Singapore has adopted a time zone of eight hours in advance of UTC. This was done to follow Peninsular Malaysia's move to match East Malaysia's time zone, for economic and political reasons. Nonetheless, Singapore has gone through a range of time zones.
Before the 20th Century, Singapore Mean Time was set at 6:55:25 ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In June of 1905, this was rounded up to seven hours in advance. In 1933, twenty minutes was added (+7:20), and another ten minutes in 1942 (+7:30). During the Second World War, the Japanese imposed Tokyo Standard Time (+9:00) on Singapore throughout the Japanese Occupation. The end of the war brought back Singapore Standard Time (+7:30) until 1982.