Famous for going from a third-world outpost to a wealthy first-world nation in a single generation, the tiny city-state of Singapore is a place that never fails to amaze me.
Just over a five-hour flight from Perth, the famously clean and increasingly green nation is sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia in South-East Asia, with a population of more than 5 million. It covers a total area of about 720sqm, and is adored by Australians thanks to its proximity, its diverse culture and its world-class attractions.
On a recent visit to Singapore, I get chatting with a local driver by the name of Johnnie Lim, who grew up in the Lion City and saw its impressive transformation first-hand.
Throughout our 20-minute car ride from Changi Airport to my accommodation in the city’s civic district, the middle-aged man with a friendly smile tells me all about what makes Singapore tick, and why he’s proud to call this place home.
“Singapore is a very multicultural place, you’ll soon realise there are many different faces of Singapore,” Johnnie says.
“But being multicultural doesn’t make us special. What makes Singapore special is the level of respect our people have for one another.”
Johnnie’s right. Since Singapore’s days as a colony in the 19th and 20th centuries, immigrants from China, India and Malaysia have flocked to the island nation in search of a better life. And despite all of their cultural differences, you’ll often find these groups celebrating together.
“Whether it’s Chinese New Year, Vesak Day, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Deepavali or Christmas, we all like to celebrate together, as Singaporeans,” Johnnie says.
“And guess what? We all get along because we value respect — it’s really very simple.”
When I ask what makes Singapore such an enjoyable place to live, Johnnie says the lifestyle, food and business opportunities here are hard to compete with.
“Singapore has created an environment where people and businesses want to be — as long as you can handle the heat and humidity that comes with a tropical climate,” he says.
“Our economy is strong, our people are educated, and we have a high quality of life here in Singapore.”
However, things weren’t always like this. Back when Singapore gained independence in 1965, it was just a tiny, impoverished nation without any significant natural resources or fertile land for agricultural crops.
“Much of Singapore’s success came from our founding father and first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew,” Johnnie says.
“He really created this out of nothing.”
A pragmatic leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew developed a highly effective, anti-corrupt government and civil service in Singapore, which went against populist policies in favour of long-term social and economic planning. He also promoted the use of English as the language of business and the common tongue among the ethnic groups, while recognising Malay, Chinese and Tamil as other official languages.
Singapore’s reach extends far beyond its humble size, and its impact on the global economy is nothing short of extraordinary.
Johnnie says Lee Kuan Yew’s government really embraced international trade and turned Singapore into an attractive destination for foreign investment.
“Singapore wouldn’t be the admired business and financial centre it is without him,” he says.
I tend to agree with Johnnie. When you think about it, Singapore’s reach extends far beyond its humble size, and its impact on the global economy is nothing short of extraordinary.
But there’s more to this place than its strong financial system, especially for travellers.
Beyond its towering skyscrapers, you’ll find remnants of an older, simpler way of life in quaint neighbourhoods like Katong-Joo Chiat, Little India, Chinatown and Dempsey Hill. And no matter where you go, there is always something delicious to eat.
“Singaporeans are food-obsessed people,” Johnnie says.
“At some point, you have to try our chilli crab, laksa, mee siam, popiah and, of course, the Hainanese chicken and rice.”
As my car ride with Johnnie continues, we get chatting about Formula 1.
“The Singapore Grand Prix is one of the best in the F1 calendar,” Johnnie says.
“It was the first ever night race to happen in F1, so it’s very special. Singapore really comes alive when it’s on.”
The major sporting event attracts about 40,000 international visitors each year, with this year’s event scheduled to take place on Sunday, September 17.
Singapore’s nightlife is another reason people enjoy making a trip to the steamy metropolis. From swanky rooftop bars to hip cocktail bars, there is something for everyone.
“At night, Clark Quay and the Marina Bay area is great. So is Holland Village and Dempsey Hill,” Johnnie says.
“Oh, and you have to try a Singapore Sling from the Long Bar at the Raffles — it’s our country’s national drink.”