How did Singapore get its name?
Singapore is a tiny country that has had several names. Originally it was known as Temasek, which is believed to originate from the Malay word for “Sea town” or a piece of land surrounded by water.
Later the country was renamed Singapura, which is a Sanskrit word for “The Lion City.” It was a Sumatran Prince who named it this, because he thought he saw a lion when he landed on the island. However, there have never been lions on Singapore, only tigers.
Although the names were used interchangeably from the 13th to the 15th centuries, when Portuguese traders arrived in the 16th century, Temasek was no longer used and Singapura remained.
Singapore is also known as “The Little Red Dot”, a term coined by Indonesian President Habibie who referenced the country’s appearance on a map, where it always showed up as a red dot. Singaporeans do not like this term as it serves as a reminder that their small size makes them vulnerable.
Where is Singapore Located?
Singapore is an island city-state, one of only three city-states in the world; the others are Monaco and Vatican City. It is located at the end of the Malayan Peninsula, between Malaysia and Indonesia. It has no land borders and has a total land area of only 278 square miles. However, Singapore is not just one island. It has 62 small, outlying islands, nearly all uninhabited. The mainland of Singapore measures 31 miles from east to west and 17 miles from north to south, with 120 miles of coastline.
Singapore is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor and from Indonesia by the Singapore Strait. Singapore is one of the few nations that is growing in size, as it reclaims land with earth obtained from its own hills, the seabed and sand from neighboring countries. It is expected to grow by another 62 miles by the year 2033.
Despite its small size this country packs a large punch on the global scale. It is one of the richest countries by GDP, the cleanest, the most honest and yet heavily urbanized.
A Brief History of Singapore
It is believed that the history of Singapore may date back as far as the third century. It became a significant trading settlement by the 14th century. In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles negotiated a treaty to allow the British to locate a trading port on the islands. This led to the establishment of The British Colony of Singapore in 1819. During the subsequent decades, Singapore grew to become an important port in the region. It was set up as a free port, which was a great advantage to the other nearby ports of Manila and Jakarta who levied tariffs on trade. It allowed the introduction of the Chinese market, which greatly reduced the time and cost of shipping goods to Europe, after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
By 1880 over 1.5 million tons of goods passed through Singapore each year. The Chinese, mostly Peranakans, who were descendants of early Chinese settlers, became the largest ethnic group in Singapore. Malays were the second largest ethnic group but they were eventually outpaced by Indians as the second largest group. The Indians were brought in to carry out public works projects. Despite its growth, Singapore was mismanaged with a predominantly male, transient and uneducated society. Prostitution, gambling and drug abuse (mainly opium) were widespread.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied Singapore. The fall of Singapore was the largest surrender of British-led forces in history. Singapore was renamed by the Japanese to “Syonan,” which means “Bright Southern Island” and was under their control from 1942-1945. However, this three year period was not at all bright, but rather a very dark time in Singapore’s history.
After the Japanese surrendered to Allied forces, the British returned to Singapore. The failure of Britain to defend Singapore had destroyed their credibility in the eyes of the Singaporeans. This led to the beginning of self-governance. After many trials and tribulations and alliances, Singapore gained Independence on the morning of August 9, 1965, after the Parliament of Malaysia voted 126-0 to expel Singapore from the short lived federation.
Singapore wasted no time to seek international support and recognition of its sovereignty. The new state joined the United Nations on September 21, 1965. Although Singapore is a top country in many categories, it is rated one of the worst for freedom of the press and not so great on the level of democracy. Generally speaking, Singaporeans have imposed the “surveillance” of its citizens to protect them. Today, Singapore’s economy is one of the best in the world. The current president of Singapore is a woman, Madam Halimah Yacob.
One of the most beautiful things about Singapore is the way in which so many diverse people with varying religious beliefs, live in harmony. This can be attributed to Singaporeans’ learning early on, the religious customs and traditions of each others religions. They celebrate each other’s holidays as public holidays including Christian, Muslim, and Indian holidays, to name a few. I happened to visit Singapore during the Chinese New Year, which was celebrated in large pagentry by all. The state is home to ten major religions including: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.
There are four official languages; English, Tamil, Malay and Mandarin Chinese. Despite this, most people speak what is known as Singlish, another reflection of Singapore’s diversity. It is a Creole language made up of local slang and expressions from the various official languages. You will hear it spoken right away when visiting there.
Despite Singapore’s fast paced and rapid growth, it remains a very conservative and religious society. Here are a few things you should know about how to stay out of trouble when visiting Singapore. Respecting elders is of the utmost importance and you should never call someone older than you by their name. They should be called Auntie or Uncle or Grandmother etc. Homosexuality is still illegal there. Smoking in a non-smoking area is strictly enforced. Don’t even think about trafficking drugs, it is punishable by death. Littering or vandalism can result in hefty fines including caning, and public shaming. Chewing gum is against the law, as is not flushing a toilet after using it. Perhaps it is these laws and punishments that make it one of the cleanest cities in the world, with one of the lowest crime rates.
Singapore has become a major tourist destination with several famous landmarks. One of the newest is the Jewel Changi Airport, which opened in April 2019 and has a nature-themed entertainment and retail complex adjacent to the number one rated airport in the world. The Marina Sands Hotel is one of the most Instagram-able hotels in the world; famous for its boat shaped infinity pool that overlooks all of Singapore. Another landmark is a giant observation Ferris wheel known as the Singapore flyer, that held the record as the largest from 2008 to 2014. They have the second largest Aquarium in the world, which is part of the Adventure Cove Park. A botanical garden, that is a UNESCO world heritage site, houses their beloved orchids, which are also a symbol of Singapore.
Aside from new attractions you will also find older establishments such as: the old Buddhist and Hindu temples, shop houses, mosques and areas like Little India, Haji Street and Chinatown.
Singapore imports nearly all of their food, as they only have 6% arable space. They do try to grow what they can and recently put an emphasis on building vertical and growing roof top gardens. Being a wealthy metropolitan city-state, you can find just about any type of food in Singapore. I would argue the best can be found in what are known as hawker centers. These are food stalls where you will find inexpensive but authentic cuisine of the people. These food centers dot the country. There is one food center that boasts a Michelin star which serves their famous chicken rice for only $1.42 per serving. A few of Singapore’s favorite dishes are: chili crab, a spicy and delicious treat, laksa, a thick noodle dish often served with prawns and fish cakes, and a pulled tea, called Teh terik, made with black tea and condensed milk. Make no mistake, you can find authentic Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Indonesian food all over Singapore. You can also enjoy a traditional Peranakan meal by the famous Violet Oon, who is hailed as the Julia Childs of Singapore. She has been the food ambassador of Singapore since 1988. Also a trip to Singapore would not be complete without a stop at the famous Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented and is still served with warm peanuts. Culinary excellence is an integral part of the culture of Singapore.
So let’s enjoy a Singapore meal:
Singaporean Chili Crab
Hainanese Chicken Rice with Sauces
Pandan Chiffon Cake
We set the scene with orchids, as that is their national flower, along with a candle, decorated with the merlion, (the official mascot of Singapore, a mythical creature with a lion’s head and the body of a fish.) The colors used in our décor were red and white, to represent their flag. A crab shell and other seashells were placed to represent the island’s seaside. We also added symbols of the different religious faiths represented there. Finally, a little F1 race car was placed, as Singaporeans were the first to introduce a night time Formula one race in the series.
We sat down with our Singapore Slings and said “yumseng”, which is how you say “cheers” in Singlish. Our first course was the amazing chili crab. I had the privilege of eating this dish while in Singapore at the famous Jumbo’s restaurant. I can attest that this recipe is just as wonderful. It is spicy, rich and simply sensational. It was served with steamed buns, as is customary there. This could typically be a meal unto itself but I felt like it had to be only part of the IC menu.
For the main course, we savored the national dish called Hainanese chicken rice. This dish can be found in all the hawker centers and is a true specialty of Singapore. It is unique way to cook chicken, by poaching it. The result is excellent, especially when served alongside seasoned rice. The sauces that accompany the chicken and rice are what makes it truly extraordinary; a chili sauce and another sauce made of ginger and spring onion oil, as well as a dressing, made with sesame oil, soy sauce and the poaching liquid. Per their tradition, cucumber and tomato was served alongside the main dish.
For dessert, we enjoyed the pandan chiffon cake. Pandan is a leaf, also known as screwpine, which is a very common ingredient in Singapore and Southeast Asian cooking. It adds a nutty flavor and scent, as well as a bright green color. This cake was light, fluffy, but not too sweet. Delicious.
As we say goodbye to this intriguing little country of Singapore, I leave you with a few Singaporean proverbs:
Where there is a sea, there are pirates.
A given excuse that was not asked for implies guilt.
Never take a quiet person for granted. He might have great qualities underneath his quiet nature.
Until next time,