Singapore is an island nation strategically located at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, immediately north of the equator. Records show that it was already a thriving trading port as early as 1400. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Singapore was controlled first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch. In 1819, Sir William Raffles arrived and set up a British trading port for the East India Company. Singapore became a Crown colony in 1867.
I didn’t consciously plan it this way, but my trip has been a tour of many of the former British colonies of the Far East: Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. When you add Canada, the original 13 US colonies, India, Burma, much of Africa, and much of the Middle East, it shows the British Empire was a massive operation.
On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Malaysian Peninsula and eventually occupied Singapore. Following the war, there was a slow movement toward independence, and it finally became a sovereign nation in 1965. Today, Singapore is a modern world class city with 5.4 million residents and the fifth highest per capita GDP in the world. It is the Southeast Asian center for shipping, trade and finance.
Singapore has a reputation as a regimented and sterile place, notoriously banning chewing gum and punishing drug offenses with death. The reality I found was much more nuanced. Due to its equatorial location, the climate here is always hot and humid. There are ultra-modern skyscrapers, surrounded at ground level by steamy atmospheric streets with ancient temples and small shops selling spicy noodles and a myriad of other foods. It reminded me of the dystopian LA depicted in Blade Runner.
My final Airbnb rental was another great apartment on the 25th floor of a sixty-story building. It had great views and a washer and dryer, which was quite handy at this point in the trip. I visited the local ethnic neighborhoods (Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street), took in a few museums and went to Marina Bay Sands, a surreal hotel/casino complex composed of three 52-story buildings with a sky deck “floating” on top, along with shopping malls, casinos and elaborate outdoor gardens. It is allegedly the most expensive resort ever built, costing $8 billion.
Mainly, what I did in Singapore was eat. As advertised, the food here is phenomenal. There are many expensive Michelin starred restaurants, but the real action is at street level, where small entrepreneurs grill, stir fry and concoct every conceivable variety of Asian food on the planet in food halls known as hawker centers. There is one street, which is filled every night until three am with master grillers cooking satays.
On my last day, I went for a hike in the Bukit Timah, the last remaining part of the tropical rain forest that once covered the entire island. It once was populated by many exotic animals, including tigers. In the 19th century, there were so many tigers terrorizing the residents of Singapore that the government resorted to offering a $20 reward for every dead tiger. That seemed to take care of the problem, there are no more tigers.
After Bukit Timah, I hiked about a mile down to a museum called Memories at Ford. It is a former Ford Motor factory that was the site where the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations. I met an older Japanese man there who was quite disappointed it was closed. His father came to Singapore to study accounting before the war. When the war started, he was taken prisoner by the British and held as a prisoner of war at the old Ford plant. He died there under unknown circumstances before the Japanese took control of the city. The gentleman was coming to pay his respects. It seems every story has at least two sides. We shared a taxi back to the city.
Next stop Tokyo.