10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Singapore

Before I took my recent trip to Singapore, the only things I knew about it were:

  1. It is a modernized, international city-state (as in, both a city and a country), and
  2. Chewing gum there is illegal.

I wasn’t sure what there was to see and do there, but it is close to Hong Kong and cheap to fly to so I decided to give it a shot. Turns out Singapore is awesome! Here are ten things I learned about the country during my trip.

Country Background

  1. Singapore is a true mix of Asian cultures

According to demographic statistics, Singapore is about 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, and 9% Indian. The city’s museums do an excellent job of portraying the histories of these different groups, and visiting the neighborhoods of Chinatown, Arab Street, and Little India is another great chance for tourists to witness Singapore’s diversity.

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  1. It has four official languages

Because of its ethnic diversity, Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil (which is spoken in southern India and Sri Lanka). The language of instruction in schools is English, but children are required to study another official language as a second language. English is therefore the lingua franca, though I found people’s accents tricky to understand at first!

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Sultan Mosque, located in Arab Street

3. Religious diversity is high

Singapore is about 33% Buddhist, 20% Christian, 14% Muslim, 11% Taoist, and 5% Hindu. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, that makes Singapore the world’s most religiously diverse nation. One cool experience I had was that my hostel was located in a very Muslim neighborhood where most women wore headscarves and long skirts, and I was able to visit a massive Ramadan night market along with a varied crowd of people (the one at Gerang Serai for those who know the city!) There are beautiful mosques, temples, and churches scattered throughout the city, and according to Singaporeans everyone celebrates everyone else’s holidays.

Statistics from: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/

  1. Before becoming independent, Singapore was occupied by Japan…

Singapore was a British colony from the 1800s up until World War 2, when Japan was able to take Singapore from the British. At the end of the war the territory was given back Britain, but soon Singaporeans began requesting independence.

  1. … And then it was part of Malaysia for two years

Ever wondered why Singapore exists as a tiny little dot at the end of Malaysia’s long tail? Well, after Singapore first gained its independence, it did try and join Malaysia, but the union didn’t work out. Malaysia overall hoped to form a society based on Malaysian culture, while Singapore had a different vision in mind.

To clarify that vision, when the government of Singapore decided to become independent, Prime Minister Lee Kuan-Yew told the new nation, “We are going to be a multi-racial nation in Singapore. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not as Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion.” And that is the model which has ushered in modern Singapore.

Fun Facts!

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  1. Ice kasang is pretty cool

The coolest food (literally) I tried in Singapore is called ice kasang, and it is popular in both Malaysia and Singapore. I was wandering around a mall food court one day hoping to grab a snack (sometimes I’m so excited when I travel that I forget to eat proper meals) and I looked over at someone else’s table and spied a rainbow mountain of goodness. Immediately I rushed to the closest food stall, scanning menus until I figured out where I could have what she was having!

I got a mango ice kasang (pronounced ka-chang), and it is made through the following steps: 1) Dump some weird tasteless jelly things into a bowl 2) Dump in corn (yes, corn) and red beans 3) Shave a massive heap of ice over the top 4) Pour various sweet syrups and some condensed milk onto the ice, and 5) Crown the top with some tasty mangoes. Honestly I thought this thing was so good, though like I said the jellies at the bottom were a disappointing finish and my mouth was entirely numb after eating approximately three pounds of snow. It was really the perfect treat after wandering around in Singapore’s sweltering heat!

  1. More Food Facts: Kopi, Teh, or Milo?

Ordering a drink in Singapore was probably the most difficult experience of my trip. I know that the city has four official languages, but I think ordering coffee should be an official fifth!

Menus start with both regular coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), which is pretty easy to figure out, but there is also an entire shorthand language which can be added onto the ends of kopi and teh. Adding “Si” means you want both milk and sugar, “O” means sugar but no milk, and then you can even mix all of the flavors together if you want… I think what I ended up getting was the “Kopi C Halia Iced,” which was iced coffee with milk and sugar and also some ginger flavor (that was the “halia”). I felt very proud when I sort of knew what I was saying as I ordered.

On top of kopi and teh there is also Milo which is like a powdered hot chocolate type of thing that lots of people, especially kids, love to drink. One Milo drink is the Milo Dinosaur, which is iced Milo with condensed milk and sugar, and undissolved Milo powder piled on top in a little mound.

  1. Singapore has nature!

Despite Singapore being a modern city some of its major tourist attractions are all about nature. Like Gardens by the Bay, which you’ve probably seen tons of really cool photos of on Instagram. Apart from the classic Supertree Grove there are some lovely fields and flowers there too.

But the biggest and best Singaporean nature attraction is definitely the Botanical Gardens, and particularly the Orchid Garden section. While a large part of the Botanical Gardens is free, not much of it is very photo-worthy apart from the palm tree section. But the Orchid Garden had plenty of stunning plants, archways, gazebos, trees, and so on. It made me feel like I was in The Secret Garden, and is a lovely way to spend a morning.

  1. Singapore has beaches!

Again, since I always just perceived Singapore to be a big city it kind of slipped my mind that it is actually an island (confession: I actually didn’t even know that until after my trip…) and therefore there is lots of nice coastline. While most tourists head to a tiny island in the south of Singapore called Sentosa to get their beach fix, I decided to try one closer to my hostel, East Coast Park.

I would very highly recommend this beach. It was near-empty, the water was super warm, and almost everyone else there was a local. The beach also had a really excellent selection of oceanfront places to eat and drink, so after burning my skin in the sun for a few hours I was able to get a bacon burger and beer, and a Starbucks frappuchino for dessert. And before you lambast me for being a basic white girl tourist, don’t worry, I also crossed the street afterwards and tried some Indonesian ‘pulut hitam’ flavored ice cream. Pulut hitam is made from black glutinous rice porridge with coconut milk and palm or cane sugar, but all I knew at the time was that it was purple and delicious, and definitely worth eating two desserts in one day. (Second confession: I may have had even more desserts that evening…)

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The Merlion is Singapore’s mascot!

10. Singaporeans love their countrySingaporeans definitely really want travelers to see their country, probably because it is not exactly a #1 world tourism destination. I met some extremely helpful people who talked to me all about their country’s history, culture, and most interesting spots. For example, as I ate lunch in little India, a woman at the next table over randomly struck up a conversation with me, gave me several restaurant recommendations, and then pulled out a paper and pen and made a full list of other things I could go see during my trip!

I noticed a theme of the recommendations I got was that people really wanted you to see stuff other than the tourist locations. I feel like in some countries, when you get off the beaten path people look at you funny, like, “Why on Earth would a tourist be out here?” But in Singapore it seemed they were really appreciative of people who like to dig a little deeper. Since that is exactly how I like to travel, and since I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s perspectives on random things like the chewing gum policy, this made Singapore a great fit for me! (Did you know spitting is illegal too? Wow!)

After visiting, I can see why people are so proud—Singapore is diverse, safe, peaceful, and accomplished, which makes it a lovely place to spend some time. 

Victoria Peak

It would be difficult to overstate the beauty of the view from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Of course I haven’t been everywhere in the world (not even close) and I’m still young, but I like to think I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China and seen the Eiffel Tower at dusk… but the reaction I had looking out at the city of Hong Kong from the top of the Peak was borderline spiritual, and probably the best place I’ve seen yet.

Travel is always made more meaningful based on the lens we are looking through. Even with no lens the Peak is phenomenal; one of the world’s most dazzling cities, surrounded by incredible mountains and a clear blue ocean… I truly believe that nowhere in the world is going to get much better than that. But I saw it all at a time when, after having moving to China just a few months before, I wasn’t totally positive that I had made the right choice. I was doubting myself, wondering if just staying in America like the rest of my friends would have provided me with better life opportunities. I never questioned that thought again after this day. No way would missing out on this have been the better choice!

It’s probably best to just show some pictures, and put down what I wrote about it in my journal that day…

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“I identify as being an idealist. This means I have an imagination from my childhood that never quite went away, and it also means that my standards tend to be very high. I can daydream up the perfect vacation spot in an instant. I can make up friends and boyfriends and travel buddies galore without ever having to meet real people or do anything genuine. It’s no wonder I spend so many hours in my room thinking—there’s a huge world going on inside my head, and it’s a shame no one else gets to live in it too.

My expectations for Hong Kong were quite high. Obviously it is a well-known and well-loved city, a place I’ve fantasized about visiting for years now. Everyone just kept telling me about how cool it was, how unique, how energetic. So I went into this place expecting to find an awesome city.

And that is what I found, for the most part. On the ground Hong Kong is pretty great, full of interesting people and places and things to see. I took to it instantly, and vowed, just like last time, to start spending a lot more time there.

And then I went up to the top of the highest hill in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak. And for the first time in a long, long time, reality was so much better than anything I could have possibly dreamt up in my mind.

Because Hong Kong is not just awesome, but beautiful. No one ever told me that this city could be so beautiful. That it was surrounded by peaceful rolling green hills, that the surface of the harbor glistened in the sunlight. That the human-engineered skyline would interact so flawlessly with the nature surrounding it, that the breeze and sunlight and clouds would all align into one awesome and breathtaking day, and that I would be rendered speechless by the combination of it all.

Sometimes because my expectations are so high I become complacent with real life. I feel as though nothing much can really impress me because aren’t my dreams always going to be better than reality?

But every once in a while something comes along that reminds me that sometimes, something being real is all I need for it to be better than dreams.”

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Travel Won’t Kill You, but your Worldview will Never be the Same

I write about travel because I believe it is one of the few things in this world which has the power to genuinely change who we are.

By ‘travel’, I don’t mean heading to a foreign beach resort for four days and then taking a taxi back to the airport—though even that can help people dip their toes in the travel water, and I’m all for it. But to me the word ‘travel’ is much more than that, and is about experiencing sustained, long-term living in another location. I believe this form of travel is one of the most worthwhile things a person can invest their time and money in.

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Hordes of Chinese tourists won’t kill you

Of my 2.5 years of professional experience so far, about 2 years of it has been spent abroad. Many have told me that living in places like China and South Africa is dangerous, but as a young woman who mostly travels solo, I can tell you that the most danger I’ve encountered so far has been taxis that go too fast (or perhaps even scarier, taxis that go way too slow!) The most uncomfortable situations I’ve been in have either been cultural miscommunications, language barriers, or greetings from random men (the last of which can’t seem to be avoided anywhere, though some areas are worse than others).

Hearing stories of genuinely dangerous travel experiences is rare, but this seems to be the main fear people have when friends or relatives leave the country, and for months before you leave you are peppered with cautions, “Don’t walk around alone! Don’t trust strangers! Don’t eat the street food!”

Instead, I’d suggest the warnings people should give are more things like, “Don’t have a crisis of identity! Don’t forget about culture shock!” Or even, “Hope we don’t start fighting after you get back because we see the world so totally differently!” But it is much more realistic that these things will be the actual consequences of travel, rather than the stabbing in some alley in Bangkok that all your friends are picturing.

Traveling likely won’t kill you, but it may kill your worldview. There is an often-repeated Mark Twain quote that goes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” There is a reason people still use it as an Instagram caption to this day; the more I’ve traveled the more I’ve realized that travel is incredibly effective in breaking down the comfortable walls of your beliefs and building them back up again, in a new and stronger pattern.

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Spicy street food won’t kill you

Having walls in the first place is inevitable. Every one of us grows up inside a certain context, our own little boxes if you will. It is difficult (if not impossible) to mentally remove ourselves from those boxes and think about life in another box—most of the time, our walls are just too high. Our own contexts are never perfect; every family, neighborhood, and nation in this world has its own flaws, and sometimes those flaws include encouraging us to stereotype or look down on certain people. They also encourage habits that we assume are universal, but definitely aren’t. Even mundane things like drinking cold water might get you raised eyebrows in another country.

The only effective way to learn what things are only true inside of your own box, and what things are true for all of the boxes, is honestly very simple: see as many boxes as you can during your lifetime.

In my experience, the two lines of thought which travel most effectively destroys are fundamentalism and nationalism. By fundamentalism I mean the idea that one’s beliefs are not allowed to be questioned or challenged, while by nationalism I mean a belief in the superiority of one’s own nation over others. In today’s world I see fundamentalism on both the political right and left; I see nationalism mainly on the right, though the left at times buys into in a sort of reverse nationalism. (By that I mean seeing one’s own nation as inferior to others, and believing its only hope of salvation is emulating another nation’s culture or politics.) I believe that the reverse is less dangerous than traditional nationalism, but that it still represents a view of the world from someone who hasn’t seen enough boxes yet.

You can’t travel and continue to be a fundamentalist because that whole “my beliefs must not be questioned” privilege rapidly erodes when you enter a country that shares almost none of your beliefs. Travel will not politely ask you if it can have a calm, safe discussion—travel talks its mouth off, forcing you to keep up. Travel will put you in a cab with the most pro-Communist Party taxi driver in all of China and have you listen to his praises of the government for the entire ride. Travel will have a woman of color tell you in broken English how beautiful white people are. Travel will get you into a conversation with a Nigerian woman who believes that being gay is the work of the devil. And yet everywhere you go, some of these same people who disagree with you on everything will be so unbelievably kind and welcoming and generous, and sometimes that can be challenging to wrap your head around too.

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Letting your feet get bitten by little fishies won’t kill you

Travel is also fatal to nationalism and its inversions. It is hard to think of your nation as particular and extraordinary once you have seen a dozen others and eaten at a McDonald’s in every single one. Travel shows you that there are hundreds of things your nation is absolutely terrible at—and then hundreds it is great at which others lack. A hard truth of the world that you learn through travel is that there is simply no “miracle cure” to any complex problem—and there is no one perfect nation. You will never be able to move anywhere new and be perfectly happy all the time, and each place has its unique joys and unique annoyances. Your nation is both nothing to brag about, and to be treasured for all which makes it unique and good. Travel primes our brains for the nuance that enables us to hold both beliefs simultaneously.

So in the end… travel is probably not going to kill you, at least not in the physical sense. But it might kill you mentally and emotionally at times, and it will certainly kill some of your beliefs off. It’s a good thing, because nothing in this world deserves to be trusted without question—not ideas, not people, and certainly not street food—and travel helps you to come to terms with this to a poignant extent.

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Interesting fashion choices won’t kill you (probably…)

What if you don’t have the time or money to travel right now? Well, you can challenge yourself by trying to jump into new boxes whenever you can. Read fiction or non-fiction about other countries, particularly ones where you feel you do not understand the culture. Interact with foreigners you meet in your own country—ask them questions about how they see America and what their own countries are like. And if you really don’t want to substitute any of this for the real experience, then don’t. Even if you’re just going to a beach resort in Bermuda, a few minutes of talking to the taxi driver will put you in a whole new box, so don’t pass up the chance.