Searching for the Soul of Singapore

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Global Culture, Neighborhoods, Temples

When people used to mention Singapore to me, a very specific vision would pop up in my head. The mini-Dubai of Asia – a very clean (and gum-free!), fabricated island playground, sprouting with glitzy skyscrapers, hotels, and shopping malls – and that’s pretty much it. I mean, it’s so small, how could it be more? Expats often refer to it as ‘sanitized’. Even its infamous weather seems relatively uni-dimensional. Locals refer to Singapore as having either 2 seasons (hot, and hot & wet) or 3 seasons (hot, hotter, and shopping).

View over Marina Bay during the nightly Wonder Full light and water show in glitzy Singapore

View over Marina Bay during the nightly Wonder Full light and water show in glitzy Singapore

Singapore certainly lives up to these descriptors. It proudly showcases its shiny façade and on its surface, seems to ooze wealth from its edges. It is unquestionably hot as hell. And it is clean. I love New York City and lived there for a decade, but Hong Kong makes it seem filthy (it kind of is, love it or leave it). And Singapore in turn makes Hong Kong seem filthy (it’s not – Singapore is just that spotless).I wondered – is there anything more to Singapore? Someone recently described it to me as ‘culture-less’, but something inside me thought that sounded unjustly harsh. The optimistic traveler in me yearned to discover something beyond the glittery exterior. I sought to find its soul. As I discovered a couple weeks ago, there is definitely more to the ‘little red dot’ than initially meets the eye. And I think I found its soul.

As it turns out, my first visit to this city/state/nation (not too many locales can claim that kind of all-in-one categorization) was rather well-timed. ‘Lucky’ isn’t really the right word to use, in the context of the death of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew – but for me, it did turn out to be somewhat fortuitous, as it allowed me the opportunity to observe a very different, and indeed deeper side of Singapore.

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A local bowed his head in deference to Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

Three days after my arrival in Singapore, on March 23, 2015, I awoke bleary-eyed to the pervasive news that LKY had passed away at the ripe old age of 91. The news was sad but not altogether unexpected, as Mr. Lee had been ill with Parkinson’s disease for quite some time, recently complicated by pneumonia. Unsurprisingly, I came across numerous signs, billboards, even digital projections honoring the famous leader. And there were extensive traffic jams, as the city prepared itself for a week of official mourning and commemorative events.
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A giant digital projection commemorating LKY on the façade of the Suntec Convention & Exhibition Centre

What did take me somewhat by surprise was the genuine sadness that painted the faces of endless locals I passed. These were countenances exhibiting visible, real grief. But it was more than that – there was a clear added dimension of sincere respect and gratitude.
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Local Singaporeans of all races gathered across from the Parliament building, where Mr. Lee’s body was temporarily laid for final viewing and farewells

Over the days to come, every local Singaporean I spoke with – from the incredibly friendly and engaging taxi drivers, to corporate employees, to the charming spa attendant at the Sands – were clearly and deeply affected by his death, and even more so by his life and all they felt he had done for their country, for them and their families. These individuals recounted their personal stories to me, of how the Singapore that Mr. Lee had crafted and the infrastructure he had put in place helped ensure they had jobs, homes, a clean environment, access to healthcare, education for their children, and peace across races and religions.
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While not quite as ethnically diverse as cities like New York, Singapore does celebrate peace and unity among multiple races and religions – one example here, at Little India’s Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple

Intrigued, over the next few days, I perused the extensive press on Mr. Lee, his life story, his vision for Singapore, and all the steps he had taken to create this undeniably impressive country.For sure, part of the reason for the steady rise of Singapore is its diminutive size. The current status of Singapore, and the rapidity with which LKY and his People’s Action Party (PAP)-led government achieved the success that is Singapore, almost certainly would not have been realized if it were much larger than it is.

And LKY is not viewed universally as an angel. Even a vocal, reasonably intelligent, and very angry teenager from Singapore, Amos Yee, has notoriously expressed his quite contrary and very negative impressions of Mr. Lee – and was subsequently arrested, highlighting Singapore’s equally notorious lack of freedom of speech.

So perhaps not everyone is thrilled with all things Singapore. It has a generally free trade and economy, but there are tight government controls, as with other aspects of life in Singapore. Overt opponents of Mr. Lee’s ways have often found themselves jailed or (mis)guided toward bankruptcy. LKY is demonized as an iron-fisted authoritarian almost as frequently as he is lauded as a visionary.

I also do not agree with his government’s corporal approaches to punishment for what most would consider petty crimes. Caning someone for chewing gum or putting up graffiti seems archaic. Death by hanging for possessing marijuana is beyond extreme.

Of course, such extremes are also generally very effective – as evidenced by the lack of disgusting, flattened blobs of gum that litter the streets and sidewalks of many other cities (but unfortunately also relatively sparse street art – although that is changing). And violence (besides aforementioned caning, that is) and pervasive drug abuse are virtually non-existent.

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An uncommon but still disconcerting sign discovered on the hills of Singapore (sometimes pictures are indeed worth a thousand words)

This year, Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence from Malaysia, which began just a few years after Singapore initially shook off British rule. Even as an extremely young country, it already has numerous other boast-worthy accomplishments to celebrate. Singapore is now the third wealthiest country in the world, trailing just Qatar and Luxembourg. This is particularly impressive when you consider its small size and that it has no valuable natural resources of its own. It also has one of the world’s lowest unemployment rates, at just 2%.Singapore is a very attractive hub for business and a huge draw for expats, eager to take advantage of job opportunities, a high quality of life, a very safe and family-friendly environment, and many diversions. Add to this generally friendly locals, outstanding cuisine (ranging from low-key hawker stalls serving up crave-worthy local street eats to 5-star progressive fine dining establishments), a strong appreciation for design and aesthetics (manifested in its striking architecture, beautiful bay, engineering feats masquerading as the impressive Gardens by the Bay, and the modern lotus-inspired ArtScience Museum, to name a few), another island worthy of a real stay-cation or trip extension (resort-dotted Sentosa), culturally rich enclaves like Little India, Chinatown, and Arab Street – and yes, lots of shopping – and now I understand why people rave and rave about this ‘realization of a kind of futuristic, utopian ideal’, as my new HK-based friend Jen rightly asserted.

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Chinatown’s ever-popular Maxwell Food Centre, one of Singapore’s renowned hubs brimming with street food hawker stalls (low-brow and delicious!)

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Singapore has no shortage of indulgences – as exemplified by celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda’s 2nd restaurant, Waku Ghin (finely represented here by his talented sous chef)

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Waku Ghin’s beautifully plated signature dish, marinated Botan shrimp with sea urchin and Oscietra caviar (yes, it’s luscious)

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Night view over one of Singapore’s premier playgrounds, Gardens by the Bay

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Interior panoramic of the awe-inspiring Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay

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Cool relief under the dramatic waterfall inside Gardens by the Bay’s Cloud Forest

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The acrophobia-inducing walkable skyway at Gardens by the Bay, silhouetted against Singapore’s architectural landmark/hotel, Marina Bay Sands

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Peering at Marina Bay Sands through the waterfall at Gardens by the Bay

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Yours truly, sneaking into a pre-storm photo before making a beeline for cover at Marina Bay Sands

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Curved panoramic of the world-famous infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands (Mark captured me front and center, basking in all its glory!)

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Happiness at the top of the world, as exhibited by Mark (well, not quite – but it felt like that for a little while!)

Pure bliss - swimming by moonlight in Marina Bay Sands' rooftop infinity pool, with cocktails just a few meters away

Pure bliss – swimming by moonlight in Marina Bay Sands’ rooftop infinity pool, with cocktails just a few meters away

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Dusk falls over Singapore’s bayside Helix Bridge and the lotus-inspired ArtScience Museum

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Asia loves its LV – and of course, luxurious Singapore is no exception, with a stunning storefront floating on Marina Bay

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Queuing for blessings inside a temple in Little India – who says Singapore has no culture?

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Mark makes his way through one of the ‘entryways’ in Singapore’s Arab Street area

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One end of colorful, boutique-and-café-rich Haji Lane

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Singapore charmingly blends ‘old’ with new – here, the peaceful central courtyard of Thian Hock Keng Temple in Chinatown, surrounded by skyscrapers

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Requisite red lanterns up for sale in Chinatown

In interviews, Mr. Lee stated that he was trying to create a first-world oasis in a third-world country, characterized by social peace, no fighting between races and religions, and fair shares for all. He aspired to the inventiveness and creativeness that the US is known for, but he wanted to proactively stave off its struggles with drugs and guns. He sought to create a healthy society that offers all its citizens a chance to achieve their maximum.
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I can’t begin to tell you how friendly the locals are in Singapore – here, unsolicited smiles near the Parliament building

I think by most accounts, he realized his goals, to the benefit of the majority of Singapore’s denizens and its solid-and-still-growing expat community – and in an astonishingly short period of time. I believe he genuinely loved his country. He embodied the soul of Singapore. And while some of his approaches and decisions have ruffled more than a few feathers, it is difficult to argue completely with such a stunning outcome.Questions do loom about what’s next for Singapore, what may change under the continuing rule of his son, Lee Hsien Loong, and whether the younger generation of Singaporeans may fall prey to the dangers of resting on the laurels laid by their parents or government subsidies. Only time will tell, but for now, I remain deeply impressed by Singapore. As do most Singaporeans. No wonder they beam with pride when speaking about their homeland. And no wonder they came out in droves to pay their final respects to Mr. Lee.

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Young and old alike braved the relentless afternoon sun to pay respects one last time to Mr. Lee

Two days after his death, Mr. Lee’s body was placed inside the Parliament building so that the public could see him one last time and perhaps silently thank him for his lifetime of service. After finishing work on that sun-soaked, typically hot-and-humid Wednesday afternoon, I snaked my way through the area to witness one of the most astounding tributes I have ever seen.
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One of the hours-long queues to view LKY’s body, in front of the rainbow-colored MICA Building

Queues for the viewing stretched far beyond my line of sight – around Parliament, through underground tunnels, across the river, winding through neighborhoods. Initially, the wait was 8 hours, then it slowed down to about half that by sunset. The government decided to keep the building open around-the-clock to accommodate the crowds. By that afternoon, the mood among the masses was calm but not somber – flecked with tinges of sadness, but comprised more of resolute pride and appreciative celebration of Mr. Lee’s life – and their own. No visible signs of oppression here.
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How very Singaporean – workers ensured that those waiting in the orderly queue to view LKY remained well-hydrated in the crushing afternoon heat

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As I strolled past the very orderly (in true Singaporean fashion), looped lines spanning multiple generations, I realized that the legacy of LKY has already been passed down to even young children. I watched as deeply moved locals penned the thank-you notes and well-wishes they felt compelled to write – only to be read by those he left behind. I paused to breathe in the sweet fragrance of endless flowers that had been laid down in his honor. Even as a non-Singaporean, and indeed a first-time visitor myself, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness that his chapter in the fascinating history of Singapore had come to a close.
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Locals eagerly pen notes in memory of Mr. Lee, most taking the form of sincere thank-you messages and condolences to his family

One of the most heartfelt messages I read – honoring Mr. Lee as provider, protector, teacher, and peacemaker

One of the most heartfelt messages I read – honoring Mr. Lee as provider, protector, teacher, and peacemaker

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Even Singapore’s young understand the deep impact that LKY had, as demonstrated here by pages upon pages of thank-you post-it notes lovingly written by schoolchildren

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Mr. Lee inspired artists of all forms, culminating in touching sketches and paintings laid among beds of flowers near Parliament

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A visual excerpt of Singapore’s flag as re-created in lush, floral form

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Beautiful paper lotus blossoms, a creative alternative to the multitude of fresh flowers laid outside Parliament in honor of LKY

I liken what I observed to the crowds seen and sentiments expressed surrounding the deaths of JFK Jr. and Princess Diana, although those were unfortunately very untimely and sudden. This was more of a quiet acceptance – like arriving predictably but regretfully at the dignified, poignant, and bittersweet conclusion to a story that you don’t want to end, but that you know will resonate for years to come.
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Following the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the world watches (and perhaps learns) as Singapore builds upon the foundation he laid and begins its next chapter

In my next post, I will detail my other favorite experiences from my inaugural visit to this lovely country. I suppose it will be my more light-hearted tribute to the wonderland that is Singapore.

All images © 2015 deb fong photography

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

10 thoughts on “Searching for the Soul of Singapore”

  1. Ohh… What a beautifully written and holistic portrait of Singapore. I really like how you’ve described it here, it’s people, their hospitality and kindness, their government (the praise and criticism), and the legacy that LKY left behind. I haven’t been to Singapore yet but your post intrigues me… (I too have heard it was culture less and ‘sterile’) so I look forward to your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! I must say, my preconceived notions of Singapore were completely altered on this trip, certainly in part due the memorial events for LKY, which made me look deeper. I definitely encourage a visit – I realized it’s also up to tourists like myself to look a bit beyond its glossy exterior, but even that glitz is pretty impressive 🙂 And the people are absolutely lovely (not to mention the food)! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

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  2. Singapore is my favorite city and nation, and you have described it so very well! I hope that those who follow Lee Kuan Yew will be able to keep Singapore successful and safe going forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading, and I’m so glad you think I have captured Singapore well. I am really, really impressed by it and look forward to returning soon. Fortunately, work will take me there frequently now! I agree, the future lies within the people and the next generation of leaders. I hope they are able to keep and even escalate the positive momentum.

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    • Thanks so much, Jed! I’m so glad you enjoyed this piece. Always appreciate you reading and taking time to send such nice comments my way.

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    • Martin, high praise indeed, especially coming from you! Thanks so much for your kind compliment, so glad you enjoyed reading/viewing! Looking forward to seeing you in a few days!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Wonderland of Singapore | HONG KONG FONG

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