Singapore — the Asian country that hosted two very important leaders this year — chose the Merlion as its official mascot several decades ago. The Merlion is a half-lion, half-fish myth that guards the nation from natural and man-made calamities.
That a small nation surrounded by giants chooses such a symbol doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Singapore is on its guard — never complacent, never reckless — always on the move, looking to build alliances and forge ahead.
Born and raised in India, I came to this island two decades ago as someone’s wife. Today, I am mother to a daughter and dog, and teacher to many students who call Singapore their home. My students are my strongest connection to Singapore. Some of them tell me about their daily lives and what it’s like to spend a weekend packed with classes, but they need to aim high. Singapore follows a meritocratic educational system and my young friends can’t afford to be laid-back.
Multi-cultural City of Migrants
Being a young nation, Singapore strives to define itself through a blend of immigrant cultures. One can see the Chinese burning paper as part of ancestral worship and the Indians piercing their tongues for Thai Pusam. The Malays gather for Iftar during Ramadan while Christmas is celebrated in style with massive Christmas trees lining Orchard Road, one of Singapore’s most popular shopping streets.
Singapore is no doubt in tune with the world but it struggles at times to be in tune with its inner music. Who is a true Singaporean? Well…the debate is on.
The government — perceived as too controlling by many in the western world — is focused on building a national identity by better showcasing its history and ensuring religious and racial harmony. Singapore’s dependence on foreign labour has generated controversy over the years, but the people know the importance of welcoming immigrants while also pushing its leaders to generate enough opportunities for all.
It is not easy to broach a topic as difficult as national politics with ordinary Singaporeans, but the country’s taxi drivers are well-known for being polite, informative and chatty. A harmless comment about the weather could lead to a maze of replies and counter-questions that could bring you a tad closer to the psyche of this city-state.
Beware of Chewing Gum and Durians!
Though not many people know much about this country (some think it is still part of Malaysia while others ask if it belongs to China), everyone knows about Singapore’s history of slapping fines for a range of misdemeanours.
It banned chewing gum in the 1990s after someone stuck it to the doors of a newly launched train. Pharmacies do sell dental gum these days and hey, no one objects to getting a few wads of gum from neighbouring countries. Just don’t stick them to train doors! There are fines for jaywalking, littering, eating and drinking on trains, vandalism, rash cycling, and so on. It is also perhaps the only country that prohibits people from travelling with durians.
The durian is a strong-smelling fruit with a spiky exterior. Found in wet markets across Singapore, the durian is to Singaporeans what the mango is to Indians. However, its smell — pungent and sharp — spreads fast and clings to the air in such a manner as to make people uncomfortable in closed compartments. Hence, the country’s favourite fruit is banned from travelling in trains with its people.
Mass Rapid Transit
If you want to see the sheer diversity of those that call Singapore their home, take a train or Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) as they call it. The lifeline of Singapore, MRT stations span almost the entire length and breadth of the country, and carry more than 3 million passengers everyday. Many Singaporeans expect the young and healthy to give up their seats for the elderly or pregnant passengers. So even if you are on your phone with your earphones squeezed into your ears, chances are someone will tap your shoulder and request you to get up. Singapore’s trains are fast and safe. They bring countless nationalities together, brewing a cocktail of languages and dialects from places near and far.
Rain and Sun…and Rainbows
Singapore is often called a sunny nation but it’s not always sunny here. The rains come crashing down — sometimes without warning — on people. Lightning splits the skies and massive mushroom clouds hang low.
Few Singaporeans venture out of their homes without umbrellas. One might miss the seasons but who would complain about sunny skies that see rainbows every now and then?
Singapore has embraced people from many countries across the world and continues to be in a symbiotic relationship with foreigners. This is a nation built by immigrants. It strives on, paddling its way through generational shifts that trigger a multitude of problems from migration and terrorism to class inequalities and calls for political change. And the Merlion still stands, its eyes never leaving the horizon, guarding this little dot on the map.
- Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious city-state built on secular values
- Stable and safe with a very low crime rate
- Easy access to many nations across Asia
- Good public transport
- Housing options include government housing and private condominiums or independent villas
- A wide range of cuisines, affordable hawker food, and fine dining options
- Good schooling system with public and private schools, polytechnics and Universities
- Many opportunities for those interested in volunteering (a great way to work with the locals)
- Four official languages — English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil
The lows of living in Singapore aren’t many. It is small with few natural resources. It could get boring if one doesn’t actively find things to do. Singaporeans are more modern than many Asians but they may still be perceived as conservative by those coming from more liberal nations.
The first Catholic bishop to be arrested for allegedly raping a nun…bravo, sisters.
But let justice roll on like a river;
righteousness like a never-failing stream. (Amos 5:24)