Today is the 9th of August, 2020, the 55th birthday of this beautiful island nation called Singapore. While this year, the usual parade and celebrations are somewhat muted for understandable reasons, this still remains a very special day, not only for every Singaporean, but also for the millions of people who have made Singapore their homes, at some point in their lives.
Let me begin by sharing this year’s theme song for National Day Parade, which is titled ‘Everything I am“
This beautiful island has been my home for more than thirteen years now, and there is no denying the fact that this nation holds a special place in my heart. I vividly remember the first time I landed in Singapore, in the January of 2008. I was pretty awestruck by the shiny roads, and the balance of modern infrastructure with green tree tops, all along the highway exiting the airport.
I was not an entirely newbie to foreign landscape, having lived and traveled to a few countries across Asia, Europe and Africa. But this place made me feel home right away. Nevertheless, in my quest for exploring the world in that particular decade, I was convinced deep within, that this will be my abode for the next two years, before I move on to a new country, with a new culture to explore.
But that is where I was wrong! Thirteen years later, I am still on this stretch of 721.5 square kilo meters, located at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. And I don’t have that irresistible urge to move on to newer and greener pastures anymore, because I believe I am already privileged to be in one of the more comfortable places one can be.
So what makes Singapore so special? This is a question I face often, and I am sure many people who have settled overseas, would be familiar with. So these are the top three reasons I find Singapore to be a top country. The opinions are personal, so it is possible that some might disagree.
Singapore has consistently been rated as one of the safest countries on earth. Crime has always been low and 94% of Singaporean adults feel safe walking alone at night, compared to a global average of 68%. (Gallup Study 2018).
The result is consistent with some other studies. Singapore topped The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index in 2018, and was also ranked as the safest city by Global Smart City Performance Index the same year.
I recall, in my early days in this island, it was a common sight to see patrons in a crowded food court, reserve their seats (Chope-ing as it is called locally) by leaving behind their wallets and phones, while they queue up at a stall for their lunch orders. Back in India, we were used to this concept of chope-ing too, especially in overcrowded public transport, except the common items used in those cases were an old newspaper or a ‘not-so-clean’ handkerchief, and even then, the latter would often go missing.
Singapore’s emphasis on law and order has been uncompromisable, and that is how it has achieved this level of safety that is near perfect. So much so, that Tripadvisor’s guide on Safety in Singapore reads as below:
“Singapore is an extremely safe and clean city. You can travel to any parts of Singapore alone anytime of the year, regardless of gender. However, do keep a lookout for foreigners in Singapore, the locals are safe.“Tripadvisor on Singapore: Health & Safety
While safety is a top priority for anyone living anywhere, food is something that is probably the most important daily necessity, and Singapore is indeed a food paradise. Having traveled to over fifty countries, I can vouch for the fact that the range of food that Singapore offers, is unparalleled and almost impossible to find in any other country. Local dishes aside, one can really choose among options that many would not even have heard of, let alone having tasted. From the more famous cuisines of the world, like the French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Turkish or Japanese, to the relatively lesser known (but definitely not lower quality) ones like Mongolian, Nepalese, Vietnamese, Russian, Hungarian, Caribbean, Austrian, Filipino, Polish and Argentinian, you name it and there is a high likelihood that you will find it here. For the more adventurous ones, below is a great list on some of the more ‘exotic’ restaurants in Singapore, compiled by Xinhui Ong.
Then of course, there is local cuisine. Drawing inspirations from Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian and even some European genres of cuisine, Singapore has some amazing dishes and if you have traveled here but not tried them, you have not done justice to your taste buds. While I love many of them, I would shortlist these as my top three local cuisines.
Often called the National dish of Singapore, Chili Crab or its other variety Black Pepper Crab is indeed something worth digging your hands into.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Originating from Hainan in Southern China, this dish has become one of the most popular in Singapore, Malaysia and a host of other South East Asian countries.
A Malay dish, where the rice is cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves, this is a Singapore favourite and is usually served with fried chicken or fish.
For those who wish to know more about the popular Singapore dishes, here is a nice blog written by Claire and Rosemary.
Which brings me to the third element that makes Singapore a special country. The range of travel options on offer. While the island itself is somewhat small and there is not much for domestic travel, it is both strategically placed and internationally connected to provide innumerable options for those who wish to travel for work or disappear for leisure. The Changi Airport, consistently ranked among the best airports in the world, plays a massive role, but there are also options by the sea that surrounds Singapore from all sides.
The airport itself is one of the busiest in the world, and has direct passenger flights to 135 international destinations spread across 43 countries. Over 70 international airlines fly to and from Singapore, the longest flight being that to New York, a distance of 15,335 kms and takes 18 hours and 25 minutes and is operated by Singapore Airlines, which flies to 59 destinations.
It is no wonder that McKinsey Global Institute ranks Singapore as the most globally connected country in the world.
Now that I have talked about the three things that makes Singapore among the best places to live in, let me also make it clear that Singapore is not a perfect place. No country is, for that matter. There are things that could have been better in Singapore too, but that is generally true for every country and every thing in life. While much of the credit for making this such an amazing nation, goes to the people of Singapore, there is no denying that this would not have been possible without the will and competence of the people who run this country, the Singapore Government. Probably the most efficient, corruption free and transparent example of governance that can be witnessed anywhere in this planet.
AND SOME INTROSPECTION
My decade long preparation to answer what makes Singapore a special place was however, challenged one day about three years back, when I was driving a gorgeous Turkish friend of mine to a common friend’s place. This Turkish friend was living in Singapore for some years, and that was when we met, before she moved back to Istanbul, and was on a quick trip back to the island to meet her old pals. I was more than happy to drive her around and get to spend some additional time with her in the process. While listening to some Indian fusion music on my car’s music system, she asked the usual question of how long I had been in Singapore. She even made the standard ‘Wow!’ exclamation when I informed her that it was almost a decade. Then she asked the expected question “So, what do you think of Singapore?” and I was ready with my trained answer on the top three things that make Singapore a special place.
But she interrupted me even before I could start.
“I don’t want to know what makes Singapore special, but I want to understand what this decade long stay has taught you, and if it has made you better in any way.”
Now that was an unexpected question and in all honesty, I was not prepared with my usual well researched answer. I went silent for a while, before making some witty comments that were more about dodging the question than actually answering it. We laughed and soon the question was forgotten as we reached the destination, and spent the next couple of hours greeting a few friends. But the question stuck with me somehow.
There are quite a few things that I do differently now, than what I was used to doing during my days of growing up and living in India. They can be trivial habits like not littering on the streets, something we took as ‘normal’ behaviour back in India. Or even certain things that involved a change in fundamental mindset, for example I grew up with the notion, although it was never explicitly taught to me by anyone, that Mongoloid features (Asian features) were not to be considered ‘beautiful’. Most of us grew up considering fairer skin and sharper features, to be the definition of human beauty, and my stay away from India has made me realise the ignorance and the deeper lying racism behind that thought process. Decades later, I find Asians, especially the women, to be the most beautiful among the human race.
But none of these struck me as a fundamental change that Singapore has instilled upon me. On my way back from that friend’s place, I was driving alone and contemplating about the other things that had changed in me, be it in terms of habits or in terms of my thought process. A few other things came to my mind, but I was not satisfied with them either. Soon, I was close to my house and about sixty meters ahead of the left turn that would take me inside my condominium, I was about to cross the last intersection that joined the main road, on which I was driving straight.
I saw a driver coming in from the left, at a relatively higher speed than usual, and even though I was driving straight, our relative distance from the intersection was almost the same. I put my right foot on the brake and slowed down a bit, allowing the other motorist to reach the joining lane a few seconds ahead of me, as he turned his head and saw me, then raised his right hand to acknowledge and then sped on into my lane about six meters ahead of me.
As he became more distant, I reached the left turn for my condo and slowly entered the premises, into the basement parking lot. That was when it struck me!
This slowing down when I saw another driver coming from the left, is something that I would never have done while I was driving in India. Especially in the case when I was driving straight and other car was joining my road and lane, I would neither feel the necessity, nor the obligation, of giving way to the driver who was supposed to be the second in priority. My first reaction would be to step on the accelerator, and make sure the other guy understood that it was his responsibility to wait and let me to pass first. I also thought hard and came to the conclusion that in India, if I was the driver coming from the left, I would not have slowed down either. I would have accelerated and somehow tried to squeeze in before the other guy reached the intersection. There was a sense of defeat back then, in letting any other car go ahead of you, even if he deserved to be ahead.
This is something that Singapore has taught me. But this is not only about driving and giving way, it was about something far more fundamental. It was about acknowledging the presence of another person, and showing him or her the respect for being there. The driving scenario was just an expression of that basic respect that humans are expected and supposed to have for each other. The same is reflected in everything we do, or choose not to do, from littering, to shouting, to playing loud music, to pushing and shoving others in the public transport. If we acknowledge the other person and respect them as human beings, in the same way we would want them to do for us, we would act in a far more civil manner than what we often end up doing.
This is something I have mostly learned during my stay in Singapore, and once you learn these things, they tend to stay with you forever. That does not mean that everyone in Singapore is equally gracious, they are not, and it definitely does not mean that everyone in India is uncivil and devoid of basic respect. I am sure there are many people in India who act and think in a very civilised manner. But yes, talking about the general population, there is a significant difference among the two countries in terms of its people and while there are numerous factors behind this, we could change a large part of this, by simply educating our children about respecting others. That will go a long way in making them better humans.
Today, on this 55th Birthday of Singapore, I wish to laud Singaporeans for their phenomenal achievement as a country that champions meritocracy and progress. You have an exceptional country, with an incredibly capable leadership, and I hope it stays the same and climbs even further heights, and sets example for many others in the world. I also hope that many of us can keep learning and improve ourselves as human beings, by being a part of this lovely island. MAJULAH SINGAPURA!