A little red dot in the center of Southeast Asia, Singapore is a cosmopolitan city built on the backs of immigrants from across Asia and the four corners of the world. The nation's cultural mix continues to expand, thanks to continuing migrations of foreign talent -- almost one in three people in Singapore today has come from elsewhere to live and/or work here. This cultural diversity is refreshing, but not nearly as refreshing as the sense of openness and harmony that exists among races and religions.
Singapore Inc. runs like clockwork. Over 40 years of political stability have seen the seeds of development take hold and grow at an impressive rate. The government is a well-oiled machine that operates like the executive board of a massive company, carefully plotting deliberate steps for economic growth and building a safe and orderly country. Even its detractors concede: Singapore works.
I'll confess, many travelers complain to me about how Westernized Singapore is. For some, a vacation in Asia should be filled with culture shock and bizarre sights. Today's travel philosophy seems to be that the more underdeveloped and obscure a country is, the more "authentic" the travel experience will be. But with all its shopping malls, imported fashion, and steel skyscrapers, Singapore looks like any other contemporary city in any other part of the world. But to peel through the layers is to understand that life here is more complex. While the outer layers are startlingly Western, just underneath lies a curious area where East blends with West in language, cuisine, attitude, and style. At the core, you'll find a sensibility rooted in the cultural heritage of values, religion, superstition, and memory.
For me, this is where the fascination begins. Like the rows of historic shophouses that line the city's oldest streets, if you look closely, you'll see a jumble of influences, from colonial architectural mandates to Chinese superstitions and Malay finery. Even the local language is a blend: "Singlish," the unofficial local tongue, combines English language with Chinese grammar, common Malay phrases, and Hokkien slang to form a Patois unique to this part of the world. It's a cultural convergence that's been ongoing for almost 200 years. So, in a sense, Singapore is no different today than it was a century ago. And in this I find my "authentic" experience.
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