As you sip an incredibly overpriced Singapore Sling in the famous Raffles Hotel, a quick survey of the crowded Long Bar summarizes this ‘Asian Tiger’. Families with bored-looking kids getting the waitresses to take their holiday snaps; Chinese and Western businessmen enjoying a beer; a Malay couple in their finest gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes over champagne; and even the odd gap year traveller in their only smart shirt, wrinkled from their backpack, spending three days’ budget on one Sling. Although monkey nut shells still carpet the floor, noticeably absent are the literary icons (Ernest Hemingway was reportedly a keen patron of the Long Bar), down-and-out aristocracy and bustling merchants of the hotel’s colonial heyday.
That is because Singapore is a very different place from the city it used to be in those days (for example, if you were Chinese, you weren’t allowed to stay at Raffles until the 1940s). Huge skyscrapers, marked with the logos of banks and multinational corporations, tower over the small group of islands. The shopping malls selling the latest gadgets and fashion items are as full as its bustling port, marking the city as a major trade hub for Asia and the world.
Amalgamation of Cultures
Singapore had a population of less than 1,000 when the British East India company’s representative, Thomas Raffles, arrived to build a port on this strategically positioned island off the coast of Malaysia. Within 50 years there were over 100,000 inhabitants. Immigrants from India, China and Malaysia mixed with British colonials and Arab traders, creating a diverse amalgamation of cultures. Independence was granted in 1959 and Singapore eventually emerged as a hodge-podged cultural tapestry of a nation.
I once had the misfortune of shipping a vehicle out of the monstrous port, a huge industrial machine that works like clockwork, and certainly not the place to be wandering around alone trying to ship a car. I was fortunate to have an agent to navigate the vast expanse of containers, docks, trucks, cranes and offices; otherwise I expect I would still be searching for the exit. He was a large Singaporean Indian, who barked into his phone in Hindi, showed me where I should sign paperwork in English and commanded a small army of Chinese workers in their own language, all in the same breath – whilst simultaneously playing a game on his iPad. He epitomized the diversity and functionality of the place, a country where language or race present few barriers if there is money to be made.
It is, however, a very small and crowded place. Although set to grow by 103 km2, thanks to land reclamation projects, it crams over 5 million citizens into an area smaller than 710 km2 – about the same area as the city of Austin in Texas.
Singapore is one of the more wealthy countries in the world and its wealth can be attributed to a few factors. Highly business-friendly, it is ranked number two in the Index of Economic Freedom and is rated favorably for competitiveness, freedom and innovation, as well as being one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Tourism is healthy and the country has tried to promote itself as a hub for medical tourism as well.
Regional Oil Hub
Singapore is the region’s premier centerb for oil and gas, and the oil industry accounts for 6% of the country’s economy, even though Singapore itself doesn’t have a drop of oil! As the undisputed oil hub in Asia, Sinagpore is one of the world’s top three export refining centers. It also has a well-established petrochemical industry, and US$500 billion of oil stocks are traded through Singapore markets (beaten only by London and New York). Storage is set to become the next step, with a large project planned to turn the Jurong Rock Caverns into a super storage site, with a capacity to store 9.2 MMbo by 2013, and potentially another 8.3 MMbo after that.
Wandering around Chinatown, low rise and run down (but only relative to the pristine towers of the city), is an almost welcome relief from Singapore’s obsessive cleanliness, for which the country has a famous reputation. Down by the riverfront, fish restaurants and bars are busy with tourists and Western businessmen. Beer flows, and rugby and English Premier League football are shown on the big screens; you could be forgiven for thinking you were in London on a muggy summer’s afternoon.
Muggy is key though; Singapore’s weather ranges from hot and humid to hotter and more humid. Sometimes it is so hot, you would be forgiven for spending the day kicking back and sipping Slings – but you won’t get much change from US$20!