Aug 11, 2010
I had been to Singapore on a number of occasions over the past 23 years, during my frequent travels from India to Australia and vice-versa. I had a brother who worked and lived over there, with whom I used to stay for a few days on the way. But last month my trip to the country was unscheduled because, like me, he got retired of his regular job and invited me to come over and spend some time with him.
While my brother was busy with his usual routines sorting out a few of his affairs, I found myself browsing through the daily newspapers and catching up with the local news. It was then that I thought of penning a few of my thoughts and observations of this little Island Nation/City of Singapore, which is quite modern and well developed, with neat and tidy high rise residential and commercial buildings and infrastructure everywhere, and also a well-planned and nicely laid out pathways and three or four-lane roadways, all escorted and encompassed by greenery, lawns and parks, with well-maintained shrubs and trees throughout.
I distinctly remember the olden times, about 35 or 40 years ago, when Singapore used to be the shopping paradise for goods and materials like clothes, leather bags, travel accessories, shoes, cosmetics and perfumes, electronic gadgets, watches, jewellery, etc. They were not only cheap but also of good quality.
I especially remember, some of my colleagues at work in Pune, mostly Sindhies, used to go over to Singapore for a couple of days or so, and when they returned, brought bags and bags of these goods, even paying a huge amount of customs duty. They even took along with them one or two of their colleagues or friends, bearing all their travel costs, including boarding and lodging, on the condition that these so-called Carriers, (they used to be called as mules in a subtle way) carried the shopping bags for their Sponsors. The Carriers also welcomed such trips in a way, as they had an opportunity of visiting and seeing a new country which everyone was looking for in those years, all expenses paid. On their return, my colleagues easily sold these items to their workmates and amongst their friends' circle and to their relatives at relatively modest prices, for, during that period, there used to be a real craze in India for foreign goods, and even after deducting all the expenses, they landed up making some tidy profits - very enterprising guys indeed!.
Now, over the years, with massive industrialisation and local produce of quality goods in India itself, and also with the flooding in of cheap products from neighbouring countries China, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia and others the craze and demand for foreign goods has comparitively subsided. Moreover, the finding of oil in the gulf countries during the 1960's and 1970's resulted in a large number of people migrating over there for jobs. And whenever they returned on their annual holidays, they brought along with them heaps and heaps of these foreign goods.
The craving for goods from Singapore ultimately disappeared, though some people still go over there mainly for buying gold jewellery, for one can find the best quality of gold over there (of course, these days there is Dubai also I suppose) - by the way, the gold chains and necklaces of ice cream design that one can buy in Singapore are still popular, and Mustafas in the Little India complex at Serangoon is the place to go.
Besides buying gold jewellery and some other luxury items, a lot of people from India still go to Singapore for sight-seeing, now that a lot of low fares are being offered by airlines like Tiger Airways, which regularly flies to Singapore from India. Before I proceed to list some of the tourist attractions and must-do things while you are there, I am going to talk a little bit about this beautiful and elegant island city of Singapore - its history in brief, its geographic location and its size, its climate, its economic situation, people, culture and their way of living.
Topography and Climate
Singapore is a small, but rich and affluent island nation/city with an area of 700 sq kilometres. Forming a part of South Eastern Asia Islands between Malaysia and Indonesia, it is situated right at the south end of Malaysia and is separated from it only by a 1.9 kilometre bridge. One can cover the entire city of Singapore by car - East to West and North to South within a matter of two hours, on a free-flowing traffic day. Being nearer to the equator, Singapore's temperature throughout the year is relatively uniform with ample rainfall and high humidity, the mean total annual rainfall being 2345 mm, spread throughout the year and tending to be more abundant from November to January, when it is generally cooler, and May to July, when its hotter.
Depending upon the season, the temperature varies from a minimum of 19 degree C to a maximum of 36 degree, and varies between 25 degree C and 30 C, most of the year. The average daily humidity is about 84%, which varies between 60% and 90%.
History, Administration and Law
Singapore was formed as a British colony in the year 1819 and was under its rule till 1963, when Singapore got its independence, and through a referendum by the people, it joined the Malaysian Federation. However it separated from the Federation a couple of years later in the year 1965, and became an independent and sovereign nation. The National Day is celebrated in Singapore on August 9 every year.
Singapore is a democratic republic nation with President as the head of the state and Prime Minister as head of the cabinet of ministers, similar to the parliament system of India. The judiciary system also, more or less, is similar to that of India. But unlike India, Singapore being a tiny nation, it has no state governments and local councils/municipalities, etc. There are a number of public utility boards (PUB) though, which look after the supply of water, electricity and telecommunication services, etc. Like India, there are three defence forces, the army, the navy and the air force, but conscription (national service) is in place over there for male permanent residents and citizens between the ages 18 - 21 who compulsorily have to undergo the national service for a duration of minimum two to two and half years.
The judiciary system and law and order rules are very strict in Singapore, especially when it comes to drugs - anyone caught in possession of prohibited drugs is liable to death penalty. Strict smoking restrictions are in public places and only in designated places can one smoke. The law is very stringent when it comes to theft, murders or any other sort of violence - either domestic or public - that is why Singapore today enjoys almost a crime-free atmosphere - even ladies can walk out or travel anywhere in the city till late night without any fear. Except for an occasional ill treatment of a maid servant or a domestic dispute which sometimes turns out nasty, one hardly comes across any crime reporting in the daily newspapers.
By the way, The Straits Times is the the most widely-read English daily. One gets the impression though, unlike India, the freedom of the press in Singapore is limited; there is some censorship and strict surveillance and guidelines by the government when it comes to reporting sensitive matters about the nation.
Singapore has a corruption-free society - there is virtually no bribe-exchanging practice at the government level or in the private sector. There may be a freak case here and there in private circles, but anyone caught in the act is dealt with severely. That's one of the reasons Singapore has made such progress and attained prosperity. India would have done far better had it not faced the rampant cancerous practice that is prevailing.
Singapore has a total population of about 5 million. It is predominantly of Chinese origin, which forms about 73% of the total, and then the Malays contribute to about 13%, the Indians, mostly of Tamil and Bengali origins of about 8%, and the rest are from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Philippines. Most of the domestic maids that are employed in Singapore by the rich and the affluent, these days, come from Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Literacy is almost 100%, and the main language English, which is widely taught in schools and spoken in public. Chinese, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Sinhalese, are the other languages spoken. Sex ratio, male versus female is 1:1.1, infant mortality is very low at 2.3 per 1000 live births, birth rate is about 1.1child per woman. The average life expectancy is 82 years for the total population - 79 years for men and 85 for women, which indicates that there is a very good health system and living conditions in place.
The main source of revenue in Singapore is the tourism, hotel and services industry, gas and oil processing, trade and export, marine lines, banking, insurance and finance, and other industries such as chemicals and biomedical sciences, electronic and precision engineering and logistics and transport. There is a goods and services tax (GST) in place which is currenty at 7%. The American and British influence is very much present in singapore, especially in the fields of banking and finance.
The rate of unemployment is about 3% in Singapore, with a labour force of about three million (60% of the total population), employed mostly in the services industry - about 75% of them, while the other 25% are engaged in the agro-based and other industries. Unlike western countries, Singapore has no social security system, and one has to fend for oneself when one retires, as is the case in India; though, of course, the government and public sector employees are excluded. But in Singapore, there is a liberal contributory provident fund (CPF) in place to provide financial security on retirement where the employee and the employer almost equally have to contribute mandatorily to the scheme which is very attractive.
The annual inflation rate in Singapore is currently around 3%, and the official bank interest rate is only 0.03%! One can earn only 1 to 1.5% on their saving accounts in local banks, and that is why more and more Singaporeans are investing in Euros, Pound Sterling or US Dollars, or depositing their money elsewhere in order to earn better rate of interest. The official forecast of GDP growth (gross domestic product) presently stands at 7 to 9% but is expected to go up to 13 to 15%, and the economists think Singapore may even outstrip China to become Asia's fastest-growing economy this year and the next. That is why, the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong recently announced that they would need another 1,00,000 foreign skilled workers to keep up with the additional demand, especially in the hospitality and tourism industries which are hungry for workers, following the opening of the two integrated resorts and a surge in the number of tourists landing in Singapore. The other sectors that look for additional semi-skilled workers are high-end industries such as electronics and marine. India, which has a readily available skilled and semi-skilled English speaking work force, should actively look for taking advantage of this new employment market.
Housing and Transport
Being a small city, space comes at a premium, so, every empty piece of land has been utilised in the best possible manner. These days, one hardly comes across an independent bungalow-type of house in Singapore, though there are still a few in the eastern suburb. Everywhere, there are neat and tidy, well-planned, posh looking high rise buildings and skyscrapers, which accommodate thousands and thousands of families.
There are mainly two types of residential dwellings - the major one being flats and units in multi-storied blocks and buildings, built and sold by the government-run housing development board (HDB), mainly to the families who fall in the lower and middle income group.
The other type is the condominium living. These multi-storied dwellings are built, promoted and sold by the private building companies, bought mostly by fairly affluent and rich people. The HDB blocks consist of about 80% of the total housing complexes, and the rest 20% or so, the condominiums, popularly known and called as condos. The condos are managed by the privately run property management agents, and the expenses are borne by the condo members by way of periodical levies.
Some condo living almost matches to that of 4 or 5 star style of accommodation in that, the complex contains, besides the tight and vigilant 24-hour security, a well-maintained swimming pool (which is very handy in Singapore because of its high humidity throughout the year), tennis, basketball, badminton and squash courts, well-equipped gymnasium, walking paths, picnic and children playing areas. All these facilities are available free of cost at all times for the residents. My brother lives in one of these condos and I really made best use of all these modern facilities while I was there.
Singapore has an extensive nicely laid out and well-maintained multi-lane modern network of roads throughout the city, with clearly marked traffic arrows, indicators and signals, and also travel directions. There are cycling and walking pathways, and also plenty of designated pedestrian crossings. There is virtually no littering and spitting, and indulging in such things could result in a heavy fine. The roads are pollution and noise-free.
There is strict control on vehicle usage especially to reduce pollution and to maintain the clean air and environment by introducing the certificate of entitlement (COE) which are very expensive. The COEs are auctioned every year and the value for the current year is about S$40,000. The COE is a sort of bond deposit (no interest accrued) with the transport department the car buyer has to undertake when buying a new car, and the COE has a validity of 10 years, and at the end of this period, the owner has the option to surrender his/her car and get his money back, or continue with the old car and thus forfeit the COE deposit.
In addition to the cost of COE, one has to pay for the new car. The cost of the cheapest model/brand could be around S$ 50,000, considering that import duty alone is 150%. So, one is looking at around S$ 90000 - 100,000 total (after taking into account the cost of COE) when buying a cheaper model car, but if you go for the luxury cars like BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, and the like, which incidentally are quite in number on the road, the cost will shoot up to S$200,000 and above! Of course, then there is the monthly maintenance charges which could cost to nothing less than S$ 1000 for the cheapest cars. So, all added up, not everybody can afford to have a car in Singapore and that is why one finds so many motor cycles and cycles on the road these days.
But to compensate, there is a good public transport system in Singapore - the SMRT (State Mass Rapid Transit) trains and the State Transit Bus Services which cover practically every nook and corner of the city. These are run by the government in a very efficient and professional manner, especially when it comes to frequency and reliability, and the ordinary working class people make best use of these services. The cost of travel by trains and buses is very cheap as well. There is also an extensive and efficient fleet of taxi service which is run by the private operators.
Then there is also the electronic road pricing (ERP) system, which facilitates smooth flow of traffic. With the ERP system, motorists are charged every time they drive past an ERP gantry during operational hours. The ERP charges are set higher during peak hours and lower during off-peak hours. Perhaps, Indian metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolcatta, Chennai, Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad can take quite a few cues and guidelines from the city of Singapore when it comes to road maintenance, traffic management and control.
Fumigating services are conducted religiously every week at all condos, HDB housing blocks, road sides, shopping complexes and commercial buildings, gardens, parks and reserves, in order to keep the surroundings neat and tidy, and also to get rid of flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats and rodents, etc; by the way, I am yet to come across one in Singapore during my number of visits.
Places of Interest
I will not be completing my job unless I talk about the places of interest to visit and see while in Singapore. One must plan for a visit of at least 7 days, and the following may be the itinerary while you are there:
• Visit to the Santosa Island: Make sure you spend at least 2 days at Santosa. There are about 30 sites to cover here - do not miss out the ride in the cable car, mono train and the beach train; ride the movies at the Universal Studios Theme Park; Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom; Cinemania -thrilling rides; Carlsburg Sky Tower, Port Siloso, Dolphin Lagoon, Underwater World, Palwan and Siloso Beaches, Musical Fountain, Animal and Bird shows, Flower Terrace and Fountain Garden, Herb and Spice Garden, Scented and Santosa Orchid Gardens, Vulcano Land and the Merlion and the Merlion Walks.
• Spend one day at the Jurong Bird Park. With over 8,000 birds belonging to more than 600 species, Jurong Birds Park is one of the best in conservation and display of birds in its natural settings. Do not miss out on the early bird shows. While you are there, make sure you visit the Jurong Lake Park and also the Chinese and Japanese gardens in the vicinity, entrance to which are free of cost. One can also visit the Jurong Crocodile and Reptile Paradise next to the Jurong Birds Park.
• You will need another entire day at the famous Singapore Zoo, which is one of the few open zoos in the world where animals roam freely in specially landscaped enclosures designed to resemble their natural settings. Covering 28 hectares, the zoo houses over 3,000 animals representing some 320 species of mammals, birds and reptiles, white tigers, anacondas, rhinoceros, lions, elephants, orang utans and the hamadrayas baboons. While you are there, take the Night Safari where you can see the lions, giraffes, leopards, rhinoceros, freely roaming around - the visitors can tour the park on a 45-minute ride or on foot through three walking trails, or a combination of both.
• Spend one day exclusively to cover the following: Singapore Art Museum - where one can find display of 20th century Singaporean and Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art; Singapore Botanic Garden - one of the foremost tropical gardens in the world, where professional horticulturists collect, cultivate and conduct research on indigenous and exotic plants; The Singapore Discovery Centre, which offers educational tours to the visitors by displaying and projecting Singapore's history, cultural background and national values; The Singapore History Museum that houses a series of exhibitions and activities tracing the history of Singapore; The Singapore Science Centre which is acclaimed as one of the top ten science centres in the world. The special attraction here is the huge omni-theatre occupying over 6200 sq. metre, housing a 5-story high 276-seat omni-planitarium, an exhibition gallery and a simulation theatre.
• And finally two days exclusively to roam in the city - the Orchard Road, Raffles Centre, Marina Bay Sands, Suntec City, Espalande, China Town, Little India, Arab Street, Clark Quay, etc while shopping at a number of malls on the way - don't miss out on the newly-opened ION shopping mall for upmarket shoppers and Mustafas especially for the gold jewellery. If you have run out of cash after paying for all those entrance fees and tickets to the various interesting sites that you visited during the past 5 days, doesn't matter, you can still enjoy window shopping - for it's a real pleasure to walk along the main streets glancing at those umpteen number of high rise buildings and shopping complexes and browsing over the posh and elegant goods and apparels that are displayed - one never gets tired of looking at them!.
While at the Raffles Place, visit the famous Raffles Hotel and make sure you drink the Singapore Sling at the hotel's Long Bar. At Marina Bay Sands, make it a point to go over to Tower 3 - the 360 degree scenery from the top is fantastic and breathtaking! One can even spend the whole day there on the top relaxing in the swimming pool, or just sit in the roof garden and enjoy the surrounding beauty. Just next to the Tower 3 lies the newly-opened Marina Casino. Get in there and enjoy the experience as entry to the foreigners is free (locals have to pay $100) - make sure you take your passport along. I did go over to the Marina Casino this time, and placed a bet on the roulette for $ 5, and may be by beginners luck, to my delight, my number came up at the first shot. I quietly cashed in my chips worth $175 and walked out.
Just close by on the opposite side of the Marina Bay Sands Towers and Casino, is the 165 metre high Singapore Flyer, the massive giant wheel, from where the view when you reach the top end is fantastic and the feeling you get is simply thrilling and scintillating. Another experience not to be missed.
In conclusion, I would like to once again state that Singapore is a a well-developed, modern, elegant and a beautiful city which has been looked after very well by its government and the people. It's a fascinating experience to visit this city - one never gets tired of it.
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