Singapore is the East's great melting pot, a
cultural pot pourri that leaves the unsuspecting visitor dazzled. Sir Stamford
Raffles, a British civil servant, brought the ‘Lion City'
to world prominence after searching for a trading station to counter the Dutch
influence in the Straits of Malacca, and trade has remained the island's
Centuries before Sir Stamford Raffles acquired it from the Sultan of Johor in 1819, Singapore had been virtually abandoned. However, within decades Singapore had become the main commercial and strategic centre for the region. In 1867, it became a British Crown Colony and housed one of the UK's most important naval bases. This status remained unchanged until 1942 when the Japanese army swept down through Malaya and occupied the colony. Three-and-a-half years later the Japanese surrendered in Singapore and the colony assumed its previous status. And with the dissolution of the British Empire came internal self-government (1959).
In 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia, but broke away in 1965 to become fully independent. The initial outlook was unpromising: Singapore is tiny and has no natural resources apart from a good harbour. However, Lee Kuan Yew (first elected prime minister in 1959 and re-elected eight times thereafter) managed to galvanise the population into building a strong, export-led manufacturing and service economy.
Tourism for Singapore has also proven to be of good economic benefit. Culture lovers thrive in this fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures - the main ethnic groups - with its assortment of mosques, temples and synagogues. Singapore presents a happy collision of opposites - grand and expensive at the famed Raffles Hotel, but low-key and cheap in the food markets of Bugis Junction and Clarke Quay.
But even in the low-key and cheap areas, Singapore remains an incredibly clean city where nothing is allowed to dull the shine - even down to the banning of chewing gum. In the last few years there has been some pressure to relax the numerous laws that have given Singapore a reputation as a prosperous but rather antiseptic and pettily repressive city-state. But Singapore City's exciting riverside parade of bars and restaurants reveals that Singaporeans actually do know how to have fun - and plenty of it.
The natural world is never far away in Singapore, either: Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has a significant area of primary rainforest within its boundaries, while, for the adventurous, Sungei Buluh Nature Park offers the chance for trekking. Check out Pulau Ubin's mangrove forest, a bumboat's ride from Changi jetty, or Kusu site of Taoists' annual pilgrimage.