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While Singapore’s physical facade goes through multiple changes constantly, there are still key identifiers in terms of identity and specifically in terms of culture that have gone unchanged. From the unique variant of English to impressive cleanliness and the plethora of fines, here’s what you should know about the island state’s culture.
One glaring legacy of British colonial rule has been the sprouting of the local creole language Singlish. Historically degraded as inferior to English, there has been some pushback with it now being seen as part of the unique heritage of Singapore. Musicians such as Shigga Shay have used it and we even see it in literary works. One interesting tidbit about it is how the multi-cultural element has imbued Singlish with its unique vocabulary and grammar, being influenced by Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Tamil and other languages found across South, East and Southeast Asia.
No doubt, food and drink are the key unifiers for all residents on the little red dot, which is why the humdrum hawker centres have such a prominent presence around Singapore. It is constantly packed day and night, the centre of gossip and revelry and the perfect place to have a taste of the local cuisine at affordable prices. The best way to describe the hawker centre is that it is a cross between a Western bar and a community centre, where people hang out, eat and engage in boisterous conversations.
Short for the Housing Development Board, HDB blocks are found dotted across the island, sometimes new ones are constructed and old ones torn down. They come in various shades, designs and shapes, but one thing that is key to understanding this is how much of the relationship between Singaporeans and the multi-cultural society is influenced by HDBs. For a small island with limited space, HDB blocks pack a lot of people in, creating this suburban environment that allows a communal space for people to interact with each other and build ties that constantly forges the Singaporean identity.
For a city state with little resources, education has become instrumental for the citizens to have a future. Singaporeans hold the idea of learning very highly, with parents sending kids to supplementary training classes very early on to ensure their kids make it to the best schools. It is a draining and competitive environment for the world’s most expensive city so it’s no wonder that the idea of a lack of education will hold you back has such strong cultural impact and influence here.
Singapore as a city state does not exactly resemble a concrete jungle at all unlike other cities. One thing you will notice when arriving in Singapore is how much greenery there is. This is useful for a nation that lies on the equator, as the trees and shrubbery help in reducing the heat, albeit slightly. This has created a unique environment where urban designs meet nature and allow for a healthier and less polluted megalopolis to function. The amalgamation has also allowed Singapore to preserve much of its nature even with the constantly changing and developing landscape.
Probably the most important bit of information for tourists but a tedium for the locals is that you should be careful with what you do and where you do it. Singapore is notorious as a city that loves giving out fines. You can’t chew gum or smoke anywhere you like. Instead, you have to constantly look out for spots where you can indulge in your habit legally and without repercussion. Littering carries a fine as well so don’t throw that wrapper just anywhere.
For a city that works hard, it parties hard as well. Clubs here open till the wee hours for night revellers and party animals to unwind. For the more relaxed and frenetic, there are also bars that litter the central hubs like Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. Supermarkets and fast food chains are commonly open for 24 hours and even the hawker centres close their shutters very late. Night time is not considered very dangerous here, so expect to see people buzzing about till late.
Having a reputation as a food haven, it’s no wonder this is such a big part of the local culture. The inter-mingling of various ethnicities and groups has created fusions and unique delicacies that will make anyone’s mouth water. Besides the infamous chicken rice, roti prata and nasi lemak that everyone knows Singapore by, locals also love the infamous durian – be prepared to have your noses tickled by the pungent stench when it’s durian season. If you need a quick and easy primer for local food in all its varieties, just visit the closest hawker centre and have your pick.
For a crowded city in a small space in an extremely humid environment, you will notice how clean the city is. Dustbins are a common sight and an effective waste disposal program has meant the city streets are spick and span. As warned, littering carries a fine, so there’e a deterrent for people not to flippantly throw away their food packets or napkins, but there is also a strong sense of etiquette by Singaporeans to keep rubbish off the streets. Interesting tidbit: besides a fine, one of the most popular ways to punish offenders who litter is to make them do community programs to sweep the streets.
Besides the Great Singapore Sale (GSS) being an annual celebration of discounts and gifts with purchase, Singapore is a city where people are always shopping or looking for the best bargain. Walk about any HDB estate and on the weekends, you will see street hawkers peddling their discounted wares which can include anything from clothes to fans to new iteration of the common broom. Singapore has plenty of malls too, which even outside the major sale periods have some promotions. Singapore and bargains go hand in glove always.
Lastly and most importantly, learn to queue, and possibly for a long time. Queuing has become a national pastime here. With a large population always on the move, you will see lines forming for the next iPhone, public transport or stuffed cuddly toys. Singapore has a reputation for organisation and order and it’s no wonder that in so many things, queuing has become such a big thing. Even walking on the escalator, you will see a line forming on the left while the right hand side is for those in a rush. This can be seen as a welcome delight considering the rather hectic pace at which Singapore runs and yet people can be so patient to queue.