As ambitious as he was, the founder of the city of Singapore, Stamford Raffles, could not imagine the vision he has of his former colony who, like us, arrives by sea.
The Indonesian island of Batam was forty minutes behind.
As the ferry winds its way through the vast fleet of tankers and freighters that traverse the Singapore Straits, the New York silhouette becomes clearer, formed by the skyscraper line of Singapore's CBD (Central Business District).
For those who come for a month and a half in the largest Muslim country in the world, ending up in the interior of Sumatra, that gray horizon hinted at a kind of return to a world not equal, but of the type we know.
The ferry bypasses the Sentosa island. Docks at Harbor Front dock. As soon as we disembark, we are faced with the technological sophistication with which border control is carried out. There is no doubt: we are back to modernity. We see gleaming ATMs, moving walkways and tourist support desks full of information.
Ads for familiar products stand out and we recognize multinational companies, from the most obvious to the least popular. We return to the capitalist sphere. The MRT – Mass Rapid Transit – from Singapore departs from there with connections to the farthest corners of the island.
It is forbidden to eat, smoke and transport the smelly durians on the subway. There is no longer any place for negligence, taken by prohibitions.
Singapore covers an area of 6823 km² and is crossed by a river of the same name. The skyscrapers that we glimpsed from the ferry are south of the mouth, adjacent to Marina Bay. These two areas form the most imposing part of the city.
We quickly installed ourselves near the neighborhood of Little India, already far from the nation's marginal zone. That same afternoon, we inaugurated the discovery of the island.
Singapore's Functional Sterility
We continue to follow the Singapore River. We follow the movement of your sampans, the typical hull boats with bright stripes and with eyes.
When not berthed at Clifford Pier, the sampans they cross the river towards the sidewalk of the esplanades, located right next to the CBD, in order to make life easier for executives. As soon as they leave the offices, they settle in noisy groups, have a few drinks and then indulge in sumptuous dinners.
In Singapore, even street life is programmed.
From this upstream dining area to Clarke, Boat and Robertson Quays, where the nightlife is concentrated, it's just a hop, or an MRT station.
Everything remains organized and controlled. This is how it is in Singapore that, in order not to disturb the island's harmony too much, until four decades ago, nightlife was limited to the minimum possible. The few establishments allowed were forced to close so early that they barely had time to make a profit.
Few were the young executives who wanted to move to a country without nightlife. However, also for economic reasons, the panorama has changed radically.
Today, bars and clubs like The Clinic, The Cannery or Ministry of Sound boast strong brand images and hyper-creative themed decorations. Customers, these, flock from the four corners of the world. They exude style and sophistication and pay whatever is needed for entry into fashion clubs.
So that the frequent rain doesn't disturb this glam festival, the streets of Clarke Quay have been tiled with glass roofs. Even when their children and stepchildren prepare to enter a bar with a striptease, the Nanny State of Singapore is present, preventing them from getting a cold.
As we could see, some of the children of Singapore are not prepared for such pampering. One of the frequent comments of the most demanding Singaporeans about their own country is: “This is so sterile here”.
The Civilization and Religious Isolation of the Ilha do Sucesso
It only takes a few days to understand what they refer to. We also realized that the second most common complaint is isolation. In civilizational terms, most Singaporeans – with the exception of the Malay ethnic group – and Western expatriates there feel surrounded by the vast Muslim world around them.
But the question doesn't end there either. Situated just above the equator, Singapore seems to live inside a pressure cooker. Heat and humidity are oppressive. When there is no sun, dense and high clouds, coming from the Indonesia with the monsoon wind, they hover over the country, menacing.
At any moment, they unload in floodwaters accompanied by thunderous thunderstorms. If the clouds open up a little, the sunlight hits it so hard that it whitens a panorama already in itself, too dominated by steel and cement.
It is not that there is a lack of gardens and other green spaces but, as a taxi driver complained, too many historic buildings have given way to modern buildings without a soul. “It seems that the island is so concerned about winning to win – the Singaporean spirit kiasu criticized by Malaysian and Indonesian neighbors – who are unaware of its pre-fab appearance.”
Little India's Ethnic Exoticism
When we pass over Elgin Bridge, a Dutch woman realizes that we are foreigners too and approaches us. Ask us what we're thinking. We hesitate to answer.
She takes the opportunity to add: “I've been here for two days and so far I've only seen shops and commercial galleries… wouldn't you advise me anything more genuine?” We sent her to Little India, on the coming Sunday. We alert you, of course, to prepare to move to another country.
Given the interlocutor's disappointment, it was out of the question to advise Kampong Glam, the Malaysian district dominated by the Sultan Mosque and expensive boutiques.
Much less Chinatown, where thousands of visitors, eager to spend, roam and where, under the typical architecture of colorful colonial buildings, more tourist-oriented shops are hidden.
When we visit the Chinese district, red paper lamps are dangling. They signal the approach of a new era of Chinese celebrations, culminating with the inauguration of a new Buddhist temple, the Tooth Relic Temple.
We investigated the work. We noticed that a considerable part of the workers are Indians. As if that wasn't enough, a few meters ahead, but in the heart of Chinatown, we find the Dravidian temple Sri Mariamman, with its gopuram (tower full of divinities) above the portal.
We are attracted to gaudy costumes and exotic chants. We enter to observe the ceremony which is fascinating and hypnotic. All of a sudden, the sterile and boring Singapore that even Singaporeans complained about surprises us.
Night already seizes the Sudthis asian when we arrived to the majestic Marina Bay. Immigrants bring visiting families. They share with them the magic of the twilight when the lights in the streets and offices above come on and, little by little, they paint the scenery – during the clear day – of all colors.
The preferred observation point, always full of residents and foreigners equipped with photographing and filming machines, is Merlion Park, a pier with a panoramic platform over the water.
The huge statue of the strange half-fish, half-lion designated in 1960 as Singapore's mascot stands out.
Foreigners are accepted in Singapore. Excellent working environment
The survival and later wealth secured by Singapore against all odds after the expulsion of the Malaysian Federation was due to the industrialization and urbanization programs carried out by the father of the nation Lee Kuan Yew.
Around the 90s, the city had the highest ratio of home ownership of the world. Despite the total absence of raw materials, the manufacture and export of high-tech products ensured Singapore the well-being of its population and a prominent role in the world economic sphere.
This bonanza was seriously threatened by the sudden rise of competing countries with much lower production costs, including the China became the obvious case.
From 33% of its 2.5 million workers twenty years ago, the industrial production force has shrunk to just 20%. As a direct consequence, Singaporeans lost purchasing power. Faced with the crisis, the younger inhabitants started to look for jobs abroad.
Those who remain have fewer and fewer children.
The Ambitious Goal and Success of the Population Revolution
The numbers are clear: Singapore is grappling with a serious problem of stagnation. He's been working on the solution for some time now. Literally. Since 2008, 2009 cranes and excavators have been renewing the nation.
The Herculean objective established at that time was to rapidly move from 4.4 to 6 million inhabitants, resorting to the recruitment of companies and qualified workers from other countries.
The government came to the conclusion that its reputation as a thriving but boring trading post was somehow deserved.
He decided to fight back and turned Sentosa Island – located just 500 meters off the south coast of Singapore – into a mega amusement park connected to Harbor Front by an MRT line.
Singapore imported hundreds of tons of sand to create artificial beaches. The new beaches were protected from the infernal maritime traffic of the Singapore Straits and the unpleasant sight of its refineries. To this end, huge stone walls were erected from which coconut and palm trees sprout.
In addition to the beaches, several other attractions came out of nowhere: museums, a Water World with SPA, a panoramic tower and cable car, cinemas, multimedia shows, golf courses and bicycle tracks, to mention just a tiny part.
In addition to the package, Singapore has built VIP housing condominiums that developers do everything (but even everything) to sell, including promoting them on huge billboards with images of the Sentosa sands so post-produced and fake they look like the Caribbean. .
And a Matching Urban Revolution
But the battle against stagnation did not stop there. It forced unexpected concessions on the part of the law lords. Until 2002, nightclubs were banned in Singapore. The game remained a taboo theme. From one moment to the next, everything changed.
On the eastern edge of Marina Bay, new buildings have emerged that have completely urbanized it: the triple towers of the Marina Bay Sands complex, a gigantic casino-resort built with revolutionary architecture by the operator Las Vegas Sands.
When completed in 2009, Marina Bay offered more than 2500 hotel rooms, a shopping center crisscrossed by canals, an ice skating rink, two 2000-seat theaters each for Broadway shows and a museum.
From the last tower of this development to the west and up to the proximity of the CBD emerged more skyscrapers destined to house the companies that employed the expected immigrants.
After sacrificing some of his old principles in the name of the nation's survival, Lee Kuan Yew became one of the project's most active sellers.
His metamorphosis was such that, in his annual Chinese New Year speech, after mentioning free trade agreements and strengthening political ties in the region, he moved to repeated references to open-air dinners, jazz bands, sailing, windsurfing and fishing.
In this way, he tried to enforce the superior quality of life with which he thought to attract specialized foreign workers. As he summed it up: “Singapore will be a tropical version of New York, Paris and London rolled into one”.
In the face of such high expectations, we have to think positively. If Kuan Yew's plan fails, Singapore will always be an unusual country city, with a fascinating multi-ethnic population and one of the gastronomies most varied in the world.
From Raffles' Revenge to Lee Kuan Yew's Paternalism and Success
After Napoleon invaded Holland in 1795, the British tried at all costs to prevent an expansion of France into the territories of Southeast Asia. They occupied Malacca and Java.
With the defeat of the French in Europe, they decided to return these territories to the Dutch. The measure allowed to avoid a probable conflict and to consolidate the increasingly profitable British presence in the Malay Peninsula.
It did not, however, avoid the enormous resentment of the Lieutenant-Governor of Java, Stamford Raffles, who saw all his work being handed over to a competing power when he felt that Great Britain, the most powerful nation in Europe, should extend its influence in Southeast Asia.
Humiliated but not defeated, Raffles persuaded the East India Company that establishing a colony on the tip of the Malay peninsula was central to profiting from the sea route between the China and India.
In 1819 Raffles landed in Singapore, then part of the Sultanate of Johor.
It gets involved in conflicts of succession and lineage of the island's rulers. He quickly won the protection of one of the parties and the right to build a trading post. Five years later, Raffles signed a second treaty that handed Singapore over to Britain in exchange for money. And lifetime pensions to be paid to the sultan he had supported and a local chieftain.
In just five years, your new territory has appeared on the map. Raffles' next plan was to make him an economic bastion of the British Empire. To this end, it established that no fees would be charged for commercial transactions.
At that time, Singapore inhabited about 150 Malay fishermen and Chinese farmers.
With the prospect of British “adoption” and the wealth announced by the project, thousands of other Chinese and Malays flocked to the island. Some of the first married Malay women. They formed the Perakanan (half-caste) people and culture.
In 1821, the population of Singapore (Malaysian Singa=lion + Pura=city) already had 10.000 inhabitants. As planned, the port attracted more and more commerce and the colony evolved visibly, however with the contribution of thousands of Indians recruited by Raffles who considered them more suitable for the construction of buildings and railways.
Broad streets were built with shops and covered walkways, docks, churches and even a botanical garden. The entire work was intended to make Singapore an imposing and important colony of the empire.
Interestingly, in social terms, Raffles' strategy was to divide and manage the population according to their ethnic origin. In line with today's reality, even at that time, most Europeans, Indians, Chinese and Malays lived in their respective neighborhoods.
More recently, after the scare of the Japanese invasion of World War II and the forced separation by the expulsion of the Federation of Malaysia (to whom the British had already granted independence), caused by the island's refusal to grant institutional privileges to resident Malays, in 2 , Singapore went its own way.
With the departure of the British from the political scene, the management of the territory was left to the Chinese of the People Action Party (PAP). These, over the paternalistic tenures of Lee Kuan Yew, a Cambridge-educated lawyer who ruled for more than 30 years, and Goh Chok Tong, in power from 1990 until very recently, elevated Singapore from the third world to the first.
They overcame problems as serious as the 1997 Asian currency crisis. And they managed to recover the past of prosperity inherited from the British.
With the advance of the years, the ethnic structure of the population of Singapore defined itself. Today, of its 3.3 million fixed inhabitants, 77% are Chinese; 14% Malaysians and 8% Indians.
There are also 1.1 million foreigners living permanently on the island who work in the many multinationals with headquarters and branches in the country.