As the plane began its descent, I could see a light rain falling. But by the time the aircraft touched down at Singapore’s ultra-modern Changi Airport and I walked through the aerobridge, the drizzle had stopped. It was the time of the Chinese New Year. Everything was lit up—as darkness settled, the city became a sea of light.
Singapore seems so modern and sleek and spick and span, one could think that its whole urban structure was prefabricated, transported from somewhere far away, and placed on this patch of marshy land by the sea. The impression one gets is that the city state has no connect with history; it does not seem to be an organic metropolis like other big cities.
This heterogeneous, multicultural society of disparate people—about six million of them—has internalised the idea of progress. But while development and order are a priority in this Asian first-world city, culturally it is inextricably rooted in the past.
Dating back by centuries
I walked down the upmarket River Valley Road to Fort Canning Park, a window to the city’s past. Located in the central business district of Singapore, it yields a perspectival view. The thickly wooded hilltop is named after Lord Canning, the last Governor General and first Viceroy of India. There are the remains of an old fort that the British used in the Second World War. The Japanese, too, used Fort Canning during the occupation of Singapore, a war which took a big toll on the island. Around the Fort is the Five Kings Walk, which dates back seven centuries.
From the 13th century until 1398, Singapore, then known as Temasek, was ruled by Hindu-Malay-Buddhist rulers. It was a thriving settlement and a trading port. The five kings of that era were Sang Nila Uttama, Sri Wikram Wira, Sri Rana Wikrama, Sri Maharaja, and Parameswara or Iskander Shah. The Portuguese and the English displaced them. Singapore finally became independent in 1965.
A multicultural society
One evening, as I dined with a group of friends at a Persian restaurant, Shabestan, on Robertson Quay, conversation veered towards Singapore society and what we can learn from the small city state. Chinese, Malay, and Indian are the major ethnic groups on the island. Of this, the Chinese constitute about 76 per cent, the Malays 15 per cent and Indians 7.5 per cent. The Straits-Chinese came to trade here, bringing their cultural traditions and marrying Malays and others over time. Thus developed the local Peranakan culture. The early Indians came as plantation workers and integrated themselves into the local milieu. Mandarin, Malay, English, and Tamil are the nation’s official languages today.
The Chinese occupy a prominent place in this mixed society, which has led to some anxieties. Sometimes these are discreetly voiced. But the main point is that the state is consciously addressing these issues to maintain social balance. While the Chinese presence is overwhelming, Indians too have been impactful, with lawyers, academics, doctors, and entrepreneurs.
I read a recent survey from 2020 conducted among Malay youth by the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs, Singapore. The responses included muted concerns about job opportunities and career prospects. I guess the problems of multicultural societies everywhere are similar. The important thing is to resolve the concerns in a constructive way rather than exacerbate them.
One late afternoon, I got off the city train at Bugis in the Kampong Glam district. This is the Arab quarter. Walking down Haji Lane, I came to the beautiful Sultan Mosque, sunlight ricocheting off its golden dome. This is the place from where the Arabs traded and believers left for the Haj. The street food offered feasts of biriyani and falafel.
Here the present creatively encountered the past. There was so much street art, there were small theatres showing avant-garde films with people queued up outside. As night fell, the eateries filled up. Later, I heard the blues being played at jazz bars at the end of the street. It was a magically transformed, eclectic place.
I think the trick to live well is not to negate or disown the past but to take it along, sagaciously guiding it into new avenues.
I walked past some shop-houses built by the Straits-Chinese when they first came to the Malay peninsula, and hailed a cab.
P. Krishna Gopinath is a Delhi-based writer with an interest in photography and Western classical music.