Celebrating 50 Years, Singapore Dreams of an Even Brighter Future
By Michael Shapiro

Summing up Singapore with easy generalizations is impossible. Above and below the surface, this is a place absorbing the new and respecting the past—but on its own terms.

Singapore travel

"GOODBYE YESTERDAY, HELLO TOMORROW" reads a big billboard in the heart of Singapore. It could be the country's slogan.

Over its half century of existence as an independent country, Singapore has focused sharply on the future, transforming what was once a polluted backwater trading post into one of the world's most modern and picturesque places.


There's an air of magic about Singapore: attractions such as Gardens by the Bay, a botanic garden housed in two soaring domes in a forest of human-made Supertrees, and the Ferris wheel-like Singapore Flyer make you feel like you're visiting a World's Fair with no end date.

Walking down the street one morning, I came upon a group of disabled people painting scenes with brushes in their mouths, supported by a government grant for the arts. It's an arresting contrast to Singapore's reputation as an authoritarian state. When I passed a prison near the airport, a fellow traveler remarked: "I didn't think they had prisons here; I thought you were either caned or killed."

The Strict but Beloved Leader

Though the country's longtime ruler, Lee Kwan Yew, could be ruthless in achieving his goals, he clearly cared deeply about the welfare of Singapore's people. And they cared deeply about him. Lee died last spring, just two weeks before I visited the island state, and already the National Museum of Singapore had an exhibit celebrating his life.

"It's so, so sad, all of Singapore was crying," said my Singapore-born guide, Wee Toon Hee. "Never before have I had tears for seven days. We owe our prosperity to him."

Wee said some Singaporeans waited 11 hours to file by Lee's body and pay their respects. Wee went at 3 a.m., and waited just one hour. During our tour, when Wee noticed he didn't have his guide ID tag on, he quickly draped it around his neck. "Otherwise I'll get fined—it's a fine city," he said with a chuckle.

The enduring Lee Kwan Yew exhibit at the National Museum has audio recordings of Lee from Singapore's earliest days: "I have a responsibility for the survival of 2 million people in Singapore," Lee says in a recording from Aug. 14, 1965, just five days after Singapore achieved independence. Singapore celebrated its 50th birthday in August with numerous and heartfelt tributes to the country's founding father.

In the museum recording, Lee says in defiant, Churchill-esque tones: "My overriding, my paramount duty is the survival of my own people. I am determined that they will survive, and I think they've got just enough grit in them." On a lifesize photo of Lee, Singaporeans left notes last spring for "our dearest founding father," expressing their love for him and appreciation for how he transformed their land.

Yew memorial

Despite Singapore's rush to modernity, scattered remnants of the nation-state's past survive. There's the clapboard shophouses of Chinatown, a shrine dedicated to what is said to be one of the Buddha's teeth, and, in the heart of the financial district, Yueh Hai Ching, a Buddhist temple built in 1820 that's dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers. The land here is almost priceless, but the value of these Buddhist places of worship is even greater, in this country thought to be all about money and status.

Located on small islands just below Malaysia, Singapore is only about 25 miles wide —you can drive across it in about 45 minutes—with a population of about 5.5 million. Its history as a trading hub has given Singapore a tantalizing variety of culinary influences, making it one of Asia's favorite cities for food lovers.


Hitting the Hawker Stalls

The best place to try some local specialties is at a hawker center. In a typically Singaporean mandate, vendors were banned years ago from selling on sidewalks and invited to move into food courts. Some vendors were initially unhappy, but today the hawker centers are thriving, bustling with locals and tourists. My visit in April coincided with the World Street Food Congress, an annual event celebrating hawker cuisine.

"Food in Singapore is a shared language, the universal language of love," said a presenter at the festival. Later, after I'd wandered into the Changi Food Centre, not far from the airport, that comment would make perfect sense.

Beckoned by a middle-aged Indonesian woman wearing a headscarf, I ordered a mix of satay (chicken, beef and lamb, minimum purchase 10 sticks; you can mix and match) at Changi Village Satay.

The proprietor's name was Hayati, and her eyes followed me to my table, watching as I dipped the first barbecued stick into the peanut sauce. The lamb was perfectly grilled, the sauce light and spicy with a hint of coconut flavor. When I smiled and gave her a thumbs up, she beamed like a proud grandmother.

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