I am generally not a person who gravitates towards highly planned cities. Man-made lakes with fountains at the center and buildings with a cohesive decorative theme to them remind me of Disneyland, or of the Truman Show. If there is an “uncanny valley” for cities, I’ve always felt that planned communities lay squarely in it, because they feel lived-in, but not quite enough. There are humans there, but there are no winding alleys, informal food vendors, random relics of outdated trends, or other signs that the natural pace of life is working hard to overcome the physical constraints of infrastructure.
I think this preference probably comes from growing up in Cairo, a city that has been chaotically growing over itself for millennia, with various layers of ancient life exposed among the new. If there is such a thing as a “cohesive decorative theme” in city planning, having the world’s most famous ancient pharaonic tomb right across the street from a Pizza Hut is probably the antithesis of it.
With this being said, I was skeptical that I would love Singapore, the meticulously planned, tropical city-state that most Americans know best as home to the Marina Bay Sands, stringent chewing gum laws, and now the movie Crazy Rich Asians.
(Side note: I don’t know what it is about this chewing gum ban that resonates so strongly in the American psyche, but I feel like the entire country of Singapore could relocate to Mars tomorrow and people would somehow be mentioning the chewing gum laws by their second sentence.)
But despite my skepticism, I did love Singapore. It may be a highly planned city, but it is built around and for a unique society that is also rich in cultural traditions, history, and plenty of things that are definitely not “artificially planned”. Take Singlish, for example, the colloquial spoken dialect that has taken shape from English, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, and other languages. While its usage has been routinely discouraged at a governmental level, it’s a widely spoken, super expressive dialect that persists organically in everyday life.
I think a large part of my appreciation for Singapore was gained by learning about the context in which the city in its modern form came to be. I was there for a conference sponsored by MIT and the National University of Singapore about robotics and the future of work. We spent the week visiting various government agencies and learning about the country’s legacy of long-term social, economic, and urban planning that was put in place by the first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore is and always has been an incredibly diverse nation constrained by physical space, and these two characteristics have influenced planning and policy perhaps more than any single political agenda.
When Singapore declared independence in 1965, most of the country lived in poverty and had no reliable water supply. A single generation later, Singapore is a global business and innovation hub that ranks 5th on the U.N.’s Human Development Index and has the 3rd highest GDP per capita of any country in the world. Today, the country is famous for its innovative infrastructure, world class shopping, the world’s most instagrammable pool, unique social policies, incredible food, and as a premier travel destination for tourists all over the world.
Based on my own experiences, here is a list of 5 things to see and do that will give you a different perspective of Singapore.
1. Eat everything.
Food has been described as Singapore’s national obsession, and the country is a culinary paradise. Entire essays can and have been written about the hawker center food culture in Singapore. The gist of it is that you should be spending a large portion of your time in Singapore eating, and you should be doing a large portion of that eating at hawker centers, which are centralized, regulated markets that have managed to preserve all the deliciousness of street food stalls without all the health hazards.
Multiculturalism is enshrined not only in the country’s constitution, but tangibly in its cuisine. With influences from Chinese, Indian, and Malay cuisines, there's everything from the sweet and milky boba to the spiced, savory hokkien mei. There are noodle dishes in every texture and flavor your heart could desire. There are Chili crabs the size of small tires. There are rainbow-layered diamonds of kuih lapis, a dessert made from coconut and glutinous rice. And there is the durian, King of Fruits, most divisive of the produce stand. Whether you are one of the durian-obsessed or find the taste to be inedible, it’s just one of those things you must experience for yourself. For those not acquainted, the durian is akin to a bowling ball in terms of size and weight, but is at least four times more lethal as it is completely covered in sharp wooden spikes and has a smell that has single handedly gotten it banned from public transportation.
2. If you have the opportunity, visit a Singaporean university.
I was completely amazed by the universities in Singapore. Not only does the country have world class education and research institutions, but the schools themselves are beautiful. At the National University of Singapore, I rode an experimental autonomous car around a beautiful, greenery-covered campus that had incredible food and a rooftop infinity pool at their gym?!? This would never happen at MIT.
The National University of Singapore (and it’s rooftop pool!!)
3. See buildings that are not the Marina Bay Sands.
Of course, you should see the Marina Bay Sands too. It is unmissable: an iconic structure that looks like a gigantic surfboard hovering high above the bay, and you can enjoy spectacular views of the city and a drink at the rooftop bar for around USD 20.
But in addition to this, Singapore has rich and diverse architecture that reflects the many facets and eras of its history: from the well-preserved buildings left over from the days of colonial occupation, to culturally styled buildings in Chinatown and Little India, to colorful Peranakan houses. Even the modern buildings are unique - Singapore’s building codes require that every new building constructed restore and add to the greenery that it replaced, so rooftop gardens, hanging plants, and terraced trees are common.
The view from the rooftop bar at the Marina Bay Sands
4. Visit Kampong Glam.
Of all the unique neighborhoods I visited, Kampong Glam was my personal favorite. Kampong Glam is the Muslim center of Singapore, with the famous Arab Street running through it filled with restaurants, shops, and unique cafes. Also located here is the Masjid Sultan, a prominent mosque and religious landmark with beautiful architecture.
5. Go to the Gardens by the Bay and catch the light show.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the giant, light-up trees and the indoor cloud forest that are the two main attractions of the Gardens by the Bay, but they are very worth seeing in person. The entire facility was part of a government strategy to transform Singapore into a “City in a Garden” by increasing the amount of green space available for public use. The entire facility is carbon neutral and the Cloud Forest in particular is a spectacular, multi-story greenhouse that was established to educate about climate change. Every night there is also a light and music show at the outdoor trees, usually at 7:45 and 8:45 pm, but check their schedule before you go.