Category Archives: Singapore

Discovering Ethnic Diversity in Singapore

Singapore may not offer the same sense of rugged adventure and unknown exploration as other countries in the region, but a visit to the thriving metropolis can be equally as satisfying a trip to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. One of the most fascinating aspects of Singapore society to observe is the multicultural, multifaceted diversity of the country. For a quick and easy peek at the diaspora living in Singapore, simply hop on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train at any stop. Grab a seat, sit back and spend an hour just people watching. You’ll see Singapore residents from all over Asia, and the world, who add to the spectacular diversity of the country.

The majority, around 74%, of the estimated 4,839,400 residents of Singapore are ethnic Chinese. 13.5% are ethnic Malays, 9% are from India 3% are from elsewhere. Although the majority of people living in Singapore are from China, Chinese is not the one official language. In fact, there are four official languages in Singapore including English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Instead of singling out one language as the national language, the always diplomatic Singapore chose all four so as to include each of the three majority groups. English was kept as an official language after Singapore gained independence from the British in 1965 and Lee Kuan Yew decided it would be beneficial both economically and politically to continue using English for business and administration.

A walk through one of Singapore’s ubiquitous hawker center’s (street food markets) reveals the multilayered, multilingual aspect of the country’s diversity. In one stall a vendor might be mixing vats of black Hokkien Chinese coffee and speaking in a Chinese dialect. Across the food complex, in the halal section of the hawker center where Muslim men wearing taqiyah hats are making dough for roti, the melodic rhythm of Arabic or Malay can be heard. Down the lane in a stall selling fiery curries, the owner might hail from Kerala, India, and would be speaking in Tamil.

On a visit to Singapore you’re not going to find deep jungles or crumbling ruins, but you’ll find an incredible diversity of people, languages, foods and cultures. Observing the diaspora is a thrill in itself and visiting the many ethnic enclaves of the city is a great pleasure. Spend some time walking through hawker centers, cultural neighborhoods (like Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street), listen to the languages and you’ll understand an important and unique side of Singapore.

Singapore Tips and Ideas:
Here are some tips and ideas on things to do in Singapore to understand their multicultural society. Through a mix of street walks, gastronomic exploration, museums and ethnic neighborhood tours, you’ll leave Singapore with a more thorough understanding of the culture and the diversity.

*Visit Little India
Little India is perhaps my favorite area in Singapore. The Tekka wet market there is fantastic (although when I was there last summer it was closed for reconstruction). Spend some time walking through the lanes, the market and the main streets. Try a few Indian sweets and wash it down with a glass of milk tea.

Above: Men in Little India, Singapore. Photo by: William Cho

*Visit Chinatown
In certain parts, Singapore’s Chinatown is very touristy and can get a bit overwhelmed with people snapping photos of everything. Go a bit off the main drag and explore some of the Chinese medicine shops that are full of interesting herbs.

Above: A street scene in Chinatown, Singapore. Photo by: Khalzuri

*Ride the MRT
As I mentioned, riding the MRT around town is a great way to get a sneak-peek at the diversity of Singapore’s population.

Above: The Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).  Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Asian Civilizations Museum
This excellent museum is located in Boat Quay, across from the grandiose Fullerton Hotel. This museum doesn’t specifically focus on Singapore, but it is bursting with information on the whole region. It’s a good place to go to enrich your understanding of Singaporean culture, and Asian culture in general.

Above: Asian Civilizations Museum by night. Photo by: Keng Susumpow

*Eat at the Hawker Centers
This one’s obvious. How could you go to Singapore and not eat at the hawker centers? I say it’s a good idea to eat at least one meal a day (if not all three) at hawker centers to get a true flavor and understanding of the regional cuisines. Singapore’s food scene is influenced by all the countries in the area, so it will be a bit like you’re exploring all of Asia through your meals.

Above: Chicken rice from a Singapore hawker center. Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Look at the Signs
The street signs directly reflect the diversity of language in the country. Take a look at them and you’ll see that many are written in all four of the official languages. You’ll also notice that signs and warnings on the public transportation buses and MRT are written in four languages as well.

Above: A sign in Singapore written in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay.

Top 5: Things To Do In Singapore

Five MUST do activities on any visit to Singapore:

1. Try a cup of the Singaporean coffee. It is called “Kopi” at the hawker centers. The pure coffee is black as night: literally, it looks like melted tar, but tastes like heaven. If you order “Kopi” the vendor will mix it with a portion of sweetened condensed milk. The generous portion of condensed milk, a creamy syrup, is added to each Kopi. If everyone could drink this everyday the world would be a better place. If you want coffee with no milk you tell the vendor you want “Kopi-O.”

Coffee In Singapore

Singaporean "Kopi" **

2. Go to Little India, smell the incense, and try some of the delicious Indian sweets. These things are so rich and delicious, it is probably best to split them between two people.

Fruit Stand in Little India *** by Khalzuri

3. Ride the MRT. The MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) is the incredibly efficient public transport train that travels to most areas in Singapore. The MRT comes every few minutes and is used by a large majority of the country. Apparently there is a large tax ($40,000) for people who wish to own private cars, and most of the cars are sent to other countries after 10 years or use. So, it doesn’t make much sense, unless you are uber rich, to get a private car. This means that thousands of people ride the MRT everyday. Besides being a convenient place to enjoy some air conditioning, it is a great place to people watch. Just riding the MRT gives you a good flavor of the diversity of Singapore.

4. Go to a hawker center, any hawker center, and try some random foods. Maxwell Food Center in Chinatown is a good one.  Go when you are very, very hungry and you won’t leave disappointed.

5. Drink a delicous Tiger Beer on a hot day, preferably with some spicy food. Beer tastes much better when it is hot out.


Photo Credtis:

Singapore: Is It Asia Lite?

buildings in SingaporeThere are a few things that will inevitably come up in a conversation about Singapore:

1) “It’s sooooo clean!”

2) “Don’t they arrest you for chewing gum?”

3) “It’s very Westernized.”

There are truths and falsities to all of these points.  First of all, yes, Singapore is very clean.  They do a wonderful job at keeping their country spic-and-span.  You’d be hard pressed to find a mound of trash, or even a lone plastic bag, anywhere on the ground.  Of course, considering how small Singapore is, it’s almost necessary to keep the island tidy.

Second, you won’t be arrested in Singapore if you’re chewing gum, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll find gum sold in the first place.  The import and sale of gum in Singapore is banned, unless the gum is of therapeutic value.

Third, compared to many other parts of Asia, Singapore does seem very Westernized, maybe even more so than most Western cities.  Towering skyscrapers gleam from the sky, high vehicle tax means the traffic runs smoothly and taxis are clean and shining.  People in Singapore enjoy a very high standard of living and, according to the International Monetary Fund, the GDP per capital in Singapore is $50,523 (compare that with US GDP per capita of $46,381).  All-in-all, Singapore runs like a well oiled machine: great facilities and services, government benefits and supports, almost no homelessness and a very good health system.

All these factors combined often make people think that although Singapore is in Asia, it’s “Asia Lite.”  Just like Coors Lite is Coors without all the extra calories, Singapore is like Asia, without all the culture.

This, fortunately, is dead wrong.  While it may seem that Singapore is more similar to Los Angeles than Phnom Phen, is definitely not just “Asia Lite.”

Singapore is literally bursting with awesome Asian culture and things that make it like no other Asian country or Western city in the world.

Here are some cultural things to do and think about to steer clear of the “Asia Lite” stereotype:

1) Singapore’s Chinatown

Let’s face it, Singapore’s Chinatown is definitely a tourist attraction.  At the heart of the Chinatown enclave, tourists gather at outdoor

Bustling Singapore Chinatown by night. (Photo Credit: WilliamCho)

tables underneath umbrellas, sipping on Tiger Beer and snacking on chicken rice.  The best way to get the real feel of Singapore’s Chinatown is to stick to the perimeter.  The area is packed full of restaurants, art stores and other shops just waiting to be explored.

For an adventurous lunch, find a Chinatown restaurant with no sign and maybe no menu.  Point to what someone else (a local) is having and see what comes of it.  Most likely, it will be one of the best meals of your life (something you’ll say after every Singaporean meal).

There are some quintessentially “Chinese” things are Chinatown that you shouldn’t miss out on.  Two of those things are reflexology shops and Chinese medicine shops.  Reflexology is an alternative healing technique in which pressure is applied to various points on the feet, ankles and toes.  Supposedly, certain acupressure points around the feet correspond with various organs and parts of the body.  For example, if pressure were applied to a certain part of the foot’s arch, the reflexologist may tell you that this will affect your kidneys.  Whether you’re looking for some Chinese healing, or you just want an hour respite from the Chinatown heat, reflexology is a worth the money and the time.  There are dozens of reflexology shops around Chinatown that are open to walk-ins.  The price is usually between $15-$20 SGD for about 1-1.5 hours.  If food massages are your thing, do not miss this.

For a mysterious and enchanting dose of Chinese culture, step into one of the Chinese medicine shops.  Unless you speak Chinese, you probably won’t know what anything is, even if they tell you, so just have fun looking at all the interesting herbs, plants, animal parts and powders in the glass jars.  Chinese medicine shops usually exude a very unique smell, so you probably won’t miss it if you walk by.  If you’re afflicted by something, try explaining it to the medicine shop owner and who knows, you could walk out with some powdered antelope’s horn or a vial of “tiger’s blood.”

2) Little India

Hop of the MRT in Little India and spend the day immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of one of Singapore’s most eye-popping ethnic enclaves.  Little India spans a number of blocks and is packed with markets (indoor and outdoor), tea shops, sweets stalls, spice vendors and temples.  The vibrant colors of Little India mix with the pungent incense aroma, the thumping Bollywood music and the chants coming from the temples.

Begin your tour at the Tekka Wet Market, which is packed with hawker stalls, vegetable and fruit vendors and even has a section from meat and fish.  Wander through the lined up stalls and watch as vendors cut off chicken heads, gut fish, weigh out miscellaneous vegetables and mix extra-hot Teh Tarik (special sweet tea).

Indian treats are small, but incredibly sweet. (Photo Credit: Ian Muttoo)

Once you’ve had your fill at the wet market, make sure to hit up one of the many sweet stalls that line the streets.  India is famous for its shockingly sweet treats (called Mithai).  The sweets are made with varying amounts of sugar, milk, oil and condensed milk with a number of other spices and flavors added in.

To wash down your sweets, don’t miss out on a cup of Teh Tarik.  Teh Tarik is a kind of sweet, milky tea that is literally pulled from one tea pot to another.  The vendors who make Teh Tarik are quite skilled at juggling their tea pots and pouring the hot, steaming beverage from one container to another.  Even if you don’t like sweet, milky drinks, order one for a friend just to see the vendors put on the show.

By now you’ve had tested out the sights, smells and tastes of Little India and it’s time to check out the religious sites.  Upon exiting the Tekka Wet Market, you’ll notice row after row of shops on the street selling garlands of marigold flowers.  These shops sell, along with the marigolds, items that can be given as offerings at the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple just down the street.

Statues at the Sri Veeramakaliamman in Little India. (Photo Credit: Matthias Rosenkranz

Check out these little shops that sells garlands, incense, and candles.  Even if you don’t purchase anything, wonder at the amazing floral smell that radiates from this corner of Little India.

3) Bugis Street

Although Bugis Street now is nothing like it was in its hey-day, it’s still fun to roam around the area and try to picture what it used to be like.  Bugis Street is currently a center for shopping and is host to an immense and tangled mass of market and street vendors who sell everything from eggs boiled in tea, to knock-off sunglasses, to refreshing glasses of coconut juice.  Walk through the stalls and mingle with Singapore’s young, hip and adventurous crowd who brave the sticky heat to find some great deals.

Bugis Street’s old claim to fame were the prostitutes, transvestites, drunks and drug addicts who roamed the street in search of a good time.  The area attracted foreigners, including American G.I.’s looking for some “fun.”  They found it alright: Bugis Street became Singapore’s central for sex, drugs and rock and roll, with a transvestite twist.

Bugis Street may not be the party-central it once was, but it's still fun to try to picture it. (Photo Credit: nlann

Those days of hedonistic pleasures are long-gone, but the name remains.  Now, instead of brothels, Bugis is lined with tidy shopping malls and shops.  Singapore’s government completely revamped the area in the 1980’s, getting rid of all that subculture-fun.  There’s not much trace of what used to be there.  Instead, sit back at one of the hawker centers, grab a Tiger Beer, squint your eyes and try to image what sort of craziness used to go down on the Singapore streets.

Southeast Asia’s Best Coffee

Caffeine addicts will have no reason to fret while traveling in Southeast Asia.  Delicious, heavenly, earth-shatteringly good coffee is never more than a stone’s throw away.  Coffee in Southeast Asia, which is often sold by vendors on the street, is much different than what Westerners may be used to. Coffee sizes in the U.S. generally are between 12 ounces (smallest) to 20 ounces (largest). Even a 12 ounce coffee is gargantuous compared to coffee cups in Southeast Asia. Two of the best places for coffee in the region are Singapore and Vietnam.

Vietnamese Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify which variety of coffee you want when ordering.

Coffee: “cà phê” (ca-fe)

Iced-Coffee: “cà phê s?a ?á” (ca-fe-sooa-da)


Vietnamese Coffee Set (


Vietnamese coffee is world famous for its rich, buttery flavor.  The country hasn’t been a coffee growing and exporting hub, for the French colonialists introduced the drink to Vietnam in the 19th century.  Now, Vietnam exports hundreds of thousands of tons of coffee every year and is the number two coffee exporting country in the world.

Where to find it:

Vietnamese coffee is almost as ubiquitous in the country as are steaming bowls of pho. Coffee vendors often line the streets and tiny cafes are tucked away in all corners of Vietnamese cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Keep your eyes peeled for people sitting on small plastic stools around vendor carts. For a more laid back coffee experience, try one of the street vendors. The coffee is guaranteed to be cheap and delicious. For a more restaurant-like experience, find a cafe. Cafes in Vietnam, which also serve a smattering of sweet pastries, have a very French vibe. If you were to close your eyes for a moment, it would be easy to image yourself sitting at a street-side cafe in Paris.

Vietnamese Coffee Filter (via

How It’s Made:

Vietnamese coffee is often served complete with a Vietnamese metal coffee filter on top of the cup (See image above). Beans are ground and placed in the cup-like apparatus with holes in the bottom. The metal filter is placed on top of the cup and water is poured in. The coffee slowly trickles down to the cup below. This is truly fresh coffee: watching it brew right before your eyes.

Sweet Milk:

Coffee with sweet milk

Coffee with sweet milk (via

Although you can get your coffee black, most Vietnamese prefer theirs with sweet milk mixed in. The sweet milk (also known as condensed milk) is a syrupy and creamy, and makes the coffee incredibly sweet. Sweet tooths will rejoice, but those who prefer their coffee black might be taken aback at the extreme sweetness of Vietnamese coffee.  The vendor will serve the cup with sweet milk already at the bottom, so when the coffee is done filtering you can simply stir it up and enjoy.

Singaporean Coffee

*Travel language tip: Make sure to specify whether you want black coffee or coffee with milk when ordering.

Singaporean coffee, similar to Vietnamese coffee, packs a big punch in a small package.  The coffee shop, also known as a “kopi tiam,” is about as ubiquitous in Singapore as shiny high rises and sparkling Mercedes taxis.  Kopi tiams can be found in the bottom floors of office buildings, in malls, in hawker centers, in MRT stations, on street corners and in bookstores.  In a word, you’re probably never more than a block away from coffee while in Singapore.

Unique Beans:

Although not all kopi tiams uphold this method, coffee beans in Singapore are traditionally roasted with butter to enhance the flavor and oily qualities that make the taste incredibly rich.  Once the beans are roasted, they are brewed in a metal pot to create a powerful, black elixir.  The price for a mug full of Singaporean coffee is very reasonable, depending on where the kopi tiam is located, a cup could cost anywhere from 25 cents to $1.50 (USD).

How To Order:


There are specific ways that coffee must be order to get the desired brew.  Singaporean coffee traditionally either comes black or with sweet, condensed milk.  It you want to  consume in the kopi tiam or hawker center, it will be served in a glass mug that will be collected when you leave.  The other option is to order the coffee “to-go” if you’d like to drink it on the run to school or to work.  Here is how to properly order your drink:

Black coffee (no sugar, no sweet milk):  “kopi-O” (ko-pee)

Black coffee with sugar and sweet milk: “kopi”

Coffee to-go (will be served in a plastic bag): “kopi-O take-away”