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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.