Travelling Singapore, First Impressions. The “World’s Best…” Plus A History Lesson

As part of The Money Cloud Worldwide series PR and Content Manager Edmund Ingham is writing about his experiences travelling around Asia. To read posts from our previous series, about Malaysia, click here

It hadn’t occurred to me to visit Singapore before but now I am here I am wondering why not!

When I first decided to embrace the “Digital Nomad” lifestyle, I opened Google Maps and tried to figure out the places I could work from.

Ideally, I wanted to be on the coast. I wanted a warm climate. I wanted culture and history, the bustle of a large town or city, a community of tech workers to tap into, affordable accommodation, good broadband, and if the local cuisine was to my liking I was ready to book my ticket!

I narrowed the field down to three places. Malaga, in Andalucía, Montevideo, in Uruguay, and Mallorca, in the Balearics. And all on a £20 per day budget, please?

I have made it to two of these places – sadly, the cost of flying to (and living) in Montevideo ruled it out (although I have made it as far as the Dominican Republic, where I found sand, sea, and one or two fellow nomads to keep me company).

But when the opportunity arose to travel for 3 months straight, I realised that when conducting my search, I had missed out a few places. Just a few.

Marseille, Monaco, Melbourne, Manila – and that’s just the places beginning with “M”.

But the biggest miss of all that ticked all of my boxes.


I began to realise just how big an oversight this was as my bus from Kuala Lumpur made its way through downtown Singapore last Thursday evening. After a 6-hour, one highway journey through an endless succession of palm oil plantations and motorway service stations, the sudden sophistication of this city was quite a jolt to the senses.

Singapore is big, beautiful, and breath-taking. As much as anywhere I have ever visited.

When I try to think of a way to best describe my first impressions of Singapore, I keep coming back to the expressions, “world’s biggest”, and “world’s best”. Of course, life is not a number’s game, but if it was, Singapore would probably win.

Where to start?

Singapore is home to the world’s second busiest container port, behind Shanghai; it helps to ship more than half of the world’s annual supply of crude oil. After London and New York, Singapore is the world’s 3rd largest financial centre; it’s economy is ranked as the second freest in the world, and for the past decade it has been ranked as the easiest place to do business in the world.

Singapore, alongside Scandinavia and New Zealand, has been rated as the least corrupt country in the world. It is also the most expensive city in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (which raises a few budget issues, I’ll admit), the only AAA credit rated country in Asia, has one of the lowest unemployment rates of anywhere in the world, the highest percentage of millionaires of anywhere in the world (one in every six households!), and the most expensive property market.

Singapore has been named the most “Tech-Ready” nation in the world (according to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 report), has the highest smartphone penetration rate, and is home to the World’s Best Airport (2006), Changi, and airline, Singapore Airways.

Phew! And like I say, it must be one of the world’s most impressive looking cities too. The sheer number and range of jaw-dropping structures make you think that to be an architect in Singapore must be one of the most fun jobs anywhere in the world – and probably one of the best paid too. Oh yes, and one of the hardest!

Another incredible thing about Singapore is how little the average Westerner knows about it.

Strange old place this Singapore

For some reason, the sum total of the average Westerner’s knowledge of Singapore is that if you chew gum there, you might get a caning. It’s true that Singapore adopts some draconian rules but as deterrents, whatever your views about them, they have been strikingly successful.

It’s best not to jaywalk, drink too much or smoke in the wrong place unless you want to be hit with a large fine. And on a very serious note, drug smuggling is punishable with the death penalty.

In some ways it’s a shame that this debate should frame our view of Singapore in the West when there is so much more to know about this fascinating part of the world.

As Singapore’s leader for more than 5 decades and surely one of the most influential politicians in history. Lee Kuan Yew once told journalist Tom Plate in reference to America’s view of Singapore.

“They don’t know where Singapore is, they are not interested. They think of only Michael Fay, then maybe caning, chewing gum… strange odd place this Singapore”. (Michael fay was a US Citizen who was arrested in Singapore and received a caning for vandalism).

The history of Singapore over the past 100 years can lay claim to being as fascinating as any place in the world. The most successful of the “Asian Tiger” economies, Singapore, under first Lee Kuan Yew, and now his son’s leadership, has transformed itself from a third-world region to quite possibly the world’s most advanced state.

To gain a very basic understanding of the modern history of Singapore, and to understand what makes it such a world-beating city, is actually quite simple – there are really only two men you need to know about.

The first is Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded colonial Singapore in 1819 on behalf of the East India Company.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

Raffles used his unique understanding of tribal politics and the region of South East Asia to claim Singapore for the British from under the noses of the Dutch. Although Raffles’ eventual rival, Major William Farquhar was named first “Resident” of Singapore, whilst Raffles’ official title was “Agent to the Most Noble the Governor-General with the States of Rhio, Lingin and Johor”, it is Raffles whose name will forever be associated with Singapore.

It may not have seemed like much of an achievement at the time; there were fewer than 1,000 people living in the region of Singapura at the time – but thanks to Raffles insistence on building infrastructure and an education system, Singapore began to grow exponentially.

Raffles eventually ousted Farquhar and drew up most of the plans for the future of Singapore himself; they were moralistic, scientifically advanced, and attempted to outlaw moral and social ills such as gambling, slavery, opium smoking and drunkenness.

Raffles life was short, eventful, and tragic; he was pre-deceased by four of his children, and died aged 44 in London, heavily in debt, being refused burial at his local parish church on account of his anti-slavery stance.

In total, Wikipedia informs me, Raffles’ longest stay in Singapore was a little over 8 months, but nevertheless, he is considered to be its founder, and his name has been lent to hospitals, hotels, roads, schools and sporting tournaments in the city.

There’s little doubt however, that were it not for the efforts of “Harry” Lee Kuan Yew, by far the most influential figure in Singapore’s history, and surely one of the most influential leaders and politicians of the last century (and the first decade of this one), the name Raffles might have been little more than a historical footnote.

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew governed Singapore from June 1959 until November 1990. He was succeeded by Goh Chok Tong, who was in turn succeeded by Lee Hsien Loong – Lee Kuan Yew’s son, who remains Singapore’s Prime Minister.

Lee Kuan Yew was educated at the Raffles Institution, alongside the majority of Singapore’s elite students at the time. After surviving the Japanese occupation of Singapore during the war, working as a transcriber of Allied radio bulletins on behalf of the Japanese, Lee Kuan Yew attended Cambridge University, where he read law and graduated with a double First-Class degree.

He returned to Singapore to work as a lawyer, but quickly entered upon a career in politics, becoming secretary general of the People’s Action Party in November 1954 – a position he would not relinquish until 1992, save for a period in 1957 when the party briefly fell under the influence of pro-Communists.

Lee Kuan Yew won the Tanjong Pagar seat in the 1955 elections, and in 1959 the PAP won the national elections, taking 43 out of 51 seats in the legislative assembly. Lee became Singapore’s first ever Prime Minister, and he would go on to win the next seven elections; never losing one.

Lee subsequently campaigned for a merger with Malaysia and an end to British Colonial rule, which occurred in September 1963, but the union was not destined to last. Race riots in Singapore between Chinese and Malays broke out in 1964, and the Malaysian leader Tunku Abdul Rahman took the decision to expel Singapore from Malaysia.

Lee signed the separation himself in August 1965, and appeared in a historical televised press conference, fighting back tears and commenting:

“Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish. For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life … you see, the whole of my adult life … I have believed in Merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship…”

And yet, under Lee’s guidance, the newly founded Republic of Singapore would transform itself from a third-world state into a first-world superpower under five decades of his leadership.

The development of Singapore under Lee can be considered one of the most astonishing transformations in the history of civilizations. There isn’t space to go into it all here, but if you want to know more, you can always read his memoirs or one of the many books he published – including one documenting his attempts to learn Chinese when he was well into his thirties.

Lee first persuaded the departing British not to destroy the docks they had built, and focused on developing the region’s manufacturing capabilities. He promoted racial harmony and attracted massive foreign investment from multi-national companies. He introduced new industries such as steel mills and retrained the population. He helped to solve the country’s water shortage problem.

Lee established Singapore as a global financial hub and established a secure national currency, the Singapore dollar, pegged to a mystery basket of currencies. He encouraged citizens to have 2 children or less to stabilise population growth, and then introduced policies to encourage citizens to have more children, and heavily incentivised male graduates to intermarry with female graduates.

Many of Lee’s policies, by Western standards, can be considered controversial, but Lee was able to govern almost without opposition, thanks to his ability to regularly crush his political rivals, often through lawsuits.

He has been accused of elitism, and famously, he introduced corporal punishment, excusing it by employing that old British public-school refrain, “it never did me or my fellow students any harm”.

Judged by Western standards, Lee was something of an autocrat, but he insisted that everything he did was to further the progress of the people of Singapore, and that he be judged on results – and there is no question that they have been spectacular.

When Lee died, aged 91, in 2015, his state funeral was attended by numerous world leaders.

Outspoken, opinionated, hard-line at times, intolerant of corruption, and sceptical of a free press, Lee believed that state officials should receive amongst the highest salaries in the Republic, which he felt helped to ensure that Singapore was governed by the most talented people available.

Accused of elitism at times, when judged by his achievements alone, he demands consideration as one of the most influential politicians of the last century.

Like him or loathe him, perhaps he can be most appropriately summed up in his own words. Lee underwent 36 hours of questioning by journalists, the highlights of which were published in a 400+ page book entitled “Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going”.

The Wisdom & Wit of Lee Kuan Yew

Let’s finish with some of his most well-known quotes.

“If I were in authority in Singapore indefinitely, without having to ask those who are governing whether they like what is being done, then I have not the slightest doubt that I could govern much more effectively in their own interests.”

At a speech to the Foreign Correspondents Association in 1959, he announced:

“I have no headline material to offer you tonight. In fact, I believe that the art of Government is, in part, the art of not creating headlines in the world press.”

On his wax statue at Madame Tussauds, he commented:

“When I visited Madame Tussaud’s as a student in the 1940s…there were two groups of figures: the famous and the notorious, either British kings and famous leaders, or notorious murderers. I hope Madame Tussaud’s will not put my likeness too close to the notorious.”

After Lee Kuan Yew’s death, Tony Blair wrote:

“Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most extraordinary leaders of modern times. He was a genuine political giant. He was the first to understand that modern politics was about effective Government not old-fashioned ideology. Whether in the economy, social cohesion or law and order, he applied methods of rigorous analysis and detailed implementation. He built Singapore into the success story it is today by intelligence, wisdom and determination in equal measure. As a result, Singapore has a respect and admiration far above its size.”

As I said at the beginning of this post, it is hard not to marvel at so many things about Singapore. Its scale, its riches, its architecture, its climate, its influence, its tolerance, its laws, its technology and its super-charged growth. To name a few.

So, I hope you don’t mind if we have begun The Money Cloud’s latest series of travel posts with a very basic, but necessary, history lesson, and apologies to all those readers who know infinitely more about the subject than I do.

Keep following our blog for more detailed posts about moving to and living in Singapore, starting a business in Singapore, sending money to and from Singapore, the Forex industry, what to do, where to stay, and more!

Sending money to Singapore? Use our best-in-class widget to discover the best rates and prices offered by hand-picked, FCA authorised brokers and money transfer agencies including TransferWise and Azimo.

One Reply to “Travelling Singapore, First Impressions. The “World’s Best…” Plus A History Lesson”