Singapore is a society with a penchant for remaking itself in its own singular image.
Driving in from the airport the first thing you notice is how incredibly manicured and clean Singapore is. Rather unlike the chaotic image attached to most Asian cities. Next you are struck by row upon row of high-rise buildings streching in all directions.
The tiny tropical island nation of Singapore, lying just one degree north of the equator, has often been held up as an economic marvel, where the quality of life ranks among the best in the world. Indeed no poor people can be seen begging or living in the streets of Singapore, giving the false impression that none exist.
Until the 1960s, most of the population lived in so-called kampungs, villages or slums, paying paltry rents. Houses didn't have running water. Instead each village had a public standpipe where men and women bathed, modestly covered by sarongs and towels. Village community life was a close-knit one.
Today there are few such kampungs left. Most have been razed by bulldozers, their three-, even four-generation families broken up. In the name of progress and urban development, Singapore opted for a massive public housing program, whereby nearly 85 percent of Singapore's population has been resettled in government-built high-rise flats equipped with all the latest modern conveniences.
In fact, on this just 41 kilometers long and 22 kilometers wide island, apartment dwelling has become a status symbol. As property is not only hard to come by but steep in price, Singaporeans would rather put their money in an imported luxury car. Life is for a large part live outside the home. Entertainment is sought in cocktail lounges, restaurants and the many big hotels. Singaporeans also lead an active sports and club life, possibly a custom left-over from their colonial days.
Singapore's origins go back well beyond its existence as a British colony, though written accounts on ancient Singapore are sketchy. A third century Chinese account aptly described it as Pu-luo-chung or "island at the end of a peninsula", while in the seventh century Singapore was known as Temasek or "Sea Town", a trading center of Sumatra's Srivijaya Empire. Legend has it that Sang Nila Utama, a prince from Sumatra, was shipwrecked and washed ashore. Not long after, he came across a strange and fierce looking creature, possibly a native tiger, which he mistook for a lion. The prince decided to settle on the island, giving it the Sanskrit name Singapura, or Lion City.
In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded a trading post on the island which rapidly became one of Britain's most lucrative colonies. Attracting workers and entrepreneurs from India and Malaysia as well as China, Singapore became the ultimate gateway to the Orient.
Much of Singapore was destroyed during World War II when Japanese aircraft bombed the sleeping city. For three-and-a-half years, Singapore, renamed Syonan, Light of the South, suffered unprecedented hardships under Japanese occupation. Though British rule was briefly restored, post-war Singapore saw a new generation of Singaporeans demanding self-determination. Especially the merchant class clamored for a say in the government. By 1959 Singaporeans had voted in their first legislative assemby, though full independence wasn't reached until 1965. The election also marked the ascendancy of Lee Kuan Yew and his People's Action Party (PAP).