Searching for the soul of Singapore


Every city has a soul. A vibe. A heartbeat. There is a sort of unspoken, unwritten feeling that sits atop all the other bits. It can be seen and felt on the street, watching and interacting with people as they go about their business. Finding this soul of a city is usually pretty easy for me. Wander around for an hour or two, vaguely following a map towards any particular destination while exploring side streets along the way, and the city will start to come alive. Unless it is Singapore, that is.

I don’t know what it was about my couple days in town. Maybe it is because the weather was festering heat and humidity so people simply avoided being outside completely. Maybe it is because so few people in town are actually from Singapore so there are fewer roots. Maybe it is because I’m a moron and wasn’t in the right places. But finding the soul of the city was nearly impossible.

I tried a few things to help my chances. I visited the "named" neighborhoods like Little India and Chinatown. The Indian area was cute, I suppose, but most of it appeared staged rather than the natural growth of a people who settled together in a particular neighborhood to have comfortable environs as they adjusted to their new homeland.

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There were temples (some reasonably old even) and that was nice enough, but I struggled to find the connection between the people and their city.

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I walked along side streets and through market streets. I visited the hawker stalls and sat at the communal dining tables to enjoy my meals. And I searched as best I could to seek out the folks who really lived and worked in in town and to see how they did so. I pretty much failed.

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To be fair, there are things to see in Singapore. It has monuments, museums and the like. At the same time, however, the major focus of development recently seems to have been the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex, along with the associated shopping mall. The bay is surrounded by other buildings – some offices, some hotels, some shops – and as a whole it makes for a reasonably active area. Thousands of folks wandering around, window shopping in a high-priced mall doesn’t make a city, however. It was activity without soul, without spirit.

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I went in to the trip with a bit of a bias. I haven’t heard anyone ever rave about how much fun a visit to Singapore is. There are pockets of excitement that come from conversations, diamonds in the rough, as it were, of a neat thing or restaurant, but rarely a complete experience that rates great reviews. So maybe what I got was simply the predictable out come of my initial expectations. But I’d like to think not.

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I walked the streets morning, afternoon and night. And at night, when there was no longer a reason to be stuck inside (other than that it was still ridiculously hot and humid outside) there was a bit more life. People packed in at the restaurants lining one street on Saturday night to drink beer and watch the Premier League soccer matches. It was the closest thing I saw to people actually enjoying their existence. And even then it was quite subdued, hardly a shout or a cheer as the cold beers went down and the matches played out on the televisions.

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I’m sure that I could try again, visit the city and start my search for its soul anew. I actually want to go back as there are a few restaurants I didn’t get to try and the few I did were actually pretty good, so at least the city has that. But Singapore lacks a soul, and that’s something I definitely missed.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

8 Comments

  1. You’re “a moron and wasn’t in the right places.” :-). Your words, not mine :-).

    But seriously, I know what you mean; I felt the same way in Kuwait, but I did find the soul of Kuwait; it was at the Souks. It was weird, to meet Kuwaitis, I had to go to the Police station initially, but once I went to the Souks at night, voila!

    I found Singaore’s soul at Sentosa and then again at one of the fish market and from the tailors who made my shirts in a day; visit again and don’t look so hard :-).

  2. Haven’t been in Singapore in 20 years but even then it was largely a modern sterile construction in which most of the older buildings had been knocked down in favor of large, planned, and soulless developments.

    Malacca, on the other hand. . .

    Will be returning to SE Asia this summer for the first time in 20 years. Current plans do not call for visiting Singapore at all. I’m sure that, if the free miles bonanza continues for a few more years, I’ll be seeing it soon enough. But there are so many more interesting places in the immediate neighborhood I doubt it will be more than an airport stop for me.

  3. Where I found the soul of Singapore was in the Changi Beach area near the airport where families camp on the beach and spend the nights at outdoor cafes socializing.

  4. me and a friend share a joke about going to Singapore on work everytime we head there.. its like going to Disneyland. coz everything is so curated, in place, kinda perfect

  5. @ Robertol

    Toronto?! Really? Please don’t insult Singapore. Toronto has some of the worse city planning in all of North America. The traffic jams in Toronto and the surrounding boroughs are worse than LA! The overall facade of the city is poorly maintained and there are plenty crumbling neighborhoods all over the place… And please don’t get me started on the dysfunctional, bankrupt Toronto Transit… Singapore is meticulously maintained and planned with what is arguably the best transit system in the world.

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