Singapore was once famous for three things: The banning of chewing gum, mandatory flushing of public toilets and the caning of American youth Michael Fay for car vandalism in 1994.
It has since shed some of its inhibitions as Asia’s city of “thou shalt nots” diversifies away from an economy heavy on manufacturing and banking.
While Monaco or Barcelona it is not, tropical Singapore is now known as a top-class casino-gambling destination, the venue for the world’s first Formula One night race and the bachelor playground of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.
Clean and safe, the prosperous city-state is also a magnet for high-end shoppers and one of the most diverse food capitals in the world.
Singapore, whose name means Lion City in Sanskrit, was colonized by the British in the early 19th century. Before that, it was inhabited by no more than 1,000 people.
The preceding centuries are shrouded in myth and legend, with Chinese travelers and Javanese chroniclers alluding to a lair for pirates and the sighting of a majestic lion.
The last 100 years marked an era of deep change as the British empire unraveled, post-colonial Singapore was expelled from the Malaysia federation and the tiny island suddenly became a self-governing state with a tenuous future.
The little red dot, as Singapore is fondly known among locals, has since overcome its smallness and lack of resources to become an economic powerhouse — an evolution that critics say has led to soul-sapping materialism, political apathy and intellectual homogeneity.
HISTORY, CULTURE & NATURE
History buffs and travelers with relatives who were part of the Allied forces are often drawn to the World War Two sites around the island.
A good place to start is the tranquil Changi Museum, which documents the lives of prisoners of war during the Japanese occupation. Then make your way south to Fort Siloso on Sentosa island, before taking a short train ride to the stark but stately Kranji War Memorial.
The Asian Civilizations Museum at 1 Empress Place showcases culture and history from around the region. Current exhibits include relics from China’s Tang dynasty and Batak sculpture from Sumatra. (www.acm.org.sg)
People intrigued by the colorful, energetic culture of Chinese traders who settled in Malacca, Penang and Singapore centuries ago will have a rewarding time at the intimate Peranakan Museum at 39 Armenian Street. (www.peranakanmuseum.org.sg)
For tourists game for a spectacle, join the male devotees celebrating the fire-walking festival at the Sri Mariamman Temple each October. The Hindu temple, Singapore’s oldest, is in the most unlikely of places — Chinatown.
Visit the Sultan Mosque in the Kampong Glam enclave near the city center to bask in the glory of the Malay aristocracy of old. Then retire to nearby Arab Street for a drink at Blu Jaz as you marvel at the boho patrons and their shisha pipes.
Outdoorsy types can explore the 200-acre Bukit Brown cemetery off Lornie Road in central Singapore. Named after a 19th century English trader, the final resting place for thousands of pioneering Chinese immigrants has sparked a rare national debate on conservation versus development.
Other scenic spots include the 155-year-old Botanic Gardens, the jungle trails at MacRitchie Reservoir (mind the long-tailed macaques!) and East Coast Park’s 15km of seaside biking and walking paths. (www.nparks.gov.sg)