Singapore: Five Cultures in One

Singapore skyline © Singapore Tourism

The sun rises on Singapore, an island-nation only miles away from its neighbor, Malaysia. Morning rays reflect on breathtaking modern architecture, from gleaming towers to fascinating futuristic structures, dotted with glowing colored lights as day breaks. But beneath the rush of this 21st Century wonder there is a treasure trove of ancient cultures, each quietly thriving and making their mark on Singapore. As morning breaks, temple bells and bustling markets ready for the day.

Singapore, whose name is derived from ancient Sanskrit meaning “Lion City”, began humbly as a trading post for the East India Trading Company and was officially founded by British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Though only 1,000 people were on the island when he arrived, the population quickly exploded—bringing commerce and industry to the relatively untouched land. The new markets for tin and trade brought Indian, Chinese, and Malay workers to Singapore, and cultural neighborhoods sprang up across the city. From the moment it began, multiculturalism has defined this island-nation.

Today, Indian, Chinese, Arab, Malay, and European elements are woven together in a rich tapestry of Singaporean life. From food and architecture to religion, and language—visitors are treated to a kaleidoscope of cultures.

Maxwell Food Center / Hainanese Chicken Rice © Singapore Tourism / © Jon Ashton


One doesn’t need to look much further than food to see the impact of Singapore’s melting pot. If you only have time for one meal in Singapore, you have to check out one of the hawker centers, which are open-air food centers serving a variety of fresh, traditional dishes at individual food stalls. One example is found in Chinatown, the Maxwell Food Centre, which features more than 100 food stalls! Hawkers sell hungry tourists and locals alike a plethora of signature dishes from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken and Rice and Cantonese-style fish bee hoon soup to Shanghainese style tim-sum dumplings and Fuzhou oyster cakes. Last year, two hawker stalls, “Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle” and “Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle”,  were each awarded a Michelin star—one of the highest honors in the culinary world and the first time in the history of the guide that a star was given to a food stall! The star dishes cost about US$3.00 each—making Singapore the least expensive place in the world to enjoy a Michelin-starred meal! Across the city, hundreds of hawker centers and markets not only provide traditional Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian favorites but also provide a variety of scrumptious Halal options for those with religious dietary restrictions, as well as Turkish, Thai, and Mediterranean fare. (Check out our post on 10 street foods you must try in Singapore!)

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore


Singapore is one of the world’s most religiously diverse nations. This diversity has created a striking juxtaposition which delights visitors with serene Buddhist monasteries, intriguing and colorful Hindu temples, intricately decorated mosques, and beautiful Christian churches. Found in Singapore’s Chinatown, The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (a modern structure built in the Tang dynasty architectural style) displays thousands of artworks related to Buddha and Buddhism, in addition to the Buddha tooth relic. Wander through Little India to discover the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the oldest Hindu Temples in Singapore, dedicated to the goddess and destroyer of evil. And no walk through the historic district of Kampong Glam would be complete without stopping to admire one of Singapore’s most prominent religious buildings—the Sultan Mosque. It’s soaring golden domes are decorated with glass bottle ends, donated by poor Muslims during its construction so that not just the rich could contribute!

What is "Shiok?"


To facilitate harmony in this multi-ethnic destination, the Singaporean government recognizes four official languages: English, Tamil, Mandarin and Malay. Perhaps the most intriguing language spoken in Singapore though, is Singlish. This colloquial Singaporean English shares many similarities with pidgin varieties of English, and is a perfect reflection of Singapore: diverse, creative, and expressive! Colorful phrases like “anything lor” (a typical response if you have no idea what you want), “no link” (a Singaporean way of describing something completely irrelevant to the topic), and “shiok” (an exclamation of joy and excitement) can be heard from locals of all heritage and culture. And if you still don’t understand—try “catch no ball”, a Singlish phrase meaning “to not understand.” What did he say? I catch no ball!

From exciting cultural encounters, colorful people, and diverse cultures—experience all that Singapore has to offer and more on one of our exciting tours!

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