Travel Story Singapore in the 60s: childhood memories of a city transformed

Photo of Mark Thornton

"In those days, tourists regarded Singapore as a yawn-a-minute stopover but it has reinvented itself as a desirable destination."

Singapore is a tiny nation that for many years has stood proudly as an example of what hard work, good governance and imagination can achieve.

Its 5.6 million people live on an island of just 720sqkm. Its population density is one of the highest in the world, which begs the question: how do they all fit in? Yet people do, thanks to well-designed high-rise buildings that leave space for all-important parks and gardens — including the internationally acclaimed Singapore Botanic Gardens.

These 157-year-old gardens, next to the city’s main shopping area, are one of just a handful of gardens recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They’re open from 5am until midnight every day and enchant millions of visitors a year.

I have fond memories of the gardens, having lived just over the road in 1961 when my father — who was in the army — was stationed in Singapore. But one morning we awoke to a terrible din coming from the kitchen. Entering tentatively with a broom, we found half a dozen monkeys raiding the larder. They even managed to open the fridge but after five minutes of shooing disappeared with neither side worse for wear. 

The crab-eating macaques have long since been removed from the gardens because of their potentially dangerous overfamiliarity with human visitors. But monkeys still live on the island, as do about 80 other mammals, 395 species of birds and 79 species of snakes.

In those days, tourists regarded Singapore as a sterile, yawn-a-minute stopover on flights to elsewhere but it has reinvented itself as a desirable destination in its own right. It’s a city of absolute contrasts, where old mamasans in faded cheongsams kneel in joss-stick smoke at ancient shrines overshadowed by outrageously futuristic skyscrapers such as the triple towers of Marina Bay Sands, complete with a forest of palm trees and an infinity pool on top. And away from the bustling main island of Pulau Ujong, there are 62 little ones you can paddle or take a bumboat to and find yourself alone for a spot of fishing.

Having few natural resources to exploit, Singapore initially relied on its strategic location as a regional hub with a natural harbour to help its financial development. But for the past 50 years the focus has been on education and information and communications technologies, the main pillars of Singapore’s economic success. Foreign trade and investment helped all parties prosper and multinationals were encouraged, so it’s no surprise foreigners make up about 40 per cent of the population and have a strong influence on Singaporean culture. Yet the place remains indisputably Asian — witness the small army of locals performing tai chi at dawn.

Since living there I have been back many times and each time bathe in fond memories. After Cluny Road we lived in a colonial-style house at 15 Sandwich Road on Medway Park army estate, which overlooked Singapore Strait just 3km to the south. The estate was new and there was little vegetation but from the bottom of our garden to the sea was thick jungle. Our gardener Ali showed me how to find animals and catch fish there. The house still stands, though the jungle has disappeared completely.

Many Westerners assume Singapore only became a place of interest after Brit Sir Stamford Raffles “discovered” it nearly 200 years ago, but it was a port of significance for hundreds of years before that and the Greco-Roman empires were aware of its existence in the 2nd century. In the 13th century a South-East Asian prince named it Singapura, which means “Lion City”, after spotting what he thought was a lion. Modern zoologists insist lions never lived there but the name stuck. It has since had a very busy and often bloody history and has been fought over several times.

Still, Raffles — acting for the British East India Company — is generally regarded as the founder of Singapore. He signed a treaty with the Sultan of Johore to develop the island, then still largely rainforest, as a British trading post. It remained so until it was overwhelmed by Japan in 1942. Postwar, the island went through more turmoil until Cambridge-educated lawyer Lee Kuan Yew was elected the first prime minister in 1959. He became and remained a towering figure in the island’s history until his death last year.

Lee steered his country out of racial strife with its neighbours and led it from Britain’s colonial rule to independence. He oversaw Singapore’s transformation from a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost with limited natural resources to an Asian Tiger economy. While he was undoubtedly a martinet, enforcing strict adherence to his views and earning swingeing criticism at home and abroad, he took Singapore from being a developing economy to a developed one in a single generation. It now has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world and one of the highest life expectancies.

Lee’s vision is everywhere. He encouraged arts and culture (I sang with a combined schools choir as a boy soprano in 1961 in the Victoria Theatre) and citizens dubbed him the “Chief Gardener” for insisting 10 per cent of the island be set aside for parks and nature reserves, a bold step considering the high value per square metre of its real estate. He also reinforced Raffles’ declaration that there be no building on the Padang, an area of green space in the city centre bordered by St Andrew’s Cathedral and Singapore Cricket Club. I still have a scratchy 8mm film of my dad playing hockey there.

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