A city state in south-east Asia and a major global hub in terms of transport, trade and finance. A former British
colony, it was occupied by Imperial Japan
, and that's what its dark-tourism sites are generally related to. Singapore also makes for an excellent springboard to other south-east Asian countries (esp. Indonesia
) or for a convenient stopover en route to Australia
or New Zealand
Its hyper-modern and super efficient infrastructure and the fact that it is English speaking gave the city the reputation of being “Asia light”, but that doesn't have to be seen as something negative. The tropical climate, the cultural mix and wonderful multi-ethnic cuisine are all quite genuine. I like Singapore a lot!
More background info: Singapore, the “Lion City” (that's what the name means in the original Sanskrit 'singa pura') traces its history back many hundred years, but it wasn't until the arrival of the British that it was elevated to a place of great strategic and commercial significance.
The territory was first claimed for the British East India Company in 1819 and by the mid 1820s it had become a fully established part of the British
Empire. With this came a heavy militarization and fortification – as well as an explosion in trade and population growth. Its strategic position controlling the Strait of Malacca (the narrow waterway connecting the South China
and the Andaman
Ocean) gained Singapore the epithet “Gibraltar of the East”.
Singapore wasn't much affected by WWI
but it became a prime target when Imperial Japan
launched its aggressive territorial expansion in WWII
. The attack on Pearl Harbor
in 1941 was co-ordinated with Japan's simultaneous attack on the Malaysian peninsula. In fact, the attack started here just over an hour before that on Pearl Harbor – in real time, that is. But because of Hawaii
being on the other side of the international date line it was still 7 December there whereas in Singapore and Malaysia it was the early hours of 8 December when the attacks began.
The Japanese landed at three points north of Singapore, while at the same time launching aerial attacks on the city itself. Singapore was well-fortified and had massive defensive coastal gun batteries around the southern coast and the harbour, but it was much more vulnerable from the rear, the north. And indeed that's where the Japanese came from, having travelled down (many on bicycles!) from their bridgeheads in Malaysia.
The Battle of Singapore lasted until 15 February 1942, when the commander of British Singapore, General Arthur Percival, signed the surrender to the Japanese at the former Ford factory
I can't go into the details of the battle here (the various museums in Singapore do that much better than I ever could anyway). Suffice it to say, however, that even though Churchill
is often quoted as saying that the fall of Singapore was “the worst disaster” in British
history, it was partly the British military command's own fault. At least in so far as the British priorities had clearly been elsewhere (Europe and the Atlantic
mainly), hence at the time of the attack Singapore didn't have anywhere near the air-force strength required, let alone even a single tank. And its small naval fleet's pride, the battleship “Prince of Wales” was sunk by Japanese planes on day three of the campaign. Still the British defenders and their Australian
allies held out against the Japanese onslaught on Singapore as long as it was possible, but ultimately, without any speedy arrival of sufficient reinforcements, their efforts were doomed to fail.
What followed was a three and a half year period of Japanese occupation. Singapore was even renamed, namely “Syonan” (meaning 'light of the South'), by the new masters, though Singaporeans hardly ever used that imposed new name.
The occupation only ended after Imperial Japan
's surrender to the USA
(see USS Missouri), on 12 September 1945.
During the occupation POW
s were incarcerated in various camps and at the infamous Changi prison
– and many were even sent to other Japanese occupied places to do forced labour (e.g. on the Death Railway
The civilian population also suffered under the iron-fisted occupation regime. Especially badly affected were the ethnic Chinese. Immediately after the fall of Singapore from February to March 1942, the Japanese massacred thousands of allegedly “anti-Japanese” ethnic Chinese at various sites within Singapore (including Changi beach
). The massacres are known locally as “Sook Ching”, which apparently translates as 'purge through cleansing' ... and ethnic cleansing is what these purges indeed were.
After the war, Singapore went through a difficult period of slow reconstruction and civil unrest, partly due to the locals' disillusionment with the British and partly due to external influences (esp. from China
). An independence movement formed, and gradually the Crown Colony was allowed first self-governance in the 1950s and in 1963 briefly merged with Malaysia until becoming today's fully independent Republic of Singapore in 1965. The British
military finally left for good in 1971.
Despite more strife and riots in the immediate post-independence years, Singapore soon made massive economic steps forward. Within a couple of decades, the city state became one of the most affluent places in the eastern hemisphere.
Today it is one of the world's prime finance centres and its port the second busiest on Earth. The population has grown to over 5.5 million. Through extensive land reclamation efforts the territory of Singapore has also physically grown by as much as a quarter and is poised to grow even further. At the same time, it is a very green city nonetheless, with some 10% of land designated nature reserves or parkland.
Politically, the country has long been rather authoritarian, with single party rule ever since the very first elections in 1959. That party is still dominating the scene. Yet the total repression of all opposition has been softened in recent years. Still, freedom of speech and assembly remain restricted (except at the so-called “speakers' corner” – a concept obviously borrowed from London
Singapore is also infamous as the “fine city”, not for being so fine but because there are so many rules and fineable offences, including dropping of litter, feeding monkeys or smoking outside designated smoking areas.
The quality of infrastructure is superb, heightening the quality of life in Singapore immensely compared to other big Asian cities such as Jakarta
in neighbouring Indonesia
. Even tap water is safe to drink in Singapore (despite its tropical climate)! It is also a very safe city in general, violent crime rates are low and corruption practically non-existent.
For the traveller within South-East Asia, Singapore can thus be both an easy-to-do introduction to the region (hence the epithet “Asia light”), as well as a respite from the more “difficult” lands around it.
I went to Singapore after just having spent a week travelling through the rural hinterland of East Timor
(where facilities are often basic and creature comforts such as running water a rarity). Maybe it is because of this contrast that my impression of Singapore was so great. I found the ease with which you can get around the place, the efficient public transport system, the cleanliness, the great food and the absence of a language barrier a very welcome relief at the end of my four-country South-East Asia explorations in the summer of 2014. And I long to go back one day ...
What there is to see: As indicated, the points of interest from a dark-tourism perspective in Singapore revolve almost exclusively around the topic of WWII and the period of the Japanese occupation. These are the main sites given their own separate chapters here:
(with Changi prison, museum & chapel, Changi beach and Johore Battery)
In addition there are at least two more major dark-tourism-relevant sites that I didn't manage to see when I was there, one because it was closed for refurbishment and the other because I had run out of time.
The former is the “Battle Box
”, the bunkers inside Fort Canning
Hill that served as General Percival's command centre during the Battle of Singapore (see above
). The refurbished original rooms are filled with dummies in period attire, authentic furniture, maps, charts, phones, etc. and the story of the battle and the capitulation is relayed by a live guide (open daily, S$18 for a guided tour, starting at 9:45 & 11 a.m. and 1:30, 2:45 and 4 p.m., except Mondays, when only afternoon tours are offered).
The other is the Kranji War Memorial
in the north-west of Singapore's main island. This is where one of the decisive battles took place. When I was in Singapore I ran out of time (namely at the Former Ford Factory
, which took much longer than anticipated) to make it out there. But I can provide a couple of photos a friend of mine took there not so long ago (see gallery
Apart from Labrador and Johore, there are also yet more coastal batteries and bunkers/fortifications that can be found around Singapore. The most touristy such site has to be Fort Siloso
on the western tip of Sentosa Island
. You can walk through the tunnel complexes and marvel at the big guns, plus there are exhibitions including a reconstruction of the surrender scene (see Former Ford Factory
). From all the info I could gather I get the impression that it's probably a bit on the cheesy side. But I wasn't able to check it out myself when I was on Sentosa, because the Fort was being used as a film location at the time and was thus closed to the public. Normally it's open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (admission free); the Fort is served by the intra-island bus service line A.
Smaller pillbox bunkers and remnants of other defensive fortifications can be found in various locations in Singapore outside the centre, e.g. at Pasir Panjang Road at the junction with Science Park Road.
In the old colonial centre, there's a large monument commemorating the civilian victims of the war and occupation. It's a white obelisk-like needle consisting of four elements joined together. It's located in the small park between Raffles Road, Stamford Road, Beach Road and Nicoll Highway.
The nearby colonial St Andrew's Cathedral
has a war connection too in that it served as an emergency hospital during the Battle of Singapore and also as a base for resistance against the occupation. The famous Raffles Hotel
became a temporary transit camp for released POW
s after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
There are commemorative plaques
all over Singapore dedicated to various details of the Battle and occupation. Many have the form of bronze “books”, e.g. the Sook Ching memorial
) in Chinatown on the corner of South Bridge Street and Upper Cross Street.
on an island between the bottom tip of the Malaysian peninsula to the north and Indonesia
to the south and west (Sumatra), almost exactly on the equator (just 1 degree north).
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: well connected, at least by air, quite easy to get around once you're there; in many ways not cheap.
Details: Getting to Singapore is easiest by plane. The city's huge Changi airport is one of the busiest and well-connected airports in the world. It's a global hub. You can get there from practically anywhere.
For overland access there are two border crossing points for road traffic connecting to Malaysia, one at the causeway to the north and one on the expressway to the west of Singapore. For tourists these will probably not play much of a role.
By boat/ferry you can get to Singapore from the Indonesian
island of Batam, just to the south of the city. Of course, those awful brutes of the seas, giant cruise ships, also frequently make stopovers at Singapore, and pour their human cargo into the streets.
in Singapore is comparatively easy thanks to a rather user-friendly public transport system. The old colonial centre and adjacent districts such as Chinatown can be explored on foot. For places further away you may need to use the elevated metro system, called MRT here, which stands for 'Mass Rapid Transit', with currently six lines. There are also countless bus lines. Where public connections aren't sufficient (e.g. for Bukit Chandu
) taxis are a reliable alternative for some journeys too.
options in Singapore vary enormously in price, from hostels (especially outside the city centre, e.g. in Little India) to world-famous top-end luxury hotels, such as the Raffles Hotel or the Marina Bay Sands (see below
). The latter are both out of most people's travel budget ranges though, but fortunately there is plenty of choice in the mid-range bracket too. It pays off to devote some time to shopping around online in advance.
Food & drink
in Singapore are one of the best things and amongst the prime reasons for coming here! The different ethnic cuisines dominate, but you can get practically every cuisine of the planet here, as well as the usual international standards of the pizza, pasta, burger & steak lot. You can splash out on luxury restaurants, but the best fun and most authentic regional dishes are better had at the cheap and cheerful hawker stalls, now clustered mostly in hawker centres – basically food courts – with each stall specializing in a certain dish or ethnic cuisine.
A local speciality to look out for is laksa, a rich coconutty soup/stew with soba noodles and either seafood or chicken, and ideally with a good spicy kick (if that's missing, just order a portion of sambal on the side!). Outside the city centre this can often be had for just a couple of dollars (whereas in tourist centres the prices soar up to several times that).
Another speciality that Singapore is famed for is chilli crab
, or its cousin black pepper crab. This is dirty fun eating at its best. What you will NOT find in this city is “Singapore Noodles” (in the same way as you wouldn't find “Spag Bol” in Bologna
On the drinks front, you have to join the temperance movement to keep the budget down and stick to juices, tea and coffee. Alcoholic drinks are heavily taxed – and since most is imported too (all wine and most spirits), that drives the price doubly up. Luckily, the craft beer scene has firmly established itself in Singapore too and so at least there's something of quality that's brewed locally beyond the bland local industrial lager that's named after the city's popular nickname.
The city's most legendary drink is of course the Singapore Sling cocktail – invented in the early 20th century in the Raffles Hotel Bar. A visit to their Long Bar (open to the public, not just hotel guests) is very much part of most tourists' itinerary. It is fun – especially the instructions to just crumble the shells of the free peanuts you get with your drink onto the floor (they sweep it up afterwards). The cocktail was however overpriced and far from the best Singapore Sling I've ever had (in fact the hotel that I actually stayed in made a better one, and at half the price).
And as already indicated: Singapore's tap water is perfectly drinkable – and free!
Time required: To do all the dark-tourism sites mentioned here you need a few days, possibly up to a whole week, also to do some non-dark things.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Singapore is an ideal springboard to other Asian destinations and beyond to Australia
and New Zealand
. The closest other countries that can both be reached without taking to the sky are Indonesia
to the south and Malaysia to the north.
Indonesian territory that can be reached relatively quickly and easily by ferry is the island of Batam and the Riau archipelago it is part of. On Pulau Galang
just south of Batam there was once a large UN
-and Indonesian-military-administered refugee camp for so-called “boat people” who had fled from Vietnam
. And this is apparently commodified as a dark kind of visitor attraction too. From what I read about this, though, it seems to be a contested site (between the ex-refugee diaspora's memorialization wishes and modern Vietnamese pressures to suppress these). Unfortunately I didn't have the time for an excursion to Pulau Galang when I was in the region. It would certainly be an interesting add-on if I ever return to Singapore …
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Singapore is primarily a non-dark destination for most visitors – although the WWII
-connections cannot so easily be avoided altogether. Even in the bars-and-restaurants district of Clarke Quay, the military theme pops up.
But most tourist attractions relate either to the pretty colonial buildings, the extravagant modern architecture, the amusement centres such as Sentosa Island as well as shopping or eating out.
Colonial-era gems include the Singapore art museum, St Andrew's Cathedral, the old supreme court, and the legendary Raffles Hotel. You may not be able to afford actually staying at the latter (rates per night start from ca. 500 USD), but you are free to wander in, see the courtyards and garden, and maybe pop into the Long Bar to sample a Singapore Sling at its place of birth (they're expensive here too, though, and not the best – see above
Singapore's plethora of stunning modern architecture includes another landmark hotel: the Marina Bay Sands Hotel – it consists of three huge curved towers joined at the top by a structure that looks a bit like a stranded boat. This top floor features the world's highest and longest infinity pool. But alas this hotel is also rather prohibitively expensive. But you can admire it from the shores across the bay.
There are plenty of other modern structures around the bay, such as the “flower”-shaped building of the ArtScience Museum, the Esplanades cluster of theatres or the skyscrapers of the financial district clustered around Raffles Place
Also on the Marina Bay shores stands the landmark statue of the “Merlion” a mermaid with a lion's head, the Lion City's mascot. This water-spouting fantasy creature is one of the most photographed sights of Singapore. There's always a throng of tourists there, day and night.
Outside the city centre more bland residential blocks dominate – but there are exceptions with rather ingenious architectural designs here too, such as the “Interlace”, a cluster of condo blocks stacked at odd angles like Lego bricks, or the Reflections at Keppel Bay, a luxury residential tower complex flamboyantly designed by Daniel Libeskind (see photos
More and more is being constructed too, so the skyline of Singapore will keep changing – and growing.
Yet despite all that high-rise architecture Singapore is also a very green city, with lots of parks and nature reserves often directly adjacent to residential districts (enhancing their appeal in turn). Gardens and modern architecture even meet in some instances – such as at the Hotel Parkroyal on Pickering, representing a new trend in urban architecture sometimes called “vertical forest”.
The Southern Ridges is a series of ten hilly parks spreading out westwards from Mount Faber that are connected by walkways, including elevated “canopy walks” and bridges across valleys, such as the elegant Henderson Waves design.
Mount Faber at the eastern end of the Southern Ridges is connected to Sentosa Island by a cable car via the Harbour Front.
Sentosa Island is Singapore's main “entertainment” and resort centre, which is quite Disneyesque in parts, but also home to the “S.A.E. Aquarium”. The latter has some impressively large tanks where you can watch sharks and other sea creatures.
is famous, especially for its spin-offs the Night Safari and River Safari, but also for its main part's impressive assembly of animals, including many endangered species. A complete one-off amongst these are the zoo's proboscis monkeys, the world's only group of these unique primates kept in captivity (cf Indonesia
for their wild cousins). The zoo is to the north of the downtown core, inland right in the middle of Singapore's main island.
And then there are the people. And its ethnic mix also led to a great variety of religious buildings, from the Anglican St Andrew's Cathedral, or the Armenian church on Hill street, to Hindu temples (with holy-cow sculptures outside), mosques and synagogues.
The ethnic mix also contributes to Singapore's reputation of a foody paradise
, which indeed it is – not just in gourmet restaurants but even more so at the various hawker centres (see above under access and costs
> food & drink).
Going out in the sense of nightlife is mostly clustered around entertainment and bars-and-restaurants centres such as Clarke Quay on the Singapore River in the heart of the city centre. Thanks to the tropical climate, you can literally stay out in the open deep into the night, and Singaporeans clearly love this. Probably also because it provides respite from the muggy heat of the daytime, one the one hand, or the ubiquitous indoor air-conditioning on the other.
Finally, a famed favourite pastime in Singapore for locals and even more so visitors is shopping. The main drag for this is Orchard Road – though I found this too concentrated on familiar “big brand names”, which I find boring. personally.
In almost all other respects, though, I found Singapore a fabulous place.
- Singapore 01 - flag monument
- Singapore 02 - colonial architecture
- Singapore 03 - cathedral
- Singapore 04 - old Supreme Court building
- Singapore 05 - the famous Raffles
- Singapore 06 - Civilian War Memorial
- Singapore 07 - looking up
- Singapore 08 - in Fort Canning Park
- Singapore 09a - Fort Canning bunker entrance
- Singapore 09b - Kranji war memorial, photo courtesy of Lucas Klamert
- Singapore 09c - Kranji war cemetery, photo courtesy of Lucas Klamert
- Singapore 09d - Sook Ching memorial
- Singapore 10 - milking military history commercially
- Singapore 11 - firefighters monument
- Singapore 12 - nobody speaking here
- Singapore 13 - modern skyline
- Singapore 14 - Marina Bay
- Singapore 15 - other side of the bay
- Singapore 16 - Merlion
- Singapore 17 - ceaseless construction
- Singapore 18 - residential towers and skyline
- Singapore 19 - interesting lego-block-like architecture
- Singapore 20 - jungle and new hyper-modern architecture
- Singapore 21 - big tropical tree
- Singapore 22 - elevated walkways through the wild side
- Singapore 23 - Henderson Waves
- Singapore 24 - cable car to Sentosa Island
- Singapore 25 - mostly an amusement park
- Singapore 26 - in the aquarium
- Singapore 27 - sharks
- Singapore 28 - view of the harbour
- Singapore 29 - banana tree in the city
- Singapore 30 - vertical garden architecture
- Singapore 31 - Hindu temple
- Singapore 32 - mosque
- Singapore 33 - colourful Chinatown
- Singapore 34 - in Chinatown
- Singapore 35 - Clarke Quay
- Singapore 36 - by night
- Singapore 37 - Singapore River by night
- Singapore 38 - Marina Bay Sands in the background
- Singapore 39 - Marina Bay by night
- Singapore 40 - Old Fire Station
- Singapore 41 - old police station
- Singapore 42 - street sculptures
- Singapore 43 - hawker centre street food
- Singapore 44 - laksa
- Singapore 45 - chilli crab
- Singapore 46 - really exotic, neavy-duty, live seafood