A Southeast Asian island city-state of 63 islands off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore has a highly urban population of 5 million, but also many parks and green spaces. The area became a trading post for the British East India Company in 1819 and soon flourished at a strategic position on the world's shipping lanes. Self-governing from 1959, and independent from Britain since 1963 as part of Malaysia, the city separated from the federation of former colonies just two years later, becoming even more prosperous, with one of the busiest ports in the world. Now one of the Four Asian Tiger economies, the 'Lion City' now boasts the world's third highest per capita income, and one in six households has over one million US dollars in liquid assets.
The population is almost 75% Chinese, with Malays and Indians forming significant minorities. The four official languages are Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English, the primary language of government, business, mass media and education, and the common tongue between the various ethnic groups. Colloquial "Singlish" mixes several of them together. Buddhism, the most widely practiced religion, counts a third of the population as adherents. Christians, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus and those professing no religion make up most of the rest. About 40% of Singapore's residents are foreigners.
Dining and shopping are said to be the country's twin national pastimes. The wide variety of cuisines to be found among the city's restaurants are a consequence of its many different ethnicities, and one of the great pleasures of a visit here. With trade being the lifeblood of the economy, the shops overflow with goods, both local and from around the world.
Travelers from most nations may enter Singapore without a visa, but some 30 nationalities must obtain a visa in advance. Depending on nationality and entry point, entry permits are for 14 or 30 days, although EU, Norwegian, Swiss, US, Canadian and A-NZ passport holders get 90 days. Have your passport, valid for at least 6 months on arrival, and an onward or return ticket (with visa to that destination, if applicable).
Customs officials occasionally do spot drug tests of urine at the airport, and it is an offence to have certain drug metabolites in your system, even if legally consumed outside the country. Bring prescriptions for any medicines you may have, and check ahead for rules concerning possession of sedatives or strong painkillers. Singapore has very strict drug laws, and drug trafficking carries a mandatory death penalty. Porn, pirated goods and Jehovah's Witnesses tracts are also banned.
Singapore Changi Airport connects the city to 200 cities in 68 countries with a network of 80 airlines. Singapore Airlines is the national carrier. Air Asia, Jet Star, and Tiger Airways are low-cost options. A 24-hour airport bus shuttle service costs under $10 for a trip into the city center. MRT trains depart from the Changi Airport station, with a change required at the Tanah Merah station to get into town (until 11:18pm). If you are transiting in Singapore, with a layover of at least 5 hours, you can opt for a 2 hour sightseeing tour of Singapore.
The Malaysia Railway, KTM Berhad, operates several trains each day and one overnight sleeper between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, by way of the "Jungle Railway." Tickets bought online are cheaper than those at the Woodlands Train Checkpoint station. Customs and immigration procedures for both countries are cleared at the station. The Singapore-Johor Express and the Causeway Link Express both leave every 5-15 minutes (daily between 4:30am and 11:30pm) from the Queen Street Bus Terminal, downtown (50 Ban San St, Bugis).
Buses/coaches also connect the two capitals, along with service to other Malaysian destinations. Aeroline in HarbourFront Centre is one of the most comfortable, with on-board meals, power sockets, WiFi, and a lounge area. Transtar is another high-end carrier with departures/arrivals at the Golden Mile Complex shopping mall near Bugis -- the Singapore terminal for a dozen such companies. In addition Bugis is home to the terminal for Transnasional, the largest company on the peninsular, with the most destinations throughout Malaysia.
Passenger ferries at the HarbourFront Passenger Terminal and the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal offer services to Indonesian island destinations, and beyond. See Bintan Resort Ferries, Indo Falcon Shipping, and Penguin Ferry Services, among others.
Cars are expensive to own and operate in Singapore, so most people don't own one, opting instead for public transit, walking or (sometimes) a bike. Taxis are popular as fares are relatively cheap compared to most other developed countries. Should you want to rent a car, there are plenty of companies at the airport, or in downtown locations. Cars in Singapore are driven on the left side of the road, likewise in Malaysia and Indonesia, and speed limits should be carefully observed as traffic is electronically monitored. Ask agency staff to explain the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system, or consult the One Motoring government website.
Bus and rapid transit services are provided by: SMRT with buses, and a 102-station, 149 km Metro system of four lines; and SBS also with buses, and a 16-station, 20 km rail system. There are also fully automated and elevated Light Rail Transit networks of 43 stations, between the rail stations. The ticketing system uses rechargeable contactless smart cards. Tourist Pass cards cost from S$18, including the S$10 refundable deposit and a one day pass (or 2-3 days) --buy at the TransitLink Ticket Offices or Singapore Visitors Centers. Trains run every 3-8 minutes from about 5:30am until about 1am, with extended service on the big holidays. Eating, drinking and smoking are not permitted within the system, and high fines will be imposed.
A cosmopolitan "gateway between East and West" Singapore is also a center for arts and culture. The Esplanade Theatres on the Bay performing arts center is home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The annual Singapore Arts Festival is organized by the National Arts Council. The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival is an annual January presentation of cutting-edge theater, music, dance, visual arts and mixed media, created and presented by Singaporean and international artists. Necessary Stage is an innovative theater company, developing new works, and arranging international exchanges and collaborations. Other stage companies include Action Theatre, The Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, and W!ld Rice Ltd. Art Stage Singapore is an annual international art fair in January, with participation by 130 galleries, and 600 artists from 23 countries.
See Singapore Gay Films for information on gay films and festivals, and the Singapore Film Society for their free screenings every 1st and 3rd Wednesdays at GV Marina, and art-house selections on other days of the month.The Singapore Dance Theatre and Singapore Ballet Academy websites have details on their performances. For some local museums, galleries and the Zoo, see our map & listings.
Bugis/ Kampong Glam: Singapore's old Malay district, now filled with plenty of shopping opportunities.
Chinatown: originally designated by Stamford Raffles as Chinese settlement area, now heritage area and home to much of the city's gay nightlife.
Little India: north of city core concentration of Indian settlement and businesses.
Marina Bay: new Singapore neighborhood, dominated by Marina Barrage and Marina Bay Sands resort hotel, casino, shopping mall, convention center/ museum; Gardens by the Bay public garden conservatories – the Flower Dome, and the Cloud Forest.
Orchard Road: commercial center with many shopping malls.
Riverside (Civic District): Singapore's colonial center, with museums, monuments and theatres, restaurants, bars and clubs.
Sentosa: island south of downtown, former military fortress, now sandy beach escape with Universal Studios theme park, aquarium, hotels and gambling resort.
Money & Banking
The Singapore dollar, the official currency, issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore and interchangeable with the Brunei dollar, has been valued in recent years at about 80 cents US$.
Banks open 9:30am - 3pm Monday through Saturday; some on Orchard Road have Sunday hours. American Express and most large foreign banks have local branch offices, and many banks share their ATM networks. Besides the banks, most malls and many stores have ATMs. Consult your home bank before departure for information that could save you money on ATM withdrawal fees, also let them know you'll be making foreign charges on your credit cards. AMEX, MasterCard and Visa are commonly accepted in Singapore.
Gay in Singapore
Social attitudes in Singapore toward gay residents are slowly changing. The government technically criminalizes homosexuality (Section 377A of the penal code, a legacy of British rule), but gay nightlife is diverse and thriving, and police tend to look the other way unless drugs are involved. The big change came in 1998 when Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew famously said: "what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people.... we don't harass anybody." In 2007 PM Lee Hsien Loong recognized "that homosexuals are part of our society. They have a place in our society."
Still, a majority of LGBT people in Singapore report some type of discrimination or abuse due to sexual orientation, especially transgender people, and relatively few choose to come out to their families. With conscription at 18, some young gay men have difficult times during two years of military obligation.
In Hong Lim Park, the only place demonstrations of any kind are permitted, the annual Pink Dot gathering to celebrate “freedom to love” of whatever gender, has recently attracted crowds of 15,000 people. Sponsors such as Barclay's Bank lend a certain kind of legitimacy, and people are now coming from a wider slice of society, including straight Singaporeans and their children.
Neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia, with their large Muslim populations, are at least as conservative as Singapore, but locals are watching the recent changes in Hong Kong and Taiwan for cues on Chinese cultural attitudes. They're also well aware of boisterous gay pride parades in nearby Thailand and the Philippines, and the government position, stated as "at this time, our society is not ready…" is said to be under review by those in power.
The recent launch of Element gay lifestyle magazine illustrates the current situation. To avoid being licensed by the government the magazine is published online, at $1.99 per copy (from Apple and Android app stores), and the website is hosted in the USA. Government policies aside, the publishers believe most locals wouldn't yet buy something like Element from a news stand. Hirokazu Mizuhara, the magazine's managing director, and former marketing manager at Harper’s Bazaar in Beijing, had been surprised to find such a cautious legal and cultural climate, after moving here from China and Japan.
Filmmakers and theater producers have been more progressive in the past decade, with forthright and positive explorations of homosexuality in stage productions and some recent films. But homosexuality is nothing new or foreign here. During the 'sin city' period of colonial Singapore, the city was filled with brothels, opium dens and gambling houses catering to lonely migrant workers in a strange city where gender imbalance was the norm. Chinese men were said to outnumber Chinese women 15 to 1, and Indian and other laborer populations would likewise have been disproportionately male. Male-male liasons might have followed the long-standing but discrete social traditions of both China and India. Young Europeans were normally single too, and older family men usually left their wives and children at home. Local servants or houseboys might have tempted the British to flout their Victorian values and strict laws when they could -- British Orientalist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton for example wrote with some appreciation for what he called the Sotadic Zone, of which this region was a part. There are plenty of reasons for conjecture, but written evidence, if set to paper, rarely survived the fireplaces of British officials or families who discovered memoirs considered obscene at the time. See a Wikipedia article for more on the gay history of Singapore.
Media & Resources
Element Magazine, the Singapore based, gay lifestyle bi-monthly "voice of gay Asia," can be downloaded from the Apple and Android app stores.
Hypertainment, is the website of the guys behind many gay dance parties around town. SG Rainbow is a social group for gay and bisexual males, ages 18 to 25. Singaypore has online LGBT articles, video clips and community events listings.
Travel Gay Asia, with listings for SE Asia, Japan, China, Indonesia and Sydney Australia, has good coverage of Singapore.
YourSingapore is the official Singapore Tourism website. Asia City Network, or I-S, covers nightlife, entertainment, restaurants and events around town. For good online guides to Asian food and restaurants, see Makansutra, and iEatiShootiPost ("never waste your calories on yucky food"). TalkingCock offers a look at local satire and humor.
For a list of GLBTQ bars, clubs, massage spas and saunas, plus a sample of restaurants, hotels, shops, museums and performance venues, see our Singapore gay map & listings pages.