Beyond the ultra-modern architecture, Singapore has an long and varied heritage to share with visitors. Here are 7 Singapore traditions you can experience on your travels, as recommended by a local.
This is a guest post by Shang, the happy-go-lucky fella behind Zip Up and Go, a travel blog that keeps travelling fun, simple and budget-friendly.
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Most visitors plan their Singapore travel itinerary around famous sights such as Marina Bay Sands, Sentosa Island and Orchard Road.
But if you only stick to the must-sees, you’ll be seriously missing out on Singapore’s cultural activities, many of which are hidden in plain sight.
Before diving into these 7 unique experiences in Singapore, take a moment to understand where it all began.
What shapes Singapore traditions?
Singapore is a tiny island nation located in maritime Southeast Asia, right on the southern tip of our closest neighbouring country, Malaysia.
For much of its history, Singapore was a sleepy fishing village. Things changed in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles ‘discovered’ Singapore and turned it into a bustling trading outpost for the British East India Company.
With a growing economy, migrants from many parts of Asia began to flock to the city, bringing their own cultures and traditions along with them.
The amalgamation of these practices shaped the early years of modern Singapore, and leaves behind a rich heritage begging to be explored.
7 Singapore traditions every visitor should experience
After figuring out where to stay in Singapore, it’s time to take a closer look at the top 7 Singapore traditions and cultural experiences that are bound to leave you wanting more.
1. Watch a Nanyin concert
Nanyin, meaning ‘southern sounds’ in Chinese, is a type of classical music that originated over 2,000 years ago in the Fujian province of China. This form of music was brought to Singapore by migrant workers and lives on today amongst the Chinese community.
Nanyin is an integral part of Chinese history and identity, so much so that it has been inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Efforts have been poured in to preserve and promote it, and these days, you will find a healthy mix of young performers showcasing this unique music alongside veterans.
While visiting Singapore, there’s no better way to appreciate this old art form by attending a Nanyin concert. Performances regularly take place at various locations across the city. If you’re lucky, you can see a live show inside the oldest Hokkien temple in Singapore, Thian Hock Keng.
Watching the musicians perform under the stars is a one-of-a-kind experience you will not find elsewhere in Singapore.
Check the Facebook page of Siong Leng Musical Association for show times and more info.
2. Learn to speak Singlish
Singapore is a nation that’s made up of a large number of different races, each with its own unique traditions and dialects. The core groups are the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians.
As a result of Singapore’s diversity, a unique tongue that blends the languages from each of these groups started to emerge. Colloquial Singlish was born.
As a visitor to a new country, it’s always useful to pick up a few words to improve communication with the locals, and that is no different in Singapore. The people are warm and friendly, so there is no lack of opportunities to learn
Ordering a drink from Starbucks, shopping at the mall, talking to a random uncle on the street – these are all easy ways to get started practicing Singlish vocabulary!
3. Visit the cemetery at Bukit Brown
Exploring a place of burial might not seem like a desirable activity for tourists, but a walk through Bukit Brown lends a different light to this experience.
Founded in 1922 by the now-defunct Municipal Council, it is the final resting place for over 100,000 people, including some of the pioneers of Singapore.
In land-scarce Singapore, cemeteries have been cleared to make way for high rise buildings, and lots of graves have been dug up and moved to columbariums as a result. Visiting Bukit Brown gives you an insight into how people of the past buried their dead.
You can also learn about where these people came from, what they did, and take a look for yourself at the intricate designs adorning the graves. Not to be missed is the massive tomb of Ong Sam Leong, a rich businessman who contributed significantly to the growth of Singapore. It covers an area of 600 square metres and is flanked by a group of Sikh ‘bodyguards’. Don’t wait too long though, as it is slated for demolition by the year 2030.
There is a self-guided walking trail here.
4. Explore Singapore’s last remaining kampong in Pulau Ubin
Before Singapore had high-rise residential buildings, many of its people lived in kampongs, or villages. They were usually built using wood and zinc roofs, and were tightly compacted. That meant that the villagers were often in close contact with each other, forging deep and meaningful relationships. This gave rise to the term ‘kampong spirit’, which essentially meant a sense of social cohesion.
As Singapore grew and ran out of space, these villages were demolished to make way for apartment blocks. Today, there are only two surviving kampongs in Singapore.
Make a trip to Pulau Ubin, a small island just off the mainland, to understand what a kampong is. The best way to do that is to sign up for a guided tour, where you will learn all about what life was like back in the old days.
Another thing you must not miss is to chat with one of the residents of Pulau Ubin, where you can find them operating small shops around the jetty. Buy a drink and have a chat with them as they reminisce and relive their childhood.
5. Eat at hawker centre and visit a wet market
The term ‘hawker centre’ might not be familiar to you, especially if you’re from the Western world, but they are one of the most integral Singapore traditions.
Many who have travelled to our shores often go home raving about the food in Singapore, and hawker centres play an important role in establishing that.
Before Singapore became known as a clean and green city, street food vendors were a common sight. They provided cheap and delicious food to the working class. However, were soon deemed unhygienic and unsanitary, which prompted the government to start building hawker centres to house them.
Today, their legacy lives on and you can still enjoy cheap and delicious local food as you make your way around the island.
A feature that is common in some of these hawker centres is the wet market, where many residents start their day by stocking up on food supplies such as live poultry and fresh seafood as well as produce. It’s here where you can witness how the locals go about their daily lives and observe their unique interactions.
Consider checking out Chinatown Complex, one of the largest and oldest of its kind in Singapore.
Guided option: Try Singapore’s famous Michelin Star chicken rice and other delicacies on this 3-hour private hawker food tour.
6. Walk one of Singapore’s Heritage Trails
Some say you haven’t truly visited a city until you’ve walked its streets. In Singapore, there are lots of opportunities to learn about history and culture by walking one of the well-designed heritage trails across the island.
Each of these trails is carefully curated and aims to take visitors on an immersive walk through the city’s history.
Choose from trails that bring you to former World War battle sites, and trails that take you on a journey connecting the past, present, and future. Many of them lead you through various religious sites so you can observe how each of them played a role in shaping Singaporean society into an all-inclusive one.
Find out more about the trails through the National Heritage Board.
Guided option: Uncover Singapore’s WWII history on this 4-hour bus & walking tour; travel back in time on this 2-hour walking tour of historic Queenstown; or discover Singapore’s Malay-Islamic culture on this walking tour of Kampong Glam.
7. Visit one of the first playgrounds in Singapore
As the residents of Singapore moved into government apartments, their children lost some of their favourite stomping grounds in the process. Recognising the need to provide a safe and fun environment for the city’s little ones, playgrounds were constructed amongst the housing estates so kids from the neighbourhood could gather and play together.
These playgrounds have also gone through their own evolution, as they change from concrete structures in sandy pits to creative plastics on padded flooring.
The early playground designs came in the form of animals (like pelicans, doves, and fruits!). One of the most distinct and last-surviving playgrounds is in Toa Payoh, which takes the shape of a dragon.
It’s open to the public and has been designated as a heritage site, keeping this much-loved Singapore tradition alive for visitors like you to enjoy.