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Singapore | Facts and History

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Singapore's waterfront theater district

Singapore's waterfront esplanade, including the famous Merlion statue.

Tom Bonaventure / Getty Images
Singapore boasts perhaps the world's tidiest street markets

Flower garlands at a market stall in Singapore

Steve Allen / Getty Images
Despite the focus on finance and high tech, shipping is a key component of Singapore's economy.

Singapore's busy port, one of the major shipping hubs of Southeast Asia

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A bustling city-state in the heart of Southeast Asia, Singapore is famous for its booming economy and its strict regime of law and order. Long an important port of call on the monsoonal Indian Ocean trade circuit, today Singapore boasts one of the world's busiest ports, as well as thriving finance and services sectors.

How did this tiny nation become one of the world's wealthiest? What makes Singapore tick?

Government:

According to its constitution, the Republic of Singapore is a representative democracy with a parliamentary system. In practice, its politics have been completely dominated by a single party, the People's Action Party (PAP), since 1959.

The Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party in Parliament and also heads the executive branch of government; the President plays a mostly ceremonial role as the head of state, although he or she can veto the appointment of top-level judges. Currently, the Prime Minister is Lee Hsien Loong, and the President is Tony Tan Keng Yam. The president serves a six-year term, while legislators serve five-year terms.

The unicameral parliament has 87 seats, and has been dominated by PAP members for decades. Interestingly, there are also as many as nine nominated members, who are the losing candidates from opposition parties who came closest to winning their elections.

Singapore has a relatively simple judicial system, made up of a High Court, a Court of Appeals, and several types of Commercial Courts. The judges are appointed by the President upon advice of the Prime Minister.

Population:

The city-state of Singapore boasts a population of about 5,354,000, packed in at a density of more than 7,000 people per square kilometer (almost 19,000 per square mile). In fact, it is the third-most densely populated country in the world, following only the Chinese territory of Macau and Monaco.

Singapore's population is highly diverse, and many of its residents are foreign-born. Just 63% of the population are actually citizens of Singapore, while 37% are guest workers or permanent residents.

Ethnically, 74% of Singapore's residents are Chinese, 13.4% are Malay, 9.2% are Indian, and about 3% are of mixed ethnicity or belong to other groups. Census figures are somewhat skewed, because until recently the government only allowed residents to select a single race on their census forms.

Languages:

Although English is the most-commonly used language in Singapore, the nation has four official languages: Chinese, Malay, English and Tamil. The most common mother tongue is Chinese, with about 50% of the population. Approximately 32% speak English as their first language, 12% Malay, and 3% Tamil.

Obviously, written language in Singapore is also complex, given the variety of official languages. Commonly-used writing systems include the Latin alphabet, Chinese characters and the Tamil script, which is derived from India's Southern Brahmi system.

Religion in Singapore:

The largest religion in Singapore is Buddhism, at about 43% of the population. The majority are Mahayana Buddhists, with roots in China, but Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism also have numerous adherents.

Almost 15% of Singaporeans are Muslim, 8.5% are Taoist, about 5% Catholic, and 4% Hindu. Other Christian denominations total almost 10%, while approximately 15% of Singapore's people have no religious preference.

Geography:

Singapore is located in Southeast Asia, off the southern tip of Malaysia, north of Indonesia. It is made up of 63 separate islands, with a total area of 704 kilometers square (272 miles square). The largest island is Pulau Ujong, commonly called Singapore Island.

Singapore is connected to the mainland via the Johor-Singapore Causeway and the Tuas Second Link. Its lowest point is sea-level, while the highest point is Bukit Timah at the lofty elevation of 166 meters (545 feet).

Climate:

Singapore's climate is tropical, so temperatures do not vary much throughout the year. Average temperatures range between about 23 and 32°C (73 to 90°F).

The weather is generally hot and humid. There are two monsoonal rainy seasons - June to September, and December to March. However, even during the inter-monsoon months it rains frequently in the afternoon.

Economy:

Singapore is one of the most successful Asian tiger economies, with a per capita GDP of $60,500 US, fifth in the world. Its unemployment rate as of 2011 was an enviable 2%, with 80% of workers employed in the services and 19.6% in industry.

Singapore exports electronics, telecommunications equipment, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and refined petroleum. It imports food and consumer goods, but has a substantial trade surplus. As of October, 2012 the exchange rate was $1 US = $1.2230 Singapore dollars.

History of Singapore:

Humans settled the islands that now form Singapore at least as early as the 2nd century CE, but little is known about the early history of the area. Claudius Ptolemaeus, a Greek cartographer, identified an island in Singapore's location, and noted that it was an important international trading port. Chinese sources note the existence of the main island in the third century, but provide no details.

In 1320, the Mongol Empire sent emissaries to a place called Long Ya Men, or "Dragon's Tooth Strait," believed to be on Singapore Island. The Mongols were seeking elephants. A decade later, the Chinese explorer Wang Dayuan described a pirate fortress with mixed Chinese and Malay population called Dan Ma Xi, his rendering of the Malay name Tamasik (meaning "Sea Port").

As for Singapore itself, its founding legend states that in the thirteenth century, a prince of Srivijaya, called Sang Nila Utama or Sri Tri Buana, was shipwrecked on the island. He saw a lion there for the first time in his life, and took this as a sign that he should found a new city, which he named "Lion City" - Singapura. Unless the big cat was also shipwrecked there, it is unlikely that the story is literally true, since the island was home to tigers but not lions.

For the next three hundred years, Singapore changed hands between the Java-based Majapahit Empire and the Ayutthaya Kingdom in Siam (now Thailand). In the 16th century, Singapore became an important trading depot for the Sultanate of Johor, based on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. However, in 1613 Portuguese pirates burned the city to the ground, and Singapore vanished from international notice for two hundred years.

In 1819, Britain's Stamford Raffles founded the modern city of Singapore as a British trading post in Southeast Asia. It became known as the Straits Settlements in 1826, and then was claimed as an official Crown Colony of Britain in 1867.

Britain retained control of Singapore until 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Army launched a bloody invasion of the island as part of its Southern Expansion drive in World War II. The Japanese Occupation lasted until 1945.

Following the Second World War, Singapore took a circuitous route to independence. The British believed that the former Crown Colony was too small to function as an independent state. Nonetheless, between 1945 and 1962, Singapore received increasing measures of autonomy, culminating in self-government from 1955 to 1962. In 1962, after a public referendum, Singapore joined the Malaysian Federation. However, deadly race riots broke out between ethnic Chinese and Malay citizens of Singapore in 1964, and the island voted in 1965 to break away from the Federation of Malaysia once more.

In 1965, the Republic of Singapore became a fully self-governing, autonomous state. Although it has faced difficulties, including more race riots in 1969 and the East Asian financial crisis of 1997, it has proved overall a very stable and prosperous little nation.

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