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Conveniently linked by a kilometre-long causeway to the southern tip of Malaysia, the tiny city-state of Singapore (just 580 square kilometres) makes a gentle gateway for many first-time travellers to Asia, providing Western standards of comfort and hygiene alongside traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian enclaves. Its downtown areas are dense with towering skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls, yet the island retains an abundance of nature reserves and lush, tropical greenery.
Singapore is a wealthy nation compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, with an average per capita income of over US$15,000. At the core of this success story is an unwritten bargain between Singapore's paternalistic government and acquiescent population, which stipulates the loss of a certain amount of personal freedom, in return for levels of affluence and comfort that would have seemed unimaginable thirty years ago. Outsiders often bridle at this, and it's true that some of the regulations can seem extreme: neglecting to flush a public toilet, jaywalking, chewing gum and eating on the subway all carry sizeable fines. Yet the upshot is that Singapore is a clean, safe place to visit, its amenities are second to none and its public places are smoke-free and hygienic.
Of more relevance to the millions of visitors Singapore receives each year is the fact that improvements in living conditions have been shadowed by a steady loss of the state's heritage , as historic buildings and streets are bulldozed to make way for shopping centres. Singapore undoubtedly lacks the personality of some southeast Asian cities, but its reputation for being sterile and sanitized is unfair. Much of the country's fascination springs from its multicultural population : of the 3.87 million inhabitants, 77 percent are Chinese (a figure reflected in the predominance of Chinese shops, restaurants and temples across the island), 14 percent are Malay, and 7 percent are Indian, the remainder being from other ethnic groups.
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