The second most densely populated independent country in the world, Singapore is made up of not just one island but a main island with 63 surround islets. This main island is a diamond-shaped and is connected at its north side to the Malaysian state of Johor by a man-made causeway, known as the Johor-Singapore Causeway, which crosses at the Tebrau Straits. The Tuas Second Link bridge also connects to Johor from the West.

One of Singapore's most outstandingly unique attributes is its ongoing planning process, and the results of 6+ decades of such planning. The locations of communities, working-shopping-eating-entertainment facilities and infrastructure have been fine-tuned since the design and creation of Singapore's first “New Town” of Queenstown, from 1952. Prior to that there was a problem of unplanned squatter settlements and overcrowded shophouses characterized in 1947 as “one of the world's worst slums” – which was energetically addressed and eradicated in an attempt to evolve world-leading planning approaches, and benefits therefrom to the people.

Now, the typical Singaporean lives in a comfortable self-owned leasehold apartment unit adjacent to groceries, eateries, other shopping, bus and/or urban rail transport. Schools, parks and open space, a public sports complex (with running/jogging track, Olympic and recreational swimming pools, fitness equipment and other facilities available at nominal cost), are often within walking distance or a short bus-rail ride of one's home. If the visitor were to stop at a MRT station like Bedok or Pasir Ris one could wander through neighbourhoods and see how these facilities all fit together.

There are actually 55 urban planning areas that make up the nation state, and today some of this is on land that has been reclaimed from the sea. Earth obtained from hills, the seabed and neighboring countries has been used in recent years to increase Singapore's size by nearly 140 square km in the past 50 years, with perhaps another 100 km2 anticipated by 2030. If so, Singapore's land area could increase from an original ~580 km2 to an anticipated ~820 km2, or an increase of ~40%.

The ultra-modern Downtown Core is primarily concentrated on the southern part of the island, around the mouth of the Singapore River. This is an area of high-rise office towers and features some of the finest hotels in the world. However, increasingly significant business centres are evolving outside of the Downtown Core, as in Tampines. And industrial and trade facilities are distributed in another pattern, as around the airport area.

Besides the financial and commercial centres around downtown (south-central) Singapore, are some communities which have been considered, often from Singapore's original planning before 1850, considered to be traditional ethnic areas. These include “Chinatown”, “Little India”, and Bugis – Kampong Glam – Geylang Serai (Malay areas). While most of these were once used to segregate the immigrant population even in the early 19th century under the policies of Raffles, and saw many historic landmarks torn down by early efforts of independent Singapore to modernize, today they are recovering after a somewhat different fashion as places to experience the goods, food and culture of Singapore's major ethnic groups. This contrasts with the New Towns being developed over the past several decades, where the Ethnic Integration Policy and other related policies set limits on percentages of housing residents among ethnicities of Singaporeans, Permanent Residents, and non-Malaysian non-citizens, in order to promote integration, balance, and the avoidance of culturally biased ghettos in New Towns.


With an overall population that's about 75% Chinese, many argue that virtually all of Singapore is a “Chinatown.” This may be compounded by the large numbers of mainland Chinese contract workers working in sales in shops and hawker centres – some of whom are effectively non-functional in any other language (despite Singapore's reputation of being fully conversant in English). Nevertheless, there is an area bounded roughly on the NE by the Singapore River, on the SE by the downtown financial district, on the NW by the Central Expressway, and on the SW by Outram and Cantonment Roads, that is Chinatown as originally designated by the plans of Raffles' time.

Many landmark buildings fell under the wrecking ball in the first decades post-independence, in the drive to “modernize” Singapore. Such buildings will be forever lost (unless they might be recreated in the future). Nevertheless, this area might be considered as being effectively more “Chinese” than other parts of Singapore. Especially with the policies in place in New Towns, designed to enhance the integration and demographic harmony of those areas. And, in the current climate of greater respect for heritage, many of the remaining buildings have been restored or enhanced with greater sensitivity than was the case in the first few decades post-independence.

Nearby MRT Stations: Chinatown, Outram Park, Tanjong Pagar, Clarke Quay. Bus Terminal: New Bridge Road.

If you want to stay in Chinatown, you have a wide range of options. Hostel beds can run under S$40. Top class hotel rooms can exceed S$1000.

Web references include:

Bugis - Kampong Glam & Geylang Serai

With 13+% of the overall population of Singapore, and a rather larger proportion of the populations of surrounding Malaysia and Indonesia, Malays and a small number of people of Arab descent form a vital demographic group in Singapore. One might say that there is an extended influence, as their religion, Islam, is also the faith of some Singaporeans of Chinese extraction, and rather more Singaporeans of South Asian ancestry. Traditional areas with large Malay populations include the Bugis – Kampong Glam, and the Geylang areas.

These areas may fall in between Chinatown and Little India in their character. Shopping areas like Geylang Serai, several residential estates and businesses are in these areas. Mosques abound. Coffee shops (kopitiam with a small “k”) which are eateries also serving non-alcoholic drinks including coffee and tea, bakeries, and other businesses ebb and flow with patrons throughout the day and evening.

MRT stations: Bugis and Lavender for Bugis – Kampong Glam. Paya Lebar, Aljunied and Kallang for Geylang. Bus Terminals: Queen Street for Bugis – Kampong Glam. Geylang Lorong 1, and Eunos, Bus Terminals for Geylang.

If you want to stay in this general area, please be aware that, coexisting with residences, coffee shops and businesses in Geylang, is the city-state's major traditional red light district – with legal brothels and illegal street walkers dotted along even-numbered lorongs (lanes) numbered between 2 and 22 – with conditions being fluid over time. Some economy hotels do dual businesses, with hourly and nightly rates. If you stay in such a hotel, and discover that your sheets feel like Tyvec – well, you know... Hostel bed rates can fall below S$40, while budget hotels start about S$70 and upper crust hotel rooms can exceed S$300.

Web references include:

Little India

With the lowest percentage of the three major constituents in Singapore's population at about 9+%, Indians generally do not dominate areas of Singapore, other than their historic enclave of Little India. Little India is also arguably the smallest of the major ethnic enclaves. It straddles Serangoon Road, north of Rochor Canal.

Some might argue that Little India is anchored by the Mustafa Centre complex of shopping, food, and 24/7 foreign exchange. But that a wide diversity of eateries, and small shops selling everything, servicing mobile phones, etc. also lend strongly to the character of the area. Temples, mosques, and churches are in abundance.

During evenings, especially on weekends late into the night, the area is packed; some might say overrun; by South Asian contract workers trying to enjoy a bit of time off to eat, shop, and mill about. Jaywalking (disdainfully in the face of frustrated drivers) is rampant and essentially unenforced. Some claim that Little India is a sanitized version of what one would find in South Asia. That may be true. There are no auto rickshaws whirling around, for example. Nevertheless, Little India might be closer to South Asia than Chinatown to mainland China, or the Malay districts to Jakarta or Kota Bahru. Because the Mustafa Centre is 24/7, some other places in Little India may be open either/both early or late.

If you want to stay in little India, you also have a range of options. Hostel beds can run under S$40. Top class hotel rooms can reach S$200 or above. Even for Singaporeans from the heartlands, Little India might make a great staycation spot because of its unique character.

MRT stations: Little India & Ferrer Park (with Bugis on the side). Bus Terminal: Queen Street.

Web references include:Other neighbourhoods and gathering places

Away from the Downtown district there are plenty of places to see the other side of Singapore including Changi Village, which is a sleepy district of fisherman and sun-drenched beaches. Holland Village, which has been dubbed a “bohemian enclave” is a curious mix of old and new, where traditional coffee shops share blocks with upscale wine bars and fine dining restaurants. Katong has a Peranakan community.

Other areas may be considered as unofficial gathering places, if not exactly neighbourhoods. For example, many of the large contingent of Filipina maids gather on Sundays around the Orchard Road area and Lucky Plaza; while Thai workers may congregate in places like the Golden Mile Complex; and Burmese workers congregate near Peninsula Plaza.

Singapore's New Towns: New Neighbourhoods Singapore Style

90+ years ago, Singapore was a Straits Settlement along with Malacca, Labuan, and Prince of Wales{now Penang} Island. The government of the day recognized a 2-pronged housing problem, characterized (1) by overcrowded shophouses in built-up areas and (2) by even lower-quality rural housing in outlying kampongs (village settings). In 1927 the Singapore Improvement Trust was established to deal with this challenge. Though the SIT designed and began the pioneering Tiong Bahru Housing Estate, and Queenstown (Singapore's first purpose-built New Town), it built only about 23000 housing units during its 32 year tenure.

In 1960, the SIT was replaced by the Housing and Development Board. HDB continued the development of Queenstown. A major fire in one squatter kampong in 1961 effectively ended kampong dwellers' resistance to the housing policy – and made many residents more favorable to the New Town concept. Later New Towns have evolved Singapore's style of increasingly self-contained communities with higher-quality facilities connected by buses and rail lines, roads and walkways/cycleways. Singapore's New Towns attempt to address many issues, including “affordable” housing (though public housing is no longer cheap), evolving quality standards in line with increased expectations by the public; nearby food-shopping-transport-workplaces, schools and recreational facilities. Nowadays, 80+% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats ranging from studios to 4+ bedroom units. Most folks “own” their flats, which were built as 99-year leasehold. Most others live in private condominiums, mostly (but not all) built to similar 99-year leases. A few people live in private landed terrace, semi-detached or single-family houses.

Regular upgradings go on in established New Towns. For example, early buildings had lifts stopping at every three floors, with residents walking up or down to their own floors. Early lifts had a single call button at each floor – so if one wanted to go from floor 9 to floor 13, one might wind up riding down to the ground floor (with people already riding in the lift) before going up, then perhaps walking up or down stairs before or after the lift ride(s). Subsequent lift upgradings have been installing lifts which stop at every floor, and have two call buttons on every floor, as HDB housing moves upmarket.


New Towns by population and Region:

  •  Bedok, Eastern Singapore, population ~293,000
  • Jurong West, Western Singapore, population ~272,000
  • Tampines, Eastern Singapore, population ~259,000
  • Woodlands, Northern Singapore, population ~250,000
  • Hougang, Northeastern Singapore, population ~219,000
  • Yishun, Northern Singapore, population ~193,000
  • Sengkang, Northeastern Singapore, population ~192,000
  • . . . .
  • Pasir Ris, Eastern Singapore, population ~137,000
  • . . .
  • Toa Payoh, Central Singapore, population ~127,000
  • . . .
  • Queenstown, Central Singapore, population ~99,000
  • . . .
  • Sembawang, Northern Singapore, population ~72,000

For those interested in urban planning, or in imagining what it's like to live in such communities, one can find a variety of writings on the Web. One can also take the MRT or a bus to one of these New Towns – and see the (usually) adjacent food and drygoods shopping near the bus interchanges and MRT stations, schools, parks, sports/fitness facilities.

The satellite suburb of Yishun on the northern coast of the island offers a modern shopping mall to satisfy even the most die-hard spendthrift. Next to the Tampines MRT station are several shopping centres, and other office and commercial buildings in an environment increasingly resembling a satellite city in its own right.

Pasir Ris, at the far eastern end of the MRT East-West line, is considered by some to be a “resort-like” New Town. The MRT station and adjacent bus interchange lie next to the small-ish regional White Sands Shopping Centre (with its banks, money changer, renovated food court, basement supermarket and bakeries, branch library and post office), the Pasir Ris Town Park with Pasir Ris Sports Complex and somewhat unique fishing pond with equipment (and fishing time) for hire. Immediately across the street from the MRT station and bus interchange are Pasir Ris Park, a national park which runs along the northern shoreline in this area. Pasir Ris Park has bikes for rent, trails (including some through a sliver of mangrove forest), places to eat, drink, and camp. There is also the NTUC Costa Sands Resort – built for workers to enjoy a few days off along the shoreline – but also open to the general public; and “The Wild-Wild Wet”, a local water play theme park. The extensive parklands, the shoreline, cycling paths and other recreation give Pasir Ris more of a resort feel than, say, Jurong or next-door Tampines. One can get some of the feel of this neighbourhood just by taking a train or bus there, and wandering around (hopefully with a mapping tool or map).

Unfortunately, self-guided tours of Singaporean neighbourhoods are in somewhat short supply. Perhaps the best (with an opportunity for anyone to pitch in and improve them) are the regional articles in Wikivoyage – such as the ones noted above for Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India.