Departing New Zealand, we braced ourselves for the craziness of Asia. And we got Singapore instead.

In a sense, Singapore is Asia Lite. There aren’t tuk-tuks jamming the streets and indecipherable characters on the signs. The official language is English. The food is recognizable. The architecture is eye-popping. It was probably wise for us to come here first and ease into Asia, rather than, say, dropping into downtown Bangkok right away.

This small island (5 million people in a space a bit smaller than New York City) was part of Malaysia for a couple years, but the vastly different states couldn’t play nice. Becoming its own nation in 1965, Singapore has done better than its former nationmates, its fortunes soaring thanks to finance, shipping, refineries, casinos and malls. Ah, the malls- each more extravagant than the last, thronged with Christmas tourists when we were there.

The World Bank calls Singapore the easiest place in the world to do business. GDP numbers are enviable, as are the education and health care systems.

So, where do I sign up, right? How’d they do that?

All it takes is foreign investment… and a little government control. Locals like to say that Singapore is a fine city. As in, $500 fine for spitting, $1000 fine for smoking… ha! At least they have a sense of humor about it.

But control goes deeper than “No durians”. One party has controlled Parliament ever since they started this election stuff in 1959, with one man, Lee Kuan Yew, in charge most of that time (he’s still the “Minister Mentor”). And they’ve done the things that single-party rulers usually do: Censor the media. Imprison people for exercising free speech. Abolish trial by jury. That sort of thing.

We knew about this side of Singaporean life from reading a fascinating article in National Geographic. Yet staying in Singapore for a week, we were insulated from this tug-of-war.

The efficient metro system whisked us to the city center, where there are miles of malls, restaurants and (lucky for me) modern movie theaters. Outside downtown, we explored forests and animal sanctuaries. Sharing meals and conversation, we basked in the generosity of our host families.

We enjoyed Asia Lite as the calm before the Asian storm. And we definitely didn’t spit.