Modern and sanitized, Singapore’s lack of Asian adrenaline doesn’t mean it should be entirely overlooked. Richard Tulloch discovers botanical gardens and billion dollar developments, alongside serious street food and a shopper’s paradise.
When I first began travelling, Singapore was not a favoured destination. If the rumours of the 1970s were correct, Singaporean officials, obsessed with cleanliness and conformity, would give you a compulsory haircut on arrival, confiscate your chewing gum, cane you for littering, and execute you for any drug offence. Things have changed considerably, though you’d be absolutely crazy to think of dealing, carrying or using illicit drugs here. And chewing gum is still not available above the counter.
Singapore likes to be well organised, and needs to be: it’s the second most densely populated nation on the planet (after Monaco). Native Singaporeans are a cultural mix of Chinese, Malay and Indians, and 42% of the population are expats. People are business-like and polite, rather than friendly. English is one of four official languages, though ‘Singlish’ is more widely spoken and the accent takes some getting used to. The streets are safe, taxi drivers are honest and if you are going to be ripped off in a hotel or shop, at least the price will be advertised in advance.
There used to be two things to do in Singapore – drink a gin sling at Raffles, then go shopping for electronics. These simple pleasures are still available, but these days there are other attractions too. Fashion shopping, indulging in every type of Asian cuisine under the sun, and visiting fabulous tropical gardens for starters. For a whiff of the Exotic East, but with clean toilets, no hassling hawkers and efficient transport, Singapore is the place. This is Asia Lite, fully air-conditioned.
Best of the Beaten Track
Orchard Road is the main shopping drag, lined with massive department stores and filled with the latest togs and clogs of all the major international brands. Prices are not necessarily cheaper than in other parts of the world, but the range is hard to beat.
The Jewel Cable Car Ride will take you across the harbour to the resort island of Sentosa, with its Underwater World, Universal Studios, Megazip Adventure Park, Sentosa Cineblast… Sounds a bit touristy? You bet it is!
Singapore is hot and humid any time of year, so an escape to the wonderful Botanic Gardens is always an option. The orchid and ginger gardens are standouts.
The 5 billion dollar development Marina Bay Sands is brand new but already making a splash with its casino, huge hotel, shopping mall, theatres and restaurants. Well worth a look, even if staying there is out of the question for anyone who hasn’t won the lottery recently.
To feel like you really are in Asia, where not everything is modern and sanitised, take a walk around Little India, a lowrise chaotic district full of shops, temples and mosques. You’ll find cheap versions of anything at all in The Mustafa’s Centre.
Katong is the Malay part of town, and also by reputation the centre of prostitution on Geylang Rd. But Joo Chiat Rd is interesting, with some of Singapore’s cheaper accommodation.
The Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and (my favourite) Jurong Bird Park sound like they’re only of interest if you’re under ten, but they’re much better than that. If the keepers’ demonstrations are a bit cheesy – ‘Gee whizz, this funny bird is almost human!’ - they’re all brilliantly designed gardens parks, where the wildlife is very close to visitors.
The dark days of the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II are remembered at the Changi Museum, near the site of the notorious prison camp where thousands of British and allied POWs were interned, then sent to work and die on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway. The museum can’t shy away from the horrors of the time, but it concentrates on courage and reconciliation and visiting it is a positive, uplifting experience.
Experience & Events
The Singapore Arts Festival, held each year in May/June, brings local and international arts to the extraordinary Esplanade building, nicknamed ‘The Durian’ after it’s resemblance to the tropical fruit of the same name.
Singaporeans are not generally big consumers of organised arts, but it all breaks loose at Chinese New Year, with a huge street parade and fireworks display.
Formula One roars into town in late September. The first night race on the F1 circuit, the competition is accompanied by ten days of parties, concerts and themed events during what has been officially dubbed the ‘Grand Prix Season Singapore’.
Accommodation in Singapore is nowhere near as cheap as in other parts of Asia, but you’d be hard pressed to find a bedbug or a fleapit. If you don’t care where you lay your head as long as it’s clean, the Hotel 81 chain offers very basic rooms at basic prices. The boutique Wanderlust Hotel offers a mid-range price for witty cutting edge interior design in a converted school house in Little India. Raffles Hotel is as famous as any five star establishment in the world. Maugham, Kipling, Michener, Conrad, Noel Coward and John Wayne have their own suites. If you’re paying for your own accommodation, stay somewhere cheaper and just go to Raffles for high tea or a gin sling.
Singapore’s food is legendary, and even if you prefer street market to up-market, you are unlikely to need a stomach pump. That hygiene fixation has its advantages. Street food to die for in the hawkers’ markets. Try the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre in Kallang for chilli crabs, or Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Serangoon Road for pepper crabs. Maxwell Food Court is the place for Singapore lemon chicken and laksa, available at hawkers’ markets. In Little India, Ananda Bhavan, is the oldest Indian vegetarian restaurant in town. Make sure you drink a mango lassi too. According to the Tatler ratings, Singapore’s number one restaurant is Santi’s in Marina Bay Sands hotel complex. It was set up by renowned Catalan chef Santi Santamaria who sadly died there recently, while giving visitors a tour.
On Friday nights at BLU bar in the Shangri-La Hotel, drinks are discounted according to the height of your stiletto heels – really. This privilege is offered to ladies footing the bill (sorry). Clarke Quay is the district most ex-pats and visitors head for a night out, and the Pump Room has a popular and long-established house band. Homesick Brits can check out the Fred Perry backed Subculture nights at Zouk, currently one of the best nightclubs in town.
Changi Airport is one of Asia’s busiest hubs, with no shortage of flights in and out of town. Singapore Airlines is a world leader, connecting the city to Europe, the US and Australia.
Somerset Maugham explores the themes of class division, cultural differences, lust, competitiveness and human nature in his series of short stories which make up the Casuarina Tree. The backdrop is 1920s Malaya, the protagonists the British colonials struggling to adapt. If you want to know more about what made modern Singapore modern Singapore then why not hear it from the man himself? From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000 was written by the hardline former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew with a strong dislike of chewing gum.
In episode five of his TV series No Reservations Anthony Bourdain explores the fusion of cuisines found on the Malay peninsular.