OFTEN unfairly labelled “Asia lite”, city-state Singapore is more “Asia decaffeinated”. While it lacks the cacophony of rival Hong Kong or the chaos of Bangkok, it is an island steeped in history and full of exotica.
From your arrival at Changi International Airport (consistently voted one of the best in the world) to settling into your hotel in the city centre less than an hour afterwards, Singapore works like a finely oiled sewing machine.
Almost always on the steamy side, being so close to the equator, the Lion City has come a long way from its fetid swampland roots nearly 50 years ago, when it gained its forced independence from Malaysia in 1965.
The nascent state found itself literally at sea with high unemployment, no natural resources, few friends and a fractious population. But when you stand on the 57th-floor Sky Park, at the Marina Bay Sands casino complex, the city-state reveals a prosperous, soaring skyline stretching for miles.
In between all the glass and chrome temples to Mammon lies Singapore’s real charm. The green spaces and the beautifully restored colonial-era buildings effect a perfect foil for the towers of the 21st century. From Chinatown to Bugis to Little India to Holland Village to the glories of the Singapore Cricket Club and the bars of Boat Quay, the city is one of contrasts and discoveries.
And it works. Buses and trains run on time, the traffic, though at times dense, is strictly controlled and the city is a walker’s delight, virtually flat.
My favourite stomping ground as an occasional resident starts near the Raffles Hotel, in Purvis Street, where some beautiful shop-house conversions played home. At either end of the historic street, known as Hainan Road Two after its original settlers from the Chinese island, are soaring modern edifices that nicely bookend the charming lane.
Unlike Hong Kong, which demolished every vestige of its historic past in pursuit of real-estate billions, Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, determined that olden is golden, so although hundreds of historic buildings were lost, thousands remain. From old convents turned into galleries and eateries to the former supreme court and city hall — buildings undergoing renovation to create the National Gallery Singapore (opening next year) — the wrecking ball has been kept in abeyance.
Eating is the national sport, and more than 120 cuisines from Cantonese to Canadian can be found in an array of eating spots ranging from excellent hawkers’ markets to five-star brasseries fresh out of Paris.
My absolute favourite bistro is L’Angelus in Club Street, followed by its sister wine bar, Le Carillon de L’Angelus, in Ann Siang Hill around the corner. Fine wines, excellent food and true Gallic ambiance belie the tropical climes outside.
For the best Indian food in the world (no arguing on this one), Little India’s Khansama Tandoori Restaurant on Serangoon Road is worth leaving home for. The service, by staff from India, is second to none and the food is sublime.
Nightlife, if you can still waddle, is eclectic with loads of bars, clubs, discos and theatres to choose from. From the famous Boat Quay to Holland Village, Bugis and opposite Chinatown, nothing is more than a short taxi ride away.
For a country with an uptight image, Singapore is remarkably unfazed by sin and you don’t have to look far for the seamier side of life. The secret, though, was told to me by a doughty taxi driver: “They have the attitude, the government that is, do what you want, just don’t do it in front of my ears!” (sic!)
But, just my luck, with northwards of 30,000 taxis in Singapore, many shared by two drivers, I found the one driver who didn’t know where Orchard Towers was. The building, next door to my then office, is the most famous vice landmark on the island, known for the Four Floors of Whores, a gallery of bars and massage parlours that offers anything from private dancers to ladyboys.
With tears brimming in his eyes he blurted out: “Today is my first day driving a taxi!” Unlike their counterparts in London, it seems anyone with a commercial licence can drive a taxi here. I patiently showed him the way. My reward was his gratitude, a huge smile and the refusal to take my fare. “You have saved my life!” was his parting comment.
Evoking the world of Jack Flowers, the pimp in Paul Theroux’s bleak novel Saint Jack (later a brilliant Peter Bogdanovich film starring Ben Gazzara), set in Singapore during the Vietnam War, the “Four Floors” are a million miles — yet actually only metres — from the dazzling shopping emporia of Orchard Road, where every brand name in the world gets a look-in.
Once referred to as “the only shopping centre represented at the United Nations”, Singapore is a retail playground, made even more frenzied by the annual Great Singapore Sale, offering discounts of up to 70%.
Be prepared to fight brutally over bargain stalls with rich matrons from Singapore, China, Malaysia and Indonesia, who lose all traces of polish when confronted with a bargain.
Singapore also has two euphemistically named “integrated resorts”, at Marina Bay and on the island of Sentosa, which are home to two of the world’s most successful casinos. Their tax revenues have given Singapore a fiscal fillip way in excess of the loss of face that allowing them in the first place caused the government.
Accommodation spans the full gamut, from the grand Raffles Hotel and almost grander Fullerton (old post office building) down to budget inns such as the ubiquitous Hotel 81 chain. Hotel 81 Bugis has some unique rooms on the top floor, with private courtyards with showers for S$139 a night (about R1,200).
Dyspeptic expatriates at the bar of the Tanglin Club opine about Singapore: “It will be nice when it is finished.” That will be the day — it is a work in progress!
TRAVEL: A diverse world in a city-state