SINGAPORE Small, but beautifully formed
The tiny country is much more than a mere stopover en route to Australia, says Anna Goldrein
NO T B E I N G A political activist, chewer of chewing gum o r p u s h e r o f drugs, I felt safe in Singapore, a country with a low crime rate and high punishments. With its English language, Western level of development and location — in the south China sea, between Malaysia and Indonesia — it is a country well worth exploring.
Until now, it has been seen mainly as a business destination or as a brief stopover en route to Australia. But the sight of Singapore’s inaugural Grand Prix — not just a regular road race, but a dramatic night-time circuit beneath the skyscrapers — may have whetted your appetite for a proper visit.
At just 273 square miles, Singapore may be southeast Asia’s smallest nation state, but it knows how to keep order — litter (and even most mosquitoes) know not to sully its streets.
The taxi driver who took me from the glamorous airport to the city cen- tre was impressed by my choice of hotel — the Fullerton Hotel (with views of the Grand Prix’s scariest hairpin bend if you are thinking of coming for the 2009 race on September 27).
A landmark 1920s building, it was the Central Post Office until its six-star conversion in 1996. Today, the huge lobby gleams with cool marble beneath an airy atrium, while a rooftop infinity-pool overlooks the Singapore River dotted with bumboats and a spa de-stresses jet-lagged guests with rejuvenating and pampering treatments and massages.
The seriously rich stay at the allsuite, butler-serviced Raffles Hotel in the Colonial District, while those who can’t afford to stay but wish to absorb the atmosphere can nurse a Singapore Sling in Raffles’ famous Long Bar or take afternoon tea in the Tiffin Room or clubby Bar and Billiard Room.
For something more boutiquey, you can try Chinatown’s funky New Majestic with 30 designer rooms, or the opulent Scarlet Hotel, a favourite for fashion shoots, also in Chinatown.
In contrast to the orderly Colonial and Central Business districts, Chinatown is a warren of incense-scented streets where stalls purvey medicinal roots and things best left unidentified; where lilac and green jade goodluck jewellery is tested for quality by its bell-like ring; where wafts of spice and chicken rice emerge from busy hawkers’ stalls; where office workers gulp down five Singapore-dollar (£2) lunches and where Daoist shopkeepers make peace with their ancestors during August’s month-long Festival of the Hungry Ghosts.
About 70 per cent of Singapore’s four million dwellers are ethnic Chinese. Their great-grandparents’ journey took several months, many succumbing to the allure of opium as an antidote to the Coolie life they were forced to adopt on arrival. Now Singapore is home, and China a foreign land, where they go as tourists.
It’s a similar story in Little India, a medley of sari shops, tailors and curry houses. Everyone is Singaporean, passionate about food and proud to speak English in the office and Singlish — the local patois, a mix of English peppered with Chinese, Indian, Malay and Indonesian — in the street.
In Little India, I bought a peppermint green, maroon and gold sari for a Bollywood Party. But for more upmarket shopping, there is Ngee Ann City, in mall-lined Orchard Road, which is home to a huge Hermès, vast Prada and glittering Bulgari. My purchase was a shiny, Japanese umbrella/parasol to fend off Singapore’s hot sun and tropical rain.
A laid-back, international crowd relaxes in the atmospheric bars of Emerald Hill, off busy Orchard Road. Once a nutmeg grove, this is the district where wealthy Peranakans — nativeborn Indonesians — lived in the 1920s.
As you climb the hill in the sultry evening heat, the bars give way to spacious residential properties in eclectic style that incorporates Chinese-inspired bat-shaped windows for good luck, double saloon doors for natural air conditioning, European-style shutters and art nouveau ceramics. In a city where most call a tower block home, an Emerald Hill house sells for some $5-m Singaporean dollars (£1.95m).
These days the dwindling Peranakan community live in Katong. On the East Coast Road, Peter Wee opens up his treasure-trove of a home to visitors.
His cluttered Edwardian dresser is carved with Islamic motifs and topped by a Chinese dragon — like Paranakan culture his home is a colourful mix of Chinese, Malay, and European styles.
For a less personalised introduction to Peranakan culture, I visited the just opened Peranakan Museum which takes you on a journey from the cradle, via the gilded wedding, to the grave. At the Asian Civilisation Museum, just over the Cavenagh Bridge from the Fullerton Hotel, cavernous rooms are dedicated to Chinese, Indian, Malay, Islamic and South-east Asian cultures.
Unlike the National Museum, where multimedia overload drove me to exit swiftly, astonishing artefacts and illuminating descriptions drew me into the philosophies, religions and complex histories of Asian culture, from fine Vietnamese porcelain to serpentine Javanese ceremonial knives, and sensual Indian temple dancers carved in stone.
Visitors may keep entrance stickers on to dip in and out of the museum all day.
Relaxing in Singapore means visits to parks, an orchid-rich botanic garden or its leisure island of Sentosa, which is connected to the mainland by monorail, bridge and cable car.
Here, spas, resorts, restaurants and freshly created beaches await, though somewhat marred by the view of an oil refinery. For a glimpse of how Singapore might have developed if Sir Stamford Raffles hadn’t established a trading post here in 1819, I nipped over the ocean — and the border — with a 55-minute ferry journey to the Indonesian island of Bintan.
The Singaporean-owned Nirwana Gardens Resort is designed to suit all budgets, from camping and beach
huts, all the way to villas with private pools. Eschewing its white sandy beaches, I took an eco-tour to see how islanders forge recycled scrap iron into machetes for harvesting coconuts, weave palm leaves into Rattan baskets and bleed white latex from rubber trees.
Singapore also has 60 little islands of its own, including Palau Ubin, a 15minute bumboat trip from Changi ferry terminal.
On shore, I hired a bike and jolted my way past Durian and rambutan orchards heading to Chek Jawa Wetlands nature reserve. I strolled the coastal path overlooking sand flats where Fiddler Crabs brandished their orange pincers and mud skippers wiggled.
Despite knowing that pythons and mangrove snakes sleep, coiled in the top branches of the trees in the island’s dense mangrove forest (I learned about them during my Bintan eco-tour), I took a forest walk. Later, I cooled off with a chilled Thai coconut before taking the return boat as the sun set. By night, you can visit buzzy, international-flavoured Clerk Quay to see where Formula 1 drivers partied.
I took a spin on the Ministry of Sounds’ rotating dance floor, bopped in plush R&B bars and giggled at The Clinic where staff in surgeons’ gowns serve able-bodied yuppies seated in wheelchairs and the occasional impossibly long-legged person of indeterminate gender struts by on a mission.
From my pod on the Singapore Flyer — (Singapore’s answer to the London Eye — I could see the new swathe of buildings taking shape in the foreground: the Marina Bay Integrated Resort due for completion in 2010 and the business district’s bank buildings reaching for the sky across the bay. It’s hard to believe that all this has sprouted from a Malay fishing village in less than 200 years.
Singapore’s Central Business District: was a Malay fishing village just 200 years ago
Singapore’s waterside, where low-rise homes, shopes and cafes contrast with the forest of high-rises
Raffles Hotel: for afternoon tea or a gin sling if you can’t afford to stay