The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

Can you relax in rule-obsessed Singapore?

Mandy Appleyard attempts a restorativ­e break in one of the world’s most uptight cities and finds a certain comfort in all the cleanlines­s and efficiency


We hadn’t been in Singapore long when it occurred to me that it should be renamed Signapore, so ubiquitous were the posted instructio­ns on what to do/not to do while in the Land of 1,000 Rules.

Even our Singaporea­n guide told us the old joke that Singapore is a “fine city”, in that there is a fine for even the smallest transgress­ion: not flushing a lavatory, selling chewing gum, walking naked in your own home, littering, wearing loud checks in public. I’ll let you figure out which of these is made up.

Don’t… smoke, feed the birds, spit, jaywalk, eat or drink on public transport, carry flammable goods, urinate in the lift, graffiti, eat smelly durians in here, make a noise after 10pm, use someone else’s Wi-Fi. And so it goes on.

Singapore’s obsession with regulation­s is one of its defining traits. Most are easy to observe and certainly won’t get in the way of a holiday, but you do begin to feel you are being micronanni­ed when these laws are repeated again and again in signs and stickers all over the city. Anyone arriving here expecting a walk on the wild side is at the wrong address. This is, after all, the place once described as “so clean that bubble gum is a controlled substance”.

For most of us, going away means escaping the confines of normal life. Singapore’s big draws include its food, culture and architectu­re – but where there is also a rule for everything, is it possible to relax and enjoy yourself regardless? What is there to see and do in this otherworld­ly Oz where cleaners in Hazchem suits are vacuuming the pavements by 7am and where, at the height of the pandemic, robot dogs patrolled public parks to enforce social distancing? Plenty, as it turned out.

We started by taking a 10-minute return ferry ride costing about £3.40 away from the soaring steel and concrete monoliths of central Singapore, to the charmingly low-rise Pulau Ubin Island. This is the Singapore of the distant past, with rustic juice bars, seagrass lagoons and bird-rich quarry ponds.

We hired bicycles from one of the rental shops and took off on a two-hour adventure through banana trees and rubber plantation­s, past clusters of mangrove and a fruit orchard (durian, anyone?), managing to stay cool in the shade of so much forest.

I had wanted to see Singapore again because I had last visited 30 years ago. It had struck me then as a pale imitation of Hong Kong – her plainer, slightly less spectacula­r sister. Admittedly, I had enjoyed how clean it was after the grubby chaos of backpackin­g in Indonesia and I remembered the remarkable food. Rules were abundant even then – most noticeably the signs on every public toilet threatenin­g a jail sentence for not flushing.

Let’s clear up the chewing gum law. These days consumptio­n is permitted: if, like one of my travelling companions, you inadverten­tly import a packet in your luggage, you won’t end up serving life in a grim jail. Selling gum is still illegal, though.

“You can’t turn around in Singapore without being threatened with a fine or jail,” said a traveller I met in a hawker centre – the open-air complexes that house food stalls. “It’s overpriced and overpolice­d, but none of that gets in the way of tourism.”

Perhaps it works in its favour. People are attracted to Singapore exactly because it is so clean and efficient, punctual and tidy. It is a law-abiding place where your chances of running into trouble as a tourist are slim: a kind of Asia-lite. For midlifers who are willing to sacrifice seat-of-their-pants thrills for an easy time of it, Singapore works.

Singapore has its own Speakers’ Corner but it is rare for anyone to take to their soapbox here

And it is greener than you might think. Gardens by the Bay is a 250-acre nature park in central Singapore whose attraction­s include two cooled conservato­ries housing plants from around the world – orchids, succulents, Mediterran­ean olive trees, South African protea and magnolia among them. The Flower Dome is the world’s biggest glass greenhouse; its sister dome, the Cloud Forest, houses a 138ft-high tropical “mountain” draped in ferns and bromeliads.

As a nature-lover, I can struggle with cities, but for all its über-urban vibe (I felt I was on the set of Blade Runner), Singapore does work hard for its green credential­s. Even our shiny high-rise hotel, the award-winning Parkroyal Collection Pickering, had a green wall in the foyer, elevated terraced gardens and tiered sky gardens. (If you stay here, do the walk recommende­d in the inroom info, which takes in nearby Chinatown and its many food stalls, as well as tranquil Hong Lim Park. Singapore’s very own Speakers’ Corner is here, though apparently it is rare for anyone to take to their soapbox here.)

Look beyond the shiny office skyscraper­s, the towering luxury hotels, the Formula One track and the canaryyell­ow Ferraris and you will find quiet corners to relish – public parks where otters roam (we saw two). At the Aramsa Spa, in the middle of one such park, we enjoyed an hour-long massage.

I was charmed by the quaint Peranakan enclave of Joo Chiat, with its historic two-storey houses, restaurant­s and shops. Peranakans are a mixed Chinese/Malay/Indonesian ethnic group, their culture on display at the Intan museum. There, the quirky Peranakan owner, Alvin Yapp, served us tea, gave us a polished piano rendition of You Raise Me Up and talked us through his fascinatin­g collection of 1,500 artefacts.

The food is even more remarkable now than when I first visited, whether you are grappling with sticky satay in the street, or fine-dining on something Michelin-starred. Our veggie lunch at the popular South Indian restaurant MTR was cheap and cheerful: mango lassi and a spicy potato and onion-filled pancake; soup with tomato and lentil, then kesari bhath – a semolina sweet with cashew nuts and saffron. The bill was £12 each including drinks.

Just as wonderful in a different way was our wildly imaginativ­e dinner at the Michelin-starred Labyrinth: a 12-course tasting menu starting with chilli crab ice cream and including pork satay, chicken rice, fish noodle soup, shrimp cocktail and sizzling wagyu. Our meal was as inventive as cuisine can be, each course unusual and surprising (the melting red candles turned out to be edible beef dripping pillars) and at a total cost of about £123 each excluding drinks.

When we visited Singapore in March, you couldn’t drink alcohol after 10.30pm (one of many Covid restrictio­ns, since lifted); contact tracing and the rule-of-six still applied and we had to wear masks everywhere including outside – despite it being a sticky 30 degrees with 90 per cent humidity. Even getting there was difficult, with an administra­tive labyrinth of apps and forms just to board a flight – though the Covid rules have since been relaxed.

The many remaining rules can be tedious. The signs in just about every toilet reminded me to flush the chain, wash my hands, wear my mask: suddenly it was 1972 and I was back at school. But as expatriate Ben Gunning told me: “Yes, there are plenty of bonkers rules, but they are never really enforced, so it’s all a bit of a cosmetic exercise.”

Our last stop before heading home was the Mandarin Oriental’s MO Bar, recognised last year as one of the world’s and Asia’s 50 Best Bars. As a tiny act of rebellion I ordered the most potent drink on the menu – an absintheba­sed cocktail with an insane punch.

I was pleasingly squiffy when we stepped into the ice-cold aircon of Changi airport. As we queued at checkin, I felt liberated, as if I had just spent two days under the watchful eye of an uptight aunt. Back home, I planned to play unsociably loud music and walk naked around my house with impunity. Perhaps even leave the chain unflushed. But not until we had taken off…

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 ?? ?? i Snap happy: the Singapore skyline will liven up your Instagram feed
h Rustic retreat: Pulau Ubin island is a 10-minute ferry ride from the city
i Snap happy: the Singapore skyline will liven up your Instagram feed h Rustic retreat: Pulau Ubin island is a 10-minute ferry ride from the city
 ?? ?? Sign of the times: the city is awash with regulation­s, but it means your chances of running into trouble as a tourist are slim
Sign of the times: the city is awash with regulation­s, but it means your chances of running into trouble as a tourist are slim

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