Singapore is clean and well-lit. Your teenage daughter can ride home on the subway (MRT) at 1 am and be safe. Of course, she wouldn't be doing that without your permission if she grew up there. Walt Disney would admire the place. Westerners posted to Singapore ("expats") often have a hard time leaving: why move from being treated as mini-royalty, with cheerful household help, to being treated as middle management suffering surly bosses and struggling every day through a long commute to the office? This wonderful place arose out of a third-world swamp in 1965 to become the shining city on the hill for economic resurgence across Asia. China is following the Singapore Model. Sing is a delightful oasis of shopping, dining and business in the middle of third-world countries. I have been many times, and would like to share some of the pleasures that are off the beaten path.
Getting There. The airport is clean and well-lit. Bright and modern, it is easy to find your way through it. The taxi stands are efficiently designed, and fare into the downtown is under US$15. Use the ATM machines for quick local currency. Leaving is also easy. In the US you are encouraged to arrive two hours prior, and then suffer the interminable security lines, assaulted with loud commands to take off your shoes or remove your liquids. In Singapore you can go through the same level of check in and security so briskly that an hour prior is plenty. The Singapore-based flight attendants on our United flight from Sing to Tokyo were chirpy, helpful and young. For those who fly domestic United, imagine that!
Where to stay. Choose a hotel based on your purpose. A cluster surround the convention center, but if you are not there for a convention, skip them. If there for business. the area near the famous Raffles Hotel is best. Across the street is the Swisshotel and a major transport hub, and just beyond is the old British polo field. A little further you will see the new concert hall - Singapore's answer to the iconic Sydney Opera House - shadowed by the skyscrapers downtown, and beyond the massive port. Whether you stay at the Raffles or not, be sure to drop in. The refurbished Raffles is now the centerpiece of a new chain of Raffles across Asia. It betokes the colonial style of the British period. The famous Long Bar is upstairs in a far corner. Make your way across the peanut-shelled floor to a booth, and partake of a Singapore Sling. Then, have another.
For most of us, choose Orchard Road, the high-end shopping district. The Marriott is right on the busiest corner - Orchard and Scott. The Grand Hyatt is next door. And a short walk up the street, through the Hilton to the second story mall is a shortcut to the Four Seasons, my favorite place to stay. Across from the Marriott is a movie complex in a shopping galleria. Diagonally across the intersection is a Borders with a Starbucks underneath. Need a faster fix in the morning? Go to the Coffee Bean between the Marriott and the Grand Hyatt. Coffee Beans are more prevalent than Starbucks in Singapore. Or just take the normal espresso served in hotels - it is very good.
Want to jog in the morning? A little ways farther out on Orchard Road are the Botanical Gardens - great for running (and a nice place for dinner). A bit of the jungle that once surrounded Singapore is still there. Best to avoid it at night - not because of dangers from people, but from the jungle itself - it gets very dark and loud. Who knows what lurks off the narrow paths? Last time I did this, we got stuck in the dark, and my guide and erstwhile friend kept filling me with tall tales of large pythons dropping out of the tree branches on joggers below. While I figured he was pulling my leg, why put it to the test?
Dining. Singapore is an island of Asian Fusion. Many of the best restaurants in Asia are in the hotels. Overlooking the lobby in the Grand Hyatt is Mezzo9, with open kitchens across a range of cuisine: Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and more. In the Four Seasons is one of the best Chinese restaurants in the world. Try the drunken prawns. And if you see Michael Dobbs-Higginson holding court in his favorite corner, say hi for me. He is the last true White Rhodesian and a world treasure.
During the modernization of Singapore many of the colonial workshops were razed. One of the holdover Anglos personally led a successful preservation effort. Some of the most interesting restaurants are in new areas with refurbished colonial buildings. On the river that runs through Singapore, there are now several former quays (docks) which have become nightlife meccas. Clark's Quay, Boat Quay and more. You can eat al fresco with lots of happy people outside refurbished warehouses and shops, taking in the lights of downtown and the modest traffic on the narrow river.
A holdover from less sophisticated days is a restaurant on the road to the airport with the most famous of all Singapore dishes: chili crab! A must for any visitor.
If you hanker for western food, up Scotts Road from the Hyatt is the American Club. Connect with an expat member to get in, and sample the pizza by the pool. Great for your kids if you have to do business during the day - they will entertain themselves. Or, you can sneak into one of the many chain restaurants and fast food joints. But why? Wondrous foods abounds.
If you want cheap eats, go to one of the many Hawker stands. Just down Scotts Road is Newton Circus. It is a stop on the MRT. You will find an open air court with many small food stands - street food of Singapore in a safe, regulated setting. Go ahead, it is safe to eat - and tasty.
Nightlife. Sing is growing up. It wants to be the center for the service industry in Asia. Despite its reputation as being rigidly moral, it has loosened up. Two casinos are coming in. If it had a red light district, it would be clean and well lit. It has nightclubs, some with prostitutes. As with everything in Singapore, they are regulated, and thus safe, and clean; their customers are well-lit. There are dance clubs, music, and just about anything one would want to do in the evening.
Shopping. There is a lot of shopping in Singapore. Just around the Marriott on Orchard Road are hundreds of shops and stores. Try out Lucky Plaza, next door. And bargain! You should be able to take 30% off the department store prices - which are just down the street. The great Japanese chain Takashimaya has store across the road. And so much more is nearby.
Yet globalization has removed some of the allure of Singapore shopping that comes from finding bargains. Instead, go seek out items that are hard to find elsewhere. The density of stores makes this relatively efficient and fun to do.
One pleasure is watching. Fine Swiss watches can be found everywhere, but there are so many models that any particular store has only a small sample of the possibilities. If you can, go to Harrod's watch sale in London during the early summer. Otherwise, come to Singapore. Several chains have multiple stores with a glorious assortment of choices. My favorite include The Hourglass (all over), Sincere (in Lucky Plaza), and Cortina (try the store in Raffles City). Don't go to just one; explore multiple stores of the same chain, since they have different collections.
Another pleasure is to marvel at cellphones - especially if you come from the States. There are so many more models than are approved by the US carriers. Phone stores are as thick as watch stores. Go to Sing to get the latest, coolest phones. Impress your friends.
A third is art for the home or office. At the trading crossroads of Asia, all sorts of regional artisans are on display.
Touring. Any guidebook will give you the normal tourist attractions. A little history will make the tours more interesting. We'll get to that in a moment.
One place to start are the ethnic quarters. On a recent vacation, my wife and I toured Little India. Some quite interesting temples and shops of Indian goods, but overall a quick walk. What was most striking is how few women were out. Singapore is very diverse and multicultural; the contrast was jarring. Could have been a coincidence.
We went on to Chinatown. A lot more to see and explore. We found a marvelous little museum which took us through the history of Chinese immigration. At the end of the displays is a restored shop and living quarters. Very illuminating. The immigrant's story is depressingly common across many countries. Poverty, exploitation, and the sinkhole of the Five Evils (prostitution, gambling, gangs, drugs, and alcohol). Despite the odds, many rose above their condition, helped their children get educated, and sprung free.
Singapore seems quite civilized, but there are surprises. Once I came
on a business trip with my son, then 11. We first stopped in Hong Kong.
We toured the Island and went shopping in the Peninsula. He was
charmed. When we came to Singapore, he spent the day at the American
Club while I attended to business. On the weekend we went exploring.
Offshore is a small island, Pulau Ulin, which has been left a bit on
its own. We took a local boat and puttered over to it, then rented
mountain bikes and rode around on the dirt roads and paths. We
uncovered Buddhist temples in out-of-the-way places, and little
sandwich shops. We found a really smelly local fruit - durian. It emits
the strongest stink you have ever imagined. We declined taking a bite!
Most exciting to my son, we found an abandoned quarry. If his mom had
been along, she never would have approved of what we then did -
stripped to our swimsuits and dived in!
The Singapore Model. Singapore was created by Lieutenant Raffles of the British Navy in 1819. The British were migrating around India and towards China, setting up refueling and trading ports as they went. Singapore Island is spectacularly situated at the main sea lanes between India and China, and across from Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony. A natural trading port, but outside the British sphere of influence. Until Lt. Raffles, who foresaw that through it goods would flow in, be picked, restocked in bulk and shipped on. (Today, the port of Singapore is one of the busiest container ports in the world.) The ruling Sultan would not parley, so Lt. Raffles maneuvered the Sultan's older brother to take over. (Shades of buying Manhattan from the local natives for $24.) There must be more to this story, but Raffles got his port.
The port thrived, and workers flooded in. The British organized the city into ethnic quarters, and let the local gangs manage the incoming. Over the next hundred years waves came in, mostly from China. During WWII the superior British forces capitulated to the Japanese rather quickly - a sad moment. After the war, Singapore sought independence.
In 1965, after a dalliance with Malaysia, the new Singapore was borne under the remarkable leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. While the British had left civic government, a court system, and English language, the small country was a third world dump surrounded by malaria-ridden swamps. The visionary Lee first drained the swamps, cleaned up water and sewage, and built basic infrastructure. He then pushed education and built world class institutions, including Singapore University and its research labs. The best and brightest graduates are sent to the US and Europe for college and grad school, and come back culturally-enhanced and well-trained. Mr. Lee created government-linked enterprises to compete at scale with multinational powerhouses, such as Singapore Telecom and Singapore Technologies. He sponsored initiatives to keep Singapore at the leading edge in technology. And he husbanded the foreign reserve surpluses, reinvesting it to extend the reach and wealth of the little island. Today for example SingTel is one of the largest global wireless providers with over 100 million subscribers - more than Verizon, Cingular, Orange and Vodafone - with investments in foreign cellular providers.
Lee Kuan Yew put in place the formula for a sound growth economy: low taxes, stable currency, open trade, enforcement of property rights and contracts, sound banking, and foreign investment. Every time it has been tried, it works; when we stray from it, economies and governments fall.
This is the Singapore Model so admired by China and other emerging economies. Just compare Russia after the fall of communism with China. Russia went quickly to political liberation, and ended up with a strong-man leader and a land-grab of assets. The former Soviet leadership, the so-called Nomenklatura, is now comprised of Billionaires who seized State enterprises and ruthlessly accumulated power. When I last visited Moscow in 1993, I had incidents of crime every day. The KGB agent who shadowed me rescued me from one such incident, where I was seconds away from being shot by the disgruntled son of a general -at a secure military base! When I asked him what that was all about, he said ... "Democracy."
Chewing Gum. A common response to the Singapore Model is that it is too
repressive. Don't people get caned for chewing gum over there? Well,
no. You get fined for selling it, or leaving it in a public place. But
you can bring it in and chew it. (The one thing not to do in Singapore is import drugs.
Penalties are harsh and fast.) Disneyland does not sell gum in the
park. It is hard to clean off the ground or the underside of tables.
Ray Kroc, the owner of MacDonald's, would not allow pay phones,
cigarette machines, or jukeboxes. Why? Draws the wrong crowd. In many
ways Singapore feels a bit like Disney Island - a safe, fun and
delightful place to live, visit, or wheel & deal in. It draws the right crowd.