The New Straits Times, the paper for peninsular Malaysia on the plane from Kuala Lumpur had some earnest headlines on its front page: “The Gold Bangle and the Birth of a Nation” below a paragraph under the title Economic Sprint and an ambitious 10-point proposal aimed at elevating the economic standing of Malays and in the narrow column by its side bore a photo of Brendan Rogers, Liverpool manager which said, “Arsenal and Liverpool in Desperate Mode”.
This was my first visit to anywhere east of India – my idea of Singapore was limited to a faint recollection from 25 years ago at the Passport Office in Chennai. The big wooden notice board had a long list painted in elegant white capitals, listing the regulations for people visiting Singapore to work – 37 petty to major offences that would all result in a minimum of 75 lashes. In my head, Singapore was a punitive state which is not true now, for sure. Instead people get fined a hefty amount for anything from drinking water on the metro to dropping litter on the street.
This is an incredibly rich and glitzy city – bright, shiny buildings over a glamorous waterfront, with a metro system that tells you where to wait on the platform and a light indicating which side to get off once inside the train. It’s super efficient and extremely clean, except in that bastion of colonial legacy – the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. This has seen the likes of Kipling, Somerset Maughm and Ernest Hemingway (not quite in the same location but upstairs) has elegant bamboo fans hanging from the timber beams and a relaxed atmosphere of a cosy pub. On every table is a square box of whole peanuts which people can shell and….drop on the floor, making it the messiest place in Singapore. The famed Singapore Sling cocktails were bright pink and deftly mixed by friendly bartenders and grossly overpriced – but that didn’t stop the entire place from ordering this famous drink. Sitting there for a couple of hours, I could only imagine a harried reporter or troubled British civil servant winding down in the evenings during war-time, just having to order these concoctions for their lady friends with the bleak sound of sirens blaring outside. These days, in this most orderly of places, we heard that the city doesn’t deal with emergencies that well.
Another charming fact for me was that Tamil is an official language here – and it hit me only now that so much of Chennai and Tamil Nadu’s public infrastructure has tried to imitate Singapore – with limited success. The evening of Indian classical music at the Esplanade foyer featured gifted, young musicians of school age- amazingly talented vocal, instrumental and percussion performers. It brought home the fact that Singapore aims for excellence in education and extra-curricular activities.
A burning question I had after spending three days with family who live there was just how many malls there were in the city? A quick search says 97! One mall leads to another and houses mega brands from all over – Japanese, American and European. And they are full all of the time. The city is a place of innovation and enterprise everywhere – from the instant ice-cream of your choice (made with liquid nitrogen – tender coconut was delicious) to Gardens by the bay, a bio-dome recreating foreign habitats – Eden Project (in Cornwall) times ten. There’s even a 2000-metre waterfall that’s been created inside. Venus fly-traps, varieties of olive and baobab trees all reside here. And an entire mall is devoted to electronics – all seven floors of it! This little spot on the map is a throbbing beast of economic activity.
A hot tourist destination is Sendosa island a few minutes on the monorail (a scenic cable car ride is also available). There is a safari, Universal studios and all kinds of American style theme-park styled places. We went to watch the sound and light show on the beach called Wings of Time which was a little disappointing – magnificent pyrotechnics (there were fireworks too) and impressive laser displays, but a weak narrative which had no plot or substance. The Kurry Korner, however, served freshly made tandoori rotis and palak paneer – after cardboard pizzas and greasy fries in many a destination of this kind, this was a first for a theme park.
So, we left Singapore with the Merlion spitting water into the Singapore river, close to the glamorous Marina Bay building which has an amazing boat shaped structure on top of three towers. It’s people seem warm and friendly and there is a strong multi-cultural feel to it. Westerners live and work here looking at ease. Perhaps this wasn’t the time to be seeking the soul or trying to understand the character of a place – I’ll attempt it from Oz, my next stop.