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Singapore swing

Heavily westernised, clean, safe, and tailor made for business, Singapore can seem little more than a stopover between Britain and Australia or a place to unwind in a squeaky clean hotel bar. But is there more to Singapore than meets the eye? Steven Rowland finds out



Perhaps it’s an idea to begin by banishing a few myths. It’s often said that Singapore is a soulless, antiseptic island lacking any real cultural identity. The people are shackled by a government hell-bent on extinguishing any sort of personal freedom. There isn’t a speck of litter to be found anywhere and if you’re thinking of popping a piece of chewing gum into your mouth then you’re in deep trouble. We hear about everything being monstrously expensive, and if you’re in the south-east Asia region then you’re far more likely to have fun in Singapore’s rowdier and decadent cousin, Bangkok. If you’ve never been here before, you may well think that the only good things are the excellently regarded airport and the Singapore Slings in Raffles Hotel.

This is not the case. For a start, Singapore isn’t one island, it’s comprised of about fifty, many of which are well worth a look. Second, the Singapore Slings in Raffles are pretty lousy. And as for the place being no fun? Utter nonsense. I’ve been here little over a week, and my woolly-head and rapidly evaporating bank balance are proof that there’s plenty of fun to be had here, you just have to know where to look. The absence of chewing gum is slightly wide of the mark too. Okay, you can’t just swan into a shop and buy chewing gum (the 1992 New Guard’s ban outlawed the sale of it after youths were sticking the stuff to train doors in order to stop them working) but you can happily consume it, providing you have a prescription.

The government
The idea of personal freedom is a slightly trickier one to navigate. Admittedly the government does deal out hefty fines for misdemeanours (for littering, say, or eating and drinking on the tube) and punishments for serious crimes can be severe, but the people this reporter spoke to seemed happy with the government and it’s hardly Stalinist Russia. You could even argue that many of the strict laws actually result in a freer society, one in which you can wander around at any time of night and not feel in the least bit threatened. As the government stated in 1994, a view it has not deviated upon: “What they want is a good government which produces results. They want the government to concentrate on the basics, like better pay and lower cost of living, better neighbourhood schools for their children and better jobs. They want a safe, stable society, one good for their children to grow up in.”

Besides, compared with the majority of governmental systems around the world, this one is brand spanking new. Singapore’s modern past began in 1965. Prior to that it had first been under British rule (Sir Thomas Stamford Raffle established a British port on the island in 1819) and later it became part of Malaysia. Once it became an independent nation in 1965 however, it faced a number of problems, including a massive shortage of housing and jobs and race riots. Such a situation seems alien to the Singapore of today. Since the 1990s it has been firmly established as an economic powerhouse, with one of the highest GDP’s in the world, an enviable standard of education, a sound manufacturing base and a future that is as hot as the pavements. More importantly, the various ethnicities exist in harmony. Singapore has four official languages – English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil – and unofficially a whole bunch more.

Not that everything written about the place is misplaced. It’s a humid, sultry city with no sign of distinct seasons: it’s hot all year round, it’s just that from about January to March the thunderstorms are a bit more spectacular. The shopping here is good and plentiful, if expensive (spend a week shopping in the malls that have sprung up in and around Orchard Road and you’ll have to set aside another week to weep at your bank statements), the food excellent and varied, and Changi airport among the most impressive in the world.

Travel hub
Fitting the very definition of ‘travel hub’ Changi serves around 70 million passengers every year, and the vast majority come away smiling. Littered with awards, the airport has a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, gyms, free Internet access, free sightseeing tours and impressive connections to the city centre. The clean and super-efficient MRT underground system can whiz you in and out of the city for pennies, although taxis are cheap and plentiful and the drivers meticulously honest.

In a pretty loose sense, two Singapore’s exist. On the one hand is the Singapore of Raffles, huge glass-and-mirror buildings, some of the finest restaurants in Southeast Asia and holier than thou ‘fun’. On the other is a Singapore rarely experienced by travellers; one of rakishness, decadence, flouting of laws and, almost bizarrely, one of nature. Both are worth peeking at. The more controlled Singapore has plenty going for it: it’s a glorious city for sightseeing, whether that’s visiting the Botanical gardens (best to go in the mornings to marvel at the locals practicing tai chi), experiencing the Singapore Zoo’s Night Safari, taking a water taxi or simply hanging out with the masses of expats. Weekends are a good time to see the office workers flocking to bars along Boat and Clarke keys and getting smashed, or seeing locals and tourists mixing in Raffles’ Long Bar where you can knock back cocktails and add to the masses of pistachio shells on the floor (it’s the one place in the country where you’re legally allowed to litter). If you’re keen on golf, both the Jurong Country Club and the Orchid Country Club are splendid courses where you’re allowed to play at night.

Dig a little deeper however, and an alternative Singapore is revealed. Huge chunks of Chinatown go unvisited, Little India is a splendid area in the heart of the city with a distinct absence of western tourists and Geylang is a red light district that feels far more rugged and, for the want of a better word, real than most of the city (as well as the usual sights you’d expect in such an area, you’re likely to see graffiti and litter here). All three places serve excellent food, whether that’s curry for less than £2 per plate (okay, less than £2 per banana leaf) or beef rendang, chilli crab, oyster omelette – the list is endless.

It’s easy to forget that Singapore is actually tropical rainforest. Step away from the roads and the malls and the huge concrete buildings however, and you can still find it. Short taxi rides from the city centre are Bukit Peirce and Bukit Kalang, two dense areas of jungle crammed with all sorts of wildlife (including wild monkeys) and thick vegetation. Connecting these two places is the tree top walk (or officially, as this is a commerce-driven nation, the HSBC Tree Top Walk), where you can walk along a 250m bridge at the canopy of the trees. Of the islands that pepper the coast of Singapore, both Sentosa and Pulau Ubin are worthy of a mention. Sentosa, known anachronistically (and in this writers opinion erroneously) as So Expensive and Nothing To Actually See, is actually a hip little island reachable by a bridge or cable car packed with laid back beach bars, swanky a hotels and one of Singapore’s more interesting restaurants, Trapizza, a pizzeria married with a trapeze school. A different kind of wildlife abounds on Pulau Ubin, an island that is described as “the last kampong (village) in Singapore”. Here is Singapore as it was 50 years ago, all secluded beaches, coconut palms, wild monkeys and rubber plantations. Bumboats leave regularly from Changi port and cost a few dollars.

The business traveller
This is all well and good – going into the jungle, hanging out on street corners eating great food, wolfing down cocktails in swanky hotels – but what does Singapore offer the business traveller? Perhaps the best indication of how and why Singapore came to prominence is illustrated by the comment ex-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made to the Wall Street Journal, when he was asked what the most influential invention of the 20th century was, his response? The air-conditioning unit: “The humble air-conditioner has changed the lives of the people in the tropical regions,” Lee said. “Before air con, mental concentration and with it the quality of work deteriorated as the day got hotter and more humid…Historically, advanced civilisations have flourished in the cooler climates. Now, lifestyles have become comparable to those in temperate zones and civilisation in tropical zones need no longer lag behind.” This though is being a little disingenuous to the Singaporean people. Yes, the air conditioner has helped, but it’s also the hard work of its citizens that has made Singapore the economic powerhouse it is today. Business hours here are long and there’s a discernibly strong work ethic among practically everyone: many expats working in law and finance have admitted to sleeping in their offices on more than one occasion.

As for etiquette, the way it works over here is markedly different from the west. Everything is more formal, punctuation and respect for rank is key and although they can take time and effort to develop, personal relationships are the cornerstone of all business relationships. Integral to all facets of Singaporean life, but especially prevalent in the business world, is the notion of kiasu. Literally translated as ‘a fear of losing’, kiasu permeates both social and business life, whether that means getting a seat on the MRT or losing face in front of work colleagues.  Rank is highly respected here and you shouldn’t question or criticise someone senior to you in rank; if they feel like they have lost face, then it will sour the business relationship. If you’re dealing with ethnic Chinese, business protocol may differ somewhat: if you’re signing a contract, for example, the date may be decided by an astrologer or geomancer (feng shui man), and remember to have your business cards translated into Mandarin on one side, preferably with the Chinese characters printed in gold. As with many things, if you find yourself in trouble, a little auspicious glitz may help to paper over an absence of substance.

Where to stay
Raffles is the obvious choice, but rooms are eye-wateringly expensive and the colonial grandeur seems a little painted on. The Fullerton, Pan Pacific and Intercontinental hotels all come recommended and if you’re keen to immerse yourself in the ex-pat lifestyle it might be an idea to plonk yourself in one of the many hotels peppering Clarke and Boat Quays. Be aware that room rates are among the highest in the region, especially during the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Where to go
Singapore’s proximity to the equator – it’s less than 100 miles north of it – means that anytime you visit will be hot. Roughly speaking peak season runs from December to June and the city is at its busiest during Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls in either January or February, depending on the moon’s cycle. Business meetings will be more difficult to arrange, but around the New Year there’s a palpable crackle of excitement in the air which is well worth experiencing. Tourism generally in the country has taken a slight dip, but there’s been a rise in sports related tourism, with golf events and the formula one dominating. Whatever time of year you come make sure to bring an umbrella, waterproof jacket or couldn’t-care-less-about-the-rain attitude.

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