Singapore is one of the most enjoyable cities in Southeast Asia. As you zoom in from one of the world’s best airports along the lushly tree-shaded expressway or on the zippy MRT train line, you’ll quickly realise this is no traffic-snarled Bangkok. And as you stroll through the fashion emporiums of Orchard Rd, poke around antique shops in Chinatown or take a walk around one of the dozens of beautiful city parks, you’ll know the city bears no comparison to crime- and poverty-ridden Manila or Jakarta.
Then, as you are drinking and dancing until dawn in the city’s pubs and clubs, or sipping a cocktail surrounded by the colonial elegance of a Raffles Hotel veranda, think of your fellow travellers in Bangkok, who are being turfed onto the street at midnight.
There’s no law that says an Asian city can’t be well run. It may have been a long and difficult haul from swampy colonial outpost and notorious den of vice to powerhouse industrial nation, but those who say that Singapore has lost its soul along the way couldn’t be more wrong.
Few cities in Southeast Asia can boast Singapore’s fascinating ethnic brew. Where else in the world can you dip into the cultures of China, India and Muslim Malaysia all in one day, against a backdrop of ultra-modern Western commerce? Not only has Singapore’s history of migration left a rich cultural and architectural legacy that makes wandering the streets an absorbing delight, it has created one of the world’s great eating capitals.
Food is the national obsession – and it’s not difficult to see why. Sitting out under the stars at a bustling hawker centre with a few bottles of Tiger beer and diving into an enormous array of Asian dishes is one of the iconic Singaporean experiences. Sambal stingray, char kway teow, oyster omelette, chicken rice, clay-pot seafood, fish head curry, beef rendang…the list is as long as it is delicious.
And, of course, if your credit card hasn’t already taken a battering in the shops, the city’s restaurants are some of the most stylish and innovative in the region.
If there’s one thing more stylish than the bars and restaurants, it’s the boutiques that have made Singapore a byword in Asia for extravagant shopping. Away from the Gucci and Louis Vuitton onslaught of Orchard Rd, however, there are bargains to be found on everything from clothes to electronics – and a range of art and antique shops that few Asian cities can match.
But Singapore is not all about shopping and eating. Nor is the notion of Singapore as completely urbanised anything more than popular myth. Adventure activities include diving with sharks at Underwater World on Sentosa, mountain biking around Bukit Timah, leopard-spotting at Singapore Zoo’s magical Night Safari, waterskiing or wakeboarding on the Kallang River, go-karting and rock climbing. And if you want to retreat from civilisation completely, the centre of the island retains large tracts of forest where the only sound you can hear is the monkeys swinging through the trees. In fact, Singapore is one of only two cities in the world that still retains a patch of primary rainforest, in the form of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
It’s a fascinating place – and a remarkable achievement. No-one is denying that Singaporeans have had to sacrifice some level of freedom in their island’s rise from racially divided, resource-starved port town. But you get the feeling that if Western development aid had ever matched Singapore’s strides in poverty reduction, education, infrastructure and health care, they’d be patting themselves on the back and saying that political freedom was a small sacrifice to make.
Besides, it’s not all strait-laced conformity. You don’t have to look far to find echoes of the island’s colourful, rakish past, or evidence of a thriving and creatively unfettered artistic community. Singapore’s soul is alive and well – and it is unique.