Singapore - Asia for Beginners

Is it a ship on top of a building? Is it a half lion, half mermaid? Is it a massive lotus flower? No, Ladies & Gents, it's Singapore


When Dom said he had to take a work trip to APAC (‘Asia Pacific’ for those of you who have managed to avoid the jargon) I grabbed my toothbrush (plus my three month old) and called an Uber :)

Singapore’s history fascinates me, it couldn’t be more British if you put a bowler hat on it and spanked it down Piccadilly to strains of Rule Britannia! At one point it was indeed a bona fide British colony, then it was part of a collection of former colonies that got together and called themselves Malaysia (‘Abba’ was already taken), then Singapore went solo and became a republic. It’s colonial success was credited to Lord Stamford Raffles (the same chap who founded London Zoo), who harnessed it as an outpost for the famous East India Trading company.

Ice cool contraband
Modern day Singapore still sways under the weight of British influence but it owes it’s economically progressive face to the 1960s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY for short, not to be confused with JFK). As Singapore has no natural resources to make a living from, he felt the country should focus on the most obvious resource of all, humans. A huge emphasis was put on education (LKY being a Cambridge man himself), English was made the first language (Lee didn’t speak Chinese until he learnt it at age 32) and strict laws were introduced (we all know about the chewing gum ban).

Singapore’s method of high fines and severe punishment (whipping is still carried out) seems to do the trick (albeit with a dubious stance on human rights and one foot towards an authoritative state, waa-tsssh). I noticed even on the trains the fine for eating and drinking is $500, which I have no doubt would be unequivocally and swiftly enforced if you decided to chomp down on your daily Mars bar en route to work.

I can testify that from the moment we landed in SG spotlessness shone forth, you could eat your dinner off the toilet floor in the airport! They even have an interactive ‘Rate your Toilet experience’ screen. A bowl of Foxes Glacier Mint awaits you at the immigration desk as you enter the country, perhaps to help transition the chewing gum addicts (or those who had been slurping their noodles off the spotless toilet floor).

It’s a friendly, happy city but the catch, and the one thing evvveryone talks about, is the oppressive humidity that clogs up the city all year round. It hits you like a brick wall and is truly unrelenting. It helps to explain why the city is so fond of endless labyrinths of heavily air conditioned shops. As Dom pointed out, if LA is a great big freeway then SG is a great big mall. They have all the American and British high street stores including Marks and Spencers. If shopping is your bag then head straight to Orchard Road and fill it up! Btw, if you want anything electronic or a gadget then head to Sim Lim Square.

So, who lives in this heat?… The Chinese have been settling in SG since the 14th century, they make up 75% of the pop. Indians also make up a significant slice of the general population (historically many were attracted to booming Singapore to work as labourers). ‘Little India’ has formed around the settlements the British had assigned as part of ethnic segregation. It’s worth a walk through even just to check out the bollywood style extravagantly ornate buildings. Then, of course, you have the ex pats; the Brits, the Irish, the French, the Yanks, the Aussies and so on. In the minority are the native Malays, you get the sense that they were left behind when SG moved to be the high flying centre of commerce and in a sad way are somewhat marginalized.

Raffles welcome gift beats a fruit basket anyday
After a day of swaying in an out of icy air conditioned malls, we retired to our suitably colonial hotel come evening, it had to be Raffles. The hotel is probably best known for inventing the Singapore Sling in it’s Long Bar sometime around 1915. The hotel is a throwback to the romping colonial days with its billiards room (worth a visit for a game, while refreshing drinks and fans cool you down), afternoon tea (bonus was the Uppingham schoolboys choir lining up to sing ‘Blue Moon’ as we ate Victoria sponge and Char Siu buns - east meets west!) and it’s tradition to play Noel Cowards ‘I’ll see you again' every day after the grandfather clock in the foyer chimes. What fun, pip pip!

It’s hard to talk about Singapore and not mention the policies the government uses to push through progress.

For example, they want to cut down on the number of cars in the city, an admirable idea, so they have introduced a law that says you need a permit to own a car that is greater than 10 years old (or something to that effect). The permits cost around 60,000 US dollars! As a result you will rarely see an old car on the road, other high costs and levys are forcing folks on to public transport as the easiest option. I must admit the MRT (train system) is excellent. All the stations have lifts, very handy if you’re pushing a stroller or in a wheel chair or simply god damn lazy as all hell.

Did you know 85% of Singaporeans live in public housing. It’s not the tower block council housing that we have in Dublin and London with Del Boy and his lovely jubblies breezing out of Nelson Mandela House, these are nice gafs, the same quality as private housing. It’s all subsidized by the gov.

There are lots of private housing too, the ex pats gotta live somewhere! In fact an ex pat friend, Johnny English, asked me over for dinner with his family in their apartment. Had a lovely evening and some exceedingly tasty Tom Yum soup. I learnt that SG is now home to branches of posh British public schools, such as Dulwich College, to cater for the growing ex pat community looking for the “British experience” for their kids.

There is a corner of a park in Singapore devoted to freedom of speech called ‘Speakers Corner’ (echo’s of Hyde Park in London). But unlike Hyde Park, where loquacious loonies jabber on their soapboxes to their hearts content, in SG the free (?!) speaker must register with the police before being permitted to give a speech. The corner remains quiet!

The population’s well-being seems to be important to the SG government. While we were there universal healthcare was being rolled out with extensive promotion and explanation on TV. Far from the debacle that followed the introduction of similar measures in the US.

Due to government initiatives Singapore is a beacon of financial success, these people know how to put the roar in the Asian Tiger. I was lucky enough to make a trip downtown and catch up with some old work colleagues. Singaporeans are notoriously generous, welcoming, and big fans of a long lunch, so a slap up meal was on the cards. Dim sum, yum, yum :)
Precious cargo

I was very taken with the city, everyone smiles a lot, very warm and friendly vibe. They go nutbag crazy for babies (esp rarely seen Irish versions) and will almost climb into the pram to stroke the baby’s face (thankfully Róisín loves an aul smile so she worked the crowds like a pro).

Singapore is so clean and well laid out, with lots and lots and lots of shopping and great food for the 10 million tourists that descend every year. I think my positive experience was influenced by my friend Pei who is a native Singaporean and just happened to be in town with her family.

It was a special treat to be whisked around Purvis St on a lazy weekend and have all the local dishes ordered up for us. We jumped from cafe to restaurant to dessert house, having different courses at each stop. It seems that’s the traditional way to eat, a moving feast, my kinda meal, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings, or in my case till the fat lady scoops the last of the shaved durian ice cream into her rippling belly.

On the left is baked beans, no joke
I would highly recommend Kaya; coconut jam smeared on toast with a nice cup of tea. Your authentic hole-in-the-wall old-school cafe might use condensed milk which will make the tea jarringly sweet on first taste. Fish heads on a bed of rice, chased down with soft boiled eggs, soy sauce, and pepper mixed together and downed in one, it’s one hell of a way to start the morning!

We popped into a Chinese temple (under the wings of friends) and realized it was eerily similar to a church set up… incense burned as offerings for the dead, an ornate altar loomed at the top of the room. Interestingly it also offered services akin to a community centre, it was where the older immigrant Chinese could come and ask to have letters written to family in the old country, receive loans like it was a credit union, etc.

First couple to make it to Mars!
If you like the outdoors, especially gardens, don’t be fooled by the urbanisation of the city, within the city limits lies the Botanic Gardens which is a little paradise. You could lose hours there smelling the flowers and drifting through the greenery. There’s also the famous Night Safari in the zoo. If that isn’t enough, possibly the best thing to do in Singapore is to head to the Gardens by the Bay. It’s a man made rain forest with a flower dome, dragonfly and kishfisher lakes, cloud walk, enormous cone shaped trendrils reaching into the sky, and so on. It’s a truly magnificent experience. It’s incredibly grande and space age-y, slightly bordering on Las Vegas showiness. Maybe it could be a symbol for SG… Man made, futuristic, Disney does Asia.

We also gave the Skywalk a try, its the top floor of a hotel and is shaped like a boat. It has impressive views but it’s pricey at 24 dollars a head, probably better to save your money for the nosh which Singapore is renowned for. You can however, pick out the kooky architecture of SG including the artscience museum which is shaped like a lotus flower and reportedly worth the visit.

Come evening in Singapore the humidity dials back a notch (just a notch, mind you) and brave souls come out to play. Despite the high price of alcohol there seems to be a big nightlife scene - so my 3 month old tells me ;) If you prefer to trade in your cocktails for running trails there is quite the running scene, alongside soccer, cricket and other balls the British left behind. I weaved my way through the sweaty bettys to take a stroll along the marina and across the esplanade bridge, it was a lovely relaxing way to take in the city. The symbol of the city, a merlion statue, illuminates the bay.

Park Life
If you are wandering about wondering why you are feeling so relaxed it might be because the city has been built on Feng Shui principles (a Chinese architecture/design philosophy purported to harmonize one with one’s environment - make sure you line up your with shekels with your shakras).

Having been very nicely ‘broken in’ to Asia, it was time for something more hardcore… Tokyo!

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  1. So much fun to read your stuff. Sounds like a great trip. So glad you were able to meet up with Pei. Miss you! ~ Sue


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