Singapore was by far the most westernized of the places we visited in Southeast Asia and I will say that we were happy to be in a place where the water is safe to drink, the sidewalks are wide and intact, and cars actually stop at crosswalks.
I visited Singapore 16 years ago when I was working for the consulting firm and, to say that things have changed in the past 16 years is a great understatement. Neither the iconic Marina Bay Hotel, now an identifying landmark for Singapore, nor its next door neighbor the impressive Gardens by the Bay were part of the landscape in those days. In fact, not only were these two tourist attractions, each of which has a huge footprint, not there, the actual ground they sit on was not there either. It is reclaimed land that was part of the bay in the early aughts.
We visited both, of course, and really enjoyed Gardens by the Bay, with its two enormous domed garden areas: one is devoted to gardens around the world, including Australia, the Mediterranean, northern California and more. The Mediterranean area even has two-hundred year old olive trees that were exported to Singapore from the Mediterranean. The second dome is an indoor rainforest, complete with a waterfall and several sections showing different rainforest features with, of course, tons of orchids and other flowering rainforest plants.
Singapore was fun – we loved zipping around town on its affordable, efficient, and clean bus and rail system. We went to the Singapore Night Safari, a zoo devoted to nocturnal animals with both a tram and walking trails. We took walking tours of Chinatown and Little India, and ate chicken rice and chilli crabs, both signature Singapore dishes, in the Newton and Maxwell food stalls. We went to Hawker Chan, a hawker stall, now also a stand-alone restaurant, that has the distinction of being the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. We visited the Singapore National Gallery, impressive as much for its repurposed building, which was formerly the Singapore Supreme Court building, as it is for its art. A docent took us around the museum and led a discussion of a half dozen or more artworks, all of which provided insight into Singapore’s relatively short history. Mary wanted to be sure and enjoy a Singapore Sling so, of course, we had to make a trip to the Long Bar at the historic Raffles hotel where the drink was invented sometime before 1915.
One of the pleasures of our world travels has been getting together with friends in distant places. In Singapore, we were able to get together with two of my former colleagues from the consulting firm days: Malavika Jain took the time to get together with us for coffee and it was great catching up and getting her input on things to do and see in town. We also got together with Peter Allen and his husband, Jet, for a hawker stall meal, followed by delicious shaved ice concoctions of Bugis Street, a place we probably would not have visited if we hadn’t gone with locals.
Disney with the Death Penalty
Singapore does seem, in many ways, like a little island utopia. The crime rate is surprisingly low, and the city is very clean. In the 1994, William Gibson, a writer for Wired Magazine famously called Singapore Disney with the death penalty, a term that has stuck, and it’s easy to see why. On the subway system, videos of public service messages run constantly. One was designed to reduce incidence of people groping others on the train, which most will agree is a good thing to reduce. However, at the end of the PSA, would-be molesters were warned that their penalty would be jail or caning. That’s right, caning. When was the last time any of us heard of caning as punishment for a crime? Worse yet, the death penalty is still carried out with some regularity, especially for drug related crimes, and occasionally applied to teenagers for drug possession violations.
Saying good-bye to Singapore and “see you later” to Mary
We enjoyed Singapore, but it also meant saying “see you later” to my daughter Mary, who had to get back to the U.S. for work and for Christmas. For John and me, however, we headed off to the next part of our travels: the tropical north of Australia.