Those of you who follow my Project52 posts may recall that I spent most of a week in Singapore way back around the time of Week 19. It is now coming to the end of Week 32, so this First Impressions post is long overdue. However, as Singapore celebrated its 51st National Day yesterday, it is perhaps timely.
My visit was largely organised by my friend Jiew, the CEO of Traveliss.com. For both her and me, it was just a holiday – an opportunity to explore a new destination with absolutely no work considerations. Given that she runs a tour company, Jiew naturally handled all of the planning and bookings for herself, her father, her sister, her husband, her two children and me. This obviously helped me a lot when it came to just enjoying myself and having a relaxing time, though it naturally meant that she was a bit more stressed out.
The reason I was invited on what was otherwise a family holiday was that Jiew had originally booked an AirBnB at Marina Bay Sands, but there was one room more than she required. This, sadly, fell through after I had already booked the flights. Jiew rallied impressively and found another option, but in a smaller apartment. This meant that there was now no spare room, so I slept on the sofa for all four nights. This wasn’t a problem for me as it was actually quite a comfortable sofa and I’ve spent far longer periods on far more uncomfortable beds!
The Fine City
My immediate first impressions of Singapore were actually kind of jarring, but in an unusual way. I’ve lived in Thailand for rather a long time; I am used to its kind of scruffy appearance, its messy streets, crumbling paintwork and flaking façades. In honesty, it is a part of its charm. Getting on the bus from Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) and driving towards the city centre was therefore quite an unusual experience because Singapore is absolutely nothing like that. Everything is neat and clean.
In a sense, it kind of reminded me of my time living in the Sultanate of Oman. Muscat, in particular, also had that clean and shiny look (well, most of it did. Ruwi – one of the oldest parts of the city – always seemed to be at least a little bit grimy). There was virtually no litter, no graffiti and the roadside shrubberies were always lush and well-manicured. Of course, once I’d lived there for a few months, I found that there was tons of litter in the desert and on the more popular beaches and that the streets were kept so immaculate by a huge cleaning crew maintained by Muscat Municipality. You could always see them toiling away through the heat of the day in their orange boiler suits.
Obviously, Singapore does not have the same huge reserves of cheap labour. The way Singapore keeps its streets clean are quite famous and are well documented on the t-shirt I bought, which lists all the things you can get fined for. As I explored the city, it was impossible to miss the CCTV cameras and countless signs telling you the huge monetary punishments for anything from eating and/or drinking on the MRT (S$500) to littering (S$1,000) to not flushing the toilet (S$150 – source for all of these fines is the aforementioned t-shirt).
I’ve got to admit that I didn’t particularly mind the constant threat of fines. I’ve never been a litterbug, I always flush, I wasn’t planning to import drugs, I don’t smoke or urinate in lifts or even chew gum on a regular basis, so I had nothing in particular to be concerned about. The fact that those fines exist is arguably a bit like nannying or bullying the population into compliance, but the city that it creates is a genuinely pleasant place to be.
The thing that astonished me most about Singapore is the fact that it works! The traffic obeys the rules while the whole public transport network is simple to use and generally integrates well – far better than it does in Thailand. After struggling with the half-baked BTS and MRT of Bangkok (and the bus service, which is almost completely incomprehensible to foreigners) or the absolutely non-existant public transport of Phuket, just riding the Singapore MRT every day was a joy.
I suppose it is unfair of me to draw direct comparisons between such very different destinations, but having lived in Thailand for so long, it is unavoidable. It was such a relief to go from a place where you have to maintain a good sense of humour in the face of constant failures, unexpected complications and incomprehensible obstructions lest you have a nervous breakdown to a place where everything just works.
At a Cost
The enduring functioning of the civil infrastructure does come at a cost, and it is quite a high one. Singapore is routinely ranked as the most expensive city in the world, with second place being quite a big step behind. A single Singapore Dollar costs (at the time of writing) about 60p in UK Sterling or 75 cents in US currency, and everything is expensive, from simple groceries to tourist attractions. In five days, I burned through about S$200 quite easily, and that’s not including the cost of accommodation and most of the entry fees for attractions, which I paid back to Jiew in Thai baht later.
The attractions are excellent, however. I would absolutely recommend Singapore as a destination for at least a short city break. I particularly enjoyed the Gardens by the Bay, which are well laid-out and very grand. I have to admit to having suffered my first major case of homesickness in many years while I was looking around their with Jiew and her family. My mum is something of a horticulturalist and I know she would love to see the place for herself and I would have loved to have experienced it with her.
Possibly one of the star attractions of the city – Marina Bay Sands – is also quite a cool place, even if you (like I) don’t much care for shopping. It’s a fascinating place just to look around and the choice of restaurants is rather good. It is, however, an expensive place to look around. While the view from the 57th-floor observation deck on the top is pretty impressive, I’m not sure it warrants a S$23 per person price tag! Maybe I’ve been living in Thailand too long…
Old and New
One of the coolest aspects of Singapore is just how much of a melting pot it is. The population alone is a blend of Indian, Chinese, British, Malaysian and about a dozen other nationalities, which is also reflected in the cuisine. In honesty, one of the things I’d been looking forward to the most about the trip was trying “Singapore Noodles” again, having all but lived off them in Oman. Imagine my disappointment when I found that it, like Chicken Tikka Masala, is actually an invention of the British and is impossible to find in Singapore. Fortunately, the actual local noodle dish – laksa – turned out to be a very tasty combination of Chinese and Indian cuisines.
The city itself is also a blend of features and manages to perfectly combine hyper-modern structures like Marina Bay Sands alongside historical sites like Raffles Hotel. The vibrant and colourful history of the place is embraced and incorporated into the city and blends almost seamlessly into the bright future.
The National Museum of Singapore was one of my favourite attractions because of just how well it explained the history – both ancient and recent – and how it shaped the city that Singapore is today. It was occasionally a bit dry, giving way more detail than was really necessary to what seemed to me to be fairly insignificant artefacts, but it documented everything very well and it told the story in a clear enough way. It was perhaps a little long-winded, too, so I started to skim-read things towards the end.
In a Nutshell
I’ve got to admit that my first impressions of Singapore were marred by a really dumb mistake on my part. I like to pack light when I travel these days and I wanted a pair of shoes which would be both comfortable for walking around attractions but also stylish enough for exploring the nightlife or dining at a nice restaurant. I ended up choosing an unproven pair of shoes I’d only just bought, which ruined my feet within a matter of hours. I never got to check out the nightlife because I could barely walk by the end of the second day and I spent the entire third day in the apartment resting! I managed to hobble around for the rest of the trip, but I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked.
Amazingly, in spite of being in near-constant pain, Singapore left a very good impression on me and I am keen to return. In fact, should I choose to move on from Thailand, Singapore currently tops my list of places I’d like to live and work, even with the high cost of living. At the very least, I would like to return there at some point soon (with better footwear) to explore properly. Perhaps this was because it felt very liberating to be in a cosmopolitain sort of a place after years in fairly detached, provincial towns.
I have no personal or professional relationships with any of the businesses mentioned in this article, with the exception of Jiew of Traveliss.com, who is both a friend and colleague.