Singapore is a monument to multiculturalism, mixing gleaming high-rises and colonial relics with their Asian charm.
“Cleanliness is still a ritual here, as is civil obedience and correct social behaviour. In some ways Singapore is still the sort of city that the Japanese would love to claim as its own were it not for the fact that beneath that fallacious self-image of rigid probity, Japan is a seething cesspit of fear, loathing, depravity and dysfunction (and all the more enjoyable for it).”
Singapore is also very straight-laced: the locals will give you a polite lecture about correct pedestrian deportment if you look as if you are going to amble across the pavement before the green signal, but the fact that critical jokey T-shirts (setting out the various offences) are on sale a is a welcome sign that the city is starting to laugh at itself, a something unthinkable a decade or so ago.
“The pristine prissiness of the 1980s and 1990s might explain why Singapore has never been a main tourist destination; rather a stopover city, breaking up the long haul to Australia or serving as recuperation from the filthier delights of Indonesia or Thailand. Staidness was its subtitle, to the extent that it was not so long ago that one tourism minister earnestly exhorted citizens to work hard at being relaxed, laid-back, fun-loving people in order to attract some of the tourists thronging to Bangkok”.
Its tourist industry might actually profit from the natural disasters and terrorism that have blighted Southeast Asia over the last year. Singapore escaped the tsunami and its twitchily authoritarian regime has been an effective terrorist deterrent. The atmosphere here can seem more western than Asian at first, although that changes once you get beneath the surface.
More enlightened Singaporeans realise that the city-state cannot compare itself with its Southeast Asian neighbours, and has no need to. It has enough fascinating history, and a genuinely multicultural population, to have an appeal beyond the spotless shopping malls and tinkling fountains of Changi airport.
It’s that multiculturalism that first strikes the visitor looking around this modernist, quasi-American city with strong flavours of Britain, India and China. Singapore is a striking urban embodiment of what happens when a city is deliberately constructed at an international crossroads during the centuries when East and West first encountered each other on a regular rather than sporadic basis.
Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore in 1819, still casts a lofty cultural shadow over the city, even if his name has become synonymous with the hospitality business rather than as a colonial visionary. British visitors are duty-bound to pay homage to him, even if it only involves glugging back a cocktail.
The Raffles hotel still has that Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad air of colonial anomie. The air conditioning has replaced the hand-wafted punkahs, but it still seems like a place to watch the ice melt in your gin and ruefully contemplate adulterous liaisons in equatorial climes.
Kipling only came here for the booze and the cakes, preferring alternative accommodation. The budget-conscious might emulate that policy, although any self-respecting Briton has to have a stiff noon drink here at least. The tourist cliché is to saunter in and order a Singapore sling. Like most tourist clichés it’s very enjoyable, and the bar staff play their assigned role with cool hospitality.
The British colonial presence remains distinguished by the Victorian-era architecture north of the Singapore River, the Empress Place edifices, Parliament House, and that ineffable symbol of stiff British propriety, the Singapore cricket club. The buildings are pompously impressive, even if British prestige here was terminally diminished by the humiliating surrender to a weaker Japanese force in the second world war.
Perhaps in acknowledgement that the sun eventually set on her empire, the Empress Place building now houses a museum of Asian civilisation devoted to celebrating Singaporean independence.
Modern Singapore’s interest, though, lies beyond its polished colonial relics, and more in the intriguing way its south Asian populations exist side by side in overlapping communities. It’s vividly illustrated by a bustling Thai shopping mall, the Golden Mile complex on Beach Road, where you step into an air-
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Tom Lappin first published in the London Times