Singapore Zoo is home to the largest captive colony of orangutans in the world and is noted for the naturalistic setting, with animals living behind hidden barriers or moats. The zoo's Night Safari, with its many seldom-seen nocturnal animals, is one of the island's most popular attractions, with about 1.1million visitors a year.
Singapore – Long Read

Is there more to the Lion City?

Photo by Edwin A. Franken

Singapore – Long Read Is there more to the Lion City?

Hello Singapore, the wealthy island that comes with preconceptions attached – still seen by some as lacking personality and prioritizing cleanliness over character but also with a strong appeal to food-lovers, shoppers and heritage enthusiasts. Beyond the air-conditioned malls, colonial monuments and slick infrastructure, is there more to the Lion City?

Ben Lerwill
Ben Lerwill Travel Writer

In Singapore, surprises have a habit of seeking you out. It is evening, and I am sitting outside among the smoldering grills and satay kebab stalls of Boon Tat Street. Smoke from the hot coals is furling up into the Asian darkness overhead. The night is powerfully warm with that close, woozy street-heat that beads sweat on the forehead and seems to smell of everything at once: the city, the trees, the river, the traffic, fried food, the day just gone.

There are dozens of plastic tables set across the road – littered with chopsticks, heaped with noodles and heaving with people – and it is at one of these that I start chatting with a middle-aged man named Sundram. A full jug of cold Tiger beer lands between us with a slop. We pour measures into disposable cups. I soon learn that he makes a living as a minibus driver but it’s where the conversation leads next that holds the revelation.

“I like to watch soccer,” he says, on hearing that I’m British. “Arsenal is my team.” We carry on talking and then it comes out, gradually: how he was a serious player in his youth, how as someone of sub-continental descent he’d become involved with the Singapore Indian Football Club, how he’d eventually been selected as a striker for the national team. I sit up with a jolt, taken aback. You actually represented Singapore? “Yes, four times,” he says, then frowns slightly, turning a satay stick in his fingers. “But I didn’t score.”

Dinner al fresco with an international footballer doesn’t feature as a Singapore attraction when you flip through the glossy travel brochures, but there is plenty that does. The destination regularly finds itself marketed along quite rigid lines. Shop at Orchard Road, we’re told. Have a spin on the Singapore Flyer observation wheel. Take a bumboat cruise along the river and check out the space-age skyline. Round off the day with a cocktail at Raffles.

To reduce Singapore to a string of agreeable tourist experiences and eye-catching modern architecture, however, is to mislabel somewhere that has a stack of different layers: some of them wonderful, others less so. And, like the furiously messy-to-eat chilli crab that gets served up across the island, there is often a bit of effort required to get to the interesting bits.

Shaggy, tiger-filled jungle

It is not a large country. The island nation, which dangles off the bottom of Peninsular Malaysia, is only around 700km² in area (roughly the same size as the city of Chicago), although it has a story that belies its modest proportions. The arrival of English statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819 is generally heralded as the “start” of Singapore, but by then the island had already spent several centuries as a populated part of the Malay Peninsula, supporting a handful of fishing villages and drawing various speculative traders. To look at today’s steel-and-glass cityscape and mentally strip it away to shaggy, tiger-filled jungle, fringed by a few basic huts, requires a considerable leap of imagination.

It was the Raffles era that kick-started the development of Singapore as a global center of commerce. A plum location on a major sea route to Asia was one trump card. Free-trade harbor status was the other. Colonial money-men and a flood of Chinese and Indian immigrants helped the population to soar to 100,000 by the 1870s, a period often portrayed as an opium-fogged era of vice, cramped living quarters and frantic riverside deal-brokering. But conversely, as the decades wore on and both the population and the buildings kept getting bigger – not to mention the economy – Singapore’s reputation became a far more placid, safe thing.

“Outsiders think of Singapore as very corporate,” says Winnie, a twinkle-eyed local. We are talking on the top deck of Marina Bay Sands, the three-towered colossus of a hotel that since 2010 has formed an inescapable part of the city’s scenery. Directly in front of us, a handful of guests are soaking up the too-hot sunshine in a 200-meter-high infinity pool, and beyond them are spread the polished towers and manicured parks of the city. “Very sterile, very clean and full of rules,” she continues. “There’s truth in all of that, but it only reflects part of Singapore. A lot of visitors don’t realize that.”

I still remember when I first had my own impressions of the country jolted out of shape. On my visit, I spent a day or so getting a flavor for the city with an enjoyable walk around Chinatown and a few hours among the ordered malls and plazas of the CBD. Then, on a Sunday lunchtime, I caught the subway to Little India, stepped out of the station and fell headlong into a mad squall of noise and activity.

Every pavement and patch of grass was thronged. People – mainly migrant workers enjoying their one day off – were everywhere, spilling across the road, into shophouses and out of side-alleys. Spices wafted from rammed restaurants. TVs blared out soap operas. Gold-colored Diwali banners hung across the street, shimmering in the heat and the racket. In a park, people crowded a promotional stall offering cheap mobile phone deals. Down a backstreet, men clustered in packs to gawp at fleshy doorway prostitutes. I found a seat at a cafe, ordered a mango lassi and watched the world file past outside, thinking: so am I still in Singapore?

I can recoil in shock at the price tags

The memory is a vivid contrast to the slick, airy shopping complex at the foot of Marina Bay Sands, where Winnie and I wander past Gucci and Philippe Patek boutiques, pausing occasionally so I can recoil in shock at the price tags. The Wall Street Journal recently dubbed Singapore “the new haven for the super-rich”, and there is more – plenty more – evidence of this on Orchard Road, where you can barely move for malls dispensing designer heels and “lifestyle goods”. Singapore has one of the highest GDPs on the planet. Somewhat reassuringly, however, at the swish ION Orchard mega-mall I find the busiest shop by far is the everything-for-S$2 store in the basement, where locals and ex-pats are filling up baskets with dinner trays, doilies and cheap dog collars.

Singapore and shopping have long been packaged together as a tourism draw by the travel industry, but if you are after character rather than catwalk labels then the most absorbing retail outlets are found well away from the big malls. World Savage on Bussorah Street is one such, a wild-eyed emporium of vintage goods that opens “at random times, but invariably after 4pm”. Or the hidden-away Books Actually on Yong Siak Street, with its slow-slow ethos and wooden cabinets full of Pez dispensers and old poetry volumes. Or, kookier still, the clothing store Hide and Seek. Why the name? “We shift location every couple of years, so that customers have to seek us out,” Jun, the creatively-hairstyled male assistant tells me, while trying to pique my interest in a new range of sneakers. “We’re for people who are bored of the malls.”

It would seem there are a fair few locals who fall into that category. Singapore’s counter-culture becomes more apparent the more time you spend here, although it is certainly not as vibrant or strident as it might be. This has much to do with the heavy presence of government, which takes an often disturbing stance on drugs, homosexuality, public protest and, most famously if more trivially, chewing gum (the law still prohibits its import and sale unless, rather cryptically, the gum is “with therapeutic value”). And it is both telling and a little depressing that the website TalkingCock.com, for ten years a hugely popular platform for subversive views and political satire, has been all but inactive since 2010 after coming under the scrutiny of Singapore’s prime minister.

But what might therefore be expected to be a rather stifling street-level atmosphere actually comes across as fairly relaxed. There is the odd faintly amusing sign reminding you that the pungent durian fruit is banned on public transport. And yes, there is very little litter. But Singapore is difficult to nail down, certainly for an occasional visitor. While it is never going to rival the likes of Bangkok for its street life, it is not as bland as many claim. Among the hugger-mugger trinket markets of Bugis Street, the laid-back Middle Eastern cafes of Kampong Glam or the gossipy reflexology parlors of the budget Chinatown malls, no one seems overly constrained. At the street-food courts of the hawker centers, well, let’s say simply that you see plenty in the way of public gusto.

We don’t just eat to live, we live to eat

Food, alongside shopping, is always held up as the other great Singaporean passion. “It’s definitely not a myth,” says young food writer Charleen Natalie Neo, whose Gninethree blog takes the reader on a mazy journey through the island’s bakeries and hidden mealtime finds. The blog’s name comes from Genesis 9:3 (“Every living thing that moves will be yours to eat, no less than the foliage of the plants. I give you everything.”), which seems a fairly apt call to arms for a nation with a serious chow-down obsession.

“We don’t just eat to live, we live to eat,” she says. “Eating and enjoying good food is what identifies us as Singaporean. The most popular dishes all have a mix of Peranakan, Chinese, Malay and Indian influences, so food is probably the clearest reflection of our multiculturalism.” And if she had to choose one place to eat? One last dish? She would head directly to the roadside Maxwell Food Centre, she says, and join the line at the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall. “It always has a queue, regardless of the time of day.”

Celebrity chefs now flit around Singapore’s dining scene like so many delicate butterflies, and the island officially has four restaurants in the world’s top 100, which is pretty impressive for the second smallest country in Asia. But again, where food is concerned, the earthiest rewards for the average visitor tend to appear well away from the pricey upmarket joints.

The Maxwell Food Centre, in common with many of the island’s hawker spots, draws in endless waves of diners to sit at basic communal tables, crack open cold drinks and indulge in affordable, cooked-to-order dishes. Barbecued stingray stalls stand next to those selling Indian roti or chili-basted satay kebabs. Stir-fried noodle strips are dished up opposite places serving pork rib soup or Sumatran beef rendang. Choosing what to order can actually become quite challenging.

One evening I eat at a smart waterfront restaurant overlooking Boat Quay and the Singapore River. The view is great – a gently flowing waterway, a few traditional shophouses, a soaring cliff of Blade Runner skyscrapers – and the atmosphere is soothing, but the food and the service are average. The next lunchtime, for a fraction of the price, I treat myself to a series of wildly moreish dishes at a hawker center near the heart of town, surrounded by dozens of people snapping apart disposable chopsticks and doing exactly the same; a communal slurping and gobbling fills the air. I know which meal I enjoy more. Refinement be damned.

Normal people don’t have a lot of money

On a broader level, the various strands of local life are as knotty in Singapore as they are anywhere. “Normal people don’t have a lot of money,” says my taxi driver one day, towards the end of an unprompted diatribe on the levies of the road toll system. “It’s 1,500 dollars,” says the waiter at the hotel poolside bar later on, when I enquire how much a prominently displayed jeroboam of champagne is selling for. In trying to work out what makes Singapore tick, things are rarely straightforward.

Which is the real Singapore? The tinkling spoons, silver cake-stands and piano music of afternoon tea at the Fullerton Hotel, or the street art and alternative stores of Haji Lane? The posses of off-duty Filipino maids chattering in narrow corridors at Lucky Plaza, or the deckhands washing yachts in the harbor at Sentosa? The manual workers crowded into the back of a pick-up truck, or the suited commuters funneling in and out of the subway stations? It’s not easy to say. Any attempt to make a sweeping generalization about the country quickly encounters some aspect that resolutely refuses to fit.

Other things are simpler to consider. Singapore has numerous set-piece visitor attractions, from its loudly acclaimed Zoo to the nut-strewn floors and pre-mixed Singapore Slings at Raffles’ Long Bar, but in my view the one that really catches the imagination is Gardens by the Bay. It is partly due to the sheer ambition of the project – 100 hectares of reclaimed harbor that’s been morphed into a fertile land of plenty, complete with vast temperature-controlled biodomes, waterfalls and groves of 50-meter-high “supertrees”. The whole thing has been designed to self-sustain by, as far as possible, generating its own green energy.

It is a remarkable development, and an interesting concept too. On the one hand it points back to the island’s past as a tropical wilderness, and on the other is a pretty bold statement of eco-design and 21st century technology. As I walk around, it all comes across as very Singaporean – I cannot imagine it being pulled off in quite the same way in many other parts of Asia.

The four main groups of the country’s migrant society

The biodomes draw the crowds, but for me the most thought-provoking parts of the complex turn out to be the outdoor heritage gardens. There are four themed areas, dedicated in turn to plants of Indian, Chinese and Malay origin with, finally, colonial species such as rubber trees and coffee bushes. The idea is that they represent the four main groups of the country’s migrant society, and – when you look from the plants to the towering urban backdrop and back again – it is cause to reflect on just what a big and extraordinary thing Singapore has evolved into over the last 200 years.

One other detail seems relevant too. Close to the heritage gardens is a landscaped lake, and as I walk around its edge I spot terrapins under the water and dragonflies skimming the surface. Curious as to how they have reached a manmade lake, I ask a member of staff. “Oh, we brought them here,” she says, cheerily. “They’re to discourage mosquitoes.” Again, it seems very Singaporean.

On my last night, I head deep into the city and catch an elevator 61 floors up to 1-Altitude, billed as the planet’s highest outdoor rooftop bar. The view catches the breath. All the lights and buildings of the city are laid below, from the red-brick edifices of the colonial era to the shiny façade of the banking towers. Dance music is throbbing in my ears – the busy bar epitomizes the glossy-magazine face of modern Singapore, with its snappily-dressed young socialites and on-trend drinks list. There’s a good time being had.

It is an atmospheric place to be, and I am torn between people watching and looking out at the view. The latter wins. I stare out at the river, wondering how far down the noise from the speakers travels, when a series of dark shapes flit by in the sky. They are very near. Initially I think I have imagined them, then they appear again, diving back on themselves. Bats. We are at a height of more than 280 meters, with the CBD directly below us, and the sky around the tower is alive with bats. It is apt, really. Even all the way up here, Singapore keeps the little surprises coming.

TRVL Favorites

…from the TRVL community