Safely back from five weeks trotting around the southern hemisphere, and thought I’d share some thoughts on the journey.
Let’s begin with Singapore, which, lying just north of the equator, is not even in the southern hemisphere. But as a three-night stopover it formed an integral part of our travels, so I can’t very well leave it out.
Singapore is a city-state with a population of around 5.5 million. It comprises 63 islands, most of them small, and its total area is just over 277 square miles. Over 50 of these square miles are reclaimed land: a project which is ongoing. By comparison, Scotland has a population of around 5.3 million and an area of 30,000 square miles. So in Singapore there are an awful lot of people crammed into a very small space: a density of 19,725 people per square mile compared to Scotland’s 174 folk per square mile.
It should be chaos: but it isn’t.
The key to this relative calm seems to be a nationwide policy of ruthless organisation and courtesy. Singaporeans are well-behaved beyond belief. Our hotel was just off Orchard Road, in the shopping district. Orchard Road has 4 lanes of traffic (each way: that’s a street 8 lanes wide) and yet I don’t think I once heard any angry honks or bouts of road rage. Can you imagine 8 lanes of traffic in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street? Part of this success must be down to efficient pedestrian management. Most pavements are fenced off – peds are not given the opportunity to randomly wander across the road (an activity which is illegal anyway). Busy side streets without traffic lights are patrolled by uniformed guys with light-sabre-type wands, who halt vehicles and shepherd pedestrians across. And for main roads you cross, obediently, at pedestrian crossings – which obligingly display a countdown of how many seconds you have left. Or, more commonly, you bypass the road completely by going underneath.
Singapore has a whole subterranean world going on. You descend from any major street corner, via an escalator, into a plethora of choices. You can simply follow the underpass to the other side of the road, bypassing the pedestrian crossings above. (With skill you can even do what we did, and emerge just round the corner from your starting place, on the same side of the street.) Or you can go shopping. The shopping malls have at least one basement level, often two – the deeper one usually holding the food courts. Or you can walk through the shops and continue on to access the MRT – Singapore’s underground railway system.
Whatever you choose to do, you will be doing it with thousands of other people – many of them with their faces glued to their smartphone screens – and yet folk don’t bump into each other. Singaporeans seem to have a heightened sense of spatial awareness, making an environment which could be incredibly claustrophobic reasonably bearable. Outdoor average temperatures are around 80 degrees, and the average humidity is 84%, but most places indoors are air conditioned, so at least you can breathe. The ban on smoking in public helps too.
So, Singapore is air conditioned and well-managed: what else? It’s clean. Really clean – at least in the main tourist and business areas. Like anywhere, if you seek out back alleys in less affluent areas, you will find a reasonable amount of dirt and litter. But the face Singapore presents to the world is pristine, and they have laws to keep it that way. You can be fined substantial amounts for dropping litter, or spitting on the pavement. I’ve not established whether the actual act of chewing gum is illegal, but dropping your masticated remains or sticking them under a chair certainly is.
The beaches, sadly, are a different story. Singapore has the world’s second busiest port in terms of shipping tonnage, and thousands of ships lie at anchor in the Singapore Strait. This seaway links the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, and by rights should be unspeakably romantic. I went swimming off Sentosa island, in a small bay cordoned off at its mouth with a line of floats to separate swimmers from container ships. The sea was murkily fawn, unrefreshingly close to body temperature, and had Things floating in it. The near horizon was clogged with cargo ships. Closer to home, I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole, or even dipped a toe in the water. But it’s on the edge of the South China Sea, for goodness’ sake. Sometimes you just have to do things.
On our return from Australia we stayed in Singapore for a night and a day, and took a wander to East Coast Park, a long strip of parkland with a man-made beach. As we walked along the beach it was initially very clean. But soon we encountered large plastic sacks full of rubbish, and a team of workmen filling more, on a stretch of sand littered with plastic bottles and other flotsam. Curious as to how often the beach was cleaned, I approached one of the workers. He didn’t speak English, so directed me to his supervisor, who was happy to chat to me. I asked him how often they had to do this.
“Twice a day”, he replied. “Every high tide.”
I must have been visibly shocked. He was at pains to point out that some days were worse than others, depending on the tide and the weather – and the affected parts of the beach varied too. But they still had to clean the shoreline twice a day. He was careful to explain that this was not Singapore’s rubbish, saying it came in from Malaysia and elsewhere. I found it very depressing to see such clear evidence of how much we are polluting our seas. But from the little time I’d already spent in Singapore, I wasn’t in the least surprised that the country employs people to keep the beaches clean, as well as the rest of the place.
Flotsam and jetsam aside, though, East Coast Park was a lovely place to spend the afternoon. Its tranquillity was a stark contrast to the frantic pace of life around Marina Bay or Orchard Road. Yes, it was being used: friends were having lunch at the concrete picnic benches under the coconut palms; families were playing on the beach; and there were cyclists and joggers on the paths. But the density of traffic was much less, and there was room to breathe. This sense of space was enhanced by the sea, which – despite the string of container ships at anchor just offshore – added an open vista and a welcome, cooling breeze. The park itself is well planted with trees and areas of jungly shrubbery. Singapore has had a policy of greening the city for a long time now. Many of the streets are lined with beautiful trees, and there are parks, small and large, everywhere. These green spaces must have huge importance in keeping the population sane, because without them Singapore would be intolerably full of concrete and glass.
That’s not to say that its buildings aren’t impressive. In fact, they’re utterly magnificent. Some of them, like the Marina Bay Sands, are just mental.
Even the more mundane office skyscrapers are quite spectacular, and the Central Business District at night, with all its lights, is quite beautiful. Singapore has managed to hold on to quite a few of its old buildings, and many of them sit in colonial grandeur surrounded by twenty-first century architecture. It’s a pleasing mix. Further away from the centre, there are still whole streets of older buildings. We spent an evening in Little India, and the architecture was beautiful, if a little shabby.
While there, we had a very nice curry in a local cafe. If I was more of a foody this would have been a neat link to ‘my thoughts on eating out in Singapore’, but unfortunately I’m not that fussed about what I eat, as long as it’s vegetarian. And we weren’t in Singapore long enough to compile any sort of good food guide. Singaporeans are mainly an ethnic mix of Chinese, Malaysians and Indians, and this is reflected in the cuisine. We ate one night at Lau Pa Sat, a famous hawker centre. Hawker centres are collections of food stalls with a communal seating area – you take a walk round, decide what you want to eat, then take your food to whatever free space you can find. Lau Pa Sat is a covered centre housed in a magnificent octagonal cast iron building, which was shipped out from Glasgow around 1894. I ate something noodley, which was quite good and, compared to proper dining out, very cheap. Having said that, Little India was cheap as well, but if you eat in any of the more touristy areas, be prepared to pay an arm and a leg. Singapore’s visitor face is expensive.
Which brings us to Raffles. We quite clearly had to go to its Long Bar for a Singapore Sling, because that’s just what you do. Some touristy things can’t be avoided. It’s stuffed with fellow tourists, lounging beneath the slowly-waving palm fans and enjoying the high life. We sat at the bar beside a small sack of peanuts. It seems that the done thing is to throw your peanut shells on the floor. My obsessively tidy side struggled immensely with this concept, but by the time I was halfway through my Virgin (non-alcoholic) Sling, and had had a good few sips of my husband’s non-non-alcoholic real deal Sling, I was merrily lobbing shells groundwards with the best of them.
The drinks were hideously expensive, so we only had one round, and ate peanuts for lunch. I took a couple of photos with my tablet and attempted to access their WiFi for an on-the-spot show off to Facebook. “I’m sorry, madam, the WiFi is for hotel residents only.” Can’t say I was overly surprised, but it was somewhat disappointing!
In fact, Raffles was the only place where the staff made us feel as though we were a slight inconvenience. Everywhere else, from our hotel to small coffee shops, the staff were smiling, polite and seemed genuinely pleased to be of assistance. Singapore has placed great emphasis on a culture of courtesy, in part I think to help its different ethnicities gel together and feel Singaporean. It seems to have, for the most part, worked. But the price for this extreme politeness has been a curb on freedom of speech.
Overall, I really enjoyed Singapore, and I’m glad we stayed long enough to get a real feel for the place. It isn’t perfect, and for a number of reasons I would not want to live there. But it has achieved incredible things in its short 50 years since independence. It has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, an extremely low unemployment rate, and extreme poverty is almost non-existent. It has been ranked the 7th greenest city in the world, and is apparently the easiest place on the planet to do business. It has very low levels of crime, high life expectancy, and adult obesity is below 10%. It is friendly, efficient, and spectacular to look at.
If you’re looking for a stopover from Europe on the way to Australia, you could do a lot worse!