Singapore is famous for micromanaging everything it can get its fussy, white-gloved hands on. Even its citizens’ love lives: To correct falling birth rates, the government offered incentives to couples who have more than one baby, and launched an initiative called Romancing Singapore. There are jingles, a cake of the month, dating tips, and a pair of special fragrances created by local polytechnic students. Hers is floral; his is musky.
Romance is one thing, but vice is something else altogether. To boost tourism and foreign investment, the city-state—a 239-square-mile island off the southern tip of Malaysia—is chipping away at its rulebound culture. You can now dance on tables, attend gay parties, and buy Cosmopolitan magazine. In a refutation of Singapore’s most infamous law, you are also allowed to buy gum.
Restrictions apply. The gum must be sugarless and therapeutic, and it’s only available by prescription.
Singapore can talk about changing, but it is what it is: a former British colony that puts the stiffest, prissiest English nanny to shame. Would you want to live there? Perhaps not. But as a place to visit, Singapore has plenty to recommend it—and most of its charms are directly related to the efforts of the tough-love regime. For those who’ve toured Southeast Asia, the order and decorum are a refreshing change. And if you’ve never been to the region, Singapore is the perfect baby step.
1. It’s remarkably green…
Thanks to a government program dating from the ’60s, Singapore—a.k.a. the Garden City—is one of the world’s greenest cities. There’s a strict cap on the number of vehicles allowed on the island, and there are fees for driving in downtown zones. Compared with a place like Bangkok, where diesel-fume-belching tuk-tuks are everywhere, Singapore is literally a breath of fresh air. More than 5 percent of the island is reserved for nature, and there are many tree conservation areas, where laws govern the felling of any tree more than one meter in girth. The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve has real mangrove swamps, and the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is Singapore’s biggest tract of primary rain forest. Those who like nature with a wild streak should try the Night Safari, which is within the vast Singapore Zoological Gardens. It’s a 99-acre zoo with 1,200 animals representing 110 species. Whether you take the tram or the walks—or ideally, both—the subtle lighting will help you spot striped hyenas and Malayan tapirs prowling close by.
2. …And it’s lickably clean
Singapore is beyond anal-retentive. Spitting is banned; first-time violators may be fined $611, while repeat offenders might find their picture published in the newspapers. (A far cry from Mumbai, where residents spit betel-nut juice on the streets, staining them bright red.) Littering is also verboten ($611 or community service), as is smoking in public places ($611). The subway stations could pass for hospitals, and even restrooms are ranked by cleanliness; high marks go to Caltex gas stations. Remember to flush or, yes, you may get fined up to $92.
3. Street food won’t make you sick
The government has spent millions upgrading the “hawker centres,” where all kinds of street food is sold. There are more than 120 centers—with a total of 16,000 stalls—all over the city. Ambience isn’t the draw: Lighting is fluorescent, and stools and tables are plastic. But the centers are cleaner than a Caltex loo. Maxwell Road Food Centre, in the Chinatown area, typically gets the locals’ vote for having the best food. Order the Hainanese chicken rice at stall 10, Tian Tian. Other worthwhile options are Newton Hawker Centre for hokkien mee (yellow noodles with stir-fried prawns), Chomp Chomp Hawker Centre for fish soup noodles, Lau Pa Sat in the evenings for beef and chicken satay, and Changi Village for nasi lemak (a coconut-rice dish with anchovy chili paste).
4. Everyone speaks English
The Speak Good English Movement, started by the government and led by citizens, encourages the use of proper English (as opposed to “Singlish,” Singapore’s colloquial twist on English), as is clear from the bossy posters all around town. What’s more, street signs are in English, as are most menus at hawker centers.
5. Preservation isn’t a dirty word
Unlike other cities—Beijing, for instance, has been relentlessly demolishing its past—Singapore has kept vast tracts of its old architecture intact. At last count, there were 67 conservation areas involving more than 6,400 buildings. Spend a morning wandering around Chinatown, exploring the Straits Chinese and Victorian shophouses—multistoried buildings with five-foot-long walkways and colorful tiles. If you’re lucky, the saloon-style doors will swing open to reveal three-generation families, kids doing their homework on mother-of-pearl Ching Dynasty furniture, or the aroma of frying ginger. For background on how the Chinese got to Singapore, visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Its three linked shophouses were once the lodgings of immigrants, whose tiny living quarters have been faithfully re-created. Original lodgers have been interviewed on video; their stories are touching testimonies of sheer grit. Then try the fragrant bak kuah barbecued-pork slices at the stalls on New Bridge Road or the frog porridge at Tiong Shian Porridge Centre. As you meander you’ll come across traditional clan houses decorated with plaques of Chinese couplets. Indoors, elderly men will be playing mah-jongg.
One of Singapore’s loveliest up-and-coming neighborhoods is Kampong Glam, home to Arab, Yemeni, and Pakistani traders since Sir Stamford Raffles founded the city in 1819. Men step out of the area’s Moorish mosque, the 1928 Masjid Sultan on Muscat Street, in songkok (skullcaps) and sarongs. At night the area glows softly with the lights from Moroccan-style tea shops, and the air is sweet with smoke from water pipes. Recently given a face-lift, it’s packed with two-story shops selling fabrics, dates, spices, and perfumes. Drop by Samar restaurant for a karkedeh (an Egyptian hibiscus beverage), but skip the food. After this, there’s still the neighborhoods of Katong and Joo Chiat, with their Technicolor Peranakan houses to explore. At the Katong Antique House, Peter Wee, who lives in part of the building, will take you on a tour.
6. It’s safe
In 2003, there were just 201 fatal car accidents. Taxi drivers are honest, and mostly polite. (You can’t say that about New York.) Some taxis even have warning bells that go off if the taxis go over the speed limit on freeways. You probably won’t get mugged either: “Snatch thefts” decreased by 4.4 percent in 2003, from 405 to 387. And women wearing tank tops can walk down the street unmolested, unlike in Malaysia or India.
7. Even the housing projects are nice
While you might take a pass on a visit to the housing projects of Chicago, consider that 84 percent of Singapore’s 4.24 million citizens reside in the government’s cookie-cutter Housing and Development Board flats. Venture into the HDB heartlands—Bedok, Ang Mo Kio, and Toa Payoh—for a glimpse of the everyday Singapore. At the heart of each one, you’ll find neat town hubs with shops, food stalls, and locals at their most relaxed—kids in crisp school uniforms, seniors doing tai chi at dawn. Note: These shopping centers often have the best bargains.
8. There’s support for the arts
Singapore aspires to be the region’s arts and entertainment center. Just look at Exhibit A: The Esplanade. (Its full name is The Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, but the government has yet to insist that anyone actually call it that.) Completed in 2002 at a cost of $368 million, the Esplanade looks like a giant hedgehog with silver spikes. Locals love it or hate it—they call it the Durian, after a smelly, indigenous fruit—but it’s hard to argue with the fact that Singapore clearly makes the arts a priority. You can catch anything from Broadway acts to Yo-Yo Ma recitals at the 1,600-seat concert hall (many events are free; tickets for paying events start at $12). Another example of commitment to the arts is The Arts House at the Old Parliament, in the Empress Place neighborhood. Once the Parliament House, this handsome 1827 neo-Palladian building consists of seven venues, including a cinema and a gallery. In the former debating chamber, people on guided tours line up to pose for photos in a certain front-row seat. As the brass nameplate on the back points out, the leather chair belongs to Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister and founding father. Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister, and the man behind many of the recent quality-of-life advances.
9. They take shopping seriously
Truth be told, only two thirds of the Durian is a dedicated arts venue—the other third houses yet another shopping mall. It’s no surprise: Shopping is a national pastime and is pushed hard by the tourism board. Last year, 23,000 shops participated in an annual eight-week event called the Great Singapore Sale (this year, May 27–July 24). More than 91,000 foreign tourists bought package trips to visit the sale. Stores mark down just about everything, and, as always, tourists can get a refund of the 5 percent sales tax at the border on receipts of more than $184. Generally, however, prices have gone stratospheric since the ’70s, when shopping was cheap and cheerful. Electronics and computers can still be a pretty good bargain, if you know your stuff. Where to go: Sim Lim Tower, Sim Lim Square, and Funan the IT Mall. Orchard Road is block after block of glitzy megamalls. There’s funky clothing at The Hereen and Far East Plaza. Even if you’re not in the market for anything, walking down Orchard Road can be quite fun: It’s shady, and there are lots of benches when you want to rest. For Indian merchandise, try Punjab Bazaar at the Little India Arcade on Serangoon Road, and the popular Roopalee Fashions for beaded bags starting from $18. Chinatown’s People’s Park Complex is the place for ginseng and Chinese silks—and a reflexology treatment for your aching feet. For Tang Dynasty statue reproductions and Chinese furniture, visit Home of 100 Happiness.
10. And they are loosening up
Most foreigners expect Singapore bars to be dishwater dull. Not so. Whereas Bangkok is positively cracking down on nightlife, Singapore recently established 24-hour licensing laws in some areas, meaning the bars never close. The Tiger beer is served round the clock at Boat Quay, an area of converted shophouses (from which Singapore’s forefathers traded and plied the muddy Singapore River for work). The Chocolate Bar is the hot place for the no-longer-illegal tabletop dancing. Of course, all that drinking tends to also make for lots of retching kids, and nearby Clarke Quay might be a more appealing option. Other happening areas and venues include Mohamed Sultan Road, Club Street in Chinatown (a fancy row of watering holes—dress up and head straight for Aphrodisiac), the Liquid Room at the Gallery Hotel at Robertson Quay (which attracts style mavens and the pink dollar—remember, gay parties have just been permitted), and Attica at Clarke Quay. The city’s most famous nightclub continues to be Zouk, where brand-name international DJs come to spin. And the neighborhoods of Empress Place and Emerald Hill draw older, more sophisicated crowds.
Best of all, getting back to your hotel is never much of a problem, what with the negligible crime rates and plentiful taxis. Do bear in mind that most cabs’ fares increase by 50 percent after midnight. Could it be because the nanny state wants to give you an incentive to get a good night’s sleep?
Singapore is genuinely multiethnic
Chinese form 77 percent of the population, Malays 14 percent, and Indians 8 percent. It makes for an interesting place in many ways, especially culinarily. There’s straightforward ethnic food: For Chinese, eat at Crystal Jade Kitchen and Just Greens Vegetarian Food; for Malay, go to Kampong Glam’s Kandahar Street and the Geylang neighborhood for mom-and-pop outlets; for Indian, seek out the Ananda Bhavan restaurant. Even more fascinating are the many fusion cuisines, like that of the Peranakan community (descendants of intermarried Chinese and Malays) and the Mamaks (Indian Muslims). One savory Peranakan (a.k.a. Nonya or Baba) dish is babi pongteh, a mix of pork, shallots, soybean paste, and garlic. Nonya is really popular now, especially as traditional Peranakan areas such as Katong and Joo Chiat become gentrified. Murtabak, a flatbread filled with onion and minced beef, is a staple at every street stall, or go to Nonya restaurants such as the Blue Ginger or Chilli Padi. Afterward, sip a teh tarik: A strong tea strained through muslin and poured back and forth from a great height, it’s Singapore’s equivalent of a cappuccino frothed by hand.
- Hotel 1929 011-65/6347-1929, hotel1929.com, from $79
- Gallery Hotel 011-65/6849-8686, galleryhotel.com.sg, from $97
- The Royal Peacock 011-65/6223-3522, royalpeacockhotel.com, from $52
- Maxwell Road Food Centre South Bridge at Maxwell Rd.
- Newton Hawker Centre Near the Newton MRT stop
- Chomp Chomp Hawker Centre 20 Kensington Park Rd.
- Lau Pa Sat 18 Raffles Quay
- Changi Village Blk. 2, Changi Village Rd.
- Crystal Jade Kitchen 350 Isetan Scotts, 011-65/6738-0733
- Just Greens 283 New Bridge Rd., 011-65/6222-2039
- Ananda Bhavan 95 Syed Alwi Rd., 011-65/6296-7659
- Blue Ginger 97 Tanjong Pagar Rd., 011-65/6222-3928
- Chilli Padi 11 Joo Chiat Pl., 011-65/6247-9531
- Tiong Shian Porridge Centre 265 New Bridge Rd., 011-65/6221-1596
- Samar 60 Kandahar St., 011-65/6398-0530
- Sungei Buloh 301 Neo Tiew Crescent, 011-65/6794-1401, sbwr.org.sg
- Bukit Timah 177 Hindhede Dr., 011-65/6468-5736, nparks.gov.sg
- Singapore Zoological Gardens 011-65/6269-3411, nightsafari.com.sg, $11, tram $4
- Chinatown Heritage Centre 48 Pagoda St., 011-65/6325-2878, chinatownheritage.com.sg, $5.50
- Katong Antique House 208 E. Coast Rd., 011-65/6345-8544, by appointment
- The Esplanade 011-65/6828-8222, esplanade.com
- The Arts House 1 Old Parliament Ln., 011-65/63-32-6900, theartshouse.com.sg
- Sim Lim Tower 10 Jalan Besar, 011-65/6294-0590
- Sim Lim Square 1 Rochor Canal, 011-65/6332-5839
- Funan the IT Mall 109 N. Bridge Rd., 011-65/6337-4235
- The Hereen 260 Orchard Rd., 011-65/6733-4725
- Far East Plaza 14 Scotts Rd.
- Punjab Bazaar Little India Arcade, 48 Serangoon Rd., 011-65/6296-0067
- Roopalee Fashions 84 Serangoon Rd., 011-65/6298-0558
- People’s Park Complex 1 Park Rd., 011-65/6536-9533
- Home of 100 Happiness 202 S. Bridge Rd., 011-65/6225-6955
- Chocolate Bar 77 Boat Quay, 011-65/6533-5150
- Aphrodisiac 47C Club St., 011-65/6323-1043
- Liquid Room 76 Robertson Quay, 011-65/6887-5305
- Attica 3A River Valley Rd., 011-65/6333-9973
- Zouk 17 Jiak Kim St., 011-65/6738-2988