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In a shopping arcade in the Little India neighbourhood of Singapore I talked about shirts with a Tamil stallholder with hennaed hair. “This linen one I’m wearing,” I said, “I bought in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City.”
“I been there,” said the stallholder.
“You like it?”
“Not really. Too many motorbikes. People begging. Everybody want something from you. You don’t get any of that here.”
We – my guide, Wong Wee Tee, and I – walked out of the arcade and there, on a three-lane highway, was a double-parked car, its hazards flashing. Wee Tee, who could tell from the licence plate that the driver was Malaysian, was indignant.
“You would never get a Singaporean behaving like that. I want to tell him: ‘This is not a parking lot!’,” she said. Then, aware that she had perhaps gone over the top, she added: “Please don’t write that I am nationalistic!”
This was my first morning in Singapore and it was kind of what I had been expecting. The city-state at the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia is a gleaming monument to free enterprise with a compliant citizenship that gets ticketed for spitting out chewing gum, jaywalking – and, presumably, double-parking.
The people seem happy (certainly they do in Little India) but are too conformist for their own good. And in any case there’s a dark, authoritarian side you scarcely hear about because they keep a lid on it. Thank goodness we’re not like that.
Only the thing is, I think we are. In the course of four days I saw more and more parallels between modern Britain and this former British colony that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are scheduled to visit next week. It’s like a tropical London, 20 years down the line – corporate, glitzy and exclusive.
Wee Tee, who may have been patriotic but was also charming and sincere in her views, was anxious that I didn’t dismiss Singapore as “entry-level Asia” – Asia without poor people (visible ones, at least), beggars, stray dogs, aggressive touts, dirty streets, pesky motorbikes or nasty insects, and with drinkable tap water, delicious food that doesn’t make you ill, lavatories that take toilet paper, air-conditioning, wide freeways, manicured public greenery and readable road signs.
Well it is, undeniably, such a place. But in the past five years, while the West was being too condescending to notice, it has taken off in unexpected directions and become a vision of a certain kind of future.
The week I visited was also the week in which the Shard opened in London – an architectural shout in the face built with foreign (Qatari) money. But Singapore has effortlessly out-wowed London with the Marina Bay Sands, its latest addition to an already premier-league skyline.
Standing on reclaimed land out in Marina Bay, as if taking a bow from the skyscrapers of the Central Business District opposite, it opened in April 2010 as a hotel and casino – the latest, US$5.7 billion (£3.6 billion) offspring of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which runs gambling resorts in the US and Macau.
Imagine three Canary Wharf towers with concave walls, arranged in a row like a cricket wicket, the bails across the top formed by a slender, submarine-like structure. Nearly 700ft high, the towers contain a ridiculous number of rooms, a truffle-box of high-end stores that they insist on calling “shoppes” for some reason, the inevitable Antony Gormley sculpture and a casino “with one of the world’s largest crystal chandeliers”.
The submarine across the top is actually a “skypark” with an infinity swimming pool (close your eyes and imagine yourself finning down into the metropolis below), palm trees and a world-class restaurant where the champagne and wine come in gigantic bottles as if, in this halfway-to-heaven sort of place, reality itself has become supersized.
The restaurant, Sky on 57, is the brainchild of the Singaporean “celebrity chef” Justin Quek, who happened to walk in at the same time as us, having flown in late the night before from a commission in Shanghai. “See what I mean by fine dining? Cutie cutie!” whispered Wee Tee excitedly, gesturing at the God’s eye views of the Straits of Singapore and the cool white-and-grey decor.
We were in luck as Quek, a “diehard Man U fan” like his good friend Michel Roux Jr, joined us and insisted we try his sumptuous tasting menu. “Pop the whole dumpling in your mouth,” he instructed. “Then you find the truffle and foie gras flavours. Then you take the bowl and drink the broth. French and Asian. A fine line. Finesse.”
Quek, who is 50, is an embodiment of the meritocratic Singapore dream. His parents sold fruit and veg from a push cart and his first job was as a “catering hand” on a container ship (he gestured out of the window as he told me this, at the hundreds of ships at anchor far below).
“There’s so much Singapore can provide,” he said. “It’s a melting pot, a food capital. Taxes are very fair. Whereas in Europe, oh my God! So people say, ‘Oh, I’ll invest in Asia’.”
His arm did a 360-sweep, embracing all that is new and astonishing. Directly below us was the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore’s answer to the Eden Project, which had opened that week. Its two glass domes, Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, form a gigantic, prawn-like exoskeleton. In the surrounding gardens there is a grove of giant steel “supertrees” up to 165ft high. The Dragonfly Lake is equipped with “augmented reality binoculars” sponsored by ExxonMobil (not yet in operation when I was there).
Gardens by the Bay is the latest flowering of Singapore’s “city in a garden” vision that started in the mid-19th century with the founding of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are due to keep one of the most poignant appointments of their Diamond Jubilee Tour. For in the National Orchid Garden there is an orchid named after Princess Diana that she never got the chance to see and that will finally be presented to her son.
Also in Marina Bay, a new cruise terminal costing £250 million opened in June. Behind us, on the city’s waterfront, a new restaurant, Catalunya (“helmed” by chefs from the famed El Bulli), was due to open the following week. And, in partnership with the government, IBM is planning a new “smart city” the size of “70 football pitches” in the Jurong Lake district.
“Singapore is clean and safe and there are so many choices,” said Quek. Certainly well-heeled Westerners will find a home-from-home. One of the hotels I stayed in, the New Majestic, is Hoxton-hip, with quirky artworks in every room – giant goldfish, floating beds, transparent bathrooms. Its owner, Loh Lik Peng, also owns Town Hall Hotel, the former Bethnal Green town hall in London’s East End.
But the traffic is not all one-way. Every day Singapore’s newspaper of note, The Straits Times, advertises the kind of London properties that Londoners cannot afford. Not that Singaporeans any longer feel cultural cringe towards their former colonial masters. One newspaper commentator wrote that she had “outgrown London”, a reflection of “how far Singapore has come”.
Perhaps Singapore has come too far for some tastes. It looks at itself and the world through what you might call augmented reality binoculars that screen out the messy, chaotic side of life. In Chinatown the red lanterns are still hanging, the shuttered frontages of the shophouses gaily painted. But the people moved out to public housing projects on the outskirts a long time ago.
The old hawkers, who sold food on the street like Justin Quek’s parents, have been moved into regulated “hawker centres” where they are obliged to display their hygiene ratings. The “noise, bustle and colour” of old Singapore, as celebrated in the Chinatown Heritage Museum (four doors down from the Tintin Shop on Pagoda Street), is absent.
Even the back alleys are spotless, though the odd interesting store remains, such as the one on Temple Street selling dried sea cucumber, abalone and shark’s fins for making soups (the shark’s fins, products of a disgusting international trade, cost a cool S$1,000, about £500, a kilo).
There was one thing in particular that nagged me by its absence, though I didn’t put my finger on it until we were driving through Little India on a Sunday evening: the incessant honking of car horns. Whoever heard of Asia without car horns and dementedly weaving traffic? And yet the roads of Singapore are orderly and quiet. Except in Little India on a Sunday.
This is because the migrant workers who make Singapore possible – building the signature skyscrapers, clipping the topiary – have the day off and flood in from their workers’ dormitories in the west of the island to let off steam. Most head for Little India because they’re mostly from the Indian subcontinent.
On Serangoon Road drivers were hitting their horns as thousands of young men – far from home, with energy to spend – injected life into the place. “See, they are spilling into the road like in India!” said Wee Tee.
Nigel Richardson flew with Malaysia Airlines ( malaysiaairlines.com ), which operates a daily A380 (“Superjumbo”) flight from London Heathrow to KL, with 50-minute onward flights to Singapore: returns from £719 (£2,709 in business class) inclusive.
In Kuala Lumpur, the Shangri-La (0800 028 3337; shangri-la.com ) has doubles from about £210 with breakfast.
In Singapore, the New Majestic ( newmajestichotel.com ) in Chinatown has b & b from about £150; double rooms with breakfast in the palatial Fullerton Hotel (0065 6533 8388; fullertonhotel.com ), the former Post Office building at the mouth of the Singapore River, cost from about £250.