Branded ‘boring’ and known throughout the world for its draconian laws against chewing gum and its squeaky-clean, litter-free and graffiti-free streets, Singapore, let’s face it, has had a bad rap in recent years. And maybe that’s why Singaporeans are so desperate to try and change this image.
Reinvention is the buzzword on the streets, and certainly with the opening of the new Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resorts — you can’t just call it a casino — Resorts World on Sentosa island and a slew of new shopping malls, clubs and restaurants, you could definitely say that Singapore today is a different place from even two years ago.
Multiculturalism is at the heart of Singapore life. It may be tiny but it has a population of five million people, and most are Chinese, Malay or Indian with a growing expat population. It’s most apparent in the food: you can sample the culinary creations from any number of local and foreign cuisines by chowing down on a plastic stool at a street-side hawker centre, or pulling up a designer chair at a stylish, neighbourhood hideout. There’s also a budding cafe culture too, as more and more independent tea and coffee shops begin to emerge, offering an alternative to the overpriced multinational chains adorning the air-conditioned shopping centres.
First time visitors will, of course, head to the bright lights of Orchard Road, slurp a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel, do the night safari at the Singapore Zoo or have breakfast with the orang-utans, all uniquely Singaporean attractions. But newcomers like the Art Science Museum, Universal Studios and the Gardens by the Bay (opening in June 2012) are just some of the reasons for a return visit. Meanwhile, world class events like the F1 night race have helped up the city’s profile, not to mention bring in big name celebrities and international bands.
What Singapore lacks in size, it makes up for in enthusiasm. There is a burgeoning arts and culture scene with the rise in popularity of local theatre and dance companies, as well as a number of galleries and performance spaces popping up.
Although Singapore is trying to shed its ‘nerd of the schoolyard’ image, there is an upside to these safe streets: people here needn’t worry if they have to walk home at night. It’s also one of the only places in the world where I wouldn’t hesitate to walk right through the middle of a skate park overrun by local teenagers without fear of getting mugged or abused.
And to dispel a popular misconception, you can chew gum here — just don’t get caught spitting it out on the street.
Food glorious food
It would be no exaggeration to say that food is at the heart of everything for Singaporeans. And for such a small country, there are a surprisingly large number of dining options, open all hours of the day.
The traditional types of cuisine here are Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan — which means ‘locally born’ — so you could say that it’s a mix of Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian cooking. If I were on death row, my last meal would have to be a spicy laksa noodle soup. You’ll find Peranakan cuisine at most food stalls, but if you want a more civilised setting, head to Blue Ginger on Tanjong Pagar Road or Candlenut Kitchen near Chinatown.
Open-air food courts, known as hawker centres, are dotted all over suburban Singapore. Each vendor is given a food standards rating — A is the best; you don’t want to eat at anything less than a C. For the best chicken rice in Singapore, head to Tian Tian at Maxwell Food Court. Some hawker centres, like the wrought-iron halls at Lau Pa Sat, are open into the wee hours.
Fusion fare is becoming popular — The Disgruntled Chef on Dempsey Hill serves modern European favourites with an Asian twist. The crackling suckling pig and crispy lamb short ribs will melt in your mouth. Further west, Rochester Park enclave has a wonderful collection of restaurants, including Krish, serving a unique blend of Southern Asian contemporary dishes.
For more casual dining, mingle with creative types at Open Door Policy in the local neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru. The PS Café chain is fabulous for a weekend brunch or a ladies lunch, but if you’re after a good cup of coffee and a quick sandwich or toastie, then Kith Café on Robertson Quay is a must.
Blue Ginger: 97 Tanjong Pagar Road. T: 00 65 6222 3928. http://theblueginger.com
Candlenut Kitchen: 25 Neil Road. T: 00 65 6226 2506. www.candlenutkitchen.com
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice: Maxwell Food Centre, #01-10, Maxwell Road. T: 00 65 9691 4852.
Lau Pa Sat Festival Market: 18 Raffles Quay, Singapore 048582. T: 00 65 6220 2138. www.laupasat.biz
The Disgruntled Chef: 26B Dempsey Road, Dempsey Hill. T: 00 65 6476 5305. www.disgruntledchef.com
Krish: 9 Rochester Park. T: 00 65 6779 4644. www.krish.com.sg
Open Door Policy: 19 Yong Siak Street (Yong Siak View), Tiong Bahru. T: 00 65 6221 9307. www.odpsingapore.com
PS Café: 28B Harding Road. T: 00 65 9070 8782. www.pscafe.sg
Kith Café: 7 Rodyk Street, Watermark @ Robertson Quay #01-33. T: 00 65 6341 9407. http://kith.com.sg
Make no mistake, drinks are expensive in Singapore — but don’t let this put you off as most venues will have happy hour specials.
The bar at Ku De Ta at the top of Marina Bay Sands Hotel has possibly the best view in Singapore. The Screening Room on Ann Siang Hill has a surprisingly spectacular outlook too, but the tallest bar in Singapore right now is 1Altitude, a dizzying 63 floors up with 360-degree views over the whole city. Over Easy, a more casual bar with al fresco lounges overlooking Marina Bay, is one of the best seats in town if there are fireworks (Chinese New Year or National Day).
Zouk, a cavernous techno dance stalwart on Robertson Quay, is considered the grandaddy of Singapore clubs; China One at Clark Quay boasts pool tables and often has live bands; but one of the best places to hear live local bands is Timbre at the Substation on Armenian Street. In Marina Bay, Pangaea and Avalon are two new mega clubs hosting international DJs, where you can dance the night away next to the world’s only floating Louis Vuitton store. On a Sunday, the body beautiful strut their stuff around the pool at the achingly fashionable Tanjong Beach Club on the island of Sentosa.
International bands will mostly perform at the Indoor Stadium, but live gigs on the outdoor stage at Fort Canning are intimate with a festival feel. The Singapore Repertory Theatre, meanwhile, will stage Shakespeare in the Park throughout May, and the Singapore Dance Theatre holds an annual Ballet Under the Stars event in July. And for some of the best performing arts, head to the Esplanade Theatre, the iconic, spikey-looking building on Marina Bay.
Ku De Ta: SkyPark at Marina Bay Sands North Tower, 1 Bayfront Avenue. T: 00 65 6688 7688. www.kudeta.com.sg
Screening Room: 12 Ann Siang Road, Chinatown. T: 00 65 6221 1694. www.screeningroom.com.sg
1Altitude: 1 Raffles Place. T: 00 65 6438 0410. www.1-altitude.com.
Over Easy: 1 Fullerton Road #01-06,
One Fullerton. T: 00 65 6423 0701. www.overeasy.com.sg
Zouk: 17 Jiak Kim Street, Robertson Quay. T: 00 65 6738 2988. www.zoukclub.com
China One: Blk E #02-01, 3 River Valley Rd, Clarke Quay. T: 00 65 6339 0280.
Timbre: 45 Armenian Street. T: 00 65 6338 8277. www.timbre.com.sg
Pangaea/Avalon: Crystal Pavilion South, Marina Bay Sands, 2 Bayfront Ave. T: 00 65 6688 8868. www.pangaea.sg www.avalon.sg
Tanjong Beach Club: 120 Tanjong Beach Walk, Sentosa Island. T: 00 65 6270 1355. www.tanjongbeachclub.com
Singapore Repertory Theatre: 20 Merbau Road. T: 00 65 6733 8166. www.srt.com.sg
Singapore Dance Theatre: Fort Canning Centre, 2nd Storey, Cox Terrace. T: 00 65 6338 0611. www.singaporedancetheatre.com
Esplanade Theatre: 1 Esplanade Drive. T: 00 65 68288 377. www.esplanade.com
Pile of style
The endless shopping malls in Singapore aren’t just for tourists, locals are more than partial to a little retail therapy.
The best-known shopping district is, of course, Orchard Road. This iconic street is strewn with big fashion brands and luxury labels, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a new breed of up-and-coming local designers. Abyzz by Desmond Yang is famed for his edgy form-fitting designs and versatile dresses, while Sabrina Goh, another Singaporean, stocks both men and women’s fashion, mixing symmetrical and asymmetrical silhouettes.
Haji Lane in the Arab quarter, also known as Kampong Glam, is a wonderful place to browse if you’re shopping for offbeat labels. The Blog Shop stocks affordable dresses and funky toy cameras, while the White Room offers an eclectic mix of Japanese-inspired designs and vintage sunglasses.
If you’re looking for a gift, check out Strangelets in Tiong Bahru and pick up a pair of organically shaped earrings or impress interior design aficionados with a polar bear bookcase. Around the corner you’ll stumble upon the Tiong Bahru Commons, a fashion and creative co-op, also home to Nana & Bird where you can snare an eco-friendly tote bag or a vintage Lego ring.
The obvious place to pick up some trinkets is on the streets of Chinatown. But for a truly overwhelming experience, get yourself inside Mustafa in Little India, a whale of a shopping centre, six storeys high and open 24 hours — it stocks anything from electronics to gold jewellery. Vintage is hard to come by in Singapore, so make sure you keep an ear to the ground about the Flea and Easy flea market at Zouk nightclub, held on a Sunday, roughly four times a year.
Abyzz by Desmond Yang: #02-21/22/23 Orchard Central, 181 Orchard Rd. T: 00 65 65098892. www.abyzz.com.sg
Sabrina Goh: #02-11/12 Orchard Central, 181 Orchard Rd. T: 00 65 66342201. www.sabrinagoh.com
The Blog Shop: 35 Haji Lane, The Blog Shop Building. T: 00 65 6396 6170 http://theblogshop.sg
The White Room: 37 Haji Lane. T: 00 65 6297 1280. http://atwhiteroom.com.
Stangelets: 7 Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru. T: 00 65 6222 1456. www.strangelets.sg
Nana & Bird: Tiong Bahru Commons, 79 Chay Yan Street Unit 01-02 (entrance along Yong Siak Street). T: 00 65 9117 0430. http://nanaandbird.com
Mustafa: 145 Syed Alwi Rd, Little India. T: 00 65 62955855. www.mustafa.com.sg
Flea and Easy: Zouk, 17 Jiak Kim Street, Robertson Quay. T: 00 65 6738 2988. www.zoukclub.com
Top 10 local tips
01 Fly a kite on top of Marina Barrage at sunset. www.pub.gov.sg/Marina
02 Get a takeaway pizza and picnic in the Botanic Gardens, it’s much cooler in the evenings. Just don’t forget the mosquito repellent! www.sbg.org.sg
03 Take in a spot of theatre, a ballet or a concert at Fort Canning Park. www.sistic.com.sg (search for events at Fort Canning).
04 Rent a pair of roller blades or a tandem bicycle and ride along the East Coast Park.
05 Make a day of it and head to Palau Ubin for a taste of what Singapore was like in the 60s. www.nparks.gov.sg
06 Wander around one of Singapore’s oldest neighbourhoods Tiong Bahru and admire the buildings.
07 Visit the Peranakan Museum to learn more about Singaporean heritage. On Friday night, admission is half-price. www.peranakanmuseum.sg
08 Indulge in the Katong Food Walk: stuff yourself silly with a plethora of local dishes in an old neighbourhood. www.betelbox.com/tour-food.htm
09 Don’t be fooled by hawker stall owners trying to sell you seafood dishes by weight, you could end up paying five times the ‘advertised priced’ for a plate.
10 Strike up a conversation with the local taxi drivers, they will chew your ear off, but you’re guaranteed a different perspective on the city.
City of Small Blessings, by Simon Tay.
True Singapore Ghost Stories, by Russell Lee.
Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)