SINGAPORE: IT WORKS
We were looking down from the top of the Empire State Building, my old pal David Malahoff and I. Down below the cars and trucks looked like miniatures of Dinky Toys and the people on the sidewalks looked like pepper grains. We were far too high to hear the blare of horns and the screech of brakes; the everyday roar and howl and whine and crash and clang that is New York City. Malahoff shook his head and murmured, “You know, from up here it almost looks like it works.”
That was 25 years ago. I’ve just paid a visit to Singapore, the 2013 version. No need to go up 50 stories to see if it works (although you easily could – Singapore has public housing projects that are 50 stories high). The city is alive and colourful, vibrant, safe and clean.
It really shouldn’t. This city-state of five million-plus people has zero natural resources, no farms, no crops – it even imports its drinking water. Canadians whine about having a second language on our cereal boxes while Singapore streets ring out with polyglot babble flowing from four main languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Hindu. A popular means of cross-cultural communication is an argot called ‘Singlish’ – a cup of black coffee is ‘kope o’. A Catholic church announces itself as ‘Chij Kellock’.
Sound it out; it’s almost English.
Singapore is surrounded by muscular, fractious and often unpredictable neighbours. It should be a disaster zone, or at best a vassal state shackled to Beijing. Instead it’s fiercely independent, the fifth most powerful economic engine in the world.
And the architecture. Oh, my, the architecture. Skyscrapers yes, but none that look like up-ended refrigerator cartons. These buildings are sculpted and fluted and vaulting and they come in every shade of the colour spectrum. There are two colossal white condominium towers called ‘Reflections’. They bulge and wink metallically like some bizarre and giant geometric configuration – a trapezoid? A tetrahedron? Whatever they’re called, they’re the only ones in the world that look like this.
Singapore provides a lot of affordable pubic housing but there’s plenty of room for high rollers too. For instance, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Three towers, 50 storeys high, crowned and capped with what looks like a giant alabaster riverboat as stylized and graceful as the Nike swoosh – except this boat has palm trees, an Olympic-sized pool, a lush park and a casino. It was designed by Canadian genius Moshe Safdie. It would cost you many thousands of dollars just to rest your head there for one night.
Wondering why the traffic is so (relatively) light compared to other Asian cities? Could be the cost of driving. For one thing vehicles are electronically monitored – and charged prohibitively – every time they pass through different zones.
And then there’s the paper. After you buy a car and pay for the licence there’s one more piece of parchment you must purchase before your tires touch a Singapore street. That piece of paper could cost you up to $90,000. Per car. And it’s only good for 10 years. Even motorbike owners must pony up the equivalent of $2,000 before they get their licence.
One option many drivers choose is the ‘weekend car’ – much cheaper to licence, but you can only put it on the road after 7 PM or on weekends or public holidays. Ergo, not much traffic.
And for those who prefer to go car-less, there’s an excellent and ultra-modern public transit system that includes a spectacular cable-car run over Singapore harbour.
Does it all sound too high tech and urban for you? Don’t worry; Singapore is be-smitten with gorgeous gardens and parks. Take the National Orchid Garden — 50 landscaped hectares of unspoiled greenery smack in the middle of the city featuring 400 species of orchids, more than 60,000 blooms in all.
I’ve never been a fan of big cities. I find them noisy, smelly, crowded, ugly and more than a little dangerous to the health. But I now realize it isn’t big cities I had a problem with, it was dysfunctional big cities.
READ MORE BALI, BANGKOK AND BEYOND
ENTRY 1: FROM BALI
ENTRY 2: MORE FROM BALI
ENTRY 3: CROSSING THE EQUATOR
ENTRY 4: FROM SINGAPORE
ENTRY 5A: HO CHI MINH CITY
ENTRY 5B: IN VIETNAM, DON’T ORDER THE MUTT-ON
ENTRY 5C: TRAFFIC TRAUMA – VIETNAMESE STYLE
ENTRY 6: AN INTERESTING SIDE TRIP
ENTRY 7: THAILAND: A FRUITFUL DESTINATION
ENTRY 8: AH, SHANGRI-LA. NO, REALLY
ENTRY 9: HOCKEY IN THE TROPICS
BALI, BANGKOK AND BEYOND
Arthur Black travelled on a Voyages to Antiquity cruise called Bali, Bangkok and Beyond on a cruise tour offered through Exclusive Tours. Read all about his adventures on board the Aegean Odyssey, a modern, slimmed-down cruise ship (only 350 passengers) making its way from Bali to Bangkok by way of Singapore, Saigon, Sihanoukville and Angkor Wat. His travel diary can be accessed by clicking the links above. Happy reading!
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