Where am I? After a spin in a dizzying observation wheel, I take a ride at Universal Studios, decide against taking my chances with another spinning wheel—the roulette at the casino—and then stroll around a waterfront in the shadow of sky-high futuristic towers of bristling metal. The steaming equatorial heat is the only giveaway.
Singapore has come a long way—in an extremely short time—from the rocking rattan chairs of Raffles Hotel, where flannelled fools sipped their Singapore Slings under palm fans, amid the ghosts of Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling.
The grand old lady of Asia —whose historically prudish attitude to the hedonistic pleasures available elsewhere in south-east Asia has seen her portrayed as a maiden aunt—appears to have put on a short skirt and had a makeover.
In barely five years the Singapore waterfront has been transformed, its river canalised and turned into the basic building blocks of the country's answer to Darling Harbour in Sydney. Gleaming new skyscrapers have seemingly punched up from the earth overnight, rowers and water-skiers now pull their craft across the stilled waters and then there's the integrated resorts (two of them) combining hotels, family entertainment and —oh, my maiden aunt—casinos.
Those who haven't visited Singapore for a few years will have picked up hints of this transformation thanks to events such as the night-time Formula One Grand Prix.
But Lewis Hamilton tearing around a floodlit street circuit barely represents the start of it. The old waterfront is the place to see just how Singapore is changing before your eyes. Cranes are everywhere. A barrage keeps the tides of the South China Sea at bay, turning the river into both playpark and reservoir. At its south-eastern end, overlooked by the shiny, Singapore Flyer big wheel, is a futuristic, curved bridge that is gracefully easy on the eye. The next stop in this panorama is the Marina Bay Sands, the landmark of this city, a megastructure of three robotic towers topped by a viewing platform.
To soften the edges of this concrete urban scene, a vast jungle of tropical trees is being planted, sprouting rapidly like a time-lapse rainforest documentary. Inland, along that homage to retail, Orchard Road, there's a shiny super-duper biggestof-them-all shopping centre, ION Orchard. And the former sleepy island of Sentosa has been rebuilt into a star-spangled resort that proves Singapore can produce tourist tat as well as Blackpool or Whitby.
Most of this development is thoughtful, innovative and architecturally striking; some is strikingly awful (pack earplugs for the slushy commentary and advertisements that accompany the black, bejewelled cable car ride to Sentosa); little of it will leave you unmoved.
There are some notable casualties. The country's historic 1932 Art Deco Keppel Railway Station, the arrival point for journeys from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, closed its doors to make way for yet more urban development. The unrelenting planning and the never-ending parties hosted by celebrity chefs can come across as contrived. Singapore even boasts about being on the international beach- party circuit. The city is desperate to be cool, not colonial. I was reminded of Margo's admission in The
Good Life: "Tom, I want to have fun—it's just that I don't know how to."
When it gets it right, though, the results are highly impressive. Much of the waterfront is a delight. The concert halls, shaped like the local durian fruit, went up some years ago, but redevelopment has now finished along the harbour in front of the Fullerton Hotel (housed in the neoclassical former general post office) with no little style and taste – low-level restaurants and cafés and flagstone paving have opened up an overlooked quarter that had been dominated by a flyover. Open-air arts performances create a charming, family orientated atmosphere.
A S$ 1.9 billion tourism fund underpins this grand vision; the country's leaders hope it will result in a tripling of income from tourism to S$29.5 billion by 2015 and a doubling of visitors to 17 million and create another 100,000 jobs for Singapore's five million citizens. Singapore is also growing in stature in the literal sense—bulging at the seams; land-reclamation will make it roughly the size of New York City by 2030.
The government's optimistic aim is for Singapore to be viewed as a destination in its own right.
It's still got some way to go before anyone would truly want to spend two weeks here rather than make it one leg of the journey down under, but there's reason enough now to add a couple of days to your stopover. And if you have had your fill of neon, Raffles is still there.
Mark Rowe / The Daily Telegraph / The Interview People