Singapore: a lesson in control
Big Brother is always watching, but he seems to have got most things right, writes DAVID BULLARD
If you have flown into Singapore's Changi Airport on the national airline you will, of course, have been prepared for nothing less than perfection. Singapore Airlines are constantly upgrading their facilities and even economy class passengers now get a personal video screen with 22 channels and their own satellite phone handset in the armrest.
For around $8 a minute you can phone anywhere in the world. The food is good, the service from the cabin staff unsurpassed and, for a change, a long-haul flight becomes a pleasant, integral part of your holiday.
The spacious and well designed airport with its vast displays of orchids is a model of efficiency with courteous immigration officials and plenty of trolleys for your luggage. Departing passengers can enjoy a large departure lounge with excellent shopping facilities, television areas, Internet room and a science exhibition for the kids. For the stressed passenger there are even relaxing ornamental water gardens, complete with recorded bird song.
There is nothing worse than killing time between flights and one of Changi Airport's best-kept secrets is the transit hotel where you can rent a comfortable, air-conditioned room with en-suite bathroom and catch up on some sleep before checking in for your connecting flight showered and fresh. The rate of R150 for six hours is great value considering what you would spend wandering around the duty-free stores.
Orchard Road is Singapore's premier shopping area and is a mixture of air-conditioned shopping malls, hotels and pavement cafés. Every designer label is available and you can shop yourself into a coma if you so wish. In the electrical goods stores you can view merchandise so up to date you probably didn't even know it had been invented.
Anybody who has travelled on the London Underground, the New York subway or the Paris Metro would find it difficult to identify Singapore's MRT system as even a remote member of the same species. The stations are gleaming, air-conditioned temples of polished steel and marble. The track is separated from the platform by a steel partition which keeps the air-conditioning in and the noise and dirt out. Naturally the trains are spotlessly clean and punctual. A recorded voice tells you where the train is going so it is almost impossible to get lost.
Singapore's obsession with efficiency and cleanliness irritates some visitors who feel that, as a result, the place lacks character. Unlike other parts of the Far East, there are no beggars tugging at your clothes, nobody offers you drugs or tries to sell you their twelve-year-old daughter and you can eat out without any fear of food poisoning. Singapore's attitude is quite simple; if you want sleaze go somewhere else. This Utopian state of affairs hasn't come about because Singaporeans are all fastidious members of the human race who wouldn't dream of putting their garbage out on the wrong day. It is the consequence of years of government intervention in people's lives.
Discipline apparently pays, and since the end of the Second World War, Singapore has risen from nothing to become an impressive trading nation with the busiest port in the world. Its educational system is one of the finest, with Singaporean children consistently ahead of other nations in subjects like maths and science. There is no evidence of unemployment or vagrancy, and Singapore's draconian drug laws have helped contribute to a low crime rate. Coming from South Africa with its sometimes weak, ineffectual politicians, one can't help feeling slightly envious even if the locals aren't allowed to chew gum or smoke in the street.
Singapore has created a sanitised version of Asia, where the visitor can experience Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures without actually needing a guidebook. The island itself has no natural wonders so it has done the next best thing - built its own. Sentosa Island is Singapore's Sun City. Devoted entirely to the leisure industry, the island houses the superb Underwater World, hotels, golf courses, palm fringed beaches, theme rides, museums and a gigantic statue of a Merlion (symbol of Singapore) which shoots a laser beam out of its mouth.
However, South Africans shouldn't really need to fly all the way to Singapore just to play golf or to lie on artificial beaches, so what else is there to do apart from shopping? The answer is, not a lot. The island measures 42km by 23km and once you have "done" the Jurong Bird Park, the Jurong Crocodile Park, the Mandai Orchid Gardens, Raffles Hotel and a handful of temples you are getting near the end of a perilously short list of activities. Even a cultural amble through the Indian and Chinese areas was like being in Durban or Soho. The only thing left is the food.
Singapore has a fine selection of restaurants but one of the cheaper and more interesting ways to eat is at one of the many food centres or hawker restaurants. In 1987 the government moved the hawkers off the streets and gave them somewhere to trade. The result is a bustling market of predominantly Chinese stalls where you can wander around and order whatever you fancy.
Singapore is never going to rate as an adventure holiday destination but for a relaxing, pampered, crime-free few days it is unbeatable.