Congratulations Singapore on your 50th! I did my first bit of business in Singapore in the early Seventies, just as the people were coming to terms with the distinctive approach of the first prime minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, and their relatively new status as a nation state.
Boogey Street was in full nightly flight, the floors of the Long Bar were customised by peanut shells and Singapore-slings were numerous, delicious and cheap. Also a prerequisite of any European visitor was a visit to certain stalls in the Little India bazaars to purchase outrageously cheap Sony Walkmans, and “Rolex” and “Cartier” watches to distribute to work mates, secretaries and family back at home.
So much for yesteryear. Today I look in amazement at the splendour and grandeur that is now Singapore. It stands as evidence that when the vision is clear and the direction is one way mankind can do fantastic things.
Transport around the city is via Expressways, Highways and beautifully manicure roads. Bus services are cool and cheap as are taxi rides and every vehicle is spotless. The underground is even better. The MRT has no equal anywhere in the world. Driver-less tube trains crisscross the country. Every station and train is immaculate. Every platform is protected from the trains by glass barriers, which only open after the train has arrived and is correctly positioned to automatically open the train doors and those onto the platform. Passengers pour out and in, not interrupting their Internet communications. Normally 7 out of 10 passengers are thumbing their phones throughout their journeys. Oh and by the way the trains are always on time.
Orchard Road was always a must visit during any stay. Today it is considerably enlarged and beautifully presented. Huge shopping malls offering everything, from Gucci to the 2$ shop, (a Poundshop equivalent) cover the 3 kilometer stretch of the new broaden road. Respite, from the noon day sun, which is highly recommended, can easily be achieved by simply taking refuge in one air-condition mall after another as you proceed down the Road towards Little India.
A slight deviation along Selegie Road connecting to Serangoon, brings you smack into the hubble and bubble of Basmati steamed rice, curries, spices, saris and pashmina shawls. This is still the offering of Little India. Every shop assistant and stall owner is still your friend. “Come in my friend let me sell you some gold earings.” “Why not spare 10 minutes while I measure you for a suit my friend?” A good part of me was very pleased to hear and witness these never to be forgotten greetings. My reply was simple, “I have a pair and still wear the suit that I bought some 40 years ago thank you. By the way they were much cheaper then.”
I was relieved to hear all the old banter and very pleased that at least some of “yesteryear” has been proven worthy of keeping. The spectacular “Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple” comes into view and my feelings become very mixed. “Why would anyone want to worship a Goddess who advocates killing people?”. I didn't get an answer to that question the last time it was posed and I still didn't get one today. I simply move on and take refuge in the Farrer Park MRT station 200 metres further down the road.
The following day I was pleased to find that “Orchard Road” has a very serious new competitor, namely Marina Bay Sands. This 2012 completed shopping mall has 2 stories above ground level and 2 below. It covers some 500 meters from beginning to end. It is breathtakingly beautiful inside and out. Everybody from Cardin to Burberry, from Armani to Dior is represented. There isn't a price tag anywhere. The basic selling philosophy being, “if you need to know the price you can't afford it.” The red and black marble floors sparkle and support lavish leather furnishings for the strolling customers. The roof is curved glass hanging some forty meters above. It supports among other things a garden walk and also an entrance to the dramatic Helix Bridge that stretches over the South Western end of the Marina Bay.
Looking westward, back into the city, brings the multitude of decorative office blocks and their individualistic architecture into view. This is the downtown Financial sector where no two towers look alike and every International business is located. Locally it is often referred to as the “sandpit” where the big boys play. The view is even more inspiring if seen from behind, by standing on the summit of Mount Faber or on the Henderson wave, both of which can be accessed by a very warm sweaty stroll up to and along the Southern Ridge walk.
Nestled closely behind the Financial sector is Chinatown. Over time the buildings have been upgraded but the street stalls are still in position and currently are now filled with every piece of nonsense that man has ever made. Battery powered robots clattered around along with many other kids toys. “Cheongsans” decorate all the sidewalks . They are just about outnumbered by thousands of hanging lanterns. Cheap western clothing too, has its share of the space and a black T-shirt with white and red lettering caught my eye with , “I don't need Google. My wife knows everything.” Needless to say I bought one.
“The Gardens by the Bay” can be seen from the opposite side of the Bridge. This establishment, which at a miserly 500 million dollars, expresses Singapore's avowed intent to be “the City in a Garden.” All I can say is, it was well worth every penny. It is unique, with indoor and outdoor flower beds displaying the beauty of Mother Nature's natural world. Also it introduces the visitor to the joys of a family romp in a “water fountain park.” These play areas vary from 100 square meters to five or six times larger. They are to be found in nearly every park. The joys of being washed or rather drenched by water jets sprays, coming from all angles, is particularly welcome when the ambient temperature is steady at around 35 deg. C and the humidity in the high seventies. The joy is multiplied exponentially when the grand kids insist that you must stay under the tipping bucket for at least 10 buckets. The only phenomena to compare with this treat is of course being outside during a tropical thunder storm.
Just South of the “Gardens,” lies Sentosa. This a far eastern Florida equivalent with its own unique features. It also costs real money there. This island extension is attached by a walkway to Singapore. Entry, via the overhead cable car, is spectacular. Or alternatively you can walk the walk or choose the sophisticated mono-rail. Universal Pictures has a theme park but as yet there is no Disneyland. Sentosa is man made in parts, e.g. the great bay and beach at Palawan. Here the view out across the Straits to the 40 odd freighters, container vessels and oil tankers anchored, is simply spectacular.
Behind the “Gardens” is the eastern arm of the “Y” that connects Singapore to the ocean. Cruise liners are docked there along with yachts that would upgrade the harbour in Monaco. The local Harbour side restaurants and bars are naturally of the highest quality.
At 90 deg left from the Helix Bridge is the Padang, better known as the home of the Singapore Cricket club. Forty odd years ago I still fancied myself as a bit of cricketer. One early evening, after a slow no go day at the negotiating table, I let loose my misplaced talent by bowling a few bouncers at the old Singaporean who had been “shilly -shalling” all day for a lower price. Anyway my evening efforts had an effect, the next morning we split the difference and he signed on the dotted line. Today the traffic roundabout, sorry the cricket ground, is covered in white tarpaulin and surrounded by high grandstands ready to accommodate the viewing public for the country's forthcoming jubilee birthday celebrations. The whole area including the Government buildings is under siege as the preparations are being completed.
A quick jump across a couple of roads of the Colonial District, past the glistening white of St Andrew Cathedral and its 8 TV screens down each aisle brings Raffles into view. The Long Bar proves to still be extremely expatriate and as before full of visitors. But sorry to say the “slings and arrows” have landed. You need a company expense account to buy a round there now. Oh and the peanut shells have disappeared from the floor of the indoor bar.
Stanford Raffles Esq will of course always have a special place in Singapore's history. He sailed from India in 1819 looking for a coastal location to build a "port." He quickly convinced his bosses, in the East India Company, that Singapura was the best possible place to set up the British staging post to compete for the growing sea trade with China. Singapore was born 4 years later when Raffles did a deal with the local Sultan to buy the majority of the Island for dear old Britain. After a brief separation during the second world war Britain assumed assumed control again, up until 1959 when local elections took place for the first time. The PAP, Peoples Action Party won, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew . They then became a state of Malaya. Singapore, the nation state emerged, on 9 August 1965, after being ejected from Malaysia by the vote of that Government.
So today everywhere and everything is being readied for a giant celebration of Singapore's Jubilee. Nearly every apartment block has national flags hanging from the balconies. Shop windows are all trying to surpass their neighbours with 50th Birthday celebratory messages. All the schools, (uniforms compulsory), pre-schools, nurseries and specific educational centres, of which there are thousands, are all preparing to present their specials for the birthday weekend. Every large piece of grass has a marquee that is being equipped and readied for the big day. Most noticeably, for the last 3 Saturday nights at 7.30 pm, a fly past of Air Force jets has powered overhead to be followed 30 minutes later by a skyline bursting firework display of unbounded proportions. The whole Nation is on full power racing towards the big day. It is truly stupendous. Well, “practice makes perfect”. Obviously preparation is a fundamental Government edict. No wonder Singapore has achieved so much.
As for me I'm going to take my ease in the Botanic Gardens, during the Jubilee weekend. There, if the music concert and the carnival proves a little too much I will simply stroll across to the VIP section in the Orchid area to see how that most recent deep blue addition, “David Cameron”, is getting on.
Congratulations Singapore. Well done .and Happy 50th birthday!