I don’t know where to start when it comes to Singapore, so I’ll go from the beginning. You see the tops of the skyscrapers on the horizon first and, as the ship draws closer, the city starts to look something like an international architects’ showcase, with huge ,gleaming buildings in all shapes and sizes, from strange curved and leaning towers topped by vegetation to a massive tripod topped by a giant surfboard that we later came to learn was the spectacular Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
Singapore is a smorgasbord of cities, with a Little India bursting with stalls selling everything from saris to chapatis, a clanging Chinatown with its oodles of noodles and garish souvenir knick-knacks, to the shiny modern shopping malls that seem to atop many of the stops on the RTS (underground) system. Indeed, so big and complex are these that it took one couple an hour to find their way back to the ship through the one at the terminal.
The main feeling, though, is that of having stepped into a future where people live in cities in the sky, transport systems are scrupulously clean, fast, efficient and unmanned, foodstuffs and citizens come from all corners of the earth, and family entertainment is taken at gardens created by huge man-made towers, planted from top to bottom with indigenous flora to look at by day, and a magnificent light and sound show to see at night. This is free, but you have to pay a small fee if you want to walk over the meandering skyway that connects two of the towers, or have a drink in the bar at the top of another one (we did both and were glad we had). The show , which takes place at intervals over the course of an evening, was happening as we crossed the skyway (it makes London’s Millennium bridge seem positively pedestrian, if you’ll excuse the pun). The sound and lights made the dazzling Singapore skyline all around us seem even more dramatic, particularly as the elements decided to join in at that moment with a faraway thunderstorm storm lighting up the sky in electric pinks and greens. It was one of those moments that you just know you will never forget.
But Singapore was memorable in so many ways. Its tropical botanical gardens, for instance, have to be the best I have been to anywhere (although, it has to be said, we spent an inordinate amount of time in the cool house given the temperature outside). Then there is the zoo which Lonely Planet hails as the best in the world, with its day- and night-time safaris to see animals who look content in enclosures bounded only by streams, moats and trees. And then, of course, there is the Raffles Hotel, where you can drink your Singapore slings in a bar unchanged since colonial times. There was lots more that we just didn’t have enough time to see, so Singapore has been added to our list of cities worthy of a return visit.
That said, it’s not a utopia, of course. While many of the people there are very pleasant and hugely helpful (as soon as we stepped into a metro someone would stand up to let us sit down, which didn’t altogether please Claudio, though, dismayed that his age was so obvious), some of them can be stupendously rude, particularly, I hate to say, the older ones. Others spoke of the repression that comes with this efficient, but nevertheless totalitarian state.
Personally we saw no, or very little poverty and, as we all compared notes back at dinner on the ship that night, we couldn’t help but conclude that cities in the West could learn a lot from some of those in Australian and Asia, with their cheap, modern and efficient transport systems, free museums, art galleries and swimming pools, user-friendly cycle ways set well away from traffic, immaculately-kept gardens and smart, litter free shopping malls. Perhaps we in the western hemisphere have been basking in the complacency of our heritage for too long and are now being fast overtaken by visionaries in the east.