Singapore: for Forbes Life

Singapore is an island-state full of contradictions. On the one hand it flaunts its prudishness: chewing gum is banned unless it is of ‘therapeutic’ value; pornography and homosexuality frowned upon; strict fines, caning and the death penalty are de rigueur for drug offenses; and until recently, bar-top dancing and gambling were illegal. Yet in the last two years, Singapore is racing to change its staid image with almost unseemly haste. After months of national soul-searching about whether a casino would mar Singapore’s pristine character, the government approved not one but two giant waterfront casinos to be built and operated by the Las Vegas Sands group by 2009. In the new Singapore, bar-top dancing is passé; an underground gay culture thrives; and a reverse bungee launches its hapless patrons skywards at 200km an hour. It has become, as science-fiction writer William Gibson says, “Disneyland with a death penalty.”

Singapore’s earliest immigrants were Chinese and they still make up the majority. So it is not entirely surprising that the center of chic has shifted from Orchard Road to Chinatown. The witty new Majestic hotel with its ebullient murals, sleek furniture, exposed ceiling and glass-bottomed pool that lets swimmers view the restaurant downstairs is a case in point. The nearby Scarlet Hotel is more like a sexy boudoir, still startling in Singapore, with its plush purple sofas, mood lighting, red suede dining chairs and chandeliers galore. The Fullerton is beautifully renovated and perfectly located with stunning views of
Singapore’s waterfront and a short walk away from Boat and Clarke Quay’s nightlife. Fresh from a renovation, the Pan Pacific’s soaring 35-storey atrium, excellent restaurants and ergonomic rooms make it a favorite of business travelers. For classic courtesy, it is still hard to be the Raffles.

Singapore’s shopping strip is of course Orchard Road where mall after mall seduces and benumbs. Takashimaya is worth a stop as is Tang’s diagonally opposite. Paragon has all the luxury brands favored by tai-tais. It also has an excellent day spa,
Spa Espirit.

Since Singapore is made up of Chinese, Indians and Malays, it is a perfect place to enjoy ethnic flavors without worrying about cleanliness and health issues. One quick way if you can stomach it is to eat a slice of the custardy yellow durian fruit, a national favorite—tastes like heaven, smells like hell, as the saying goes. Unadventurous eaters can venture into Little India and buy saris, Bollywood CDs, bindis, and henna tattoo strips that peel off. Mustafa Center in the heart of Little India is open 24/7 and a mandatory stop for most Singaporeans. It has an amazing collection of gold jewelry that Middle East sheikhs buy in bulk. Nearby Arab Street is a good place for batik prints, sarongs, and bamboo baskets. A brisk neck and shoulder massage at the House of Traditional Javanese Massage provides relief amidst all the hectic shopping. Keong Saik street at the edge of Chinatown has nice little boutiques, cafes and art galleries—stop at the Whatever Bookstore and Café for some new-age books, chakra healing and gingko shots.

The culinary scene in Singapore couldn’t be better with new restaurants opening every few weeks. La Strada offers Italian fine-dining in an unequivocally luxurious environment. The Song of India serves modern Indian in a traditional black-and-white bungalow. Yanqing’s Shanghai Kitchen serves sublime Shanghainese specialties like Ningbo drunken raw crab and is packed on weekends. Le Papillon’s degustation menu is popular with expats who like its modern European cooking with an Asian twist. Among the old favorites are Restaurant Ember, Les Amis, Coriander Leaf and My Humble House that belongs to the acclaimed Tunglok Group. In fact, try any of the Tunglok restaurants to get a taste of modern Chinese food.

The soul of Singapore’s cuisine however lies in its hawker centers. They are everywhere and serve the kind of fresh flavorful food that makes you wonder why fast food chains cannot emulate them. Locals rabidly argue over favorites but the consensus is that Newton Circus is for tourists. Lau Pa Sat in a lovely old Victorian building downtown has great satays (similar to kebabs). Maxwell Center is known for his Hokkien Noodles and Hainanese Chicken rice. The Adam Road food center has Malaysian specialties like Nasi Goreng (a rice dish) and Roti Prata (spiced pizza). Fried Kway Tiao (noodles with cockles), a local favorite can be found in most hawker centers along with fresh juices—try the sugarcane juice with lemon—ice creams and occasionally western food like burgers.

Singapore after dark really surprises. This normally placid national bursts out into unvarnished revelry once the sun sets. There is a reason for this: kids or lack therefore. Singapore has the lowest birth rate among Asian nations, a fact that distresses its leaders who exhort their citizens to make more babies. Childless couples however end up packing the nightclubs and partying all night. The recently opened Ministry of Sound plays a variety of music ranging from hip-hop to Chinese Pop. The nightclubs along Clarke Quay—Attica, Bar Opiume, Bar Cocoon– are great for club-hopping with each one sporting a different mood and music. Closer to Orchard Road, the giant Zouk and Velvet Underground are popular with Singaporean college students. The Chijmes complex with its lovely central garden courtyard is great for mellow drinks sans the thumping music if you are looking for something quieter. For great views, head to the Equinox complex at the 70th floor of the Raffles City where kissing couples make out with an ardor that would hearten any bureaucrat worried about Singapore’s fertility rate.