Squeaky clean Singapore is cosmopolitan with delicious food, shopping and a vibrant nightlife
Now for the good news: I won’t be thrown in jail for inadvertently smuggling a forbidden substance, lying at the bottom of my handbag, into the only place in the world where its importation and sale is prohibited.
Still, guilty palpitations in the arrivals hall queue are unavoidable, awaiting scrutiny of our documentation by stern-faced immigration officers at Singapore’s Changi airport.
Described by The New York Times as “so clean that bubble gum is a controlled substance” the import and sale of chewing gum was banned to combat the cost of cleaning all that masticated gunge off footpaths, walls and sneaky hiding spots, thus defiling this spotless south east Asian dynamic city state.
A ban on chewing gum, to help preserve the former British colony’s legendary pristine cleanliness, was decreed by perfectionist Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The tough ruler accused chewing gum of threatening his country’s tidiness as he strove to fulfil a dream to make Singapore a “first-world oasis in a third-world region” with efficient transportation and foreign investments, which indeed came to pass.
During a whirlwind 24-hour stop-off here, breaking my journey to Queensland, Australia, I search in vain for discarded litter and can find no sign of graffiti or spray-painted slogans anywhere.
Singapore is so squeaky clean that you really could eat your dinner off the ground inside its Riverside pedestrian underpass tunnels that take us along by the water — passing tourist landmarks near Clarke Quay’s restaurants, pleasure boat cruises and nightlife. The colourful tunnel walls are bedecked with official murals, leaving not an inch of space with which to tempt any creative street artist.
I’m expecting police everywhere, ready to crack down on violations of strict city laws. But uniformed officers are remarkably thin on the ground. Pedestrians stand patiently in line late at night for ages, waiting for the lights to let us cross on traffic-free South Bridge Road, where my one night’s accommodation awaits. “Keeping the rules here is enshrined in our DNA,” a Singapore resident explains. “It’s the way civic society works here. They might not be visible and in uniform, but there are always police about.”
The journey to Singapore was ultra-comfortable and cosseted, from Dublin via Helsinki, under a soft Marimekko designer duvet, feasting on organic, beautifully-served meals and drinks in Finnair’s recently re-imagined business class cabin. The IFE (in-flight entertainment) screen even turned me into a techie geek, watching the HUD (heads-up display) showing cockpit views, live flight instrument gauges and a moving map of each place the plane was flying over, no matter how obscure.
A six or seven-hour long fitful slumber, stretched out on a flatbed, was good preparation for my riches-to-rags fall when it came to my accommodation in Singapore, whose hotel rooms were eye-wateringly pricey. My €120 twin hotel room with ensuite facilities turned out to be a hostel-style series of cells.
The absence of guest reviews should have warned me of what was to come — shared toilet and shower facilities located at the far end of a long corridor, a front door that stayed open all night, an iPad propped up on a table, in place of a human, to check in guests. My tiny room had a small single bed, high as a crow’s nest, a metre from the ceiling — requiring quite an effort to reach and near-concussion every time I sat up.
So if your hotel accommodation in Singapore looks to be great value, there may well be a catch.
Singapore is diverse, with beautiful lush parks and gardens (a lovely contrast from the forest of skyscrapers), business and shopping districts, colonial relics and ethnic enclaves. Chinatown, Little India and Malay corners, for great street food and souvenirs, are best discovered on foot.
My expert guide to the Garden City, Bob Horsfall of Ecofield Trips (ecofieldtrips.com) has lived in Singapore on and off for years. He and his business partner Bridget Hedderman, a zoology and marine biology graduate from Co Cork, tapped into sustainable tourism while it was still new, developing eco field trips around the region for young people and adults. Bridget has since established a paradise resort on Tioman Island off Malaysia.
We didn’t sip a Singapore Sling in the historic Raffles hotel, but Bob showed me splendid sights, including lush Fort Mount Canning park where Sir Stamford Raffles set up home, establishing the trading colony of his vision after arriving here in 1819.
On his tour of green spaces, Bob explains how Singapore has developed solutions to key problems — production of clean water and storage, ensuring future food security through bio-tech artificial meat investment, encouraging vertical gardening on skyscrapers, heat conservation, solar farms and clean refuse disposal.
Shopping is almost a spiritual pursuit in duty-free Singapore. Orchard Road, known as the ‘Great Street’, boasts a mind-boggling 22 shopping malls, crammed with luxury brands like Prada and Valentino, high street shopping and a huge array of best-selling electronics.
No stopover in Singapore is complete without a visit to the crowded selfie stick nirvana of Marina Bay, whose focal point is Marina Bay Sands Roof Garden and Gardens by the Bay. The ultimate in space-age garden artistry, the supertrees and climate-controlled dome along Singapore’s futuristic skyline demand attention. Chinatown’s Pagoda Street is the spot for cheap trinkets and Tanjong Pagar district for street food.
You will need a full day to explore the nearby island of Sentosa, home to Universal Studios Singapore, Adventure Cove Waterpark and other family-friendly attractions. Little India contains a dense network of streets and shops selling jewellery, colourful fabrics and fragrant spices.
Singapore also has its own Ferris Wheel. Billed as Asia’s largest giant observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer is a dizzy 443 feet high, summing up this gravity-defying, extraordinary corner of the world: love or hate it, a lively dynamic fusion of past, present and definitely future.
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