I don’t quite know what we expected when we booked a month’s holiday in Singapore – perhaps influenced by stories of the old Hong Kong and Shanghai we imagined a city of canyon like, dirty streets crushed beneath crumbling skyscrapers – but nothing prepared us for the reality of this stunning 21st century master class of city design!
As we emerged from our twelve hour, direct flight into Changi airport, we could not help but contrast the immaculate, cool marble walls and floors with the grubby turmoil that was Heathrow. Everywhere we were met with courtesy and a smile plus what seemed like genuine pleasure that we had decided to visit the country. The airport, which you only really have the time to appreciate fully when you are departing, is a beautiful, well designed and spacious building with cafes, restaurants and shops and, as I will come back to later, takes cleanliness to another level.
We had scarcely arrived in the baggage hall when our luggage appeared – efficiency is the norm in Singapore; luckily we were being met at the airport by our son and his local knowledge ensured we ignored the white taxis (white denoting the premier class and ultra expensive ones) and found ourselves bundled into a cheap black cab for the ten minute journey to the city centre. It was then that we first noticed the peculiar driving habit of many of Singapore’s taxi drivers; a nervous speeding up and compulsive slowing down for no apparent reason whilst driving at 60 mph on a dual carriageway. Our son explained that this was quite normal and also began our education in Singapore culture by calling the driver ‘Uncle’, a form of respectful address to someone of an older generation.
We sat transfixed by the passing scenery; a long golf course fringed by exotic trees that gradually merged into the outskirts of the modern city that is Singapore. The verges were lined for miles by a profusion of well tended bougainvillea which soon gave way to elegant bungalows with extensive gardens, high rise tower blocks and a sky scape of imperious corporate buildings carrying the names of the Worlds most dynamic companies – J P Morgan, IBM, Microsoft – and everywhere greenery; trees, shrubs and a riot of colourful flowers contained only by the eight lane arterial highway.
And then we were in the heart of the city – Raffles Quay then Telok Ayer Street with our first glimpse of a magnificent Thian Hock Keng Temple Hindu temple and finally into our Condo destination at the foot of Club Street, where the city’s young workers gravitate after hours.
We emerged from the iced cool of the taxi and for the first time experienced the combination of the 90 degree temperature and a ninety per cent humidity; as our son said, ‘Don’t worry about sweating in Singapore, everyone does it!” But he went on to impress on us the urgent need to drink water constantly – at least two litres a day and to take a dissolvable ‘salts’ tablet every other day to replace the minerals lost in the perspiration. We very soon realised the truth of his assertion; away from the ubiquitous air conditioning, ones forearms were clammy wet and anything but the lightest clothes quickly became damp and uncomfortable to wear. For the first day or so we tried to walk everywhere; but fatigue (and dehydration) soon caught up and we learned to ape the ex-pat’s and either summon the amazingly cheap taxis or use the equally inexpensive tube, called the MRT (Mass Transport System). This is a World apart from our own London underground system, with total air conditioning, floors you could eat from and the safest platform system I have encountered. Again, I will come back to this in later stories.
The first thing that strikes everyone on their first visit to Singapore, and we were no exception, is how clean it is. There is no litter in the streets. No cigarette ends, no paper, no discarded fast food cartons and absolutely no chewing gum blackening the pavements. When you enter the MRT underground, it is a common sight to see local women assiduously cleaning ‘their’ stretch of the passageways – wiping and polishing every inch from ceiling to floor and obviously taking a real pride in ensuring that ‘their’ patch is perfection. It helps, of course, that the city’s structure, particularly in the centre, is built of marble, which is inherently clean and that littering is a criminal offence, which bears a hefty fine.
The second thing that struck us was the amazing friendliness and courtesy of Singaporeans. If you stop at a corner to consult a map; if you hesitate on the underground and pour over the information board, someone, student or businessman, would invariably stop and ask you if you need directions, then be quite prepared to walk hundreds of yards out of their way to ensure you are sent in the right direction. It is almost as if the Singaporean government has issued a directive to every citizen telling them to ensure that tourists are looked after and leave with a favourable impression of the country.
But to return to our first day; after a short rest we strolled down to Clarks Quay where we found a bar overlooking the river and its procession of boats, ferries and water taxis. Our son ordered a bucket of beers (5 bottles for S$25); they arrived, dripping with condensation, and as I opened my first Singapore drink I remembered leaving wet cold England only the day before and thought ‘I could get used to this!’