Singapore for the Indecisive

May 24, 2007

There are two kinds of travelers: those who like Singapore and those who don’t. I, for one, like Singapore.

The detractors say Singapore has become too sterile, gentrified, Westernized, draconian. Taking an informal walking tour of Chinatown yesterday, I can understand their point. Once the heartland for Singapore’s overwhelmingly Chinese population, the district now feels like an EPCOT showpiece. With brightly colored cookie and tea shops lining the street, stereotypical Chinese red lanterns crisscrossing overhead, and more foreign tourists than actual Singaporeans browsing through cheesy chinoiserie like silk placemat sets and your-name-written-in-Chinese-character posters, the place has lost the distinctly chaotic but colorful atmosphere exuded by most living Chinatowns.

Singapore also has a bad rap for its harsh laws against relatively pedestrian crimes. We’ve all heard about the country’s infamous chewing gum ban or 1994 caning of American Michael Fay for vandalism. The Singaporean government frowns upon anything disordered, from crummy buildings in the city center to jaywalking.

Nevertheless, I like it here. The streets are relatively litter-free and well-tended landscaping lines the sidewalk. In little Singapore where land is scarce, most people live in apartment blocks. However, the buildings wear a fresh coat of paint, parks and greenery are interspersed between complexes, flyers advertising community activities lie in neat rows on local bulletin boards, and, in general, the neighborhoods seems less bleak than similar set-ups in Japan or America. Most people dress well, if a bit unexcitingly, and I haven’t seen any beggars or homeless people since I’ve been here.

With that said, Singaporeans share two of my passions: shopping and eating. From food courts to trendy cafes, the choice of delicious food is endless. Yesterday, we tried to eat lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown. Browsing the aisles, savoring a visual feast of spicy bowls of noodles, rice porridge with arrays of side dishes, steamed dumplings, curries, we actually left because choosing only one seemed an impossible task. The plague of the indecisive.

And that’s just the local food. Besides that, there’s also the chic restaurants featuring nouveau Japanese, gourmet dim sum, Vietnamese fusion, Italian, barbeque ribs. Most five-star hotels lure sugar-hungry customers with high tea buffets, featuring curries, puffs, pastries, cakes, tarts, and, of course, tea.

Finally, there’s the shopping. Starting on Friday, the country will break into shopping fever with their annual Great Singapore Sale, two months of glorious consumerism. Almost everything on the island goes on sale, it seems, and shoppers come from all across Asia. They can choose between the shopping malls every mile or so around the city, or if that’s still too inconvenient, flock to Orchard Road where, for a mile, every building on both sides of the street is either a five-floor shopping mall or an international class four- or five-star hotel. Some may call it excessive; I call it a challenge.

On the agenda for tomorrow: I’m hitting the pre-sale sales in part one of a two-part shopping bacchanal. Given my propensity for walking away when faced with the pressure to choose, I figured it was probably best to give myself two opportunities to restock my wardrobe.

At least that’s how I’m justifying it.


6 Responses to “Singapore for the Indecisive”

  1. DSM said

    “and I haven’t seen any beggars or homeless people since I’ve been here.”

    Just because you didn’t see any in Orchard Road and the CBD doesn’t mean there aren’t any. They certainly do exist, in the local heartlands which tourists almost never go to. And their numbers are increasing.

  2. sailorjes said

    Hi DSM,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Of course, in such a modern and metropolitan country as Singapore, there will be homelessness and poverty! However, they are much less prevalent compared to other cities in Southeast Asia or even other similar urban areas in the US and even Japan (New York City and Osaka come to mind).

    Still, thanks for making a good point and helping me clarify a statement that was much too general.


  3. Charles said

    “However, they are much less prevalent compared to other cities in Southeast Asia or even other similar urban areas in the US and even Japan (New York City and Osaka come to mind).”

    Never under estimate the strength the government will use to make the districts where foreigners come look clean, new, shiny and “beggar free”.

    When the IMF came to Singapore, there was still some major work being done is Suntec for the new MRT line. (major meaning there a was a huge gapping hole in the road, etc, etc). One month prior ro the IMF coming, the work was redirected towards covering the hole and making a perfect street for the delegates. Then after the delegates had gone, the perfect road was destroyed again so that work could resume.

    So yes, you can be comfy and pampered, but never forget that 30% of the population becomes poorer every year.

  4. Jennifer said

    Different strokes for different folks.

    As a singaporean, I always wonder why would tourists spend their precious holidays in Singapore.

    Glorious shopping? every mall has the same mix of retailers. You see Giodarno or Watsons in every one of them.

    Food? only the foreigners get excited. As someone having lived here for 30 years, our standard of local hawker fare has gone down the drains.

    But, I always remind myself to be grateful to these tourists for contributing their tourist dollar to the local economy.

    For me, I rather save and spend my money elsewhere! Some place with character and provides more wonderful human experiences.

  5. lemon said

    fake. it has the money to recreate its exterior but all its money cannot buy a soul for the city. the people who praise the changes are usually those who had their pockets fatten with change and now want a nice place to expend those lovely monies.

    it’s liken to a beautiful model but with no class or character.

  6. sailorjes said

    “Then after the delegates had gone, the perfect road was destroyed again so that work could resume.”

    Ha ha ha. That’s kinda sad. But you know, this phenomena is not just a Singaporean thing. Look what happened in Japan before the 1964 Olympics and what is happening in Beijing now. Look what happened to NYC during the Giuliani administration. It’s not unusual to have a city’s vices hidden for the tourists only to be pushed farther away where only locals go.


    Like you said, different strokes for different folks. I can’t understand why people would spend their holidays scaling a mountain or camping for two weeks in the jungle but plenty of people do it.
    Where is one of these places “with character that provide more wonderful human experiences”, I wonder?

    “Food? only the foreigners get excited.”

    This is a very general statement, about both foreigners and Singaporeans. I can’t comment on the quality of hawker food over the past 30 years, but I can comment on the selection of eateries and food choices, and it’s pretty darn extensive.
    Yesterday, I participated in a food tour of the Joo Chiat district (which I’ll probably write about later), and I was impressed. The fact that there are Singaporeans out there giving these tours also leads me to believe that it’s not only the foreigners who think this country has some pretty good eats.

    Anyway, guys, thanks for all of your comments. It’s great to hear opinions from all types of people. But, I still stand by my opinion that I like Singapore, shopping, food, people, and all. ;)

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