|That's Singapore – With an 'S'|
by Sally Hammond
Singapore doesn't have a Sesame Street. It’s a tiny country, almost entirely city, with a population around three million, yet it could easily be subtitled 'brought to you by the letter S', because when you think about this safe and slick city you can't help but get alliterative.
Everyone knows where Singapore is, just a fish-ball throw from the southern tip of Malaysia, linked by a causeway and ethnically similar. Here, you can indulge in fabulous satays and roti, eye-wateringly hot curries and laksa – even fragrance-challenged durian if you dare – yet you can relax and enjoy it all. The hawker's stalls are strictly policed. There’s no washing up on the footpath here. Tap water is safe to drink, and malaria is unknown because they swatted the last mosquito years ago. It's like a sanitised Malaysia. Squeaky-clean.
I bought a t-shirt mocking the 'hup-two-three' regimentation of this city-country. "Singapore - a FINE city" it proclaims on the front. On the back are twenty crossed circles barring everything from urinating in lifts and spitting (well, of course!) to possessing chewing gum. Yet even though the $1000 fines are around a month's average wage, modern Singaporeans shrug and agree the strict regime has brought their country into this century and poised them confidently for the next.
Which introduces another 's'. Scratch a Singaporean and you find a slightly selfconscious person. They all know this 30-something country that only attained independence and autonomy in 1965 is smart and ultra-stylish. You only have to pop your head into any of the super-smart designer boutiques that line Orchard Road to realise this for yourself. But sometimes you can detect a slight awe at their own progress.
There is a sleek sophistication about the younger generation, though. They are slim, sassy and sexy, but straight too. In one young women's magazine I picked up there recently, several Singaporean women aged under thirty compared their dating habits in an interview. Several said they would wait quite a few dates before they held hands with their companion.
But while this might seem tardy by Western standards, Singapore is a fast-paced city. The traffic is orderly (well, wouldn't it have to be with sanctions imposed on everything from littering to loitering?) but it's quick, and taxis are cheap. The MRT, the city's fast-train service, is speedy and so-o-o efficient. Early one Sunday morning the glass doors that automatically close off the platform before the train doors shut, slid across just as I got to them. Five minutes later another train zoomed in. I could only guess how frequent they are in peakhour on a weekday.
Perhaps the only Ss I do not appreciate are the $$$s. Singapore, just about any way you look at it, is not cheap. Once the shopping mecca for half the world, the pricetags have now exploded. Despite this, you will still see people tottering into the city's top-end hotels loaded with outsize name-brand bags from shopping centres and salons. Perhaps it's the memory of bargains in bygone times. Just like Raffles Hotel, where a Singapore Sling in the peanut-shell littered Long Bar commands S$18 today. They still manage to sell them at that price too, just as other spots cheerfully charge you S$8 for a Perrier water, S$7 for a coffee or S$9 or more for a beer. With an almost one-to-one exchange rate to the Aussie dollar, these are steep prices.
Regardless of the always 30-something temperatures, and the steamy climate that sends people searching for pools, or forces them to chill-out in air-conditioned bars or restaurants, the visitors just keep coming to Singapore. And what do they do when they get there?
Well, they happily stay with the Ss. They sightsee, stay in one of the country's hundred hotels (a thirty percent increase in the past three years) and shop, adding yet another 's' – spending. Singapore's statistics tell us that over seven million tourists from around the world visit Singapore every year and they can expect to exchange quite a bit of currency during their average 3.3-day stay.
Whichever way you look at it, that's plenty of S$s – and Ss.
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