Singapore: Memories Are Made Of This

Twenty years ago he called it home. Now Alan Hubbard returns as a tourist, and finds the prim maiden aunt of the Far East has loosened up a bit

The locals will tell you that nowadays Singapore swings, though judged by Western standards it is more of a gentle sway. The small, diamond-shaped island, linked to Malaysia by a narrow causeway, may be so smothered in sky- scrapers that it could be more downtown Dallas than mystic East (alas, the have-a-nice-day syndrome now pervades). But stop, sniff and scour the skyline beyond the concrete and you can still detect the old Oriental spice that was far more prevalent 20 years ago when I lived and worked there as a journalist.

It was prosperous then; it is even more so now. It was also rather stiff-backed, but at least it has loosened up a little. The prim maiden aunt of the Far East has hitched up her skirts to try to be more alluring to the increasingly competitive tourist market. Friends who visited back in the Eighties reckoned it to be a three-day city, and that used to be about right. Perfect for that leg-stretching mini-break from a long-haul, en-route flight to perhaps more exotic Far East locations or Australia. But now Singapore has extended its tourism repertoire to make a week or more an attractive, even exciting, proposition.

Moreover, Singapore remains safe and sanitised. It was always Asia-made-easy. You won't find Caribbean-style beaches, though the man-made sand strips on reclaimed land along the east coast and at the island of Sentosa, five minutes away by ferry or cable car, or 15 minutes by the new bridge, are acceptable enough for a half a day's sun-lounging. It is on Sentosa, too, that you will find the museums and memorabilia which recall the colonial past, notably the war chamber which depicts the Japanese surrender - though with typical Singaporean compromise they've appeased Japanese tourists by adding one showing the British surrender, too.

The beauty of Singapore is not in restful scenery, but in its sightseeing and shopping. The malls are magnificent, whether at Changi, the world's favourite airport, in the hotels or dotted along the famous big spenders' paradise known as Orchard Road. Down by the riverside, at Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, bumboats and junks still chug through dark waters but the atmosphere is as chic as Sydney's Darling Harbour, with cocktail waitresses, many of them Australian, in skimpy dresses, a sight which hitherto would have brought instant closure to the offending bars. But, as they say, business is business.

Singapore has always been the foodie's Valhalla, with gourmands as well catered for as gourmets. Just about the second question you will be asked by a Singaporean after: "How are you?" is "Had your lunch?" If not, they are ready with a myriad recommendations for "makan", as they invariably call it. There's haute cuisine if you want, from just about every kitchen in the world, but also hearty ethnic fare, Chinese, Indian and Malay, cheap and cheerfully presented in the plethora of stalls such as the bustling, open-air compound at Newton Circus.

You can have beef rendang (beef slowly marinated in coconut), satay, braised goose, or British-style fish and chips. I doubt whether there's a palate that isn't catered for in Singapore, where eating is the national sport.

Whenever I return there my stomach goes on auto-pilot as I head for my favourite eaterie, the Banana Leaf Apolo still going strong on Race Course Road. There they unceremoniously heap the steaming food on banana leaves, but what food. Dry chicken and mutton curry, fish cutlet, sizzling prawns and chilli crab to die for - all to be mashed into the snow-white rice and eaten with the fingers, authentic south Indian fashion.

Fatty's, in Chinatown, has long been popular with tourists and locals alike. But sadly Mr Sim's, at Ponggol, where I once took a ravenous Sir Bobby Charlton to eat steamed Indonesian crab at a rickety table tucked in the kerbside, has been absorbed into a clutch of posh seafood restaurants on the East Coast Parkway. The most popular is the Red House, serving delicious black pepper crab, baked pomfret, barbecued sting-ray or anything that swims.

It is hot and sticky all year round (I used to fantasise about waking up to frost on the window panes), but the place is not only squeaky clean, but very air-con conscious, from hotels and offices to the plentiful and inexpensive, no-tipping taxis.

Some of the top tourist spots to follow the route of the cleaned-up Singapore River. There's Little India, the Islamic quarter around Arab Street, and Chinatown. These preserved districts - Singapore, though predominantly Chinese, is a totally multi-racial, multi-cultural society - bear testimony to the rich ethnic, cultural and historical heritage. Religious monuments, quaint shop houses, the traditional foods and goods mix with the architecture of colonial days, after Sir Stamford Raffles landed in 1819 and established it as an international trading port.

Nightlife isn't quite as tame as it used to be. When I was there, even karaoke was seen as rather risqué. But nowadays there are late-night cabarets such as Boom Boom, with its famed drag artists and much more to titillate the tired businessman. But one night-time experience not to be missed is the nocturnal safari at Singapore Zoo, the only one of its kind in the world, where the sights, sounds, smells and scenery are straight out of Africa.

The Singapore dollar has survived the currency freefall of its Asian neighbours and business is buoyant. Although small - just 580sq km, with its fully employed 2 million population accommodated in tenement blocks on a landmass the size of the Isle of Wight - it is rapidly becoming one of the region's busiest convention centres, and last year hosted the sporting jamboree where London emerged as victors of the vote for the 2012 Olympics. One sightseeing tip: if you wear spectacles, take the prescription with you and have a couple of pairs made up at one of the many shopping mall opticians, like the excellent one in Holland Village. They are amazingly cheap and as good as you'll get anywhere, though you don't need glasses to see the best of Singapore. It's all there, neat, tidy and even more wonderfully efficient, before your very eyes.

But be warned. Don't infringe the rigid regulations. Chewing gum, like long hair, is no longer banned and you can bring it with you. But don't dare throw the used gum or wrapper away carelessly. Like not flushing the loo in public toilets, the penalty for littering is S$1,000 (£350) plus being made to sweep the streets wearing a badge which labels you a litter lout.

I always found it hard to reconcile this modern, hi-tech metropolis with a nation which regularly flogs miscreants. Now, as then, the Straits Times carries notices of the Friday morning executions in Changi jail, mainly for drugs offences. My daughter's judo instructor was the public hangman who told us his "personal best" was 27 in one day after a prison riot.

Singapore's neo-totalitarian regime may not be a one-party state (though most opposition is stifled), but the political system is now more casually questioned by younger Singaporeans. A taxi driver once posed this riddle: "Why do we never catch any fish in Singapore - even though there are plenty of fish? Because they never open their mouths. Just like Singaporeans." Like many aspects of Singapore this is changing, though mouths are still more readily opened for food than for thought.

Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380, singaporeair.com) offers return flights from London Heathrow to Singapore from £728.

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