There is something about Singapore that awakens in me the Daily Mail reader that I fear slumbers deep within us all. Taking a rotan cane to the tender buttocks of drunken youths? I'd hate to see it in Britain but it appears to do the trick in Singapore. Littering? If the only effective way to really stamp it out is to impose sentences that are absurdly disproportionate then, well, I'm all for it. Nobody is going to risk a £400 fine for leaving a boiled sweet-wrapper on a park bench.
For such reasons is Singapore wryly described by locals as a "fine city", with fines for just about any misdemeanour you can think of. Better to wait five minutes by the kerb of an empty road for the lights to change than risk a police officer emptying your wallet for jaywalking. Unsurprisingly, the death penalty awaits the drug smuggler but the authorities have cracked down hard on trafficking of another widely used commodity – chewing gum, the importation of which can land the smuggler a one-year jail sentence.
With all these meddlesome restrictions Singapore sounds as though it should be the fun extinguisher of Asia, crushing the mildly chaotic charm that bewitches us from India to Indo-China: a squeaky-clean and joyless altar to Mammon. In fact, little could be further from the truth (not least because, in a sign of more tolerant times, the failure to flush a public toilet no longer carries the threat of being named and shamed on the front page of the local Straits Times newspaper). Thanks in part to the government's petty meddling, Singapore has inadvertently become one of the world's most stress-free travelling experiences. The island state is Asia not only for first-timers but for those who may have grown weary of the attendant hassles of travel in the wider region. Singapore is China without the spitting and slurping; India without the constant invitation to visit a brother's carpet shop; and it is the breeding ground for a species of taxi driver – unique to Asia – who will take you where you want for an officially metered fare.
Making money is still the priority of Singaporeans but the city's history and location make it anything but antiseptic. Traders and settlers came here from all over the world to transform the marshy island founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 into the world's biggest port. I walked along the river front and found it easy to see the ghosts of labourers staggering under their backbreaking loads, and spectres of fishermen on sampans touting their wares at the coal face of Asian capitalism. Gone, too, are the street hawkers who erected bubbling food stalls on every vacant slab of pavement. As part of a clean-up drive, they have been relocated to huge food courts where, though a little of their colour has been lost, a strong sense of their original vibrancy remains.
The river front, recently restored, creates a real sense of being at the gateway of Asia. The godowns and warehouses have been meticulously renovated, and at Clarke Quay, by the water's edge, the smells of 100 stir-fried cuisines lingered in the muggy evening air. In Singapore, nothing is safe from the cooking pot and that includes, disturbingly, soups made from sharks' fins and turtles. More appetising were stir-fried egg noodles with mussels, coconut shrimp paste dips and chicken porridge (soggy rice with chicken and a runny egg). We found an Indonesian restaurant and settled for ayam rendang – chicken curry – washed down with Tiger beer and a cocktail of fresh papaya, jackfruit and mango.
The human population is equally cosmopolitan. Chinese are the dominant group, followed by Malays, Arabs and southern Indians. While Mammon is widely worshipped in the towering downtown business complexes, a 10-minute stroll in their shadows will often take in a mosque, a Hindu or Buddhist temple, a church and temples to Confucius, Taoism, sailor gods and a long list of folklore figures. There are even two synagogues. Each ethnic group has its own quarter, and we found that each merited a day of our time.
In Chinatown we haggled over dusty bamboo basketware amid the banging of a hammer knocking out more "antiques" in the back yard; we sipped teh tarek, tea with condensed milk, and admired the gaily painted shutters above the shop fronts. Singapore shop houses are a delight; Raffles insisted on a uniform "five-foot way", with each shop allocated its own covered passage. In Little India this meant spices, vegetables and sandalwood carvings stacked next door to one another. Our best and most joyful meal was here, at New Woodland on Upper Dickson Road, a southern Indian outlet with plastic tables and something called a VIP thali, served with a dosa as broad as this newspaper and a dozen curries and dhals to dip it in. The colonial brigade had their quarter, too, and their legacy is the vast green field of the Padang, overlooked by Singapore Cricket Club and the whitewashed St Andrew's cathedral. Nearby stands the ultimate embodiment of colonial excess, Raffles Hotel, where tourists down Singapore Slings at £8 a shot.
Aloof from all this bustle, down by the theatre, stands the bust of Singapore's creator. Raffles wanted his port to maximise Britain's trade in the East. Curiously, like Singapore itself, Raffles was little appreciated in his own lifetime. His employers, the East India Company, had the gall to pursue his widow for the expenses he'd drawn in founding the place, even though it was to bring them millions of pounds in profits. Naked greed helped build Singapore but it does not make it breathe. For that, you need human spirit and Singapore continues to have that in abundance.
British Airways Holidays (0870 442 3815) offers five nights at the four-star New Otani, Singapore, for £749 per person for departures in January 2002. The price includes return scheduled flights from Heathrow, transfers and room-only accommodation.
Singapore Tourist Board (020-7437 0033; www.newasia-singapore.com).Reuse content