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Singapore: Reach for the sky. To infinity and beyond

This busy commercial hive just can't keep still. But, despite perpetual transition, its oriental soul remains intact, says Mark Rowe

Across the road from the mouthwatering Maxwell food court in Chinatown, one of Singapore's most authentic hawker centres, stands a shiny glass building which hundreds of tourists will walk past with little idea about how it has influenced their experience of this equatorial Asian city state.

Inside is Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, a government department that makes decisions, down to the last square centimetre, on how Singapore makes use of the land available to it. The ground floor is open to the public, and it's here that you will find an extraordinary scale model of the Singapore of the future – an island swelling in size, with reclaimed land taking chunks out of the South China Sea, where skyscrapers sprout like Jack's magic beanstalk.

Nowhere can have changed during the past 30 years as much as Singapore, a city that simply can't stand still. For the visitor, it makes for a breathtaking, if sometimes bewildering experience. In the year or so since my last visit, the country's latest landmark development, the Marina Bay Sands, a trio of thrusting towers housing a controversial casino and an eye-popping rooftop infinity pool, has appeared.

The Marina Bay Sands is part of a phenomenal transformation of Singapore's historic harbour. From the top of the Singapore Flyer, on the south-east side of the harbour, I counted at least six major developments under way, including a brand new shiny business district. The Singapore River, although only four miles long, has played a huge role in the history of the island, but it has recently been turned into a reservoir. Back home, such developments would be snarled up in public inquiries, but in Singapore the government has pushed them through. You won't see too much debate about this in the local media, and everyone you speak to in authority is unrelentingly on message. (This desire for conformity extends to visiting travel writers. The Singapore Tourism Board demands they sign an agreement promising not to write anything too nasty.)

Yet even locals and expats who wonder whether the pace of development is just too quick, or vulgar, perceive a rationale. "Blink and you'll miss another building going up," admitted a friend. "A lot of this is happening too fast. But we have no natural resources, so tourism and finance are pretty fundamental to us."

I wandered along Clarke Quay, a favourite haunt of mine in the 1990s, when it was a tastefully renovated area, perfect for bar-hopping. Today, it is overpriced and disfigured by cumbersome seating areas that resemble giant sink plungers and obscure any views of the restored colourful warehouses and shop houses. One of my favourite restaurants in the whole world, an Indonesian diner at Riverside Point, opposite Clarke Quay, has closed down, replaced by a sports bar. That's capitalism for you, of course.

But to conclude that Singapore is unthinkingly jettisoning its history in the pursuit of über-modernisation would be wide of the mark. Just south of Clarke Quay you'll find examples of how Singapore can nurture and interpret its past wonderfully well, giving rise to hope. Interpretation boards offer informed history lessons of local sights and are placed adjacent to thoughtful sculptures of merchants, little boys jumping into the river (sorry, reservoir), and chettiars, the moneylenders from Tamil Nadu.

To spend half a day in the nearby Asian Civilisations Museum that stands against the delightful waterside path is to relish one of the finest museums in Asia, a superb homage to multiculturalism. The building, the former government offices, reflects the fortunes of many other colonial properties in being given new life as museums or restaurants. Strict laws say that while developers can do what they like inside, the exteriors of historic monuments must be preserved. The harbour area will also benefit in the next few years from the Gardens by the Bay project which will bring colourful plants, sweet-smelling orchids and jungle flora.

Head to Arab Street and adjacent Kandahar Street for unhurried, un-pressurised souvenir shopping and lazy afternoons dawdling in family-run Sumatran restaurants, and you'll fall into conversation with shop owners whose parents washed up in Singapore after hair-raising sea journeys in search of a better life. Such stories remind you that, despite the government's micro-planning, Singapore is far from a brash, two-day bling-filled stopover en route to Australia.

But old and new are not mutually exclusive: I liked the neon octopus perched on the sea wall in front of the Theatres by the Bay. But those who wish to do so can still envisage the Singapore River crammed with ghost junks, sampans and lighters.

And there are still echoes of the ancient pre-British kingdom of Temasek, an island firmly placed in the middle of a web of cross-cultural influences, whose original inhabitants were the Orang Laut, or sea people. One evening at dusk, I wandered around Fort Canning Park, which overlooks much of the modern city and is home to a glorious serpentine haze of fig and frangipani trees. As Asia threw its lengthening shadows over the city, and the humidity made walking akin to pushing through velvet curtains, the park seemed better suited to its original name of Bukit Larangan, or the forbidden hill.

Despite first impressions, Singapore can still be a place of charms and intrigue, the very essence of the east.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Mark Rowe travelled to Singapore with Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk), which offers return flights with Singapore Airlines, group transfers, and five nights' room-only accommodation at the Mandarin Oriental from £1,251 per person, based on two sharing.

Further information

Singapore Tourism Board (yoursingapore.com).