Barbie in a sari? Now that's exotic

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The Independent Online
THERE ARE Christmas decorations and trees everywhere, sprouting above the neo-classical columns which flank the entrances of the huge shopping malls. Inside, in the air-conditioned concessions selling designer clothes and electrical equipment, many of the items are already on pre- Christmas sale. Except for the sticky heat, wrapping itself round you like a damp towel as soon as you emerge onto the busy main street, you could be in a town in the north of England, one of those places where the confidence implied by the construction of a spanking new shopping mall looks a little dented in the light of notices offering 20 per cent off.

Walking through the city centre, shortly after I got off the plane from London, I remembered a friend's remark that it resembled the Metro centre in Gateshead. The very next morning, the main story in the Straits Times was "Singapore in recession". This may account for the pervasively unreal atmosphere on an island famous for the total absence of litter, so much so that it is a relief when you finally spot a rebellious leaf lurking in the gutter. Fines here are serious, up to S$1,000 (pounds 400) for dropping litter, while chewing gum is banned altogether. This may be a good thing, in terms of hygiene, but the effect is curiously antiseptic. Unlike most Middle or Far Eastern cities, Singapore appears to have no smells at all, other than that of money.

There is no food frying on street stalls, no spice aromas perfuming the damp air, nothing but the humidity to signal your proximity to the equator. In restaurants, the food is actually very good, a potent mixture of Chinese and Malaysian cuisine which specialises in noodle soups such as Singapore laksa, and satay in every variety you can imagine. But it's all somehow contained, tidied away, with neither the stark poverty nor the chaotic pavement sprawl of more traditional Eastern cities. What Singapore does have, punctuating the skyscrapers which resemble a hastily-assembled simulacrum of Manhattan, is building sites. These vast, boarded-off areas announce the imminent opening of - you've guessed it - yet more shopping malls. Even allowing for the arrival every day of thousands of tourists, it's hard to see how this smallish island can sustain so much consumer activity.

Later in the day, convinced that another Singapore must exist in the shadow of this mushrooming development, I headed off on foot to Serangoon Road. This is where the city's Indian population, about seven per cent of the total, works and lives. The buildings are low-rise and you have to pick your way along high, covered pavements, between shops selling gold jewellery and silk saris and stalls hung with garlands of chillies and dried flowers. Here at last are cooking smells, floating out of cafes where you can eat delicious curries and rotis, although the overall impression is still a bit too clean and tidy - more like a Hollywood set of the sub- continent than the real thing.

The great exception to this rule is the astonishing Sri Veeramakaliamman temple. Famous for its multi-coloured gopuram, a technicolor carnival of gesturing and praying figures over the entrance, the dimly-lit interior of this Hindu temple is a shrine to Kali, the terrifying and destructive consort of Shiva. The air is heavy with smoky incense, while women in saris dole out tiny portions of food to worshippers and the occasional visitor who has come to marvel at the statue of the goddess disembowelling one of her victims. It's the nearest you can get here to a culture which, though not indigenous, has not been airbrushed to resemble the duty-free lounge of an international airport. A few minutes later, in an indoor market off Serangoon Road, I was startled to discover a stall selling Barbie dolls. But at least they were wearing saris.

WESTERN Australia, where I am due to give a lecture on Wednesday morning, is much hotter and drier than Singapore. I stepped off the plane in Perth on a spring day so stifling - 31 degrees - that a Labor MP fainted during a session of the Legislative Assembly. But this is a place where that perpetual lament about the weather - "we haven't had a proper summer this year" - means there has not yet been a week in which the daytime temperature stays permanently above 40 degrees.

The Australians I've talked to so far are fascinated by the sexual revelations about members of Tony Blair's government, although in a very lofty way. Why, they want to know, are the British so obsessed with sex? And what's new about gays in the Cabinet, given what we've heard about your public schools? They then spoil the effect by launching into scurrilous stories about Australian politicians, usually involving hotel rooms and missing trousers. This confirms my suspicion that everyone is interested in sex, including the supposedly sophisticated French and unshockable Australians. But it sounds less prurient if the people you're talking about happen to be foreign.