Friday, 4 May 2012

Getting Beneath the Gloss of Singapore

If you were asked to design the perfect world-class city, a vision not unlike Singapore is probably what might emerge. It is modern, clean and combines the built and natural environment perfectly. It remains culturally diverse and celebrates its historical past, while also conveying the impression of constantly looking forward. Yet despite its global reputation as being a truly great metropolis, like many other travelers my only experience of this great city had been during the occasional stopover at the airport en-route to somewhere else. Therefore, this week I was more than pleased to be attending a Visual Arts conference and to have the chance to get to know this impressive city a little better.

Driving in from the airport, I couldn’t but be immediately impressed by both the visual aesthetic and sheer scale of the city skyline. In one glance it seemed to encapsulate most of the major developments in high-rise architecture over the past thirty years. One of the most recent designs is the spectacular Marina Bay Sands Resort designed by renowned Israeli architect Moshe Safdie. Looking much like a futuristic cruise ship (referred to as the ‘Skypark’) that has been beached on top of three 55 storey towers, the $8 billion dollar building is said to be the worlds most expensive casino property and understandably dominates the picturesque marina. It towers over the smaller but no the less impressive ‘ArtScience’ Museum (also designed by Safdie), which he based upon the form of an unfolding lotus flower, although our driver had his own interpretation of the building by simply referring to it as ‘the five fingers’. Its delicate design is particularly unusual in a city that prides itself on its high-rise development (around 4,300) and in particular its skyscrapers (standing over 140 metres), which at the last count numbered 49 in the downtown area.

I have on occasions heard criticisms of Singapore as being too sterile and lacking the ‘grit’ of a big city. To be honest, it didn’t really give me that impression, particularly when you balance the slick corporate centres against the diverse cultural areas that lay within the city boundaries. Over the years, three major cultural groups, Chinese, Malay and Indian, have established their own distinct precincts that have added to the cultural fabric of Singapore and provided a rich historical, ethnic and architectural contribution to the city. On a balmy evening and accompanied by colleagues, we ventured into the bustling precinct of ‘Little India’ to find vibrant commercial streets filled with people and the scent of exotic spices. With Indian immigration harking back to the colonial days of the 1800’s, here there remains a flourishing community that continues to celebrate it’s culture through a myriad of shops selling jasmine garlands, silk saris and ethnic jewelry (particularly gold). The next night it was Chinatown, with its beautifully conserved colonial buildings and traditional religious temples. However, it was the famous outdoor food market that we had come to experience. Here, some of the best food in Singapore can be sampled at a bargain price. This includes the popular Laksa (spicy noodle soup), which certainly fulfilled our expectations along with several other delicious dishes. Both in Chinatown and little India, we were welcomed into their community with a smile, suggesting that their happy nature was not only a reflection of their pride in their city, but also their own cultural acceptance within it.

Of course, like most major cities in the Asian region, Singapore has no shortage of high end shopping, much of which is to be found on Orchard Road. We spent a few hours walking down this 2.5 kilometre homage to retail therapy, which is said to have the largest concentration of shopping malls in the world. It was certainly difficult to avoid them, as when crossing the street by overhead or underground walkway, you are led directly into a mall. Much like being caught in a spiders web, once entering it was often very difficult to escape. Back on the street, we came across the jewel in the crown of Orchard Road, ‘Istana’ (meaning palace in Malay), which is the official residence of the President of Singapore. It is a gracious white Victorian style mansion built in 1867, set against a manicured half an acre of grounds. Like the beautifully restored Singapore Art Museum and Raffles Hotel, which are on the same road, the care and maintenance of these 19th century buildings suggest a healthy respect for the cities colonial past as well as their historical relevance to its ongoing development.

It’s clear that modern Singapore represents more than just the trappings of big business. If you are prepared to scratch below the glossy surface, its history, culture and traditions suggest that it’s a city that has indeed far much more to offer.

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