An Introduction to Singapore – Food and More:
My father, when I was just five years old, was posted to Borneo. In those days, the 1960s, flights were much longer and getting home for the weekend would simply not have happened if we’d stayed in the UK. So, the family were sent to Ipoh, Malaysia. Too young to know the significance of the timing, I can just remember the journey, which took 3 days and 4 nights and involved 10 ;stops for refueling. Mum travelled with the three childrean and I was the eldest; although it was my Father who was decorated for active service, I suspect she was just as deserving of a medal. Our point of arrival was Singapore, where we met my Dad and spent just one night in a large colonial hotel. Was it Raffles? I honestly don’t know and both my parents are no longer around to ask. I remember some of the detail – a fan in the ceiling, a fairy-princess net over the bed (rather un-prosaically, for mosquitoes) and a bolster at the bottom of the bed. I don’t remember much else of Singapore – we walked around and I seem to remember seeing monkeys in a park and a snakeskin on the pavement. But, we really didn’t stay for long.
The Singapore I remember from my childhood was pre-independence. On 9th August 1965 the country became independent (from Malaysia) as the Republic of Singapore. What has happened in the last 51 years is astonishing. Of course, I was fascinated to be able to see some of the change at first hand on a far-to-short visit to Singapore, ostensibly for the Food Festival.
I’ll be writing in more detail about the food and about the hotel where we stayed. This short piece is just an introduction to the canvas on which those experiences happened. In between all the eating (and there was a LOT of food), we were given the opportunity to explore the City, with a guide. A perfect way to learn more about a unique country which has managed to create a strong and prosperous community against all the odds.
The first thing to understand is that Singapore is really very small. 50km from East to West and 27km from North to South. It’s quite a lot larger than it was pre-independence though – over the last 50 years, the country has grown by around 23% thanks to land reclamation. It’s still less than half the size of London though. But, it is a country where a lot of careful planning has gone into making a pleasant and comfortable environment for all.
Green Singapore was one of the initiatives of the first prime minister of Singapore – right back as far as 1968. That includes Tree Planting week, during the first week in November at the start of the monsoon season to ensure the young trees grow well. Apparently over 2 million new trees have been planted in the last 40 years. Gardens by the Bay, planted across three gardens on over 101 hectares of reclaimed land, is also part of the Green Singapore initiative. I have to admit to being a little sceptical before I went. It sounded unlikely – something like a contemporary take on Kew Gardens. But the reality – two massive greenhouses with all sorts of fascinating plants, a network of waterfront gardens and then, the Garden Rhapsody event, a light and sound show which takes place every night in the Supertree Grove was truly memorable (and free!). The Supertrees themselves are worth mentioning, massive tree-like structures which are actually vertical gardens with a whole range of functions designed to mimic the benefits of real trees – they have photovoltaic cells, they collect rainwater for irrigating the rest of the garden and they are an integral part of the cooling system of the conservatories.
Singapore has deliberately fostered a diverse, cosmopolitan ethnic population. Immigration controls are in place as much to maintain a balance between the dominant Chinese population, Malaysians, Indians and others. We spent some time wandering through Singapore’s Chinatown, Little India and Joo Chiat, the Peranakan part of Singapore. I was fascinated to learn that the term Peranakan refers to people descended from marriages between Chinese or Indian men and local Malay women. Each part of the City had its own distinctive cultural style and obviously, its own cuisine. We enjoyed some of the dishes at the Tekka Centre on the edge of Little India, and after a walking tour through Joo Chiat, tried some of the Nonya dishes. The Michelin Guide has just launched its first ever guide to dining in Singapore and to everyone’s surprise, there are two hawker stalls in the list. We walked past one, in Chinatown, and the queues were already around the block at 11am, probably a 2 hour wait for the first ever Michelin starred chicken and rice.
You might expect somewhere like Singapore to have a housing problem. There’s definitely a shortage of land and the population density is similar to London, but with the added issue that the population density is for the whole country (albeit one that’s half the size of London). But, the government sponsored HDB programme means that home ownership is realistic for almost all citizens of Singapore. 80% of the country live in HDB apartments, which are sold on 99 year leases. We were invited into one, owned by Jeffrey Yeo, who is an enthusiastic cook and who runs a supper club for his friends. And, we also went up to the top of one of the better known HDB towers, Pinnacle at Duxton, an award-winning 50-storey residential development in Singapore’s city centre, next to the business district. There, at the very top, we enjoyed the fabulous views across Singapore and at least in my case, were amazed by the cleanliness, the range of facilities (there were comfy seating areas, a jogging track and even a climbing wall on the roof garden – a kind of rather special sky park for the residents.
Finally, Singapore is both a country which is evolving. One which is inherently proud of its heritage and yet continually striving to improve. With very little in the way of natural resources, the country has needed to focus on service industries – banking and shipping for example. The current, extremely successful docks are due to move to a newly reclaimed site to make way for a new resort. No doubt the new docks will offer improved facilities while the area currently used for that purpose will help build on the evolving resort business.Singapore is focussed on building a new tourist business with Resorts World Sentosa (home to the three Michelin starred Restaurant Joel Robuchon) and Marina Bay Sands (with a SkyPark and stunning infinity pool) already open. It’s obvious that the restaurant scene in Singapore depends partly on the expat employees of the banking industry and partly on the evolving tourist business. And, the combination of service industries is enviable.
I went to Singapore somewhat apprehensively. I’d expected more of a concrete jungle and less of traditional Singapore to be left. The reality seemed so much better and a well-balanced mixture of old and new. Perhaps because we stayed in one of the historic districts, in the Vagabond Hotel, a charming boutique hotel built from a cluster of heritage houses, perhaps because we visited Raffles or perhaps because for the most part modern Singapore was visually stunning as well as highly functional. My overriding impression was that this is a country where the citizens of Singapore come first. Somewhere careful planning has preserved the old yet improved quality of life for everyone with the new. And amazingly, somewhere that has happened in just fifty years.