In praise of Singapore

 


After months bouncing around on dirt tracks in tuk-tuks, lugging bags onto sampans and ferries, and navigating sidewalks cluttered with plastic chairs and infested with open manholes, sometimes that humble invention, the pavement, can seem a rare and beautiful thing.

Yes, a pavement! A pavement with no holes! A pavement along which one can walk without watching the ground! A pavement that gives onto – oh, joy of joys! – an escalator, which leads down to a subway, where – oh, sweet bliss! - a train arrives, on time, and goes where it says it will on the map. Which, helpfully, includes English.

Now, it's easy to write Singapore off as dull. Although, in my opinion, any city-state that places a pair of giant spiky bollocks on one side of the bay, adds three pillars with a giant banana on them in the middle of the bay, then follows that up with 50-metre tall light-up trees is very far from dull. Bonkers, yes. Authoritarian, yes. Dull, no.

Of course, as David Whitley has so accurately pointed out, Singapore society tends to the dictatorial. Yet, while the great dictator Mussolini never did make the trains run on time – though he crafted some world class propaganda about it – the late Singaporean autocrat Lee Kuan Yew did exactly that.

 



Here's the thing about Singapore, you see. Everything works. The trains run on time. Power-cuts don't happen. You're never without phone signal. There's always an internet connection and it's always fast. There are regular traffic lights, which drivers obey, taxi drivers know the way – and use the meter! -  and you can walk down the street without circumnavigating food carts, open sewers or disabled beggars. You can go to the beach without child sellers thrusting ropy bangles in your face, buy bus tickets without someone grabbing at your bags and attempting to extort a porter's fee, and purchase anything you would like to buy without haggling.

Further, you can go shopping! Yes, Singapore's malls are soul-destroying. But, oh boy! There are women's clothes in sizes larger than 10 (XXL, as we call it in most of South-East Asia), or 12 (XXXL); there are kids sandals, and flip-flops and trainers for giant Western man feet; there are moisturisers without whitening agents, Western high street brands, and Kinokuniya, an absolutely world class bookshop. Foodwise, Singapore is heaven: craft beers and artisan cocktails, chicken rice and chilli crab, kaya butter toast and roti chennai plus whichever of the world's gadzillion cuisines you've been craving lately.

And the airport! From the free massage machines, X-Box and movies to the rooftop swimming pool, the nap zone, complete with beds, and the outdoor smoking area with sunflower garden, Changi really is something special.

Now, this all may sound a bit dull. And it IS a bit dull. But sometimes – especially when you've been doing some fairly hardcore overlanding – the manicured ease of Singapore just hits the spot. There's plenty to do in the Big Durian, of course: museums and parks, zoos and temples, theme parks and mangroves. But I always find that, when in Singapore, I spend most of my time doing what Singaporeans do: eating and shopping.

 

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Published by Stuart Lodge

Eating your way around Singapore's hawker centres

 

 

Food lovers can approach their dining plans in Singapore at almost any level. Those with a palate for luxury will find no shortage of high-end restaurants, offering wagyu steaks, rare lobsters and even truffle caviar, all washed down with lashings of vintage wines from the world's most exclusive vineyards. There's also a glut of mid-range restaurants which are priced similarly to typical European restaurants and which cover pretty much every known variety of cuisine.

But it's at the bottom end where Singapore's food scene gets really interesting, and it's here where many visitors experience some of their sweetest Singapore memories. 'Hawker centre' is the loose term applied to the informal collections of food stalls which have sprung up all over the island, although over time many of these have become anything but informal; some of these centres have no doubt been created solely to satisfy the appetite of tourists in search of 'real' Singapore street food. But however dubious their authenticity, the stalls at sites such as Gluttons Bay remain popular for a reason. In a city where snagging a barely-decent hotel room for under £100 can be a challenge, it's a treat to be able to indulge in a plate (or a polystyrene carton) of tasty nosh for a fiver or less. Throw in a freshly squeezed lime juice and you're fed and watered with barely a dent in your daily budget.

Maxwell Food Centre feels a lot more like the real deal. It's just across the road from Chinatown and lunchtime sees a mix of tourists and locals indulging in delights such as oyster cakes and Hainanese chicken rice. Stalls display press clippings to show not only some of their celebrity customers, but also to highlight their longevity and family culinary heritage of their business.

But perhaps the most interesting hawker centres of all are beyond the bright lights of the city centre. On a trip to the north of the island and a short bus ride from the Singapore Botanical Gardens, following a tip-off about a place to get excellent biryani, we found ourselves on Sixth Avenue. It's a very well-to-do part of Singapore with large mansions and guarded apartment blocks; hardly your typical place for a hawker centre, and we walked past the place we were looking for twice. Eventually it clicked that the very plain shack, going under the banner 'Indian Muslim Food', must be the place we'd come to find.

 

 

We snagged an empty table and ordered our biryani, starving by then after a half-hour search among the long driveways of Sixth Avenue. With no ceremony the golden rice, pieces of fried chicken and a thick brown sauce were dished out on a plastic plate: within a minute of arriving we were eating. The biryani was excellent, and at £3 a plate we decided to go crazy and treat ourselves to a lime juice each. Around us local people in smart jackets sat on plastic garden chairs, enjoying a quick lunch break before no doubt returning to the jobs which paid for those expensive houses.

If you enjoy trying different food and aren't too fussy about service, table cleanliness, or listening to Norah Jones on an endless loop, you can eat at different stands, and even at different hawker centres, for every meal of your trip. And while the centres in the downtown area might be the most accessible, it's worth venturing out of town to find some of the more unfussy places, many of which are the favoured haunts of Singapore's very lively network of online food critics.