Enamored by Singapore
I recently visited Singapore for the first time and was pleasantly surprised by how charming I found it.
For starters, it was revelatory to be in an Asian country where everyone speaks at least some version of English. English words (if not English syntax) appeared to be the default language between Singapore's main ethnic groups: Chinese, Malay and Indian. I knew that English was spoken in Singapore, but I hadn't expected it to be so dominant.
I also couldn't help but notice how much Singapore felt a bit like Japan — at least in terms of fashion and shopping. Singapore seems to have plucked the best brands out of Japan and placed them neatly along its Orchard Road. Unfortunately, I can imagine a Singaporean visiting Japan and thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, I can buy all of this stuff at home — and it's cheaper there!"
And the food — oh the food!
Singapore's cuisine exhibits a confident curator's approach to Asia's appetizing treats. Homegrown Nyonya cuisine — that of the ethnic Chinese Malaysians and Singaporeans — gave rise to the famous laksa, but also Hainanese chicken rice, popiah (a kind of fresh spring roll) and kueh (glutineous rice snacks). Staples like roti prata (Indian flatbread with curry sauce), nasi lemak (Malaysian coconut rice) and satay (Indonesian grilled skewered meats) are all required stops on the tastes-of-Singapore tour. But culinary inspiration is not merely drawn from the immediate region. It's easy to find top-notch ramen from Japan, xiao long bao (soup dumplings) that can compete with Shanghai, delicious thirst-quenching coconuts from Thailand, and a rainbow of cuisines from southern China — all fighting for the right to satisfy your hunger.
Architecturally speaking, Singapore pulls no punches. I was lucky enough to be able to ring in the new year from inside the newly completed Marina Bay Sands hotel, which abuts the Marina Bay, where the fireworks were set off. This megastructure is as impressive from inside as it is from the outside. Singapore's well-considered but aggressive urban development makes it easy to understand why people want to do business there.
And, unlike Japan or the U.K., the government seems to welcome foreigners. With low taxes, generous work visas and a low cost of living, it's no surprise that Singapore is a magnet for the kind of talent Japan is losing at record rates.
But it's not all sunshine and palm trees in Singapore. There are still quirky and discriminatory laws on the books. And while I could probably tolerate the bizarre chewing gum ban, I'm not sure I can abide a country where homosexuality is officially illegal and registering double-barrelled ethnic identities only just became law.
Shukan ST: January 21, 2011
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