So is this place for real?

So is this place for real?

Jeremy Atiyah sees behind the mask of Singapore

04 April 2004

I'm in Singapore to find out if the whole country isn't one big PR stunt, something dreamt up by the ministry of tourism.

Because on the face of it, this place is just too good to be true. It must be the result of government spin. It will vanish as soon as my back is turned. The charming façades of those "heritage" quarters will be removed to reveal ugly concrete blocks and piles of garbage. The lovely canopies of rain-trees embracing the highways will be replaced by hoardings of naked women. The quiet couples slurping noodles after dark on verandas will become rioting, spitting, drug-taking delinquents. The very history of this island state will be unwritten.

Either that or I'm envious. My analyst would suggest the latter. Perhaps, deep down, I just can't bear to accept that the old patriarch Lee Kuan Yew had the foresight decades ago to train his people in civic virtues, and to plant all these trees, and to place conservation orders on the quaintest areas of local housing.

Anyway, this is what my mission boils down to: has Singapore been designed as a pleasure park for tourists? Or is it a real country, with needs and interests of its own?

I'm starting my investigation with breakfast in a place called the Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre, which is an outdoor market sheltered by a 100-year-old roof constructed of iron lacework from Glasgow.

How can there possibly be anything fake about this? I see vast numbers of food stalls and communal seating for everyone. Hundreds of fans are swishing overhead. In all directions, real Singaporeans are slurping, sucking and chewing on fish balls, duck rice, dim sum, curry and sushi. Most meals cost a pound or two. This cooling breeze, these strips of bitter gourd filled with fish paste, this ice-cold soy milk - they are real all right. This has got to be the best restaurant in the world.

I must say that if Singapore is a stunt, it is turning out a pretty clever one. When we climb into a taxi, I notice our driver drinking tea out of a plastic bag, hung from the ceiling of his car. "That's great!" I say. "Authentic!" "It is convenient and hygienic," says the driver.

A few traffic-free minutes later we are standing outside a beautiful old yellow palace, said to have belonged to the family of the local sultan. (It was the sultan who permitted Stamford Raffles to establish his colony of Singapore in the first place.) We are in the middle of a place called the Arab Quarter. It's a nice spot all right, with mango trees dotted about the garden. Muslims from Java and elsewhere, my guide tells me, used to gather here to prepare for the haj.

There is only one thing that looks fishy: that the palace, right now, is in the process of being converted into a heritage centre. So there aren't any real live Arabs in the Arab Quarter any more, I ask my guide. She promptly leads me round a corner to find a crowd in skullcaps scoffing noodles and drinking milky tea under a nearby colonnade. In fact they are Malay Muslims, but I suppose that'll do, especially given that we are now at the corner of Muscat Street and Kandahar Street, opposite what is undeniably a mosque. This Muslim food looks jolly good too: I can see piles of barbecued lamb and spicy aubergine, all being served on banana-leaf plates.

In true Singapore style, everything round here has been renovated to perfection. Picturesque palm trees line the streets. The fronts of the two-storey houses are still Chinese baroque, all half-moon tiles, bamboo roof-ridges, Malaysian swing-doors and Corinthian columns. Old saloon doors have not been torn down; ornate lattice vents, once used by women for peering out at strangers, are still visible.

We stroll about the local shops looking at brocaded fabrics and silks, carpets and jewels. Some of these traders claim to have been here since the 1820s. Shop signs betray their origins: "Abdul Aziz and Co" is next door to "Hui Leong Textiles". It is hard to find any genuinely crumbling plaster, but I do come across a genuine Arab food shop, Café Le Caire, where I can get hummus, kebab and a hubbly-bubbly to smoke.

Who cares about authenticity when things are as gaily multicultural as this? Not me. Not really. Just round the corner from the Arab Quarter is its subcontinental counterpart, Little India. Until the 1930s, cattle roamed this area; now it too contains a heritage centre, explaining its curiosities to us tourists.

I don't know how the locals feel about being exhibits, but they do look indisputably Indian. In the local food arcade crowds of short, dark people are tucking into masala dosa and eggs and milky tea. In the shops I see bangles and marigold wreaths. Shops are decorated with Hindu altars. Men are queuing up at the barber to have their eyebrows trimmed. A fortune-teller with yellow turmeric smudges on her face is talking about her customers to a green parrot.

We knock back a cup of cardamom tea in a posh vegetarian restaurant. Gandhi's exhortations are printed on the walls; jewel-encrusted ladies in silk saris are carrying plastic trays. On the wall outside is a facility for selecting and paying for our order by credit card. I would not describe this as a particularly authentic touch, but the air conditioning is excellent.

And next up on our tour of this touristic heaven is Chinatown itself. On the way there, my guide feeds me shocking details of the "four evils" that recently plagued this area, namely prostitution, gambling, opium and drink. She tells me about the "death houses", where lonely old people went to spend their last days (for a fee). And she generally paints me a picture of a hubbub of fish-sellers, food-hawkers, barrow-pushers, drink-pedlars, fortune-tellers and opera-singers packing the streets.

I would like to exclude the possibility that this is a fantasy, dreamt up to provide material for another of Singapore's heritage centres. But funnily enough, the first thing we see in Chinatown is another heritage centre, the excellent Chinatown museum, showing the original Chinese immigrants as the boat people of their day, arriving en masse, fleeing hunger in China. The journey by junk from Hong Kong, I now learn, took about a week, and many perished en route. Most came with the intention of returning, though few did.

The highlight of the museum is the re-creation of the shop-houses of the 1950s, showing how entire families lived in narrow rooms separated from their neighbours by thin partitions open at the ceiling. Today, we tourists can peer in to see their hard wooden beds, their reed matting, their thermoses, their pots, bowls, sewing machines and other knick-knackery. We can even hear the sound effects, on tape, of cooking and quarrelling - safe in the knowledge that today's Chinatown contains nothing but food stalls, trendy restaurants and boutique hotels.

Wandering later through the same quarter, I'll choose a bowl of noodles with huge and delicious shrimps costing only slightly more than nothing. I'll drink from a fresh coconut. And I'll sit there and watch acrobats prance in the street while listening to snippets of Chinese opera and watching otherwise rational people burning incense sticks and paper money for the spirits of their ancestors. Isn't this authentically Chinese all right?

After my three-hour potted tour of Asia, it's time for a burst of Europe. Singapore, you see, has it all. My guide suggests that we drop in at Raffles Hotel, which, when we get there, does indeed turn out to be an intensely charming place, with modestly proportioned courtyards and palm trees and tiffin and turbaned porters. The famous Long Bar may have lost something with the advent of air conditioning and of recorded pop music. (Would Somerset Maugham have listened to Abba?) But if Raffles had been in Hong Kong, I muse, it would now be 40 storeys tall and have helicopters landing on its roof.

Which is not to say that Singapore can't do modernity. Of course it can. When I've finished looking at Singapore's past, my next task is to visit its future. This means a visit to the Esplanade Theatres right in the middle of town.

These two world-class concert halls may have cost more than £200m, but Singaporeans do not seem to be complaining. For one thing, they look great. In fact they resemble two monstrous prickly durians. Big international orchestras have already played here; operatic megastars such as Jose Carreras have given it their blessing. And, as everyone knows, Singapore will not be a proper city unless it has a proper concert hall.

Night falls, suddenly, and it's time for dinner. My guide proposes an ex-convent called Chijmes. Why not, I say, gazing over a lovely complex of shops, bars and restaurants amid green lawns and frangipani trees. Over there I even see a chapel with stained-glass windows and a gothic tower. This place, it turns out, was run as a school by French nuns until the 1980s. But that must have seemed like a waste of a good heritage site, which is why the school has now moved out, and we lucky tourists have moved in.

After dinner, my guide surprises me yet again, announcing that a huge outdoor party called Zoukout is being held on reclaimed land not far from the city centre. Lots of trendy musicians and DJs will be in attendance, and we are going to join them. Getting into Zoukout is a bit like getting into the Pentagon. Only after many police checks do we finally step into an enclosed grassy field to meet a PR called Harry Ng, who is perhaps the only man in Singapore wearing a woolly hat. "Yeah, people are really gonna be freakin' out and enjoying themselves all night long," shouts Harry. He is probably right. Mild-mannered young people are queuing up outside. Skyscrapers glitter to one side. The weather is perfect. Does Singapore have an existence independent of its desire to please visitors? I am beginning to think it does.


How to get there

The writer traveller as a guest of Singapore Tourism. Return fares to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (0870- 608 8886; start from £560.

Where to find out more

Call Singapore Tourism on 020-7437 0033.