I often wonder what Stamford Raffles’ first impression of Singapore was. Exasperation was mine as my passport wilted into my hand upon exiting the aircraft and I wondered how I was going to cope with the country’s oppressively high humidity.
Stamford Raffles’ arrival in 1819 marked the beginning of modern Singapore although the island had been inhabited for almost 2000 years before the British arrival. The British needed a trading base in South East Asia and settled for the small island to the south of the Malay Peninsula, what was then the crossroads of international shipping routes. Singapore built upon that vantage point and almost 200 years later it remains one of the world’s top economies.
On 9th August 2015 independent Singapore celebrated its 50th birthday. Many of its critics accuse the country of embracing modern living to the detriment of its culture and heritage. I disagree on many counts but primarily on logistical grounds. Yes, Singapore has an amount of high rise buildings and is a highly urbanised society. But how else does a population of five million people fit onto a piece of land one-sixth the size of my home county?
Singapore celebrates its diverse culture and heritage through the various houses of worship and heritage centres around the city state. Singapore’s British historical connections are well preserved with Raffles Hotel as the focal point. It’s one of the world’s great hotels, its colonial past oozing from the walls. Not only is the interior one of perfectly preserved glamour but the gardens and courtyards summon up all that past allure. And it was here in the Long Bar of Raffles Hotel that the gin-based Singapore Sling cocktail was created in the early part of the 20th century.
Southeast of Raffles Hotel lies the Padang, a field where various colonial sports were hosted down through the years. Today anyone can stroll through the field. At the southeast end of the Padang lies Singapore Cricket Club, a distinctive building which combines British architecture with local resources. Around the Padang area lie more colonial buildings dwarfed by the skyscrapers on the opposite side of the river. Also dwarfed by those skyscrapers are the bars and restaurants of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, two of my favourite places in Singapore where many a night I soaked up the spirit of this well-known social hub. During the day I wandered beyond the skyscrapers into Chinatown, comprising of a myriad of roads and bustling markets.
Whilst Singapore is highly urbanised, public parks are numerous. My friend brought me to many places and I can ashamedly say I cannot remember the names. Perhaps the lack of detail signifies their prevalence and is hence a positive. One place I can distinctly remember was the Taneh Merah Country Club, my one and only brush with 5-star exclusivity outside of Ireland. Located over the ditch, so to speak, from the landing strip of Changi International Airport, my friend’s father’s membership allowed us an afternoon of lazing around the Olympic-size pool, although the golf course is open to international tourists.
Another memorable place was Fort Canning Park, a public park east of the Padang area bordering Orchard Road. And I suppose I cannot publish a post about Singapore without elaborating on Orchard Road, one of the world’s great shopping precincts. Unlike other famous shopping streets I could actually afford some of the wares on offer such is the diverse variety of retail outlets. However, my favourite Orchard Road purchases were in fact the most inexpensive, that being the ice-creams sold by the street vendors. I have no doubt the humidity was a factor in my purchases.
I’m often asked by Australia-bound friends and acquaintances if Singapore is worth a stopover. I always answer in the positive for the reasons I’ve given and for those I’ve failed to mention. For Singapore has a progressive and creative inclination, a multicultural melting pot constantly realising its dreams. Now that’s something to celebrate everyday not just once a year.