You said the things you did in the past / Were all because you’re living too fast

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The ques­tion I found myself ask­ing over and over again this week in Sin­ga­pore is “Where are all the tourists?”. The ques­tion, of course, has an obvi­ous answer, but still, in a place that is nor­mal­ly swarm­ing with Ock­ers and Swedes in stub­bies and Nikons, it was a tad dis­con­cert­ing.

We could’ve swung a Moray Eel around at the nor­mal­ly over­flow­ing East Coast Seafood and not hit a sin­gle Swede or elder­ly British cou­ple (fond­ly remem­ber­ing empires lost).

Bali has had a fair­ly sub­stan­tial down­turn in tourist num­bers too, regard­less of the ‘offi­cial’ fig­ures you read. One only has to look in the restau­rants, wan­der the streets, or look at the beach­es to know that some­thing ain’t right. But, unlike Sin­ga­pore, Bali has a safe­ty net, that being the always depend­able Aus­tralian bud­get tourists. When all else fails (and Bali has been try­ing to move itself a lit­tle more upmar­ket in the last cou­ple of years, with some suc­cess, hence the thou­sands of vil­las and the col­lapse in infra­struc­ture in the new vil­la areas), it can always turn to the pack­age tourists from the work­ing class ‘burbs of Perth and Mel­bourne to swamp the island in their search for Bin­tang T-shirts and “plat­ting of hair”, god help us all. And if you check the ugli­er side of par­adise, pri­mar­i­ly the hell­holes of Tuban and Kuta, there are increas­ing swarms in the DVD shops and the Oz Steak Bars.

So Bali gets that – that and the niche tourists, like the not insub­stan­tial pink tourist mar­ket and the Euro­pean trust fund babies who come every year to add to the traf­fic may­hem.

Sin­ga­pore on the oth­er hand, has real­ly paint­ed itself into some­thing of a cor­ner. It’s far too expen­sive for the low-end tourists from Gee­long or Black­pool, and rather unwel­com­ing to the gay, and the wild and free Euro babies.

But for all that I rather like it. That is, I like it rather more than I used to like it. Sure it hasn’t put behind it all the things that have always dri­ven me rather crazy about the place…the rules, the odd design overkill, the rules, the exces­sive order­li­ness, and the rules.. are all still scar­i­ly evi­dent. But some­how it seems to have devel­oped the begin­nings of a soul, an edge, or at least it’s man­aged to pull that edge back to just under­neath the polit­i­cal­ly ordained veneer that has sti­fled it for the best part of three decades. There are those who say it’s always been there, and maybe it’s just me, but either way, I’m hap­py to have final­ly made its acquain­tance.

Rule num­ber one in every Asian city is to side­step or ignore the guides, online or in print. This rule just about trans­lates world­wide but, from expe­ri­ence, is most espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant any­where in Asia. There are, for exam­ple, some pret­ty wor­thy online guides to any expe­ri­ence you’d want to have in Lon­don, NYC or Syd­ney. Not so in Asia, where local knowl­edge or informed explo­ration are your only choic­es (per­haps exclud­ing Bali where the estab­lished guide books are per­haps your best chance of avoid­ing the inevitable over­charg­ing and scams that face a novice here, and there are real­ly no reli­able online guides).

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Sin­ga­pore in particula,r is a place where avoid­ing the restau­rant and bar guides, tear­ing up Time Out, and dump­ing the Lone­ly Plan­et are real­ly com­pul­so­ry if you have designs on doing any­thing out­side the square or see­ing the some­thing that isn’t ordained as the accept­ed tourist expe­ri­ence.

Our only for­ay into Time Out’s rec­om­men­da­tions was a trip to Divine, the bar in Parkview, a build­ing that, in a very Sin­ga­pore­an way, apes Deco to excess, but thor­ough­ly miss­es the point and the essence of what they are doing. It ain’t the Chrysler Build­ing as much as it tries.

In the same way its always worth tak­ing a rain check on the grue­some swill­ing tourist/expat tack/sleaze along the riv­er at Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robert­son Quay.

Much more sat­is­fy­ing and, for want of a bet­ter, less overused word, sophis­ti­cat­ed, are the groovy lit­tle bars found around the south­ern and east­ern ends of Chi­na­town, in the maze of lit­tle streets full of intrigu­ing design bureaus, book­shops, cafes, restau­rants, bou­tique hotels, and, yes, bars.

Or the new, let’s pass on the banana leafs and mass mar­ket slop please (like the awful Mutha’s in Race­course Rd), cui­sine ori­en­tat­ed Indi­an eater­ies around Lit­tle India.

We always start our arrival into Sin­ga­pore with a fight with the hotel. It’s a tra­di­tion. Hotel check-in staff are, almost with­out excep­tion, rude, inflex­i­ble rule-bound, and unhelp­ful. Ser­vice is lit­tle more than an ear­ly chap­ter in the cor­po­rate rule book they read and then for­got (I have to be fair, The M Hotel is been a hap­py excep­tion – they even sent a girl to my room at 1 am one night. Are you Mr. Rao? said the small­ish Indi­an lass. No, said I rather sleep­i­ly. She looked relieved when I shut the door, but I guess she still need­ed to track down the afore­said Mr. Rao for the ren­dezvous. At The Merid­i­an on Orchard (a dump if ever there was one, but reas­sur­ing­ly over­priced as hotels in Sin­ga­pore tend to be) the door­man asked me if I’d need any­thing extra lat­er? I sim­ply point­ed to Brigid and explained I was well cov­ered.

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And so, yes, The Ama­ra said we could either have a smok­ing room with a double/king bed or a non-smok­ing with twin beds. That we’d ordered non-smok­ing with a king and pre-paid for such seemed irrel­e­vant. If you want that, you need to pay $100 more…

No sir, yes ma’am, sor­ry sir repeat­ed the rule-bound James, a junior man­ag­er, as he remem­bered by rote, chap­ter 6 of the rule book, the one about loud­ly angry for­eign­ers threat­en­ing com­plaints to all and sundry.

This is between you and your book­ing agent, sir.

We made a sub­stan­tive (but very calm) noise and then made some more and said we’d be back in an hour for our dou­ble bed in a non-smok­ing room or we would make a fair amount more.

Noise works in Sin­ga­pore. It ain’t prop­er­ly cov­ered by that chap­ter in the rule­book. No one com­plains in Asia, most espe­cial­ly in Sin­ga­pore where nation­al com­pli­ance is taught from birth in the state-sanc­tioned birthing units, and then drilled in for the next two decades.

On return, we were gath­ered by the gen­er­al man­ag­er and escort­ed to his desk. He said he had some­thing to show us and we both expect­ed it was into a sound­proof room to allow us to make our noise as loud­ly as we wished before we were ignored again and herd­ed to out defined twin room under threat of expul­sion for non-rule com­pli­ance.

But, no. Hell, no! I don’t know if it’s the lack of tourists, or the begin­nings of a new nation­al spine, or a re-writ­ten rule book (scribed by some­one brought in to advise on these sorts of things), but he took us to the 16th floor, the Club Floor, to a non-smok­ing king bed with a view (of a con­struc­tion site to be sure but it’s bet­ter than look­ing through into anoth­er smok­ing room with twin bed, or worse, a non-smok­ing room with a dou­ble bed that we’d been refused).

Is this okay?

What’s the catch?

None. Would you like free Inter­net?

Yes.

What time is your flight?

7pm.

Would you like 4pm check out?

Uhh, yes. No catch?

No. It’s offered with our apolo­gies.

To any­one who’s spent any time in Sin­ga­pore, the above is bizarre, almost cer­ti­fi­able.

Then Mr. Habim (that was he) let it slip:

I lived in Jakar­ta for 14 years.

Ahh, so you’ve encoun­tered ser­vice before – you bloody boat rock­er, you.

Either way, it does make you feel bet­ter about Sin­ga­pore.

I bought a 320GB trav­el dri­ve in Funan IT, per­haps the best IT cen­tre on the plan­et but also, tra­di­tion­al­ly, the rud­est and most unhelp­ful.

Don’t buy that one sir – this is much bet­ter val­ue, faster and cheap­er.

I was floored, again.

And then I got the warm and fuzzies, a glow of pos­i­tiv­i­ty, at the quite extra­or­di­nary new Nation­al Muse­um of Sin­ga­pore, which, amongst very much more which I sim­ply didn’t have the time for, leads you on an inter­ac­tive his­to­ry of Sin­ga­pore quite unlike any­thing I’ve seen any­where – with dozens of intrigu­ing audio and visu­al alley­ways which demand you take a detour down them. I’m not one to refuse.

The impos­si­ble had start­ed to hap­pen. I began to feel good about Sin­ga­pore (feel­ings that may only have been sub­merged since I’d spent sev­er­al years there as an Air Force brat, in the days, when, as seems incon­ceiv­able now, New Zealand was tasked with defend­ing the island).

I’m real­ly not that sure I’m com­fort­able with my new found affec­tion for the place.

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