I remember the first time I visited Singapore with my family. I was 15 and it seemed so exotic with the steamy heat and pungent smells of clay pot rice and char su being sold on the street corners. My parents and I wandered the labyrinth of streets in Little India and Arab Street.
Boy, have times changed! There are still food stalls and ethnic neighborhoods (if a little white-washed), but now Singapore is known as the safest, cleanest city on the planet. While it has a reputation for being sterile, I fully enjoyed walking the streets without fear of someone mugging me for my camera.
Here’re my 7 highlights of the city:
MEET (Cool Meet Ups) – Arab Street. Probably the only place in Singapore where you can smoke! Sit back and share your hookah pipe with friends. No alcohol allowed in this mostly Muslim enclave, but plenty of apple tobacco.
EAT (Tasty Eats) – Chinatown Hawkers. The same food stalls serving cheap, fairly good food. My first night I indulged in a plate of Singapore noodles: chicken, vegetables and thin noodles with a slight curry flavor. At around $8, it’s the cheapest meal in the city.
SEE (Must-see Sights) – Merlion. The Merlion is a mythical creature with the head of a lion and body of a fish. It’s a nod to Singapore’s original name of “kota singa” or “lion city.”
There are actually 5 Merlions in Singapore. The most famous is 8.6 meter tall and 70 tons and sits in Merlion Park at the mouth of the Singapore River. It’s made of cement covered in porcelain, and it has red tea cups for the eyes.
As I approached, I saw hordes of people crowded beside and under it. The result was a viewing of the Merlion spitting on passersby. Funny!
SHOP (Gotta Have) – Orchard Street. Man ‘o man ‘o man! Shopping is king in Singapore and once glance at the famous shopping strip Orchard Street and you’ll see why. How can there be 2 or 3 Dior shops on one block? A seriously Starbucks approach to high name fashion. Yikes!
ACTIVITY (Gotta Do) – Singapore River Walk. Singapore has spent a lot of money updating its riverwalk, now full of cafés and restaurants. You can ride the Singapore eye or take a river boat cruise – both a nice way to spend a summer evening.
GIVE (Greatest Need) – Babies! The country needs a replacement level of 2.1 children for each couple. With reproduction steadily decreasing, the Singapore government has embarked on some questionable policies in an effort to increase its population.
For instance, in the mid-1980, the government offered preferential schooling for children whose mothers were university graduates, while offering S$10,000 (about US$7,500) for less educated women to become sterilized after their second child. This didn’t go over so well.
Today, there’s a government campaign called “Have 3 or More, if You Can Afford It.” This program offers tax rebates for 3rd and 4th children (up to S$20,000 – which is more than US$15,000), subsidies for daycare, priority in school enrollment and housing assignments, and extended sick and maternity leave.
To date, none of the monetary incentive-based policies are working.
ENJOY (Extra Fun) – Island Escapes. As a county, Singapore comprises 63 islands. In addition, its position at the tip of the Malay peninsula makes it a perfect base for exploring the islands of the region. A few spots for weekend get-aways are the Malaysian islands of Langkawi, Pulau Tioman, and Borneo (where I headed next!).