Nobody likes change.
Only joking. I like change. It’s one of the reasons I love London. (It’s also one of the reasons I left London). But when it comes to Christmas, change is very, very bad.
That’s probably why we neglected to plan where we would spend the day itself: the idea of this beloved annual tradition being so utterly bereft of all the identical customs, clichés and cracker jokes was too traumatic. Add in the lack of proper build-up and I could just pretend it wasn’t happening.
Then suddenly there was less than a fortnight to go, our parents were asking “where are you spending Christmas?” and we thought – crap, where are we spending Christmas? Probably ought to get that sorted.
Our experiences of Indonesia suggested that Christmas there would likely be celebrated with the most enthusiastic of intentions, but ultimately few recognisable elements. Malaysia, whilst next on our list to visit, was more defiantly Muslim and as such didn’t inspire confidence in its observance of a Christian festival – even the superficial elements we actually sought. Still determined to fly as little as possible, we were loathe to go further afield . . . when our eyes alighted on one country we had, until that point, categorically avoided. One which came with such dire warnings of boredom and sterility, and lay so far outside our spheres of interest, that I previously couldn’t have found it on a map. But one with such a mixed community – and especially a significant ex-pat one – that Santa and his reindeer were sure to pay them a visit.
We would spend Christmas in Singapore.
I had expected a cramped, sky-scraping metropolis, squeezed onto a tiny island, its equally lofty fringes hanging into the sea, traversable in perhaps 20 minutes. (I was influenced, I suspect, by my experiences of Kowloon; I think what I had imagined was a cleaner version of Hong Kong, which isn’t entirely wide of the mark). But whilst it’s a minuscule country, it’s also a huge city. We had assumed that wherever we stayed would be nice and central. In fact, our carefully-chosen accommodation – a private room in a family home, since hotels were astronomically expensive – was 25 km outside the centre, a bus journey from the closest metro station, and an hour’s train ride to reach the main attractions.
Our travel woes aside, the city’s expanse allowed for a landscape entirely different to that which I had anticipated. Whilst in the centre, the business district does indeed consist of vast glassy-eyed monoliths and ultra-modern, cloud-skimming towers of commerce, there are also wide boulevards, parks, and even some old, windy streets.
Most people seem to live in blocks of flats, some of which resemble London’s less salubrious council estates, although these are gradually being replaced with ubiquitous glossy condominiums. One of the latter housed our family’s spacious, if bland apartment, along with five swimming pools of varying styles (including one set up like a beach, its shallows ebbing around a group of sunloungers I never saw anybody use).
Our host called this the countryside, although we might refer to it as the suburbs; by contrast, the real “countryside” is mainland Malaysia, easily reachable by bus. Several Uber drivers told us that they regularly popped over the border to buy petrol. At a third the cost of the island’s fuel, it was easily worth the traffic-bound bridge.
The city-state itself was a revelation. With such a fascinating mix of cultures, and remnants of history (if you looked for them), Singapore boasted more character and fewer restraints than I had been led to believe. Some areas were more Indian; others, more Malaysian. Chinatown’s quaint, well-preserved streets of shuttered houses looked like something out of a Hollywood set, lying in the long shadow of the business district.
The metro out to the suburbs passed by older, smaller houses, and a surprising number of open spaces. Most of the skyscraping office blocks and hotels were huge, beautiful, architectural marvels; but even the council blocks were, more often than not, colourful and physics-defying. It was a city to walk around with one’s head tilted up; but no fear of tripping, since the pavements were in such immaculate condition.
There’s something else. Oh, right, the amazing food. The best is found in the covered “hawker centres”, where I demanded we dine as often as humanly possibly. These collections of regulated street food stalls truly represent the ethnic mix of Singapore’s heritage, dishing out tasty bowls of Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai, halal and Indonesian foods, plus a few uniquely Singaporean dishes. Peter was particularly impressed by their reusable melamine plates, shared between stalls, for those eating in.
That said, the country has no recycling at all, which seems completely at odds with their otherwise incredibly forward-thinking approach to society and the environment. We saw adverts in the cinema encouraging citizens to take public transport, specifying recommended calorific intakes, and attempting to reduce the stigma associated with being HIV-positive. And yet . . . no recycling.
More evidence of their environmental credentials could be found in the Gardens by the Bay. With an ever-expanding population and lack of greenery in the city, the government decided to tackle this head-on and ten years ago launched a project to develop the area. As of 2012, it’s a multi-level series of gardens which are (surprise!) right by the bay. But the real heroes of this place are the Supertrees.
I was instructed to visit the Gardens by a friend and, with virtually no background knowledge of Singapore whatsoever, assumed the so-called supertrees were a species of sequoia. Hence my surprise when we trotted over the pedestrian bridge and were greeted with this:
The Supertrees are in fact futuristic man-made structures, ranging from 25m to 50m, and bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Tree of Souls in Avatar. Their pinkish frames are clad with living plants and mosses, breathing much-needed oxygen into Singapore’s atmosphere; their “branches” hold solar panels which power their evening shenanigans.
And these are a sight to behold: dancing multicoloured lights shooting up and down this forest of enormous fake trees in time with music blasted out over the park, creating an event somewhere between the Waltzing Waters on the Isle of Wight and Shanghai’s Chinese New Year fireworks.
Spectacular at any time of year, we had the added benefit of the Gardens hosting a Christmas event something like Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland . . . because, it transpired, Singapore really does celebrate Christmas. Even though temperatures were in the high-20s, images of St Nick in his hat looked violently out of place, and mince pies had given way to dripping ice creams, this was probably the most festive location on the continent. They had erected a huge, glittering bandstand, like a giant sugar frame; there were stalls selling Christmas presents and even some recognisably western treats.
As we stood watching the spectacle, watching lights dance to ear-shattering levels of the ever-present Michael Bublé (a unifying factor throughout Asia), I couldn’t have been happier that we’d ended up in Singapore for Christmas.
The Supertrees are only part of a far larger development; the bay itself. This has been transformed into a hub of commerce, business, seriously swanky hotels, and a fully pedestrianised walkway ringing the entire thing.
This achievement is proudly demonstrated on plaques along the route, along with the intention to develop it still further.
I was under the impression that the area is used as much by locals as tourists, and I’d like to think that if I lived there, I’d visit whenever I could. It’s suitable for cycling too and, as with everywhere else we visited, felt incredibly safe. In fact, our hosts – a well-off Japanese family, 9 months into their 2-year stay – were so confident in Singaporean society that despite living on the ground floor, they never locked their doors.
No doubt such equilibrium is only possible due to the country’s diminutive size. The carrot-and-stick approach of harsh punishments and excellent living conditions is more easily achievable when the population is so tiny. Still, such success requires good intentions to begin with, and the outcome is uniquely admirable. I don’t know of any other government which would have the vision to create something like the Gardens by the Bay, and indeed the financial clout to pull it off. Yet here it was: a (literally) glowing success.
Arguably one of the most famous facts about Singapore is that they’ve outlawed chewing gum. With this in mind, I assumed they would be fastidious, dull, that the obsession with cleanliness would stifle creativity and fun.
But that didn’t seem the case at all. Undoubtedly, there are elements of the city which feel sterile but I wonder whether it’s truly possible to achieve the perfect balance. They’ve erred on the side of caution and as such, the city is a monument to consistency. Everything just works. Nobody overcharges, taxi drivers use their meters, shop assistants run out to give you any forgotten change, women can take the bus at midnight, children walk to school, doors are left open.
Yet compared to other countries with similar levels of safety and prosperity, here citizens are autonomous, yet cared-for, and – more or less, it seemed, from those we asked – happy.
Perhaps it’s because we travelled there from another, trickier Asian country, instead of directly from Britain. Maybe it was simply the comparison. Perhaps people don’t like Singapore because they consider it not to be “real Asia”; but it’s as much “real Asia” as London is “real Europe”. It’s just a different way of doing things. It is, I suspect, how China would love to operate, but apart from the disparity in size, Singapore appears to have considerably more respect for its citizens which I imagine is the other reason they’re able to come up with these ideas, and perform them so successfully.
And as for Christmas day itself? We discovered that, by pure coincidence, two friends would be flying out to spend the week with another friend who lived in the city. Naturally we invited ourselves along to their buffet dinner of epic proportions at the Pan Pacific. Ridiculously posh foods, bottomless champagne (actual champagne, not even cava!), and all in a setting so fancy that I had to (had to) buy myself a new dress.
Rather than expend a thousand words describing the chocolate fountain, here is a (compilation) picture instead:
Sure, those cheap bastards failed to give us crackers, but I quickly got over their pitiful attempt at cranberry sauce with the help of free-flowing sushi, buckets of oysters, and a full-sized gingerbread house (not actually made of gingerbread, but covered in real sweets that you could pick off and eat). So, on this occasion, change is forgiven. Christmas outside the UK wasn’t such a washout after all.
I can see why Singapore wouldn’t be considered “worth it” as a long-haul destination, but it’s unfair to write the place off as merely a 24-hour transit hub. There’s no question it can be expensive – if you’re keen to splash out then you’ll find no shortage of places willing to take your money – but do that and in return, you’ll get some serious luxury. And it’s worth remembering that Singapore remains a city inhabited by normal people, who don’t spend their lives in five-star hotels, and who can’t all be ex-pat bankers. So if you fancy visiting on a budget, it’s more than possible. Sleep at an AirBNB. Eat at the hawker centres. Visit the free attractions. Staying out in the ‘burbs caused us a right headache when it came to reaching the city but it did give us a glimpse of normal life, and a sense of the scope of what it had to offer.
In fact when we decided to visit a waterpark on our final day, we didn’t go to the vastly popular Adventure Cove, but instead Wild Wild Wet: a smaller, older park just ten minutes from our condo, where rides are simpler, entrance is cheaper, queues are smaller, kids are freer, and we were the only tourists. We ate afterwards at a Singaporean fast-food joint which was better quality than many standard European restaurants.
Could I live in Singapore? Would I be happy to inhabit a bubble, with certain restrictions, if in return I got excellent food, reliable transport, and incredible safety? Is it worth giving up the pleasure and convenience of wolfing down a sandwich and a coffee on the tube, if it results in a clean, litter-free system? After a week there, I could see the attraction. Especially those who’ve spent time in the surrounding, less constricted, more shambolic neighbouring countries; for whom “real” Asia’s many pleasures are overshadowed by the incessant difficulty of simply getting things done.
In the end, thanks to the hawker centres, general reliability and ease of doing – well – everything – Singapore broke through my defences. And it wasn’t even with desperation, screaming “LOVE MEEEEE”, but more “I humbly present myself to you in a manner I hope you will find acceptable”.
Well I do, Singapore. You have converted me. I am a fan.