The Republic of Singapore is a sovereign city-state with a unique history. Located on the Malaysian Peninsula, Singapore was once a British colony and a part of Malaysia. In 1965, Singapore gained independence and has since been very economically successful. As the city-state reaches its 50th anniversary, Peter Greenberg reflects on the changes he’s witnessed over time, and destinations worth visiting.
When I first visited Singapore, it was considered one of the more legendary, romantic, and some might even say hot destinations in Asia—an island nation with great food, a great culture, real character, and a natural hub of the continent. Then came a period in the late eighties and early nineties when the place seemed to want to erase its colorful past, erect large concrete structures, and sanitize all the fun parts. When that happened, the average visitor rate started to drop. Many folks felt Singapore was intentionally trying to marginalize its cultural roots, moving from satay carts on the streets of newton circus and the bustling nightlife into a more antiseptic financial center. The same people felt there wasn’t much to do in Singapore.
Thankfully, times have changed and Singaporeans are moving quickly to recapture and celebrate their history and their culture. Indeed, Singapore has a rich history with an abundance of unique cultural and culinary attractions. Its airport is one of the best in the world, along with another winner: Singapore Airlines.
The small city state of Singapore (about half the size of Los Angeles) is only about three hours by plane to most Asian capitals, which makes it easily accessible on any Southeast Asia itinerary. Plus, you don’t have to look far to rediscover Singapore’s deeply entrenched history as a prominent maritime trade hub.
The city was actually designed to face the water. Back in the 19th century, there was a battle for control of the sea leading to Singapore, particularly over the Straits of Malacca. At this time, Singapore was part of an imperial trading network that would start in India, sail to Singapore, stop in Hong Kong, and sometimes end up further north along the coast of China. At the same time, Singapore also positioned itself into a “sleepy” fishing village, creating a port that was drama-free.
Few people know of the city’s history with opium, which once accounted for about half of Singapore’s revenue. You need to make a stop at the National Museum of History in Singapore, because they feature this fascinating history (especially in their oral history department). You can check out the museum seven days a week for about 10 Singaporean dollars.
Another surprise about Singapore—its natural parks and gardens. I always ask the locals for their insider guidance when it comes to hanging at local parks. Donna Bernero, professor of Singaporean History at the National University of Singapore, spends her free time at the Sungei Bulow Wetland National Park, where you can see monitor lizards, mudskippers, crabs, and other Singaporean wildlife. They host free guided walking tours on Saturdays (early registration required). For more outdoor exploration, try the Singapore botanic gardens or the Jurong Bird Park (which was my mother’s favorite).
Then there’s Raffles Hotel, which is my long time recommendation and one of my more favorite hotels in the world. Raffles is arguably the most iconic hotel in Singapore, and in its 127 years of operation has housed countless writers (and a few infamous journalists as well)—Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and Rudyard Kipling. Many of the suites are named after such legendary residents, which instills the hotel with a palpable sense of historic awe. The management has gone to great lengths to preserve the feel, the architecture, and the style, and because of that, the spirit of Maugham, Hemingway, and Kipling lives on. Other than air conditioning and in-room Internet access, Raffles proudly holds on to its original form and grace, taking you back to another time and securing decades of intriguing stories. If you want to hear some, just seek out the hotel’s resident historian, Leslie Danker, who’s been with Raffles for 42 years and knows all of the hotel’s tales, most of them epic.
Soon the hotel will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling. Yes, this colorful, very sweet drink was invented at the hotel, and yes, there’s an epic story behind it as well. In all candor, it’s not my favorite libation. It’s too syrupy and too sweet. But it doesn’t matter. Every time I go, it’s just not negotiable. I must go into the Long Bar and have a Singapore Sling. It is, as some of my British friends will remind me, “just what one does.”
The other thing that “one does” in Singapore is…eat. The food scene has really taken off. Singapore has embraced its mixture of Western and Asian cultures—and a small parade of new fusion Hawker Centres and restaurants are just about everywhere you look. If eating street food makes you nervous, keep in mind that the hawker stalls are regulated for safety and cleanliness, and Singapore’s National Environment Agency oversees more than 100 markets and hawker centers. It’s a must see-must do Singaporean experience. Check out the bak chor mee at Bedok 85, or the porridge with gold fritter and century egg at the Bukit Timah Market, or head to Bincho, a traditional Japanese restaurant that doubles as a coffee shop.
A new addition to the Singapore food scene is Bar-Roque, an aptly Baroque-themed 17th century style restaurant serving cuisine from the French region of Alsace. Chef Stephane, a native of Alsace, serves his beef and seafood-heavy dishes in large, communal portions to encourage a familial vibe. Try the Seafood Platter, which includes oysters, Sturgeon rillette, prawns, fish ceviche, octopus, and Alaska King Crab leg.
One particular Western-Asian fusion style restaurant is called Eighteen Chefs—it has both great cuisine and a great story. Created by Benny Se Teo, who once worked for his father’s opium den, then transitioned into the gangs (which landed him in jail), Benny emerged from prison with a great idea—a restaurant the gives opportunities to ex-convicts and reformed gang members (who now make up 50 percent of his workforce). While this in itself is admirable and is part of the restaurant’s attraction to first time customers, what brings us back is the Eighteen Chefs cheese baked rice. Imagine a dish with two different kinds of cheese, eight different possibilities of sauces, and thirteen choices of ingredients—and you get to pick the combinations.
One thing you can find in Singapore—which you may not expect—is Australian food. At Burnt Ends, it’s all about the grill. They use apple and almond wood burning machines and grills, where they smoke, slow roast, hot roast, bake, grill, and cook their daily written menu. You can pull up a chair at the main counter, which faces the grill, so you can watch the roasting and grilling in action. Head Chef David Pynt uses fresh ingredients, so the menu changes on a daily basis. You might find options like smoked quail eggs, duck hearts with endive and aioli, or flank with burnt onion and bone marrow. The drink options also stick to the Australian continent—the wine menu features small growers and family-owned vineyards.
Finally, at a time when airline food has mostly been forgotten (and some might argue is forgettable), Singapore Airlines is a notable exception. On my last trip to Singapore, I visited the catering facilities. Talk about “cooked to order.” They’ve figured out one of the problems of inflight meals and the challenge of overcooking food (or reheating it for a flight and THEN overcooking it). They’ve brought in special blast chillers to cool the food down immediately after it’s cooked (which stops the cooking process quickly). This is especially helpful when you consider that our taste buds are 30 percent less sensitive at 35,000 feet, something that also contributes greatly to the lackluster taste of other inflight meals). Bottom line: You get to eat well in Singapore, and also when you leave!
Want more destination and restaurant recommendations? Check out:
- Peter Greenberg’s Hot Destinations for 2015
- The Flourishing Foodie Scene in Atlanta
- Up-And-Coming New York Neighborhood Restaurants
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com