ASIAN ODYSSEY PART SIX--SINGAPORE--THE LION CITY
But unlike the sports bar we frequented in Jordan 2 years ago, we didn't have to explain to the locals or the bartender what the Super Bowl is. The crew on the ship may have had difficulty locating Green Bay on a map, but at least they knew about the Super Bowl. As you know by now, the Cheeseheads prevailed, and the Brett Favre era has officially ended.
In the ancient Sanskrit language, Singapore means "lion city". The deal is that hundreds of years ago, a Borneo prince arrived there and saw a wild animal which he thought was a lion. Never mind that if he had never seen a lion, how would he know what it would look like. They didn't have TV or the Internet in those days. Lions are not indigenous to the area--but tigers are. Whatever the case, they build a statue of a lion in the Singapore harbor, and the tourists flock to see it.
Singapore is a tiny country, about the size of Chicago. the majority of the people are of Chinese descent, but it is a melting pot with many nationalities. We were told that 92% of the people own their homes. Singapore boasts the world's busiest seaport and has the second highest per capita income in the world (next to even tinier Monaco). The government can be described as a benevolent dictatorship. The citizens are prosperous and don't want to rock the boat, and it's a bad idea to criticize the prime minister. The death penalty is used liberally, and the people get the message. The crime rate is very low.
It is against the law to bring chewing gum into the country--punishable by a $1000 fine. Actually we DID smuggle some in our suitcase, and fortunately, we didn't get caught. The reasons for the law is that the government's policy is to keep the city clean, and scooping up gum from the sidewalk is expensive, and then there's the ick factor. If you spit out gum on the street the punishment may be caning. It's safe to say that the Wrigley Company will not be building a plant in Singapore anytime soon.
The city is warm and humid, even in early February. It is 81 miles North of the Equator, on islands off the Southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It rains quite a bit, but we had good weather in the few days we spent there. Because it's a small country, the land is used very efficiently. They use landfill to create new land. Then they expand upward in the form of high rise buildings. The Swissotel Stamford is 73 stories high and was once the tallest hotel in the world. Now it's No. 11, and the others are most likely in Asia also.
Singapore was founded as a trading post by the British in 1819 to counter the Dutch influence in nearby Java. The key man here was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), a man of many talents who was Governor-General of the nearby areas of Malaya. He was a botanist (several species named after him) and a historian (wrote History of Java). In the relatively short time he spent there, he set up far reaching progressive policies. For example he wrote a constitution, abolished gambling and slavery (brought in convicts). He set up local schools for the natives and decreed religious freedom for all. Maybe most important was he made peace with the local sultans.
There are many things named either Stamford or Raffles, but the best is the classic Raffles Hotel, built in 1887 by two Armenian brothers. It was renovated into a 5 star hotel in 1991. When we disembarked from the ship, we agreed to meet our friends later in the day at the famous Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel. The Long Bar is a relic from the British colonial period and is best known for inventing the Singapore Sling cocktail. This sweet and tasty drink is composed of gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine and pineapple juice, with soda water added for foam. Of course we had to try one, at 17 bucks a glass. The 8 of us sat around the table toasting the cruise with our pricey drinks. Actually the $17 was in Singapore dollars--converted to U.S., it's only about $13.
Our home away from home in Singapore was the Conrad Centennial Hotel. This is a 6-star top of the line in the Hilton Hotel chain, and their service during our stay was impeccable. What was peccable, however, was their failing to meet us at the dock. We had to hire a taxi to drive us to the hotel. The concierge expressed embarrassment, and for our entire stay, they treated us like the big shots that we are. The concierge showed us to our room and made sure everything worked properly. We slept in a tall bed--it seemed about 4 feet off the floor. You wouldn't want to fall out of bed. The pillows were big and soft. As in the Hilton in Shanghai, we were treated to a complimentary buffet breakfast with stuff like delicious red bean pau, several varieties of fish, rice, etc. as well as scrambled eggs, toast and cereal which Americans would normally eat. This hotel is more sedate than the brand new Marina Bay Sands, a Las Vegas style hotel, but more on that later. The Conrad is a first class hotel.
The evening concierge, an attractive young lady, walked us across the street to a giant shopping mall and the Sin Chocolate store. We bought her a chocolate rose, and she couldn't thank us enough. At the end of our stay, the staff arranged to have us driven to the airport at 6 A.M., complimentary.
Our hotel was walking distance from everything if we could have figured out the right directions. Walking around is dangerous for Americans because cars drive on the left side. We instinctively look the wrong way at street corners. Across from the main entrance is a second enormous shopping mall, the Suntec City Mall with 360 stores on 4 levels. We later found out that both shopping malls are the same--they are connected underground. A tunnel under the busy street has stores also. We crossed the street and found the booth for the double decked topless sightseeing buses that tour the entire city. We signed up for unlimited service, and over the next full day, we got to see pretty much the whole city, stopping at the main attractions and then catching the next bus on the schedule. The city is a model of efficiency, and the buses, like everything else, run on time.
We wandered around the 888,000 square feet of retail space at this multi-level shopping mall, plus 5 high rise office buildings as well as a convention center. Did I mention that everything is big in Asia! Our frustration level was high when we couldn't figure out how to exit to return to our hotel. We had to conserve steps because Dianne was still walking in a cast with a crutch, so I had to walk ahead and scout around and ask directions. The information booths and maps were hopeless and the people, though well meaning, had difficulty helping us. Most speak English though heavily accented. This was the second time on our trip that we got lost in a shopping mall (the other was Hong Kong), and asking directions doesn't always work. The problem was that although our hotel was across the street, we didn't know what direction we were heading, and one can literally walk for miles around the mall. If we could have found the the sightseeing bus booth, we would have been OK, but we couldn't find that either. Eventually, with the help of a young lady shop clerk, we found our way back.
We later learned that this mall was featured on the Amazing Race TV show on three occasions. If the contestants got lost also, it would not surprise me.
That evening, we decided to visit the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the new Las Vegas style casino that recently opened. Our friends from the cruise, Mike and Dorothy were staying there, and we decided to look for them. Although it is normally a 5 minute cab ride from our hotel, it took an hour to get there through the heavy traffic on an expressway over a bridge. While inching along on the bridge, we noticed that many people walk there over an elaborately decorated pedestrian bridge. We couldn't do that because of Dianne's difficulty walking.
The Marina Bay Sands was built by Sheldon Adelson, the same guy who built the Venetian and the Palazzo Hotels in Las Vegas, and he spared no expense in this one. The total cost of this complex was $5.7 billion, but that includes a convention center, another huge shopping mall that extends under the superhighway connection to the hotel, and of course, a casino which is the size of a Super Walmart.
This hotel is really over the top. On the 57th floor is a 3 story pool complex with palm trees growing. From a distance, it looks like they added it to the roof of the building as an afterthought. The pool area is very luxurious and they charge $20 to go inside.
I've read that the casino is the most profitable in the world. It would not work in Las Vegas, but in Singapore, it's basically the only game in town. They discourage Singapore natives from gambling there, so they check your passport when you enter. Singapore natives must pay $100 to enter. For tourists, it's free. The reason it wouldn't work in Vegas is that Vegas gamblers are more sophisticated, looking for games with a small house edge, like Video Poker and craps. Mike asked the manager where the crap tables were and was told "soon". He thought that "soon" was the Chinese word for dice. I saw thousands of slot machines, many of which were of the penny or two cent variety where you must play almost $2 on every pull, and the house has a big advantage. I asked the manager where to find Video Poker. He led me to two machines--two in the entire casino! We went to the $10 roulette table. In Las Vegas, you can bet $1 on each of ten numbers as long as you bet a total of $10. Not here. $10 on a single number. If you want red or black, it's $50. We didn't stay long in the casino. We didn't want to pay off Mr. Adelson's mortgage by ourselves.
We walked over to the connected shopping mall, following the signs to the food court which turned out to be about a mile away, Dianne hobbling the entire way, cursing. All the restaurants were Asian food chains, and finally we split a tuna salad sandwich.
As you've probably figured out by now, Singapore is a city of shopping malls. And these are high end malls. A major trading port city, there's mucho bucks here. Touring the city, I saw about 20 Armani stores, not to mention Hermes and Burberry. This is an expensive city, and the malls reflect that. I'm sure the rents are not cheap, and the stores apparently do enough business to stay open and profitable.
Dominating the skyline at the harbor is the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest Ferris Wheel. It is more than 550 feet tall, and slightly larger than the London Eye. The thing with Asia is that if Europeans or Americans built something big, the Asians will build it bigger. The Flyer has 28 cars (seats), each of which can accommodate about 20 people. We had one to ourselves on a sunny but hazy morning. This wheel is so big that it takes 37 minutes to revolve. In the meantime, we had spectacular views of this vibrant city and the harbor. In the harbor, ships were lined up as far as the eye could see.
We took a sightseeing boat ride on the Singapore River to absorb the history of the city and to take in the older British colonial style buildings juxtaposed with ultra modern skyscrapers on both sides of the river. At the boat launch we had our choice of restaurants for lunch. We chose Hooters which is similar to Hooters in the U.S. except that all the waitresses are Asian. The food is the same as in the States. After days of Asian food, we were happy to eat American.
We caught the next bus for the Chinatown market. Virtually every city we've been to has a Chinatown, and Singapore is no exception. In fact the Chinese may be in the majority in Singapore. By the entrance is a huge Hindu Temple. We found that, as in Hong Kong, many of the merchants are Indian, especially in the many tailor shops. They'll make a men's or women's new suit or outfit in 3-4 hours. We weren't about the come back the next day, but if we were, we could have had some good deals. Although the New Year celebrations were over, the decorations were still intact, and the shops were promoting post New Year specials.
After an hour of shopping, we caught another bus to the 183 acre Botanic Gardens, another tribute to the naturalist Stamford Raffles. Because of the warm moist climate, year around, the vegetation is lush, to say the least. Orchids are common and very inexpensive in Singapore. The National Orchid Garden has 1000 species and another 2000 hybrid species of orchids. Dianne posed in front of the orchid named after the late British Princess Diana. It even has a 5 acre rainforest (formerly called a jungle) which predates the park.
SUMMARY AND THE TRIP HOME
The flight from Singapore to Chicago is not an easy one. We boarded a Japan Air flight to Tokyo--a 3300 mile flight in Business Class. The service was outstanding--but 6 1/2 hours is a long flight, and we would have another 12 hours or so after that. Tokyo is believed to be the world's largest city--about 30 million, and Narita airport is enormous. We had only a 2 hour layover, so we couldn't tour the city. Instead, I roamed around the duty free shops. I amused myself by calculating the prices of familiar items, converting from yen to dollars. For example
the large (1500 ml.) bottle of Louis XIII cognac was priced at 397,000 yen which is about $3100. You can do better at the Sam's Club back home. They keep that stuff under lock and key.
My parting impressions of the countries of Southeast Asia is that they are more advanced than the U.S. in many aspects. Not so much Vietnam and Thailand, but China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore are freewheeling business cultures. I was impressed with their high quality infrastructures. Their architecture and building projects eclipse those of U.S. cities. Certainly Chicago and New York are world class cities in this regard, but Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and even Saigon can hold their own in many cases.
Everywhere we went we found the level of service to be high. The people are friendly to tourists and to us as Americans.
We visited the 3 busiest seaports in the world. The shopping malls we visited are enormous and garish compared to those in the U.S. though the store brands are pretty much the same. Obviously the Asians have plenty of money to spend because the luxury brands are prominently advertised on street corners and in every mall. In the rural areas, there is still poverty and subsistence farming. In Singapore, however, there are no rural areas.
In contrast to Europe, I saw no evidence of labor union influence. Asia has done a good job eliminating inefficiencies. Human rights are probably not high on their list of priorities. The cities appear to run like clockwork. We went to every corner of cities--even the poorer areas, and by and large the people go about their daily business like we do. They talk freely to us, but they steer clear of politics or criticizing their leaders.
The good news, as I see it, is that the U.S. and China are major trading partners, and for that reason I believe they recognize that war is out of the question. Wars are fought over national interests, and trade is too important to jeopardize. My observation is that in the Asian Tigers, trade and business are the highest priority--human rights is lower on the scale. I suppose that from their viewpoint, if everyone is doing well and prospering, human rights will take care of itself.
KENNETH SUSKIN 3/20/11