Ari Burack/Special to The S.F. ExaminerThe petals of the Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum

Southeast Asian city-state emerges as 21st-century leisure capital — and conundrum

Singapore, a prosperous outpost in the sweltering heart of Southeast Asia, is growing up.

For years, this tiny island off the southern tip of Malaysia has been something of an anomaly for travelers. Westerners typically view it as a “safe” introduction to the region. Streets are spotless, crime is low, English is a second language and the street-food scene is humming.

It’s also a fascinating mix of strict laws, a highly educated populace and opulence to rival any city in the West.
Yet Singapore is still crafting an identity, as this densely populated tourist spot also faces increasing calls from its residents for political openness, environmental protection and labor rights. There also exists an effort to preserve open space amid the new, multibillion-dollar developments.

The modern, independent city-state — a fusion mostly of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian cultures — was established in the 1960s when it was dealing with a flagging economy. Now, there seems barely an undeveloped block on the 270-square-mile island of more than 5 million people. Tourists flock there to stay in five-star hotels, shop and gamble.

Gardens by the Bay is a sprawling $1 billion parks project opened last year atop 250 acres of reclaimed waterfront land. Looming over the meticulously landscaped gardens are futuristic “supertrees,” gargantuan metal-limbed sculptures garbed in living plants and topped by solar cells.

Two massive glass domes on the property re-create overseas climates indoors. One is a greenhouse conservatory of flowers, cacti, and other plants and trees from cool and arid lands. The other remakes a cloud forest, with waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet through cool mist. In the air-conditioned indoors, schoolchildren are led through educational exhibits on global warming, carbon pollution, endangered species and recycling.

Gardens by the Bay is a spectacular engineering feat, and it’s beautiful in a decidedly unnatural way.

Nearby, the center of downtown is buzzing, but not congested. Open-air food-hawker centers are packed into the night, sending the fragrance of grilling meats and spices into the air just blocks from the drab sight of fast-food restaurants.

The area is architecturally stunning. Some buildings ooze modern sophistication and others give a nod to the country’s British colonial history. The marina that once greeted immigrants and fishermen is now home to a skyline of international banking centers; luxury hotels that pipe their trademark “scent” into the lobby air; casinos that welcome tourists, but charge locals to gamble; and shopping centers and food courts. They are all products of Singapore’s tightly managed prosperity in the midst of the so-called developing world.

The price of this manufactured tranquility? A government criticized by some as autocratic, and a cost of living that is among the highest in the world. One may wonder if Singapore is a model of a sustainable urban future or an Eastern mirror of Las Vegas-style materialism.

A short distance from the central downtown area you will find glimpses of the country’s earlier history and diverse influences.

In the Kampong Glam neighborhood — once home to Malaysian royalty before the British assumed power — restored 18th-century shop houses brightly painted in shades of red, blue and marigold reside amid Muslim shrines.

A museum in the Civic District is dedicated to the unique culture of the Peranakans, descendents of Chinese and Indian merchants who married Malaysian locals. An expansive Chinatown has retained some of its historic character even as young entrepreneurs pour into nearby gastropubs at happy hour.

And while the upscale shopping area of Orchard Road is ablaze with holiday lights on winter nights, in another part of town the grittier Geylang neighborhood offers some of the country’s more notorious vices.

In the northern part of the island, a tiny train creaks along the tracks through acres of contrived African forest and savanna at the Singapore Zoo’s popular Night Safari, not far from one of the country’s crucial freshwater reservoirs.

Resorts World Sentosa is a sprawling entertainment, shopping and hotel complex located on nearby Sentosa Island. It celebrated the opening of a new aquarium in December; a wondrous series of exhibits display the ghostly visages of sharks, rays, anemones and jellyfish rising and falling behind thick glass.

And yet in the local headlines the next day, resort officials were trying to defend their environmental practices as outraged local activists accused them of poorly caring for dolphins imported to headline one of the resort’s attractions.

As Singapore opens itself more to the world, one hopes — for a country so embracing of modernity, yet so dependent on smart development, careful management of its resources and tourism — that they are getting the model right.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at

If You Go: Singapore

Sultan Hotel: The family-owned boutique hotel in the Kampong Glam neighborhood features traditional Muslim architectural motifs consistent with the area’s history.

Singapore Zoo: Get up close with nocturnal creatures from around the world at the zoo’s popular Night Safari. Trains run until midnight.

Gardens by the Bay: Tour the magnificent outdoor gardens, and the dramatic indoor Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. Enjoy exquisite dining and views at Pollen restaurant. and

Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum: This lotus-shaped museum at the Marina Bay Sands hotel features engaging exhibits on art, history, science, technology and more.

Lau Pa Sat hawker center: This popular indoor and outdoor market downtown is packed with indoor restaurants and outdoor grills.

Capella Singapore: For luxury accommodations on Sentosa Island, Capella is an eye-catching architectural mix of classic and modern, with restored British colonial buildings and gorgeous views of the water.

Peranakan Museum: This petite jewel of museum outlines the history, art and culture of one of Singapore’s most unique peoples.

Singapore Flyer: Take in Singapore’s stunning downtown and marina from 165 meters up on the world’s tallest Ferris wheel.

Singapore River Cruise: Putter peacefully along downtown Singapore’s historic waterways in a bumboat.

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