Happy 50th Birthday to Singapore: the Most Underrated Highly Rated Destination

I haven’t spent as much time in Singapore as I have in Hong Kong or Bangkok, although it’s probably getting to be close. So many people tell me that they think of Singapore as ‘just a stopover’ or as ‘Asia light’ and I think they completely miss the point.

Perhaps because Singapore is so nice it doesn’t match the mental model of ‘noble savages‘ that Westerners who haven’t spent much time in Asia go looking for. The place is clean and these people speak English! Well, sort of. Singlish really is a different language altogether, and if you get outside the hotels you’ll realize there’s more of a language barrier than you realize. I often find it easier to talk to taxi drivers in Hong Kong and even Bangkok than in Singapore!

It’s amazing what Singapore has accomplished, consider that it’s been 50 years since becoming a country independent from Malaysia. If ever there was a test case (besides the ‘3 Chinas’ of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China I suppose) of the importance of institutions vs culture in driving economic performance, Singapore has to be it although because of its small size its both a great natural experiment and always an outlier.

A first time tourist shouldn’t miss the Singapore zoo and night safari, of course.

And Singapore is one of the world’s best food cities at both the high and the low end. Their Hawker centers are a national treasure. Just get in the longest line and order what everyone else is ordering, easy to do since most stalls specialize in a single dish.

The Marina Bay Sands is either a monstrosity or a marvel, and it stands for much of modern Singapore in one place. Local residents can’t enter the casino without paying a fine, such is the paternalistic nature of the government which wants to discourage gambling amongst its people even as revenue is earned off of foreigners. So bring your passport if you want to enter, even if just visiting the shops because it can be convenient to cut through the casino or you might even do it by mistake.

I think it’s almost universally recognized that Singapore has the world’s best airport. I can’t think of a single survey that made the case for a different one. What I like best about it is that security is at each gate. When you get off an international flight you can go straight to the lounge, and then there’s no backup queuing for your next flight. It’s the most seamless transit anywhere.

Others may prefer the free movie theaters in terminals 2 and 3.

Some fancy the cactus garden; the terminal 1 rooftop swimming pool; the sunflower, orchid, and butterfly gardens; or the slide. If you’re bored during transit it’s because you’re tired and in no mood to play, not because there’s nothing to do.

There’s a reasonable argument that Singapore Airlines is the best in the world. Certainly their premium cabins are fantastic — from their Airbus A380 suites to their business class. Even their economy seating is thoughtfully designed and with more legroom than the competition.

Singapore Airlines even has the best main meals, doubly so for short haul business class departing Singapore where no matter how short the flight you can still choose in advance what you wish from an extensive menu.

Yes I know that Singapore Airlines isn’t perfect. It’s geographically located just a little bit off to be best-positioned as a connecting hub, especially for North America. It’s facing increasing competition from the Middle East carriers and from Cathay Pacific which can get most Americans to most places in Southeast Asia with one fewer stop than Singapore Airlines can.

But there’s no denying an excellent experience.

Nonetheless, that’s all the superficial stuff, or Singapore as it’s experienced as a first-timer.

There are great malls, most everything is ‘expensive for Asia’ but remember that’s because it’s a highly desirable and desired place and the one thing they do not have much of is land. So everyone’s bidding up the possibility of being there.

Meet a Singaporean over coffee, Singapore is one of the heaviest coffee drinking countries per-capita.

You’ll rarely eat as well, it’s a world financial center, and likely the highest-quality governance of any country in the world (independent of what you may think of that government’s choices, it really is a place like no other).

Savings rates there are among the highest in the world (government forced savings, though the government has invested and historically earned high rates of return), but so are levels of consumer debt (given the expense of things, and as a way of spending now the claims on large future income flows from real estate prices and the government’s forced savings).

I’m not a local and so I don’t experience Singapore the way that locals do. And here are their complaints about life in Singapore, set to song, the Singapore Complaints Choir:

We get fined for almost everything
Drivers won’t ‘give chance’ when you want to ‘change lane’
The indoors are cold, the outdoors are hot;
And the humid air, it wrecks my hair

It’s really a marvel of a place, and I find it endlessly interesting. Most of the time that I transit Singapore I try to stay for a few days, and I’ve enjoyed my time every time.

Happy birthday Singapore!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I just returned from a five week round the world trip, of which two weeks was spent in Australia, and two weeks combined in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. I have been to all three cities multiple times, and all are interesting. I find Bangkok to be the best to visit of the three, as it is cheaper and has an edge to it. I know I am in the minority overall, but I find Singapore to be more fun to visit than Hong Kong. I can’t really say why exactly, but my time in Singapore is always great fun!

  2. OMG. If anyone in America or another western country thinks of Asians as noble savages, well God help them.

    What I like best about Singapore is the way diverse cultures and religions seemingly have learned to live together and respect one another. The food is great too although on the whole Singapore is too expensive.

  3. @john ‘god help them’ indeed but it seems to be a very common view, at least to the extent that somehow modernity isn’t “really” Asia. So it can take a subtle form.

    @James K any particular city? or do you mean more thoughts on singapore?

  4. When choosing between visiting two totalitarian states, I prefer Hong Kong to Singapore. I must admit that I do enjoy the Raffles Club, yet I find Hong Kong to be more inspiring, creative and open to question injustice.

  5. This article is perfect timing since I just booked a trip that will involve Singapore next month. Do you have recommendations on the amount of time that’s best for a first timer? Will 3 days be too packed? Thanks!

  6. I am with @Gary on this one.

    I have been to SE Asia yearly for the past 6 years, including to SIN many times, making it there 3 times in 2009, after I “discovered” it.

    SIN simply rocks, culturally, socially, you name it. Will be there this year for New Year’s eve festivities. It is rated PG for Please Go 😉

  7. I love Singapore. Not everyone like MBS, but my husband and I love the place! Thanks for all the pics and the mind stirring.

  8. No cities in particular, Gary, just your take on places that you have a measured opinion on. I haven’t been to Singapore, though I’m going next June, and found this to be very interesting reading

  9. *addendum

    I realize the word “measured” in my above post might imply I think you have irrational opinions on other places. What I actually meant was any place in which you have significant thoughts on, I’d be happy to read about.

  10. Went to singapore for the first time in 2001 as a mileage run and have been back about 12 times. Going again in a couple of weeks. Do love it lots to offer food culture nightlife but do agree it has gotten a lot more expensive.

  11. Thanks for this post on my home country!
    There is definitely more to Singapore but I have to agree everything is expensive here. Even a simple meal can cost $6 out of town. Probably still cheaper than Paris and London, but way more than Bangkok.

  12. I/We have been going to Singapore since 1995. We love the mix of cultures, MRT’s ease of use and low to high end sights, sounds and tastes. It has gotten progressively more expensive but still well worth visiting. Seeing most of it in 3 days would be 3 VERY full days.

  13. I’m with you DCS – I’m a Texan who has been traveling to SG for 20 years, and have always absolutely loved every visit i all respects. Although certainly – like everywhere – there are things which could be improved (most subject to individual preferences and perspectives), it is a most impressive and admirable example of what can be accomplished with organization, efficient government, and when resources are applied efficiently to the betterment of society rather than wasted away in political antics and bureaucracy. I’ve already been twice this year, and am anxious to return – perhaps for the F1 coming up 🙂 Happy SG50!

  14. Gary,

    +1 to everything you said except food and sight-seeing.

    Had taken my family for vacation to Japan and visited Singapore for three days in transit. Very much disappointed with Zoo and Night Safari. I found the local Bronx Zoo much better.

    Spouse wanted to eat Mexican food. Went to Cafe Iguana and extremely disappointed.
    Kids wanted to try Indian food. The cottage cheese (paneer) was not great.

    Sentosa Island was equally disappointing.

    Kids then told me not to compare with USA 🙂

    Our kid fell sick for a day. We visited a doctor. The health-care system is awesome and the cost are not as crazy as USA.

    -s

    PS: Thanks for all your wonderful posts. your credit card links and advices are of great help.

  15. Last year we took the overnight train from KL to Singapore and had a one night stay before returning back to the US. We lucked out and arrived on their independence day. We heard bangs and everyone was walking so we followed them to see the fireworks show in front of the Marina Bay Sands. We stayed at the wonderful Westin. We’re really kicking ourselves for not spending a few more days there. I think we spent 4 hours at the Telok Ayer food center.

  16. Special place for sure for many reasons mentioned. Two things I dislike: the lack of natural landscape (HK is 100 times superior), and the soullessness (inequality + too orderly). Maybe I need to explore more, but those are my sentiments after several visits.

  17. Not gonna bother addressing posts one by one, I happen to live in Singapore and there are tons of things that I do not like about this place but it is really up to the individual, I would prefer to live here and travel to get my ‘edge’.

    For the person coming to Singapore next month there is tons to do and see hard to say not knowing your preferences. I would recommend Chatterbox at Mandarin Orchard or Kopitiam at swissotel these 2 cafe restaurants serve local food in a civilised air conditioned environment, if you do not have a lot of time to explore it is easier to pick an easy spot in a not too foreign setting you can enjoy. I would also recommend visiting me@oue at OUE bay front for early drinks they are not open on Sunday and usually from 6 to 11+ for drinks they have a great restaurant too if you are not on a tight budget. The person who said the Bronx zoo is better than the one here must be crazy, Singapore spends much more effort on the enclosures and environment. Lots of other places but if you don’t have much time check out these.

  18. I first visited Singapore as a very young man in 1957. Was hitch hiking around that part of the world SCUBA diving. Changi was a British base and I slept on the beach. Since then I have traveled internationally on a constant basis, usually about 150,000 miles per year. Many stories to tell, but not here. Just want to say that Changi Airport continues to be the best and most seamless airport in the world. Nothing else comes close.

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