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!