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10 December 2023

Let loose in the Lion City

By Keith J Fernandez




Like the great rivers of London and Paris, the one that cuts through the heart of Singapore brings the city together. Tourists, bankers, models, students all congregate at Clarke Quay. The newly remodelled downtown district is home to both cookie-cutter versions of international clubs like the massive 10-room Ministry of Sound and the opulent Fashion Bar, as well as to intriguing concepts such as the hospital-inspired Clinic: if there’s an emergency, don’t call 911!


But the Lion City (it takes its name from the Malay word for lion) isn’t just a nightclubber’s paradise, and it’s more than a contender for the title of Asia’s business capital. Finance, freight, tourism, retail – the 17th richest nation by GDP per capita leads on each front. Indeed, from the moment your bus leaves the spanking new, almost artsy Terminal Three at Changi Airport, you’re hit by a sense of déjà vu: so this is where so many Gulf economic planners get their ideas. In terms of retail, Singapore was the “fly and buy” trendsetter; 200-plus retail outlets make Changi a mall in its own right.


But the best shopping opportunity is in the city’s old downtown area on Orchard Road, where malls like Ngee Ann City and Tang’s retail enough bling to satisfy the lust of even the most jumped-up footballers wife, and the old shophouses along Ann Siang Hill stock trendy local labels such as Kwodrent and internationally forward brands such as Commes des Garcons.


A winding road away is Chinatown, one of several ethnic areas that include Little India and Arab Street. It is home to cheap and cheery souvenirs, and – oh bliss – tiny reflexology clinics a steep walk up from street level.


Singapore’s well-developed tourism infrastructure means many activities centre around the family. At the zoo’s Night Safari, the animal shows seek to instill a sense of environmental awareness in children, while Sentosa island offers enough family bonding for several days out.


Museums such as the Chinatown Heritage Centre and the Battle Box Second World-War bunker recreate history with displays that bring alive the very emotions of times past. And the newly opened Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel, offers another perspective on life.


But whether or not you’ve been to Singapore before, it never quite feels the same. This has much to do with the nation’s obsessive need to redevelop everything, so that familiar haunts suddenly disappear, such as Scott’s Shopping Centre on Orchard Road with its fabled Picnic food court, which is no more than a memory today.


But this freshness also reflects the very nature of this fine example of Asia Lite: Asian enough to remain exotic while so cosmopolitan the tourists stay squarely in their comfort zone.




Singapore’s national pastime is shopping, but eating comes a close second. Food is plentiful and pocket-sized: you pay what you want depending on where you eat. Food courts such as Newton Circus offer enough variety for a month’s eating, while Au Jardin at the Botanic Gardens does an awesome seven-course degustation menu that is the talk of the town. Either way, one must-have is Chilli Crab, the country’s national dish, best served at Jumbo Seafood on Clarke Quay.




In recent years, following industrialisation, the country has begun to market its multi-ethnic appeal to tourists. Hari Raya or Ramadan is a big draw for travellers from the region, while the two weeks around Chinese New Year and its Chingay carnival (below) appeal to those looking for an interface with other cultures. This is the perfect time to visit places like the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, where a tooth thought to belong to the Buddha is on view for everyone to see.



It’s easy to believe you are in Bur Dubai’s Meena Bazaar when you’re walking down Arab Street, home to Singapore’s textile market. Also in the area is the old palace of the sultans of Singapore, Istana Kampong Glam. Now home to the Malay heritage centre, this is where Singaporean national award-winning artist Iskander Jalil gives pottery lessons to tourists and residents, holding forth on the terrible state of Singaporean youth today to the strains of Bollywood music.




Singapore is a great city to go for long walks, particularly in its national parks and botanical gardens. For the Middle Eastern resident, who is happier getting to places without much physical exertion, an easy way to see the city’s heritage areas is on the three-wheel vehicles called trishaws, an evolution on the old Chinese Jinrickshas. Alternatively, take a bumboat from Clarke Quay along the river where the guide will point out landmarks and new developments alike.




The island of Sentosa, off the southern coast of Singapore, is a great day out for families. While the corporate tycoon relaxes with a round of golf, and the missus lets fish nibble away at her feet in the fish spa, there’s loads for the kids to do. Take them to the interactive, state-of-the-art 4-D Magix Theatre and the go-cart, part-toboggan gravity ride that is the Luge.


And to get there? Simply take the cable car across the water.



How to get there


Getting to Singapore couldn’t be easier, corporate travel specialist Charmaine Noella told Emirates Business. Together, Emirates and Singapore Airlines run 24 direct flights a week between Dubai and Singapore, and from Abu Dhabi, Singapore Airlines and Etihad each run three flights a week. Prices on Emirates range from Dh3,370 for economy to Dh11,900 in first, and from Dh1,890 to Dh11,760 with Singapore Airlines.


The city has 227 hotels, with an average room rate of S$202 (Dh533). Among the best is the colonial-style Raffles Hotel, home to the legendary Long Bar and the iconic Swissôtel The Stamford.


Citizens of countries not in North America and Europe require a visa for Singapore. The Singapore Consulate in Dubai can be contacted on 04 321 9498. Log on to www.mfa.gov.sg/dubai for more details.


It is best to plan your trip well in advance, especially if you have a wish-list of things to do. The Singapore Tourism Board does not offer packages, but will redirect you to its partners.