Singapore Through The Senses

Singapore’s not called a multicultural country for nothing. Pass through the Raffles Place and City Hall MRT interchanges, the epicenters of the public transport system through which Singaporeans of every ethnic group pass everyday, for an earful of announcements made in our four main languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. To hear “stand behind the yellow line” in all languages is quite the ear-twisting quintessential Singaporean experience.
For an honest look at our kaleidoscope of cultures, there is nowhere more down to earth than our local kopi tiams (coffee shops). And by honest we mean that you’ll be able to pick up swear words in at least three different languages and various dialects too, as the patrons hang around downing mug after mug of the local Tiger Beer, coffee and tea. Check out Chinatown Complex on Smith Street.
Visit the infamous Speaker’s Corner (Hong Lim Park) on any given day and you can hear the deafening sound of…well, nothing really. Our version of Hyde Park, established to give Singaporeans a chance to speak out on issues (with prior approval, of course), is surprisingly empty (well not so surprising given the police station just 100 meters away)—except for guys like former taxi driver and independent politician Lim Kian Heng (aka Singlet Man) and a couple of soccer teams practicing on weekends. But it’s not that Singaporeans have nothing to say. Just hop into any taxi and ask what the driver thinks about the government/economy/price of gas.
Singapore has more than its fair share of song birds in our ever-growing music scene. Of course, whether those birds are singing beautifully or squawking like vultures depends on who you’re listening to. To get an earful of the latter, tune in to Singapore Idol every Wednesday on Channel 5. For more serious musical talent scope out the live gigs at Bar None (Basement, Singapore Marriott Hotel, 320 Orchard Rd., 6831-4657) or Timbre (45 Armenian St., 6338-8277).
Anyone looking to soak in the arts should definitely swing by Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay (1 Esplanade Dr., 6828-8222) at least once to catch a show. The “durian,” as it’s been nicknamed for its resemblance to Southeast Asia’s unique thorny fruit, is synonymous with the arts and is home to some of the most renowned performances, such as the ongoing Forbidden City.
For chilled out banter and chatter, make a stop at Café le Caire (39 Arab St., 6292-0979) on a Friday night. On top of the casual conversation from the crowd of mostly young professionals, there are also the sounds of really cool Middle Eastern music to soak up while enjoying a smoke from intricately designed hookahs.
Singapore is one of the most technologically up-to-date countries in Asia and yet, for some reason, there are quite a number of us that forget there’s a silent function on all mobile phones. Our memory of this function is especially dim when in cinemas. Sit in on almost any flick and listen to the myriad of Canto-pop ring tones that explode mid-film, followed by hushed (or not so hushed) conversations about how the movie is going to end.
If you’ve only got a short while to get jiggy in the clubbing scene, we suggest going for bite-sized samples of various musical styles on offer at Ministry of Sound (#01-02/07, #02-01/08, Blk C Clarke Quay, River Valley Rd., 6235-2292). Here, all you need to do to enjoy a different genre is step into another room.
From middle-aged rockers wielding their trusty (and in some cases, rusty) electric guitars to a surprisingly spry old man swinging about a string of beads around his waist like a delirious hula-hoopa, the buskers on our popular shopping belt Orchard Road are an eclectic bunch. They constantly fighting for your attention and spare change, usually by butchering classic rock songs and church hymns.
Mount Faber may be only 106 meters tall (hardly a mountain) but this park has some of the freshest air around. The unpolluted air (except when the haze comes to town) is partly due to the lack of traffic, the abundance of plants busy churning out oxygen and the proximity to the sea. Chill out on a park bench, take a deep breath of O2 and enjoy the scenic views. Have a drink at The Altivo (The Jewel Box, 109 Mount Faber Rd., 6377-9618) if thirsty.
Love it or hate it but the durian, the big green, spiky, pungent fruit is synonymous with Singapore. Its distinctive pong is highly offensive to people unaccustomed to it who describe its creamy flesh as being like onion-custard. Which side do you fall on? To find out, drop by one of the numerous durian stalls along Geylang Road and cast your vote.
Explore the streets of the historical quarter Little India to learn more about Indian culture. The overwhelming scent of Indian spices, jasmine garlands, incense and yummy curries make your head spin. Go any day of the week—except Sunday—unless you like rubbing shoulders (literally) with thousands of foreign workers who hang out here on their day off work.
There are many who think our local film industry stinks. We certainly haven’t caught anything impressive lately and some productions have even lulled us to sleep. To prove we’re not just being picky, go see for yourself major local productions at movie theaters, while smaller indie films are being screened at The Arts House (1 Old Parliament Lane, 6332-6900), The Picturehouse (5/F, 6/F, The Cathay, 2 Handy Rd., 6235-1155) and the National Museum of Singapore (93 Stamford Rd., 6332-3659). Bring a pillow.
One way to know our Garden City better is to, erm, go to a garden. There’s no better place than the Singapore Botanic Gardens
(1 Cluny Rd., 6471-7361) where you can smell roses and frangipanis growing in abundance. Register for a garden tour at the Visitor Centre.
The National Museum of Singapore’s (93 Stamford Rd., 6332-3659) massive facelift is so recent the paint still smells fresh. Only to be officially opened in December, this 1887 building has been endowed with state-of-the-art facilities and 10,000 square feet of exhibition space. Come and take a peek at the exhibit “The Art of Cartier” and art works from the Singapore Biennale 2006.
The State’s ideologies and the local media are intricately linked. We advise you to be savvy and critical while reading the papers. See if you can sniff out the “out-of-bounds” markers the media abide by—that’s local political speak for the self-censorship process the journalists go through.
Just as sky scrapers and impressive office towers are associated with the Central Business District, small pubs, karaoke lounges, conservation shop houses and cheap hotels are the hallmarks of “fishy” neighborhoods Geylang and Joo Chiat. Come late, when the action really gets going, to see what Geylang Road and Joo Jiat Road are notorious for and a whiff of the shadier side of Singapore. A word of advice: Trust your instincts more than your eyes.
Indulge your taste buds by having Sunday champagne brunch at a five-star hotel. Starve yourself for this treat: There’s food as far as the eye can see, plus free flow champagne. Available at One Ninety (G/F Four Seasons Hotel, 190 Orchard Blvd., 6831-7250, Sun 11am-1pm, 1:30pm-3pm, $132-292) and Town Restaurant and Bar (G/F The Fullerton Hotel, 1 Fullerton Square, 6877-8128, Sun noon-3:30pm, $118).
Try the local cuisine by heading to a hawker center at peak hour. Not only will you get to sample cheap local fare such as roti prata, satays and curry laksa, and interact with Singlish-speaking store owners, you’ll also witness the Singaporean kiasu mentality at work as long queues form at the best stalls. Particularly notable in the evenings are Newton Food Centre and Lau Pa Sat.
For local cuisine in more comfortable (air-con) surrounds, choose the set menu of home style Singaporean dishes at the charming 8 on Greenwood (8 Greenwood Ave., 6100-8711) restaurant or try the all-you-can-eat buffet feast at Straits Kitchen (G/F, Grand Hyatt Singapore, 10 Scotts Rd., 6416-7114).
Try cooling down outdoors by ordering our locally brewed Tiger Beer. Find a chilled out spot at Sentosa’s beach bar KM8 (120 Tanjong Beach Walk, 6274-2288) or check out the more salubrious atmosphere of the latest yuppie hangout One Rochester (1 Rochester Park, 6773-0070) which is housed in a traditional colonial residence.
Witness poor taste in action by going to Lucky Plaza shopping center (304 Orchard Rd.) where you can find all manner of cheap and tacky tourist trinkets, aggressive electronics-touting salespersons and even condom shops.
Satisfy your curiosity about the much-touted chili crab by heading out to the East Coast where many restaurants specializing in chili crab are located. Line up for a table at the chili crab institution Long Beach Seafood Restaurant (1018 East Coast Parkway, 6445-8833) to get your hands dirty with the rich red sauce.
Walking down Orchard Road on a weekend afternoon without bumping into people or having people bump into you is near impossible. But it still doesn’t compare to the swarm at Singapore’s only 24/7 department store, Mustafa (145 Syed Alwi Rd., 6295-5855), at its busiest around 2am on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Nothing brings out Singaporeans’ addiction to shopping more than this quirky phenomenon. This department store is a veritable bazaar for everything from groceries, toys and jewelry to hearing aids and kitchen sinks.
Nothing beats a bit of pampering at the end of a hard day like one of the many hair salons that wash your hair after a head massage and do a manicure—simultaneously. Prices are very reasonable; for a hair wash in a city salon expect to pay $15-20, for a pedicure about $30 and a manicure about $20. We recommend Jean Yip (#04-02 Plaza Singapura, 68 Orchard Rd., 6332-9919).
If you look around you—on the bus, train, in a restaurant—you see Singaporeans constantly text messaging on their mobile phones. The local obsession is so intrinsic that a 23-year-old Singaporean, Kimberly Yeo, held the world record in 2004 for thumbing 26 words into her phone in 43.24 seconds, beating the world record of 67 seconds. To complete your Singapore experience, see how long it takes you to punch in 50 SMSes.
You might get the chance to go to a supermarket while you’re here. If you notice people spending an awful lot of time by the boxes of fruit and veg—this is why. It is an annoying Singaporean trait to go through every single piece of produce, feel it, press it, sniff it, weigh it in the palms of one’s hand, before deciding which piece among the entire box is the best to buy. (And it’s always the piece right at the bottom.) As you can imagine, it takes a while to fondle 600 apples or 150 bundles of spinach. Try it for yourself and see.
If the delights of chili crab, laksa, char keow teow and other hawker food have piqued your interest, pick up some tricks of the trade by signing up for classes at Cookery Magic (58 Jalan Tembusu, 6348-9667). Run by the cheerful and knowledgeable Ruqxana, her classes teach you how to rustle up Singaporean street food in a home kitchen and include vegetarian options. Call Ruqxana to let her know you’re coming as she conducts the classes in her own home.
The best things in life are free. At least that’s the mantra Singaporeans believe in and live by. If you happen to pass by any shop, restaurant or bar that is giving away anything for free, chances are you’ll see a really long queue for it. Doesn’t matter what it is—a drink, a bag, a whistle, health insurance, used socks—if it’s free we want it. If we don’t want it, even though it free, then it must totally suck.
For a certain kind of action on a Saturday night, check out Orchard Towers. With bars like Naughty Girl, Peyton Place and Ipanema in this nightlife location, you can expect to find party girls, sailors, trannies and everything in between. If you step into any of the bars here you’ll see lots of couples dancing, ahem, cheek to cheek, if you get our drift. You definitely won’t be seeing these on your sightseeing tour of the island.
While Singaporeans are a civilized bunch most of the time, we do occasionally hang loose; you’ll even see us eating with our fingers. This happens mostly at South Indian “banana leaf” curry shops that serve rice and curry on, you guessed it, a banana leaf. Check out popular favorite Banana Leaf Apollo (54/56/58 Race Course Rd., 6293-8682) where the curry of choice is fish head. If you don’t fancy gouging out the cheeks of a garouper or sucking out its eyeballs (the most delectable part) try the chicken, prawn, or regular fish curry, or just go to vegetarian restaurant Komala Vilas (12 Buffalo Rd., 6293-3664). You can ask for cutlery, but the real way to eat is to slop curry on your rice, make a little ball, pick it up with four fingers then kick it into your mouth with your thumb. Wash basins are provided.