It’s not often that I visit a place knowing very little about it. For several years my travel habits were rather rigid; I didn’t get many opportunities to travel and tended to stick to places I knew and ‘trusted’ would meet my needs. Now that Moira and I are retired we have been able to journey further afield to less familiar destinations.
Yet I have usually picked locations familiar to me through my reading of history or the arts; cities like Florence or Vienna, countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Often I’ve read about the sights before arriving; our trip to Vietnam was greatly enhanced by knowledge gleaned from the excellent BBC4 series on the Vietnam war.
But with only days before departure I knew virtually nothing of Singapore. I opted for the ‘ten best sights’ approach and became aware of the Marina Bay Area and gardens, Chinatown, Orchard Road, the Orchid Gardens etc. And this approach worked well on a short, three day break in a city which lends itself to exploration. But as I played the tourist I also found myself, in admiration, wondering how a city-state whose existence as an independent nation is encompassed in my lifetime, has risen to be so successful; the third richest nation per capita in terms of GDP, regarded as the worlds third financial centre behind London and New York, with 95% home ownership and free from the problems of homelessness, urban decay and litter which are so evident at home. Obviously, three days as a tourist is inadequate to find all the answers but some of the ideas I listened to on the one brief organised tour we participated in gave some interesting food for thought.
However, I write as a traveller not an economist so let’s see some of the sights of this exciting, vibrant city. It helps to know that Singapore is roughly a diamond shaped island some 35 by 17 miles in its maximum dimensions. Home to 5.7 million people it’s no surprise to find your eye drawn ever upwards to soaring futuristic skyscrapers. Singapore is an ethnic mix incorporating Chinese, Indian, Malay and many other races who evidently exist in harmony. Each of the major groups has its own area of the city whose historical buildings are protected and preserved by law; it is not the case that all Chinese live in Chinatown however as the government encourages mixing and the city housing blocks have set quotas for each ethnic group to encourage peaceful co-existence.
The city also has areas specifically designed for shopping, leisure, entertainment. On our first night we enjoyed dinner and drinks at Clarke Quay where the bars and restaurants were bustling.
Much of Singapore centres on the Marina Bay Area. The iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel stands out as an icon of this forward looking future proofed country. Adjacent to the hotel is the shopping complex with its vast glass roof, three floors of designer shops and the opportunity to take a boat trip to the shops!
Around the marina area are found walkways with beautiful views. The famous Merlion statue draws crowds of visitors as do the bars, restaurants and museums. The recently completed Helix Bridge allows an easy circuit to be enjoyed.
Beyond the hotel is Marina Bay Gardens. This area is undergoing extensive development but already boasts beautiful landscapes and views. The ‘supertrees’ are man made sculptures with plants growing from their trunks. By night they come alive with a sound and light show with thousands of admiring tourists and locals seated below.
Also in this area are two giant domes, one being the largest man made ‘greenhouse’ in existence. The Cloud Dome recreates environments of a tropical rain forest; visitors ascend by elevator before walking through suspended walkways over the treetops in a dizzying spectacle.
The Flower Dome is a more conventional botanical garden. Permanent collections representing geographical habitats are backed up by a rotating programme of specific flower types; the tulip display was about to be replaced by one of begonias.
Ascending in the Singapore Flyer one fully appreciates the cityscape in all its splendour.
Chinatown is the largest of the ethnic regions in Singapore. In addition to shopping streets are several temples. The Sri Mammaman is the largest Hindu temple
while the Buddha Tooth Relic temple is astonishing, with its vast main hall, endless arrays of miniature buddhas and stunning ceilings.
Thian Hock Keng temple even has railings imported from Scotland! It was from this site that one can best appreciate the contrasts between the traditional buildings and the soaring skyline of modern Singapore.
Little India is less engaging but still shows signs of older style housing and shops, including ones producing beautiful flower garlands, intended not for the use of mortals like us but as offerings to the gods.
The Malay area of Singapore is known as Kampong Glam. During negotiations with the British to secure its development, the Shah secured the building of a palace and gardens, now the Malay heritage centre. Immediately adjacent is the imposing Sultan mosque.
Before the development of the domes in Gardens by the Bay, nature was on display in the Botanical Gardens which contain the National Orchid Gardens. These remain well worth visiting and the efficient, clean and cheap underground, the MRT (mass rapid transport) system makes this easy. The Orchid Garden is particularly beautiful.
Exiting at the far end of the gardens brings one on to the malls of Orchard Road. We didn’t spend much time here, except to enjoy the air conditioning and escape the rain, so perhaps I didn’t see the best of the malls but I was rather underwhelmed.
So I turn my mind to the questions of how Singapore manages its personal finances, at least those of its native residents. The average income is apparently 58000 Singapore dollars per annum (about £32k) from which income tax is deducted; rates are low and most people will pay 2-3%. Then three further deductions are made. One ‘pot’, the Ordinary Account, is used to pay expenses including education, life insurance and mortgage repayments; the government pay interest on this in the order of 3%. The second pot, the Special Account, is retirement investment and the government makes a 16% contribution to this pension fund. The third pot is for healthcare costs. Singapore has a health care system the envy of many, funded by a combination of government input and compulsory personal packages which can include provision for residential care in old age. Most people pay in 8-10% of their income and the government pays interest on the capital invested.To cover those who cannot pay or have exhausted funds a safety net called Medifund exists. Cover is regarded as inexpensive but allows one to choose tiers of service as per individual wishes.
Much of this information was commited to memory after a day travelling so apologies for any errors! As usual, Wikipedia has helped my memory. I think the system is fascinating. No-one can deny that as a nation we are struggling to address issues such as young people getting on the property ladder, adequate provision for retirement and funding health and social care. Maybe we need some bold thinking outside the box; austerity and increasing taxation do not seem to give all the answers.