Michael Jackson is, to put it at its mildest, somewhat eccentric. So when the legendary rock star decided to visit Singapore, this island nation prepared itself for the arrival of one of its most elusive and demanding visitors.
Mr. J announced that he was staying in Raffles Hotel, named after the founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. A room here costs upwards of $800 per night, but a suite would set you back $8000 / night. Not surprisingly, Michael chose the suite. The opulence is unsurpassed: chandeliers tower over Persian rugs, there are five TV's, seven phone lines and a private verandah that accommodates a hundred party guests. The food is reputed to be excellent, but the ever-cautious Mr. J. brought his own personal chef and team of food tasters. At one stage, the star allegedly called room service and demanded that the immense marble Jacuzzi be filled with warm sparking mineral water. "Of course" was the apparent reply as his request was granted without the merest hint of a raised eyebrow.
It is however obligatory when in Raffles to try a Singapore Sling, first concocted in The Long Bar in 1815 by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon. Cool, refreshing and wonderfully alcoholic, custom dictates that you eat fresh peanuts with your drink while discarding the shells on the floor. By closing time, The Long bar is knee deep in peanut shells. Equally famous is the Bar and Billiard Room at Raffles, where in 1902 the manager Charles McGowan Phillips shot a tiger which had sought refuge under the billiard table. The Straits Times the next day reported "In shooting this most fierce of cats, Mr. Phillips spoilt his coat and we may perhaps suggest that he be provided with a new one at someone else's expense." The story has been immortalized and embellished over the years, most recently in the children's story "The Tiger who came to Tea"
Singapore today is a vibrant successful first-world island nation. Sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia, this remarkable country is more Manhattan than Malay. Giant shopping malls nestle under towering skyscrapers, offering the latest in designer clothes, electronic goods and most recently pirated computer software at outrageously low prices. Smaller shops and stalls encourage haggling - start at 50% of the asking price - while larger stores only offer fixed price goods. Rip-offs are rare. Indeed this society is so law-abiding that if you drop your wallet in the street, it is more than likely that someone will run after you to return it. Described by critics as a "nanny state", it is illegal to spit, chew gum or jaywalk, while serious offenses such as drug smuggling are punishable by death. The result is a very ordered wealthy society whose inhabitants' goal is to achieve the five C's: Car (incredibly expensive), Credit Card (preferably gold), Career, Condominium and most importantly Cash. A sixth C - Children - is optional.
But for those who choose to start a family, there are unexpected pitfalls. I was struck by the number of fat children, and equally mystified by the fact that, almost without exception, they had slimmed down by adolescence. On investigation, it was revealed that on starting secondary school, the parents of a fat boy would be summoned to school, and told that little Johnny was to avoid Big Macs, would be detained after class for extra exercise and was to be placed on a strict fat-free diet at home. Parents are expected to comply with this seemingly harsh but effective regime.
The city center may overpower visiting children, large and small. However, Sentosa Island, a heartstopping cable car ride from Singapore itself is an Asian Disneyland with a dollop of culture added. But given the heat and humidity, it is impossible to rush here, so two days would be needed to do justice to Sentosa. The highlights are Underwater World, Asia's largest tropical oceanarium, Fantasy Island a huge $50 million water theme park Volcano-land with its daily half-hour eruptions and the regions first specialised golfing theme park, Wondergolf. But amidst all these attractions lies one of the most moving museums I have ever visited. Called "Images of Singapore", the museum is dedicated to keeping alive the memories of the island's wartime occupation by the Japanese. Images of viscous torture and oppression are displayed with nonplussed candor to the horror and astonishment of the hoards of camera-clicking Japanese tourists. "We didn't know," a pretty teenage girl sporting a Yokohama tee shirt mumbled, "they don't teach us about this history in Japan...."
Other images of Singapore's colonial past nestle amongst the mirrored glass skyscrapers. The Cricket Club, the oldest gentleman's club on the island, only admits women once annually to its New Years Eve ball. While ancient Chinese tea ceremonies are performed in The Tea Chapter amid fading photos of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who dropped by for tiffin two decades ago.
Nearby, the Imperial Herbal Restaurant is in a class of its own. A cross between an oriental eatery and a doctor's surgery, the experience begins with a herbalist checking the balance of the diner's Ying and Yang. I was diagnosed as being under great stress (doubtful) and with chronic back pain (true) while a succession of dishes were prepared and served by the delightful manageress, Fanny Long. The Egg White with Ladybell Root on a potato noodle base was inert, but my imbalance needed further treatment. A plate was produced filled with deep fried black scorpions which Ms. Long advised removal of the stings before eating and warned of their powerful aphrodisiac effect. To complete the treatment a glass of sickly rust colored liquid was produced which successfully masked the taste of the scorpions. After draining the glass, my host announced with some glee that this was their best deer penis wine. I understand that sales of Viagra in Singapore have now surpassed scorpions, which will come as something of a relief to the insect protection brigade.
Singapore has had more than its fair share of bad publicity in the last year. Firstly there was The Haze, a throat-wrenching smoke caused by forest fires in nearby islands. Add to this the panic caused by the collapse of many Asian currencies with, as a result, confidence in this and other neighboring destinations reaching rock bottom. But today, Singapore is picking itself up. El Nino, that most mysterious of winds, has changed direction again, sparing Singapore another season of smoke filled skies. While the strength of the local economy means that while hotel prices have fallen benefiting the visitor, this Asian tiger is once again in full roar.
(c) Copyright 1999 - All rights reserved David Malone