In Defense of Singapore

Singaporeans ponder the menu at a Dempsey Hill wine bar.

One steamy afternoon a few years ago, while Jerry and I were traveling, we decided to escape the heat and treat ourselves to a posh little lunch at an elegant new French restaurant we’d read much about. We had no reservations. We were dressed in tourist casual. We retreated from the sidewalk and slipped into the cool entryway with sweat coating our brows. If the staff had any problem with our appearances, no one clued us in. That was the first sign of many good things to come.

We were seated in a sophisticated dining room among customers wearing suits and black dresses. The room was dressed in slate gray walls, white cloths, black chairs and the unmistakable feeling of fineness. What does “fine” look like in the middle of the day? The waiters’ crisp attire, certainty in their smiles. And a certain precision in the ingredients, served on sleek white dishes.

Beautiful shell, Gunther’s lunch

I began with a single scallop, exquisitely grilled and served with tomatoes, garlic and mushrooms in a shell with an iridescent sheen. “It’s beautiful,” the words popped from my mouth before I even took a bite.

I ordered a warm white peach for my entrée, but it wasn’t peak peach season, so a plum was offered instead. Coupled with soft mushrooms, the dish carried a salty-sweet balance that is hard to achieve.

For dessert, I went with the recommended apple tart, a huge wedge of pastry presented with thin apples, cinnamon crumbles and rum raisin ice cream with distinct alcohol overtones, not overbearing, just right. (And yes, I strayed from my usual gluten-free routine for that dessert.) But the meal didn’t end there. Along with an espresso came little cubes of bitter chocolate and hamburger-shaped sweets that disappeared on the tongue. The chef himself made the rounds, shaking hands at every table, inquiring of each patron’s happiness. We were sated, beyond expectation.

That lunch ranks among some of my fondest fancy meal memories. And where did it take place? Paris, perhaps? New York? San Francisco?

No, it happened in Singapore, at Gunther’s.

Yesterday, The Times ran a travel article on a Singaporean sort of renaissance taking place right now. “Called a ‘cultural desert’ too many times to count,” the article noted, Singapore has never been associated with the thriving scenes that define other cultured cities. “Rather, it’s seen as a bastion of sanitized, chewing-gum-free efficiency, admired for its modernity and order in otherwise chaotic Southeast Asia.” But the city is gaining cultural ground with new museums, galleries, vintage shops, chic cafes and a surge in creative expression.

Thing is, I’ve never found the above to be lacking.

And, in fact, I’ve been mulling this post for a long, long time.

Singapore, clean and proper.

At times, I’ve almost felt sorry for Singapore. There’s a lot of grousing about overboard cleanliness, odorless hawker stalls, and cultural heritage lost to modernity. Asia-based writers and travelers love to lament the passing of bygone times when vendors parked their carts atop sewage drains by the roadside. I’ve had people tell me they consider exhaust fumes part of the street-food experience—clearly lacking in sanitized Singapore. I’ve heard others decrying the loss of Asia’s food paradise, diminished to legend.

But there’s a flip side: the fans who love Singapore for its fine dining as well as its finely presented street fare—the old kopitiams with their dense, sweet coffee. And the laksa shops serving hot, tangy bowls of noodles swimming in coconut-rich soup. And the famous little rice roll shop on Killiney Road. And the nearby Muslim cart with mounds of yellow rice and chicken curry with background hints of cinnamon. And the fact that any of those things can be reached on foot in that wonderful walkable city.

Last year I met a Singaporean working in the middle of Laos, missing his home. He was the sort of guy who would drive 45 minutes over dusty, unpaved roads just to eat lunch at his favorite restaurant. He loved Singapore for its 24-hour food and the fact that he could get any kind of meal any hour of the day or night.

Earlier this year, a writer with Indian roots who has spent a lot of time in Singapore told me she basically thinks it’s nuts to romanticize the olden days of sewers, filth and food. Her comments reminded me of Kim Fay’s book, Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, in which a Vietnamese friend explained why she enjoys a trendy Hanoi restaurant resembling a series of street-food stalls, minus the grime. “I don’t have to sit near sewage while I’m eating,” she said. “And when we leave… my hair doesn’t smell like cuttlefish.”

The Amara Sanctuary Resort Sentosa, built on the site of an old British military compound

Right around the time Jerry and I ate our Gunther’s lunch, we worked on an article about Singapore heritage and the many ways architects and artists have combined the island-state’s history with new vision. Our article focused on areas where renovation and innovation merged—not least of which, the Singapore National Museum, had recently reopened after a three-year hiatus. The result was a stunning ensemble of Singapore then and now: modernist metal and glass combined with the clean, white neoclassical building originally established in 1887. “I think we’ve changed completely the idea of a museum in Singapore,” Tan Boon Hui, assistant director of public programming, told me. Museums are about contemporary culture, not just life “after the fact…. That is why the museum’s renovations have not been just confined to hardware.”

The museum’s programming schedule—from classical Greek sculpture to modern Turkish dance—was designed to illuminate contemporary thought and appeal to many audiences. “If we keep this up, then the mental map of the museum will change from that of the dusty antique cabinet to a showcase of living, pulsating contemporary lives.”

That’s precisely the case with the museum’s “living gallery” of food, a permanent exhibit showcasing the sounds of street food as much as their flavors. The display contrasted beautifully with another stunning show downstairs: William Farquhar’s collection of natural history drawings, impeccable records of the region’s flora and fauna from coffee to kingfishers, jackfruit to pandanus.

I’ve always liked Singapore. It caters to the palate and the brain—in both swank and simple ways.

Dinner prep at Si Bon, a Japanese restaurant in an old British chapel, now serving a 15-course kushikatsu meal (another of my most memorable dining experiences).

I remember the time Jerry and I arrived by train from Malaysia, both of us ravenous. We stepped into the first food court we found—an enclosed, air-conditioned space with clean tables and floors and no whiff of the traffic outside. I ordered a bowl of rice noodles with fish fried in five-spice powder, dunked in a savory broth with mushrooms, seaweed, spinach, dried anchovies and onions. I can still taste that fish, and I remember clearly the way the various textures mingled in my bowl. Yes—the place was clean. Yes—we sat inside, away from the smog and heat. Yes—the place smelled of food, not sewers.

And no—I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

(Just remember: never, ever bring knives to Singapore.)

Smooth, silky passionfruit and indulgent chocolate from Azabu Sabo Hokkaido Ice Cream

Singapore at night.

In the clouds over Singapore.

14 thoughts on “In Defense of Singapore

  1. This is such a lovely entry. I’ve been tempering an urge to get on a plane to fly to Asia, and now all that tempering has gone out the window. Not only do I want to go back, but I want to visit Singapore. Sometimes I think when cities and places are such a mishmash of cultures, it’s hard for outsiders to discern the heart and soul of a culture. It’s as if everything is a little too noisy on top so it frightens the casual visitors from going underneath to the cozy soul of the place. Or at least that’s how I feel about Brussels, but your sentiments echo my feelings and people’s reactions toward it very similarly. So if I ever do wind up in Singapore, I’ll try my best to see past the cleanliness and the order. I would love to be able to see it as you’ve so lovingly portrayed.

  2. Great photographs of Singapore! One thing you left out is how much more expensive Singapore is today. About 8 years ago, when I went for the first time, we stayed in a nice hotel and had a great time eating and shopping without breaking the bank. Last year we casually added a couple of days in Singapore while in transit, without realizing what it costs for a family of five to stay in a hotel that without prostitutes coming and going. Even the YMCA, which was fully booked anyway, cost about $200 a night if I remember right.

  3. Andy, send me an email next time you’re planning a trip to Singapore. A few years ago, friends introduced us to a great little hotel that’s nowhere near that price.

  4. Emily, thank you for the insightful comments. I think you’re right, it can be a bit scary for outsiders to dig deep into the heart of unknown territory. But that’s the only way to really get to know the place or its people. I’m sure you will find it in Singapore…and elsewhere.

  5. I really enjoyed this post (and have enjoyed your blog for a while :)). I’ve never been to Singapore (someday…) but your description of people’s romanticism of the food carts reminds me of a comment a tourist to Guatemala made, in response to the government’s supposed modernization of the bus system here. She said “Oh, but the [second class] buses are such a wonderful way to experience a different culture!” There’s certainly a dark side to modernization programs, but favoring the past for the sake of exoticism, and to the detriment of sanitation, health, and safety is silly. I know most Guatemalans would prefer not being crammed 4 to a school-bus seat, much as guests at Singaporean food carts enjoy not smelling sewage during their meal 😉

  6. Thank you for commenting, Katherine. You’ve made an important point about the cultural blinders we take on our travels.

  7. I’m quite sure the Singaporans miss those sights and smells and even romanticize them. I could ask my Singaporan friends, but I think I know them well enough to guess their reply. When you love something and associate good memories with it, then you hate to see it change, even if change is needed. I’m all for eliminating care fumes and second hand smoke, but those smells still remind me of good times I’ve had at county fairs, rodeos, and gas stations (on cross country trips with my family).

    I also think there’s a time to ride the nice buses, or stay in nice tourist hotels, and a time to rub shoulders with the working poor. Modernization rarely, if ever, lifts up the poor as much as it lifts up the middle and upper classes. The working poor still have their own places, and their own economy with it’s own character, even in Singapore. Being with them, eating the food they eat…isn’t as healthy, objectively speaking (just Google Cambodia + food + Borax). But it beats living with blinders.

  8. BTW, I’m not saying Katherine lives with blinders on, just that the logic of modernization is too simple.

    Also, I meant to type “car fumes” not “care fumes.” ; )

  9. It’s always a matter of perspective. I’m reminded of a friend’s story about working with Burmese colleagues. When they all shared dinner by candlelight, the Burmese remarked on how much they hate candles. My friend liked the soft lighting, but his colleagues said candles remind them how often the power goes out.

  10. Wow, this post reads like a story. I love how the post is interwoven with interesting background info, thoughtful personal anecdotes, and beautiful pictures. I really enjoyed being able to take away something new. I look forward to reading other posts just like it!

  11. Thanks for the lovely post of Singapore. It’s one of my favorite places and I can never get enough of it even after visiting more than 5 times (my husband is Singaporean). It is frustrating when people can’t look beyond the part of Singapore being chewing gum-free or being a strict country (ahh also thanks to the Michael Fay incident!).

    To those who romanticize the lost of the past, every country evolves, Singapore included. But I think it still manages to maintain its rich cultural heritage as seen through the preservation of colonial buildings. The best thing I like about Singapore is that there is so much to enjoy about the local culture (including eating and sweating it out in the kopitiam!) and at the same time its modernity makes it an incredibly livable place for expats.

  12. This is really a lovely lovely entry. I’m a Singaporean and am studying in London — although I absolutely love London, it is the connivence and the amazing selection of foods from home that I miss dearly. The knowledge that food, both high-end and affordable, is a common love and that almost everyone is a critic makes Singapore a must-visit for any respectable foodie.

    The uniquely Asian manner by which spices and exotic ingredients are amalgamated and the Western inspired fusion dishes and sophisticated settings — things I think of late at night.

    Thank you for the article.

  13. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I agree that Singapore has managed to maintain the flavor of its heritage, and that’s one of the reasons I love visiting the place. Can’t wait for the next trip.

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