Melting the Yesterday into Tomororrow by Elena Luraghi, Steffi Kammerer | 6th December, 2019 | Travel
Paternalistic, illiberal, Singapore has long been seen as boring at best. However, the financial metropolis has reinvented itself as a lab for a green future that combines nature and high-tech.
Singapore’s latest landmark is ten year old: The Marina Bay Sands, a hotel complex that embodies the path Southeast Asia’s most sparkling island nation has taken. The three 200-meter towers house 2,500 hotel rooms, a conference center, a theater, public spaces and cultural centers. They also boast a 700-ton flat steel roof that features a pool, restaurants and 360-degree views of the city. The complex is the continent’s largest city resort. From here, you have a first-class view of the Gardens by the Bay ecopark, a combined parkland and high-tech oasis, and of the ArtScience Museum. The latter is a fascinating lotus-shaped structure that lives up to its name, showcasing groundbreaking temporary and permanent exhibitions at the intersection of art and science.
Welcome to Singapore, the city-state at the southern tip of Malaysia. Millions of visitors arrive at its futuristic Changi Airport every year to discover a global trading hub whose roughly 5.6 million inhabitants speak, think and do business in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay, and were educated in a British-inspired school system. The city’s Asian traditions are not immediately obvious. Conversely, you instantly realize that the high-tech quarter around the Marina Bay Sands has an ecological soul. The so-called Supertrees in the Gardens by the Bay are artificial metal “plants” on which ferns and orchids grow. The structures use sunlight to generate clean energy, facilitated by a highly sophisticated system of steam turbines and photovoltaic cells.
The Flower Dome and Cloud Forest are both located right next to the metal trees. Both glass domes house flowers and other rare plant species from all over the globe. The former is the world’s largest greenhouse, a home for plants from semiarid and Mediterranean climatic zones. The latter boasts a 35-meter hill that attracts visitors with a huge, cascading, artificial waterfall. Special effects for a very special city, which is growing at a breathtaking pace. Skyscrapers are the response to this lack of space, and its skyline is an irresistible blend of old and new. However, Singapore is by no means a concrete jungle, quite the opposite. Its government is a great champion of ecological sustainability and the political will is there to turn the city into the world’s greenest metropolis. In practice, this means that every square meter of green space that is lost to development has to be replaced. Consequently, lush greenery hangs off countless buildings and living green walls and roofs shape the cityscape.
Car drivers don’t have it easy in Singapore. Registrations are strictly regimented and cost a fortune. On the other hand, public transportation is organized perfectly: A comprehensive bus and mass transit network covers every corner of the city. Such forward-thinking attitudes attract many prospective residents from abroad as well as a growing arts and cultural scene. The excellent education system does the rest: Singaporean students regularly score the highest marks, and came out on top in the international Pisa study.
But older people are also not forgotten: Practical help is given, for example extra-time when crossing the road. Those who are equipped with an electronic seniors’ card can hold it to a sensor at the pedestrian light to get additional time to cross. All this can be put on the statute books because Singapore has been ruled by the same party for over 60 years. Having a monopoly on power seems to come with certain advantages. You could almost forget that in this city of the future, homosexuality is still criminalized, graffiti artwork will land you in jail and death by hanging is the punishment for those who are caught with more than 500 grams of cannabis.
Singapore is a city of immense contrasts. The future is ever-present here, as is the past.
A part from futuristic modernism, nostalgia is as much in evidence as ever, for example at the historical Botanical Gardens, one of Asia’s most beautiful. The city’s Chinatown boasts a fascinating interplay between low-rise houses, brightly colored signs and temples right adjacent to metro stops. Also not to be missed: Little India with its maharaja-style buildings, and the picturesque pastel-colored structures on Arab Street in the Muslim quarter.
Western Singapore stretches along Orchard Road, where apartments fetch a million euros and one high-end mall is going up one after the other. The ION Orchard, for example, is home to numerous boutiques, galleries and restaurants like the TWG Tea, Southeast Asia’s most stylish tearoom. Super-sophisticated blends of tea like Yunnan Gold are served in 18-karat gold tea pots here. This may even give the famous teatime at the Raffles Hotel a run for its money.
The hotel building on Beach Road exudes a colonial charm far removed from the structures created by the competitive zeal of large international architecture firms, such as Singapore’s supreme court building, which was designed by Lord Norman Foster and looks a little bit like a UFO. The shoreline between Robertson Quay and Boat Quay has also been regenerated: Traditional Chinese buildings have been refurbished and turned into trendy bars and restaurants. However, Singapore also boasts a large number of traditional cookshops, especially in the so-called hawker centers. The most popular of these is the Lau Pa Sat Market located just behind the city’s skyscrapers.The stylish Satay by the Bay is a cookshop with an ocean view. High-end dining is available at Pollen, the elegant restaurant in the Flower Dome, which has remained very popular even after head chef Jason Atherton left. Those who look for even bigger contrasts should visit the exclusive residential area of Dempsey Hill. This is also where The White Rabbit is located, a European-inspired restaurant with a very well stocked wine cellar located in a former church.