Don't just dismiss it as a stopover en route Down Under - the bustling modern city of Singapore has no shortage of fascinating things to do and see
This is a city more reminiscent of Seattle or Vancouver than the British colonial town that the Japanese invaded in February 1942. But the coachloads of visitors who, one wet Sunday morning, were queuing up to visit the little chapel and museum of Singapore’s infamous Changi Prison Camp, proved that even after 60 years memories run deep. Indeed, I noticed that a sense of history was never far from the surface of a city too often dismissed these days as a soul-less staging post for Australia and New Zealand.
Unfairly, Singapore is better known to many Europeans as a low-cost market place for its computer hardware and electrical goods than as a holiday destination. I was certainly hoping to stock up on a cheap camera and maybe even a laptop. But while it is still a convenient stopover that breaks the long haul to Perth and beyond, in 48 hours Singapore has plenty to offer. Here’s my pick of what to see and do...
You really mustn’t miss the Changi Chapel and Museum, which is a simple chapel adjoining a hall of remembrance for those PoWs who died and those who survived three years in the camp near what is now Singapore airport. The walls are lined with letters, drawings and photographs relating to the Japanese occupation, as well as tools and artefacts created by the prisoners. Even my children were deeply moved by the display.
The Chinatown Heritage Centre sounds like it might be a mundane museum – but is anything but. In fact this was my favourite bit of Singapore. You enter what appears to be the back door of a poor tailor’s shop leading to a warren of tiny slum rooms, were dozens of families fought for survival. My children gasped at the squalor and giggled uncontrollably at the filthy recreated loos with their open buckets of – fortunately artificial – ‘night soil’. Everything is hands-on, with authentic smells.
Singapore has changed beyond recognition over the past century and I stayed in the relatively modern York Hotel
in the city centre, and the even more recently-built Sentosa Resort & Spa Singapore on peaceful Sentosa Island outside the city centre. If you want some history then Raffles Hotel, that great colonial watering hole of The East, remains – outwardly at least – unchanged.
You can saunter through the Bar and Billiards Room, where a tiger was once reputedly shot beneath the table, or sip a Singapore Sling before ‘tiffin’ (lunch). Somerset Maugham favoured Raffles Hotel
alternative signature drink, The Million Dollar Cocktail. Both drinks were invented in the early 1900s and you can sample them in the Long Room, where children are not only allowed to eat, but also encouraged to litter the floor with peanut shells.
If you want to check if William Blake’s tiger is still burning bright in the forest of the night, then don’t miss an after-dark visit to the extraordinarily impressive Night Safari at Singapore’s world-renowned zoo. It’s a 30-minute taxi or bus ride from the city centre, and offers a chance to see over 1,000 nocturnal creatures in a near-natural setting of 40 hectares of secondary jungle on the Malaysian border.
But it’s the shopping that I’ve really come here for and for a real bargain, Sim Lim Square is a six-storey shopping mart for all sorts of electronics, ranging from computers and plasma TV screens to cameras and high-end sound systems. Nothing is fixed-price, so you are expected to bargain for anything you want to buy. It’s located at 1 Rochor Canal Road and open daily from 10.30am to 9pm.