Peeling Back Singapore’s Shallow Veneer

Letting our curiosity get the better of us and knowing our flight would connect in Singapore anyway, we decided to spend a few days in the world’s most expensive city. We needlessly compounded this mistake by foregoing a hostel in favor of cashing in some of my slowly replenishing loyalty points for three nights at the Hilton Singapore, smack dab in the middle of the retail mania that is Orchard Road. Those who like to deride my fellow Americans for their abject consumerism need to visit Asia; we Yanks can’t hold a candle to the Japanese and Singaporeans when it comes to shopping.

Stepping out of our air-conditioned palace — please mind the Ferrari parked outside  — and into the sweltering heat of Singapore, we eschewed the subway in favor of a lengthy walk across the city, from one end of the tourist map to the other, pin-balling our way past myriad Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Chanel storefronts. Pedestrian passages led under busy intersections into multi-level underground gauntlets of shopping malls. Buy, buy, buy! Several blocks later, the same luxury boutiques repeated themselves. This is where I’d try to force a simile about replacing other cities’ ubiquitous green and white coffee cups with luxury handbags, if not for a sign announcing a celebration for the opening of Singapore’s one-hundredth Starbucks. Apparently, you can have both.

Appropriate art along Orchard Street in Singapore: Businessman posture while ladies shop.
Appropriate art along Orchard Road in Singapore: Businessman posture while ladies shop.

Some ninety minutes later we arrived at Gardens By the Bay, one of the few free, natural attractions in a city designed to pamper the expense-report-filing businessmen and their platinum-card-wielding wives. In fairness, the whole of Singapore is one giant park, meticulously landscaped gardens and groves of trees occupy nearly as much prime real estate as the stupendous architecture. Gardens By the Bay is different, though. The sprawling greenery is home to over 100 hectares of gardens containing the native species from a dozen different Asian countries, anchored by eighteen artificial “super trees” that provide support for fifty meters of vertical gardens. It’s stunning, even if the rivulets of sweat streaming into your eyes make photography a challenge. Of course, a free walk through the impressive grounds only makes the two climate-controlled biodomes all the more enticing. The glass-domed, air-conditioned Cloud Forest garden simulates the environment at 2,000 meters, similar to that of the famed cloud forest of Monteverde in Costa Rica. Definitely worth a visit, even if only to learn about how the park manages to be energy neutral through the use of biomass furnaces and solar power. And, despite the signs, buying a ticket to just one of the domes is entirely possible. Just ask.

Gardens by the Bay with a few of its "super grove" of trees and its giant climate-controlled attractions.
Gardens by the Bay with a few of its “super grove” of trees and its giant climate-controlled attractions. An absolutely world-class attraction — and partially free! — in a city seemingly devoid of things to do other than go shopping.

Back outside and hungry, we were faced with the reality of being a tourist in Singapore: the prices are insane. Walking along Boat Quay near Marina Bay, we saw signs advertising a bucket of five bottles of Corona beer for S$48 ($35 USD). A single bottle of Bud Light, a beer I try not to drink even when offered free, cost the equivalent of $11 USD. Okay, maybe it’s just alcohol that’s expensive, I try to tell myself. We go in search of lunch and bounce from restaurant to restaurant in search of an affordable meal. Singapore has a well-deserved reputation for serving up some of the world’s best food, but it doesn’t come cheap. The prices started out as laughable and migrated to insulting. Small dishes of stir-fry, little more than glorified side-dishes, were more than three times the price we would expect in North America or Europe. Finally, after allowing our sticker-shocked faces to show for a little too long, one of the servers at a sidewalk restaurant approached with an offer: “If you’d like, you can have anything on the menu for 30% off.” She then handed us another menu, one focusing just on the live seafood dishes, with prices up to 60% off. Still, an order of Singapore’s famed chili crab would have set us back about $60 USD. “Only S$9 for a jug of beer,” she added, sweetening the deal. We’d be whispered similar offers of lower prices throughout our stay.

Realizing that we were quite literally haggling for our lunch, I didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or amused. Many of us go through a phase as children where we want to have the most expensive things as a way of staving off mockery from our classmates. In my youth, for us boys, it was sneakers. There were the kids with the Nike, Adidas and Reebok sneakers and then there were those of us with the discount-store Velcro embarassments. And of course, having the latter meant non-stop derision from those sporting the former. I couldn’t wait to go to school that first September in which I had my first pair of name-brand shoes. Fortunately, most of us mature and eventually begin to celebrate a bargain. For me, finding a very good product at a bargain price is far more impressive than being able to afford top-of-the-line at a sky’s-the-limit price. That is not a mentality for Singapore.

The majority of Singapore's 5 million residents live in government housing projects such as this one.
The majority of Singapore’s 5 million residents live in government housing projects such as this one. Careful city zoning ensures that everything a person needs (police, medical, library, groceries, etc.,) is found within 5km of each of these project buildings.

Seeing the prices for the food and drink, the multitude of exotic Italian sports cars, and the luxury storefronts — complete with tourists posing for photos in front of sculpture-like Chanel and Prada signs while clutching their matching shopping bags — I couldn’t help but think of the phrase, “F-U Money.” Only here, the neologism should be interpreted: If you even have to think about money, the joke is F’ing on you!

Singapore isn’t just expensive, it’s a price point that doesn’t make sense. I used to think people got rich for being smart and, usually, conservative with their money. No, there’s nothing smart about the prices here. It’s not about intelligence, but about ostentatious wealth and flash. And the money is flowing south from China. Walking back along Orchard Road to our hotel, I remembered a conversation that we had with a British ski instructor who had spent his winter working at a Japanese ski resort in Hokaido. He told us about the Chinese tourists who would book four hours of private ski instruction, arrive on time, pose for a group photo with him, and then pay and leave. “They didn’t want to learn how to ski or snowboard; they just wanted photographic proof that they could afford four hours of instruction from a white ski instructor,” he said shrugging his shoulders in a I-don’t-understand-it-either kind of way. The same people, he added, would brag about how much they overpaid for a hotel room or dinner to other tourists or insult complete strangers by asking them which hotel they were staying in, only to then express pity or say how that hotel, often of the four-stars variety, “just didn’t meet their standards.”

Trendy restaurants along Boat Quay in Singapore where colonial-era buildings bump up against futuristic skyscrapers.
Trendy restaurants along Boat Quay in Singapore where colonial-era buildings bump up against futuristic skyscrapers and the city’s many waterways.

It’s one thing to worry about the costs as a budget-minded long-term traveler, but what about the tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees who have come from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Malaysia? These people taking perilous journeys in hope of a better life? Where do they live? How do they eat? On a free walking tour we learned that nearly 85% of Singapore’s 5 million residents live in government-subsidized housing projects (reports show that, despite being the most expensive city in the world, most Singaporeans suffer from a ridiculously low standard of living and some of the lowest wages in the developed world). Safe and relatively clean, these buildings are largely free of the problems that plague “the projects” that many of us westerners immediately associate with the term. Cramped, but safe. Then again, that should be expected in the “fine city” of Singapore where bubblegum is illegal and seemingly minor infractions of spitting, littering, or petty vandalism will earn you penalties ranging from S$500 to a caning. The immigration form completed upon arrival is stamped in very large red letters “Drug Traffickers Will be Sentenced to Death.” Singapore doesn’t mess around.

Kristin and I split up after lunch one day and, still wondering about where the people of below average income live in this city, I took the subway to the last stop shown on the tourist map, exited the station and walked off the map. It wasn’t long before I found the Singapore I was looking for. It was just a few miles out of view.

Yes, it does get hot here.
Yes, it does get hot here.

I was soon navigating through a crowded sidewalk, past all manner of hole-in-the-wall convenience stores, produce markets, and cheap eateries that wouldn’t have been out of place in Morocco. A man sitting on a blanket outside a pharmacy sold bubble-packs of unlabeled pharmaceuticals by the side of the curb. Blue and purple pills for all! A sign advertising frog porridge and chili bullfrog got my attention, but I kept walking, still full from my expensive (but delicious!) lunch. The streets are numbered and I made my way some twenty blocks through a crowded neighborhood, side-stepping the streaks of garbage juice on the sidewalk, bending around the scaffolding occupying much of the sidewalk, and pausing only to periodically buy another bottle of water. The heat is inescapable, adding unnecessary literalism to the melting pot metaphor so often used when describing Singapore.

I turned down the last of the numbered streets and saw a group of multi-colored umbrellas set up in the streets. They looked like hot dog carts from a distance, but were actually sidewalk barbers. Just enough shade for a customer to sit on a stool out in the street while getting his haircut. I got closer and a heavyset Indian woman sitting on a plastic crate grabbed my arm. “Special massage?” she asked while smiling a semi-toothless grin. No thank you. I snaked my way up and down the side-streets in a serpentine fashion and got solicited for a special massage several more times. The prostitutes got more attractive: thin, petite Malay, Thai and Chinese women in short skirts and snug tube-tops lined the sidewalk between cellphone repair shops and stir-fry counters. Another grabbed my arm and offered another quote-unquote massage. Upstairs, she mentioned, motioning to a narrow door and stairway into a nondescript building.

Just a small portion of the durians on display at this shop in the Geylang area of Singapore.
Just a small portion of the durians on display at this shop in the Geylang area of Singapore.

After giving some thought to these offers and thinking about where I was and the money in my wallet and the desire to live a life more exotic and adventurous and try new things, I did what I think most happily-married, disease-fearing men in my position would do. I looked around, saw something that caught my eye across the street, and after a short exchange of unpleasant haggling, sat down to enjoy my first durian.

The puzzling, smelly, slippery, fruit of the durian.
The puzzling, slightly smelly, slippery, fruit of the durian.

The pit squirmed between my fingers as the pudding-like skin slid across the mushy fruit of this spiky notorious smelly fruit. The taste is indescribable. My first bite was interesting, but with each successive bite I knew that I would not eat all four pieces. The durian stand stretched for half a block and must have contained a thousand of these spiky tropical enigmas. One man spent his day cutting open the malodorous durians and scooping out the four fleshy pieces of yellow fruit tucked inside the inedible husk (fortunately, only the husk smells bad). Another worker packaged the fruit on a styrofoam tray, wrapped it in cling-wrap, and assigned a price. A third sat around waiting to collect the money. Packages ranged from S$2 to S$15, based on quality I was told, but they all looked identical to me.

Inside a friendly bar at Emerald Hill with an honest-to-goodness affordable Happy Hour special, extremely friendly staff, and free peanuts. What a find!
Inside a friendly bar at Emerald Hill with an honest-to-goodness affordable Happy Hour special, extremely friendly staff, and free peanuts. What a find! And no tiered pricing — many bars increase the price of their drinks as the night goes on.

I continued to wander the streets of this other Singapore, eventually making my way to a filthy bathroom at a metro station. Litter on the floor, vomit in the urinal, the rank smell of uric acid in the air; I smiled as it reminded me of New York City. Disgusting as it was, I was happy to spot it before crossing back onto the edge of the free tourist map handed out at the airport. One last example of the not-so-ideal before returning to the perfectly dull, neon-lit collection of mega-brands on Orchard Road.

The Marina Bay area of Singapore.
The Marina Bay area of Singapore.

The Singapore we visitors are directed to is squeaky clean, manicured, and sparkling. This fifty-year old city has made an improbable transformation in its short life as an independent nation. But I can’t help but see it as a soulless walking suit of steel and glass with an eye focused solely on profitable efficiency. Impressive to look at, but not very interesting. A Kardashian of world capitals; a shallow, superficial playground that strokes the vanities of the super-rich, the business traveler, and the easily impressed. And it is impressive. There’s no denying the beauty of the city’s architecture and parks. And it’s extremely efficient and safe. But it’s also painfully boring. Unlike the Lamborghinis and Ferraris rolling through its streets, Singapore never fully roars to life, throws your back against the seat, and makes you shriek with joy. It can’t. It’s a kit-car with high-gloss paint, a fancy logo, but very little under the hood.

Special Thanks: Continued monthly thanks go to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc for their ongoing support of our journey.

Back on the Bikes: We’re heading back to Rome on June 23rd to reclaim our bicycles and touring gear and will be pedaling southeast out of the Eternal City on June 27th, bound for Brindisi and Greece. Finally, after six months of being off the bikes, we’ll be back underway and headed towards Turkey!

A Look Back at Bali: Our video slideshow of our time in Bali has been uploaded. You can view it on our Gallery page or by following this link. Enjoy!

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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

  1. It’s a shame you didn’t experience one of the things Singapore is famous for – their delicious and historical Hawker Food Centres where authentic meals are about $2. One of the most famous ones is Newton Circus 2km from Orchard Road. Good luck with your travels!

    1. Suyin,

      Thank you for commenting. We actually DID experience the food centers in Singapore and enjoyed several inexpensive meals there but I didn’t find them particularly noteworthy (in contrast, I found some very good, cheap food out near Geylang). Our blog posts cannot provide a blow-by-blow account of how we spend each moment of our time in a place due to word-count considerations (I generally aim for 1500-2000 words) and because doing so would be very boring to read. We did visit Maxwell Road Hawker Center in Chinatown and also Lau Pa Sat, though the latter was about 2x the price of the one in Chinatown. As a writer I struggle to fit everything I see and do within the container that is the story I’m wishing to tell; as readers, we must be careful to not assume someone hasn’t done something just because they didn’t mention it.

      Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it! We’ll have to check out the Newton Circus market the next time we’re in Singapore. Thanks for the tip!

  2. “A Kardashian of world capitals; a shallow, superficial playground that strokes the vanities of the super-rich, the business traveler, and the easily impressed.” Nice.

    Great piece, Doug. Your voice gets stronger with every post.

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We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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