STEPPING BACK, MOVING FORWARD
It’s 8am at Singapore’s Changi International Airport. Outside, it’s 32 degrees and humid. Much like it was when I first visited this sovereign island state off the coast of Malaysia.
That was in the 1970s by ship as part of a voyage to the UK to see the world. We caught a taxi from the wharf into the city … and a pedal rickshaw back.
This time I have arrived by an overnight economy-class flight from Brisbane. I had a window seat and the late-night departure meant I was asleep shortly after the lights of the city had disappeared beneath us.
Check in at the Park Alexandra Hotel is 2pm but I can leave luggage at the concierge. Alexandra is about mid-way between the CBD and the new business parks at Queenstown that include One-North, a 200ha development housing key growth sectors such as biomedical, sciences, info-communications technology and media.
This trip was as if I could recapture a day in my life – to turn back the clock and rekindle those first steps on my journey around the world.
To see the changes in Singapore since the ’70s. Back then, it was a great setting-off point, a melting pot of different cultures but with its history as a British colony until the 1960s.
Through the years I had been inside the airport a few times but only in the transit lounges as we waited for connecting flights.
This time I was able to explore the terminal and the Jewel Changi shopping mall at the heart of it.
The dome-shaped complex featuring shopping, dining and open space is linked to the various terminals. At the centre is a 40-metre-high rain vortex – the world’s largest indoor waterfall in the midst of a rainforest.
It’s a good introduction to Singapore – a rapidly-expanding city yet with swathes of parkland throughout. It’s going to be interesting to try and find the places we visited all those years ago.
Storms are predicted all week. I have no umbrella or raincoat but that won’t be a problem. Being one degree north of the equator it is what you expect. Humid mornings and a thunderstorm that rolls through about lunchtime, leaving the air clear of an afternoon and evening.
My first stop was the TransitLink Ticket Office on the ground floor of the airport terminal for a three-day Singapore travel pass – unlimited bus/rail travel for about $28 Singapore.
I watch the robotic floor-cleaning machine that helps keep this airport in pristine condition. Then look for the driverless train that connects the various terminals and the MRT line into the city.
Getting into the city can cost upwards of $30 by taxi – the $A and $S are about par nowadays.
Yet that wasn’t the case back in the ’70s when you could get about three $S for one $A.
It’s a testament at the strength of the Singapore economy.
Today it enjoys the seventh highest GDP per capita in the world and is placed highly in key social indicators: education, healthcare, quality of life, personal safety and housing, with a home-ownership rate of 90%.
Singaporeans have one of the world’s longest life expectancy and one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.
It also has the highest religious diversity of any country. Multi-racialism has been enshrined in its constitution since independence.
You experience this friendliness right from the outset.
Travel into and around the city by public transport is easy – and economical.
Pop-up stalls invite you to exercise for increased fitness and free train rides.
In 1985 the MRT was constructed. An underground and raised railway network that is among the most efficient in the world. Automated barriers are on the platforms for passenger safety and efficiency. The various lines are colour-coded for ease of criss-crossing the city.
When coupled with the bus network it forms a remarkable public transport system for almost six million people living in an area smaller than New York City, and roughly the same as Australia’s capital, Canberra.
As for the MRT, it is due to double in size within the next 20 years.
Nearby is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel – a remarkable piece of architecture that soars 57 levels above the city – three towers with a top level stretched across them resembling a ship.
There’s a charge to get to the observation deck but there are discounts, such as having a Singapore Airlines ticket. It’s a magnificent outlook by night yet the infinity-edge swimming pool must be an amazing experience as well.
The Singapore Flyer ferris wheel is across the bay and is also said to have great views. Nearby is the opera house and the Merlion fountain … the symbol of Singapore – half lion, half fish.
Other recommendations are the Botanic Gardens, a visit to Singapore Zoo where animals roam in their natural environment, and a day tour of Sentosa Island with attractions such as S.E.A. Aquarium, the Universal Studios theme park, cable cars and a luge ride.
It’s great to get out and walk in the same shoes as the locals, catch the MRT trains or buses, eat at the various hawker markets such as those found at Little India or Chinatown, or those at town food centres such as Redhill and Alexandra.
Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the British East India Company.
Its historical district features dozens of landmarks such as The Esplanade, Fort Canning Hill, the National Gallery Singapore, and Raffles Hotel.
Ahh, Raffles. Where we sat in cane chairs back in the ’70s and enjoyed a cool drink beneath slow-turning fans.
You could see the cricket club back then, a splash of green in the heart of town. It was as if you were living through a Somerset Maugham novel.
That was why I found myself again entering its doors only this time sitting at the famed Long Bar, where plantation owners came to kick up their heels and where the singapore sling cocktail was invented.
There are still bags of peanuts on the bar and tables, and patrons freely throw the shells on the floor … just like in its heydays of the early 1900s.
Sitting there, reminiscing with other travellers, I realise it’s good to look back but also look forward to another visit. This time to see Fort Canning, a colonial building and command/barracks for the British before the Japanese invasion in 1942, the chapel and museum at Changi, where civilians were detained and Allied service personnel were put into the infamous prisoner of war camp.
I reflect on the four short days on this visit – to ramble through the markets in Little India, and to retrace our adventure of buying a duty-free camera in Chinatown.
In an indirect way it led to this return visit as it opened up a new career.
I’m looking for any signs of familiarity for those early days. A street, a park, a building.
There’s one photo of us at the port. It’s hard to put that old picture into context with the changes.
Since independence in 1965 land reclamation his seen the island increase in size by 22% and much of this has been along the port areas.
Where we once lined up for a photo by the waterfront, local families now try their luck fishing.
Singapore still ranks as the top maritime capital of the world and the second busiest port, behind Shanghai.
Beyond the ferry wharves there are modern cruise ship terminals in the background and beyond that the Keppel Container Terminal.
I turn and catch the elevator back down to the MRT train that takes me back into the central business district.
To stumble across the Alexandra Gardens and the tree-top walk through the rainforest areas, eventually coming out at the Henderson Wave – an architectural footbridge crafted out of timber and with led lighting for night.
It’s the highest bridge in Singapore, joining one rainforest to another high above another motorway … and a wave effect created in the footway as well as the balustrading and seating areas.
Raffles is embedded in Singapore – gracious, right in the heart of town, close to the city centre, art gallery, museum and parliament.
I order a beer – Tiger, in a tall, frosted glass with the image of a tiger clawing its way up the side.
I think back about my adventures this time around – talking cricket with a gardener at the sports grounds near the stately Singapore Cricket Club.
At the other end of this beautiful patch of green is the Singapore Recreation Club, that dates back to 1883 with the aim to promote all forms of sport, recreation and social activities.
And then there was the station master at Redhill station.
He took my details after I had lost my three-day travel card and said they would notify me if it was handed in.
The next day I saw him again, and it was such a warm greeting and handshake.
The previous day I had mentioned that I was visiting my daughter. I think he called me Mufasa … the old lion.
I was certainly getting older, I said … and we both laughed.
Singapore is like the feeling of Queensland in summer but set in a city such as Sydney.
I like that the humidity makes the plants in the gardens and the food in the streets smell stronger.
It’s good to spend $25 on a pint of beer … for the memories.
Singapore is such a friendly place, so many smiles. There has been so much change since my first visit.
This teeming city at the crossroads of Asia. An important economic player, where you are immersed in life.
Sometimes you have to take steps up before you can go down to cross the street at an underpass in Singapore.
It’s like that in life. I loved the romance of the colonial days and didn’t want to lose that memory.
Now I realise it’s OK to take a few steps back, in order to turn the page.