Singapore Market

The writer’s local fruit market

By Brian Spencer

Singapore is of the most misunderstood destinations in the world.

Misconceptions are abundant, whether it be in print, television, or word of mouth. It doesn’t take much effort to find tired, lazy Singapore cliches like “it’s boring” or “it’s conformist.” A travel writer acquaintance of mine, currently contemplating a trip with her husband that’ll take them through Southeast Asia by rail, starting in Singapore, recently messaged me with “Help! I watched Samantha Brown Singapore and lost all urge to go!” On a recent trip to Tokyo, as I was sipping craft beers at Shibuya’s excellent Good Beer Faucets, I overheard a blowhard American say “Singapore sucks! It’s a military state. They cut your balls off for, like, spitting in the street.” The Australian girl he was talking to unsuccessfully hitting on politely demurred, telling him that she used to live there and that she actually liked it, but he countered by saying he’d visited three times and to trust him, it sucks. Charming lad; too bad Singapore doesn’t actually snip testicles.

As I’ve said before, it seems that everybody has an opinion about Singapore, whether they’ve actually been here or not. It’s a strangely polarizing (threatening?) place, in part due to the bad publicity that surrounded the caning of American teenager Michael Fay nearly 20 years ago, and to the just totally fucking unthinkable fact that gum chewing isn’t allowed available. (“Oh, god, that just makes me so fucking mad! What a bunch of godless fucking commies in Singapore!”).

For the record, I chew gum all the time. I’m actually chewing it right now, and I’m fairly certain helicopters aren’t hovering over the building, paratroopers readying themselves for a raid of my Wrigley’s Extra Professional. (Satisfying, refreshing spearmint flavor, by the way–shit is delicious. The good people at Wrigley’s know their gum.)

I’ve been here for just over nine months, minus a great deal of time spent traveling around Asia. (Major Singapore Long-Term Resident Bonus: Changi International Airport.) I’ve lived in Bangkok before, but though Singapore is only 880 air miles away, it may as well be on the other side of the planet. There are indeed no other places quite like Singapore in Southeast Asia, which again contributes to the boring cliches floating around out there. It’s not as immediately arresting as most major metropolises in the region, and doesn’t reek of that intoxicating air of a semi-lawless society that somehow perfectly, barely, wonderfully keeps it together, even if just by a thin thread.

Singapore isn’t Bangkok. It’s not Saigon, or Manila, or Hanoi, or Chiang Mai or Phnom Penh or Jakarta. And that’s okay, because it’s also not what most people think it is.

Singapore View

View from the writer’s roof

Living here has been an adjustment. Not always a smooth one, but mostly smooth. Singapore isn’t perfect, but then nowhere is perfect. I don’t know how long I’ll live here–at least three years, perhaps longer–but it’s highly unlikely that I’ll live here forever. I do like living in Singapore for now, though; sometimes I even love living in Singapore. All that bullshit you read about and hear about as far as Singapore is boring, there’s no freedom of speech, there’s no arts scene, there’s no this, that and the other? The cliches may have spawned from kernels of truth, but I’m finding they’re just that–cliches.

I’m not inclined to debunk each and every misconception I’ve heard about Singapore because, honestly, the intention here isn’t to “defend Singapore.” Like I said, it has its faults, just like every country (or, as it were, city-state) has its faults. For example, the alcohol taxes are downright draconian. It’s worth noting, however, that this is a very young nation — as in just 48 years young. Growing pains are inevitable and ongoing.

Things are changing here, and fast. I really do feel like it’s on the verge of blowing up, whatever that means. The arts scene has been buoyed by an influx of galleries and art spaces like Gillman Barracks. While the megamall culture is alive and well (and, honestly, fun, when you’re in the mood), the past few years have seen the arrival of a large number of trendy boutiques and shops; places like BooksActually, The Little Dröm Store, Tokyobike, and Cat Socrates, to name just a few, would fit right in at my old ‘hood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Statistics show that people are drinking more; sorry, I feel like in general that’s a good thing in Singapore because in some ways it means people are loosening up. There’s a still-nascent but growing craft beer scene. And the food? Hawker centres are still the best and cheapest way to eat your way through the island, but young, entrepreneurial chefs are increasingly using Singapore as their culinary playground. (Bibik Gourmand is a recommended starting point for exploring Singapore’s diverse food culture.)

Singapore View2

Shophouse in Singapore’s Chinatown district

I don’t have the energy to get into the “lack of freedom of speech” thing. There are some flaps and concerns, to be sure. However, folks voice their displeasure with the government and some of the decisions it makes all the time. Pick up a copy of The Straits Times next time you’re here and flip to the editorials and letters to the editor section if you don’t believe me. Or see if there’s a protest you can attend. Or ask people at the hawker centre if they have any opinions about the government–you’ll get them in spades. The funny thing about living in a small country, too, is that when one does voice their opposition to something, there’s a much higher probability that your voice will be heard and that action might actually be taken. How many places in the world does that actually happen?

I’m never, ever bored in Singapore; after nine months of exploring as much as possible, I feel like I’ve still only scratched the surface. There’s so much to see and do and taste and experience and yes even drink, but considering how small the island is–274 square miles, to be exact–the pockets of activity and culture and fun are fairly well spread out. You have to dig; many of the best things about Singapore aren’t spoon fed to you upon arrival. I suspect that also contributes to the “Singapore is boring” fallacy, and that’s something I don’t understand at all. In Berlin, you have to dig a little to find the essence of what makes it such an amazing place; same goes for Bangkok, sames goes for Brooklyn and New York, same goes for Beijing, same goes for Saigon. The list could go on and on.

You only have yourself to blame if you’re bored in Singapore.  I really do believe that.

A few months ago my brother-in-law was in town visiting for a few weeks. He got the grand tour of Singapore on a daily basis, from our favorite food and booze haunts, to the fun neighborhoods to explore, to the wealth of verdant parks and gardens and hiking trails sprinkled throughout the island. Every day was full, and we rarely backtracked. I’m fairly certain he left impressed, and by the time he left, after three weeks of playing tour guide in Singapore, my wife and I both came to the same conclusion, one we hadn’t really thought about or formalized until that point:

All things considered, Singapore is pretty fucking awesome.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.